Riff on an Old Rap

or, Developing Magical Realism

McKenna’s surely a trip. I love hearing his far-fetched ideas that are more based in literary fantasy than scientific speculation, though he does well on both fronts. His notion that plants in our three-dimensional world could be shadows of intelligent organisms in higher dimensions is intriguing. And I don’t take this with a motivation to try and map it out mathematically or with some quantum physics… like I’d even have the time to develop skills to do something like that. But I take it with a sort of wondrous quality, a hint of magical realism appearing in our mundane world, so that when I rest my attention on a plant or some other object in the world, I can feel that there might be any number of reasons that it could be imbued with powers or energies, in a way that it’s normally so easy to scoff at.

In the last few years I’ve developed a new relationship with skepticism. I certainly still lean heavily on my scientific background. But I think that to continue to judge every new idea strictly by that framework of rules is just as misguided as gulping down every new pseudo-scientific proposal that comes along, which seem to be coming in a flood nowadays.

I wrote three rather long blog postings on this almost three years ago.

… but what I’m trying to say now is from #2…

“Abandoning major organized religion as a fairy tale, left cold by rational science, I seek a spiritual framework that can sustain my longings for divine connection, and find a path out of the maze.

“The crux of the biscuit

“There was one huge chasm left for my path to cross: how can I choose a faith-based spiritual pursuit, in the face of the rational sterility that I was resigned to for so long? I mean, I can’t just force myself to start believing in ghosts, allies, spirit guides, or the fae. That’s not going to work, I need to believe in something that makes sense. Chased my tail on that one for a good year.

“After studying and comparing enough traditions, patterns began to emerge. There are certain ways of thinking about the world and behaving that produce results. We experience this daily in the physical plane, certainly, but it’s also true in the spiritual dimension, and these ways are closely analogous across many different traditions. While different religions may vary widely in the characters who populate their teachings, the situations they address are common–how to live life as a human–and the techniques they hand down are strikingly familiar.

“I can now choose and fashion a mask that suits me. And if that mask dresses reality in unbelievable clothes, I don’t need to discard it simply because it doesn’t match my traditional dress. I can sit with the new vision and accept how it served countless seekers before me. By treating new models of mystery as if they were the truth. Because they map to the truth closely enough, in ways that resonate more with my natural sensibilities. I’m free to choose a model with components more to my liking.”

And what I’ve learned after being in this mode for a while is that once I started trying to magical things in the world, I began to notice more of them, with increasing frequency. Over time, I noticed patterns across these intrusions into mundane reality, and that those patterns matched more mystical ways of interacting with the world that I was studying across several different traditions. And yes, of course, my study certainly impacted the patterns I was more easily able to notice. But it doesn’t feel like I was deluding myself. Maybe I was. But that deeply ingrained skepticism was so constantly there it was difficult at times to make progress with this kind of thinking.

Like Deja Vu… long ago a very simple explanation for this occurred to me. I think the brain has a mechanism that gives us a sense of familiarity when we’re in familiar situations. Deja Vu is just this mechanism firing when we are NOT in familiar situations. Like a neurotransmitter hiccup or a sneeze. The fact that it seems to happen more in unfamiliar situations supports this theory. Our brain is in pattern matching mode, and nothing is matching because we’ve never been in this city before, or it’s the first time we’ve visited this person’s house, or whatever. So the familiarity gland continues to fill, waiting to fire, and at some point it just splooges all over because it’s too full but there’s nothing familiar to trigger it, and we get Deja Vu.

This explanation makes so much sense to me I’m not even motivated to consider something more mystical: whether it’s a subtle reset in the matrix, or some perception of the future folding back onto the past, or whatever. But it’s interesting to think of those things, and they take my imagination off in directions that may bear fruit just then, or maybe farther in the future.

I still live in the house of logic and science but I spend a lot more time wandering around out of doors and poking around the underbrush.

There was a quote I’d seen long ago that I took to heart. Looking it up, I’m surprised to see it’s from F. Scott Fitzgerald:

“The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

So I don’t suppress skepticism, but I ask it to sit next to wild ideas politely. And after a time, the two might become acquainted. Or skepticism might finally get up and complain to me that the other guy has got to go.

Either way, I get to experience the world with more mysticism and magic, without losing my mind to the thirty dozen new-age pseudo-scientific psycho-babble ideas that can pour in through your web browser if you let them.

Most of this has come about from hunger in the spiritual domain that began in my late forties and increased in intensity for years. Some of the older Unitarian Universalist folks I’ve talked to about this say: yep, that’s the age, especially for men. Maybe it’s a phase I’m going through. Still brings me great, deep satisfaction though.

For what it’s worth.


Dylan was right

Petrarch wrote this in the mid 14th century, so he’s not actually the famous Italian poet who was tangled up in blue, but… close enough.

“Neither exhortations to virtue nor the argument of approaching death should divert us from literature; for in a good mind it excites the love of virtue, and dissipates, or at least diminishes, the fear of death.  To desert our studies shows want of self-confidence rather than wisdom, for letters do not hinder but aid the properly constituted mind which possesses them; they facilitate our life, they do not retard it.”

How Objects Are Seen

How Objects are Seen

Halfway to Solstice

She walks a path of long meandering; gentle rolls; trying chasms; circuitous switchbacks and folds. 

Sloping meadows rustle their dried grasses; a forest edged in budding twigs beckons higher with aspen and birch.

Snowpack exhales, rivulets form; waters fall, pools tremble and listen.

All awakening is swept up in her passing, a sensorium wave, a subtle biotic pulse… begins.

It buoys and energizes her, whets her attention and connection with a vast sense of presence. 

Finally she sits, slowly, on a bald dome of warmed granite, and meditates.

Viewing from above, above conventional north, the earth turns counter-clockwise on its axis.

The moon orbits in the same direction, and we go round the sun a-widdershins together.  All the planets in our solar system spin and orbit likewise, and even their moons about them.  Except for Venus, and some of Jupiter’s misfit children.

But the galaxy herself, she burls majestically clockwise, 200 million years at a turn

A bright bird begins to sing in a nearby lodgepole, and pins the stillness to a moment.  A singularity of consciousness snaps out across light years. 

For an instant, she sees the stars and the bird.

They walk over crisp snow under a bone moon

The stillness of the cold, the clear, thin air

touches them lightly, stinging

as they walk amongst the peaks.

It draws the heat, the dew of breath, into itself.

Stinging with the touch of a cruel love,

understanding nothing of comfort, only crystalline beauty.

Reaching slow and delicate arms over infinite distance to still it all.


Everyone just rest one moment, and be.

Be with me, silent, and I will breathe with you, your dew,

to dust on the grasses, the stones,

to reflect the light in a galaxy of eyes.

How I love to transmit and reflect the light!

Be with me, hold my hand in communion,

bow your heads.

I will move and bow your heads…

And I will bring you the moon of your ancestors, the hunger moon, the bone moon.

Walk beneath it as they once did, share with me your breath as you walk, your glistening eyes.


I numb the air, from sound, from pressure, from all uncertain oscillation.

I steel you, I focus you.

See, here, the landscape purified by indigo clarity of night.

See, here, the shape and stretch and turn of these stars.

I am the medium in the void, the conduit, the sweeper, the bringer.

I am one moment in time, and I am always here.


Exercise your mind with Mindfulness Mediation

Been getting much deeper into the Buddhism aspect of my amalgamated spiritual path.  A new daily meditation practice is both surprisingly easy and difficult, in different ways.  It’s easier than I thought to commit to (almost) every day.  And it is much, much harder than I thought to actually do it. I mean, I’ve heard of monkey mind but it feels like a troop of gorillas is continually wrestling my focus away.  But after just a few weeks I noticed some differences, and now at two months even some more.


First, it does get easier to stay with the breath for more than 1.5 seconds, relatively quickly.


“Somewhere in this process, you will come face to face with the sudden and shocking realization that you are completely crazy.  Your mind is a shrieking, gibbering madhouse on wheels barreling pell-mell down the hill, utterly out of control and helpless. No problem.  You are not crazier than you were yesterday.  It has always been this way, and you just never noticed.”


— Bhante Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English


Second, benefits from this start to appear outside of meditation, also pretty quickly.  Just from the short habit of bringing attention back to the breath, I find it easier to hold my attention on individual tasks, and to more easily manage all the distractions of the digital age.


It’s become more important to me to really be with someone when we’re talking.  Too many times in the past my mind would wander to what I’d be saying next, or even some unrelated line of thinking.  That’s always felt rude to me, and I hated catching myself in it, but I never had the clarity to try and reform the habit.


Now I find that that working to be mindful of experience is much more a feeling of being connected to life, instead of one of the arbitrary fantasies that consume much of our attention.


Not bad for two months, and these are some typical observations from others as well.


Now, like most paths of improvement, there are advances and retreats.  Sometimes I feel a bit more irritable than I usually get (which is not much really), and that’s irritating.  But mindfulness can be applied to that too. It offers a way to be deeply present for all experiences in life, not to distance one’s self from them.  Yet it also helps relieve suffering when life experiences are “negative.”  We can be aware of the experience but not drowned by it.  And eventually, focused awareness is what dissolves these persistent downers.


That’s some of the stuff I’ve learned so far, and it doesn’t always come easy, but it sure is a rewarding path so far.

Well Said

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own.  Nobody.  You built a factory out there—good for you.

But I want to be clear.  You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for.  You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate.  You were safe in your factory because of police forces or fire forces that the rest of us paid for.  You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory….

Now look.  You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea—God bless!  Keep a big hunk of it.  But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

–Elizabeth Warren

African Drum and Dance

I was surprised to find more than a couple of angles to drum & dance camp.

Rhythms and techniques of the West African djembe, sure,

   plus the lesser-known drums that define and drive the song: sangban, kinkene and dundun

      and the beautiful balafone.

Well, that’s what we paid for, to learn how Africans play out

   stories, romances, rivalries, gifts, wishes, prayers

   from simple arrangements of wood and hide.


I was surprised by added dimensions, unexpected.


Some classes were about song.  Like everything else, the African tradition is oral.

   no handouts, no whiteboard, little English.

   those of us with pen and paper scribbled and whispered.

In a rhythm class we asked: “does this rhythm have a song?”

   “Every rhythm has a song.”

   Every rhythm has a song.


The instructors from Guinea were to me intimidating at first.

Hardly smiling in class, serious about the material and focused, almost impatient.

Understandable.  These people have talent enough to win national recognition in Africa

   giving them reason and means to travel and live in other countries,

   teaching people with love of the drum, but maybe not so much ability.


We lament and make fun of the traditional teaching

   “Ok, gang-ga-dun-da-dun, ga-da-gung” … “do that”

   “No?  Watch my foot”


But there are teachers from our own native soil as well, who’ve spent more years than I can imagine learning the songs here and also in trips to Guinea, Senegal, Ghana…

They break it down for their fellow Americans and it helps.

We take our triumphs to the Africans with smiles, hoping they’ll shed a tiny part of that recognition

and what we learned underneath everything else was respect

  for the music, for the traditions, for the teachers, for their people, their ancestors and ours

  and for ourselves


After a few days, respect replaced intimidation.


Some classes were about dance, and I was surprise that I danced

   (just as I write this, someone in the bar says to someone else “when were you dancing?”)

But dance we did.  We danced the Dununba, the Strong Man dance.

   the women danced the steps they’d learned with energy and beauty

Happy to learn just a taste, I panicked when Mohamed said we’d all be in Saturday’s performance.

But that panic rended a vision of life as a river, and gratitude to be swept along in its current.

   At the performance, I had nothing but joy.


I was surprised how this all came together at Friday night’s folklore

Somehow those Africans brought the whole village with them to a small mountain in North Carolina and made us a part,

   made a village out of us

   and we drummed and danced and sang for hours of astonishing joy

   and it felt like coming home.


We even read some poets one quiet night – originals, obscure classics, Bukowski –

   sitting in a circle, like every other night, but this time no drums

   except for the stout beatnik Wally, who punctuated his awkward, beautiful piece with a driving Lengin.

Our western currents of commune resurged, resonating with tribal, rhythmic spirits roused by our teachers.


The whole week was pure poetry

When Propaganda from History Echoes Through Today

Recently, I’ve taken to watching early Fritz Lang films.  Lang was a brilliant director from the dawn of cinema, and his career lasted into the 1960s.  His Metropolis (1927) and M (1931) are stunning visual masterpieces of filmwork, standing the test of time for 80 years now.

I saw Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) last week.  Some of the dialog rang out with an eerie prescience…

Blog 1 Mabuse

Doctor Baum: No one has any idea what kind of phenomenal, superhuman mind has come to an end with Dr. Mabuse’s death. This mind would have laid waste to our whole rotten world, which is long overdue for destruction. This godless world, devoid of justice and compassion, consisting only of selfishness, cruelty and hatred. This mind would have destroyed mankind, which itself knows only hatred and destruction, and which could only have been saved in its final hour through terror and horror.

Blog 2 Mabuse Blog 4 Mabuse

Captain Lohmann: Mabuse the criminal?

Baum: Mabuse the genius! His intellectual legacy would have turned your world, with its police protection, on its head!

Lohmann: His legacy? You speak of Mabuse’s legacy?

Baum: No… Yes… Of course, not a testament in the accepted sense of the word.  Just some of his notes, of interest only to physicians and men of science.

Lohmann: I’m afraid, Professor, that you underestimate the number of subjects in which I take an interest.

Dr. Mabuse’s Notes:

The Reign of Crime

Humanity’s soul must be shaken to it’s very depths, frightened by unfathomable and seemingly senseless crimes. Crimes that benefit no one, whose only objective is to inspire fear and terror.  Because the ultimate purpose of crime is to establish the endless reign of crime. A state of complete insecurity and anarchy, founded upon the tainted ideals of a world doomed to annihilation. When humanity, subjugated by the terror of crime, has been driven insane by fear and horror, and when chaos has become supreme law, then the time will have come for the reign of crime.

A historical note of the film’s censorship clues us to the potential impact of this message:

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was scheduled for release on March 24, 1933.  Adolf Hitler came to power in January 1933 and on March 14, Hitler established the new Ministry of Enlightenment and Propaganda headed by Joseph Goebbels.  Before the film could be released, Goebbels had banned it as a menace to public health and safety, stating that he would not accept the film as it "showed that an extremely dedicated group of people are perfectly capable of overthrowing any state with violence." [Wikipedia]

But frankly, I think Goebbels may have had more of an issue with Lang’s characters acting a metaphor to depict the incoming Nazi regime as a Reign of Crime, along with their means of moving public opinion to go along.  And it makes me wonder if the evil doctor’s manifesto describes a real socio-political dynamic that still persists.

In the 1946 Nuremberg trials, Hermann Goering explains the role of propaganda that reminds me of Goebbel’s decision on the film:

Why, of course people don’t want war. But after all it is the leaders of a country that determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, a facist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.

Which would have to be my favorite quote from a Nazi war criminal, if such a thing can exist.

And no, I’m not trying to paint anyone as a Nazi, honestly I’m not.  Just trying to understand some things from a historical perspective to see what lessons we can take from them.


Finally, we see Kent and Lilli, who precipitate the plot’s climax… shown here not to illustrate the topic at hand, but just because I love the hats!

Blog 3 Mabuse

Oh, the fashion!

Those who cannot learn from history…

It’s just my opinion on this, but… to not know your history is to be amnesic.  I mean, if you met a person who couldn’t tell you where they were from 1970 to 1980, you would define them as a fairly damaged person.  But how many people do you meet who can tell you where western civilization was between 900 and 1600?  People don’t know.  So, since they don’t know, they can be fed any shit that is out there, and they have no idea. 

So the way to gain power is to reclaim a command of history.  Like, for instance, I remember when the Vietnam war was breaking out and I was in school at the University of California at Berkley.  And the professor said we all have to read Thucydides.  We all have to read about the war against Syracuse—which was in Sicily—and how it destroyed Greek democracy, and how it allowed the ascendency of the Dictatorship of the Thirty, and why did this happen: because the Athenian citizenry could not understand the war aims, and because the Athenian leadership clearly didn’t understand what the war aims were.  All the mistakes of the Vietnam war… occurred in this war which was fought well before the year zero. 

But you tell most people to read Thucydides and they just give you a strange look.  Well, it’s not because we want to be obscure or carry on conversations like Cambridge intellectuals, it’s because we want to know what to do with the future.  And the first thing you do with the future is: you don’t’ make the same stupid mistakes that were made in the past. 

Like this new age thing, it amazes me.  I mean, there are people who call themselves spiritual thinkers who think that the spiritual quest began with Madam Blavatsky for cryin’ out loud.  Well, I’ve got news for you, people have been over this ground again and again and again.  It always amazes me that people will give their loyalty to a guru who is obviously a grab-tailer and a tax-skate and a jerk, and you say to them, well, you know, have you read Plato?  Have you studied Nagarjuna?  Do you know what Moses Maimonides has to say about this?  Why do you follow this [other] guy, he probably hasn’t even read these people.  There’ve been some fairly bright people around over the last 6 or 7 thousand years and yeah, they don’t have a white limousine and they won’t invite you up to their place in the Hamptons, but they’re good, and all you have to do is go to the public library and read this stuff.  And people don’t want that, they want flash.

Very sincere people come to my workshops and I realize that they want me to tell them this stuff, and I guess because this is better than sitting at home on a Saturday afternoon and reading.  But Plato said it a lot better than I’m saying it.  And so did a lot of other people.  Civilization is a vast storehouse of wisdom, but if you don’t avail yourself of it then you have to figure it out based on what’s happened since Nixon or something.  And you’re not going to get very far.  You know, they trap you with that. 

What I saw happen to my own university.  I think that a conscious decision was made by the American establishment at the close of the 1960’s, and what they said to themselves was: this idea of universal education and an educated citizenry?  This, we don’t like.  We see now what happens when you educate your citizens—they figure out the game, and they come to you with their plans for reform and how to make it better.  So I was like, among (at least at the University of California), I was among the last people to go through that university where the goal was to inform you about the nature of the enterprise called Western Civilization.  And after that, what they got into was this MBA, data entry, all this stuff; the universities became trade schools.  And what they give you is video games. 

They give you TV, they give you video games, and they give you a skill.  And they say, well now, you’re a level 3 data enterer, and we’re going to give you $35,000 a year and please shut up about it.  That’s it, you’ve been brought inside and we’re not interested in your opinions.  We’re giving you a life, we’re giving you a trade, and we’ll be giving you some orders downstream, and by God you’d better snap to when the moment comes.  This has nothing to do with democracy.  This is fascism is what it is.

Terence McKenna, “Hermeticism and Alchemy” workshop, 1992.


This is great just standing on its own.  But one element of synthesis remains… Most of us first heard the expression “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it” decades ago.  George Santayana coined this aphorism in 1906!  But the depth and import of it has never before hit me as powerfully as it did hearing Terence tell it as a story—a history—with irony, characters and examples.  And this reminds me of the power of storytelling as a tool of communication.  Exposing information to people academically often leads to a rather superficial understanding.  But delivering an idea in a story, whatever the media, can have a much more profound impact. 

I keep seeing art more as necessity rather than luxury.