Infinity and the sacred

Ganges sunrise

The priest stands on the edge of a concrete ghat before the dirty Ganges at dawn. He is naked from the waist up except for the sacred cord that runs over his left shoulder, symbol of the twice-born priestly-caste. He wears a saffron coloured dhoti and across his forehead are drawn three horizontal white lines, traced with ash, the mark of a follower of Shiva. The priest folds his hands in prayer, bends and scoops the water in his hands and drips it across his forehead, intoning his mantras to the sacred river. A few feet away a second devotee lights his butter lamp and pours oil while uttering his own quiet prayers. Over in the neighbouring ghats men, women and children swim in the dawn waters to wash away their karma while at Marnikarnika Ghat, the infamous burning ghat, a constant procession of corpses are carried into the Ganges before their subsequent cremation. In nearly every temple and every shrine in the city people are at their ablutions and ministrations for the rising sun. It’s impossible not to be moved at the fervour, the devotion and, dare I say it, the sanctity, of these morning rituals.

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You can’t travel through India for more than 10 minutes without the words ‘sacred’ or ‘holy’ coming up, usually uttered by some backpacker setting new lows in new-age credulity; the term becomes almost meaningless in its ubiquity. On the other hand, there is no denying that there is something striking about India’s rampant and colourful religiosity. Compared to our secular West––lacking in belief and ritual, its celebrations anodyne––India is littered with rites, temples, gods and vibrant festivitie. Idols are commonplace, small shrines are housed in every building and throughout the day, wherever you go, you’re likely to smell incense or hear chanting, bells ringing or see people bowed in prayer. As someone deeply interested in both religion and language usage and abusage it got me to thinking about what it actually means to call something sacred and if there is any truth to the fact that India is a sacred country. Or is it just another banal cliché? I wanted to discern if the sacred was something that had an objective reality or was it perceptual, inherent only in the eye of the beholder?

Dr Peterson I preume?

I’ve been consuming a lot of Jordan B Peterson as I travel. I realise that he is a controversial and polarising figure with two public and sometimes overlapping personas: the erudite scholar of psychology and religion and the staunchly conservative cultural warrior. As a refugee from the culture wars, I have little interest in the second, though I think the former has some very interesting ideas to offer. Whilst this is not an endorsement of his views in toto, I do think we are adult enough to listen to the thoughts of people we may disagree with without being triggered by them. This is an integral aspect of a mature and self-aware society.

In my opinion, Dr Peterson has some great things to say regarding the nature of religion and the sacred, even if I don’t always agree with his entrenched Judeo-Christian perspectives that view humanity as inherently flawed, sinful, and nature as something other, a constant terrifying and existential threat to our lives. But that is a post for another day.

One of Dr Peterson’s core arguments is that we are bound, limited beings who are finite by nature; we are constrained by our physicality, mental capacity and comprehension, not to mention by our finite lifespans. By contrast, the universe we inhabit is infinite in nature: materially, theoretically and in potentia. Our finitude is less than a microscopic drop or speck in our universe’s endlessness. But to exist as limited and finite specks in an incomprehensibly infinite universe cannot do anything but leave a major imprint of existential anxiety upon our psyches. We are surrounded by a cosmos that could engulf us at any moment, which promises to do so when we eventually and inevitably die. And it’s not just our lives that will ultimately be engulfed but every trace and memory of our existence and the existences of those microscopic few who will even remembered that we briefly walked across the stage of existence.

We can barely comprehend the enormity of this state of affairs. Its immensity and scope go beyond anything we can imagine or anything we can physically encompass. At the same point we feel it fucking deeply. We feel it in our guts and in our bones and most of our waking lives are spent staving off that feeling of something lurking at the edges of our consciousness: a kind of existential dread synonymous with Kierkegaard’s anguish or Satre’s ennui.

To give us an idea of how limited and finite our comprehension of the universe is, Dr Peterson uses frame theory as an example. In short, frame theory says that there exist many frames that we are conscious of but an infinite number of frames that remain outside the scope of our consciusness. A frame is “a frame of reference”, a point of perspective. Think of it this way: you go through your days aware of yourself as a cohesive unit. You have thoughts and feelings, you experience hunger, cold and tiredness and you engage with other people and tools during the course of your day. This experience is all mediated through the lens of your conscious personality and sense of self-identity. Yest this is a single perspective, an ego-driven frame. But there are many more possible perspectives than that of your conscious and ego-driven identity. You exist on an atomic level: a bunch of atoms that have come together to make up the being that is you. You exist on a microbial level. Bacteria crawl across your skin eating away the dead flesh and any dirt that covers you, while your stomach is a forest of micro flora and more bacteria. You have glands that regulate your bodily functions all day and night while you have a vast unconscious and perhaps even a higher, spiritual you (if you are that way inclined). In the other direction, there is aframe of reference that sees you as a unit in a small gathering of closely-related bioligical material, a family; a greater mass of people linked by genetic material, a race; or social conditioning, a culture. Zoom the lens in and out as much as you like and you will soon realise that the possible number of frames is literally endless but we are only capable of comprehending an incredibly tiny and, of course, necessarily finite amount. To try and comprehend this infinitude is to descend into Lovecraftian-style madness.

Defining the sacred

It’s this place, this edge where our finiteness meets the infinitude of the universe that we find the sacred, says Peterson. It’s the liminal space between the finite known and the infinitely unknown and it’s a great starting point for a definition. But I don’t think it goes far enough. What is required, I believe, is an embodied sense of this threshold between the two worlds. It’s not enough to merely comprehend this liminal space; rather it has to be experienced, to be deeply felt. The sacred, then, is where the place where we physically feel our finiteness meeting the infinitude of the universe. The reason for this is because what we feel often contradicts and regulalry undermines what we know.

The movement of the earth around the sun is a good example of this. Why is it that even the most scientifically minded among us still refer to “sunrise and sunset” instead of “the earth’s rotation bringing our current global coordinates back into a direct line with the sun”? Nearly five hundred years after Copernicus we might mentally know that the sun does not rise but physically, in our bodies, we feel the sun sinking below the horizon and into the underworld and being reborn each day, a feeling ingrained over six million years of experience. Although science tells us that the earth will complete its orbit, in our bones there is a deep embodied fear that it will not rise again. That it did so the previous day and every day preceding that, in our small and miserable existence, is the only consolation that it may do so tomorrow. So the movements of the sun take on a sacred flavour and, thus, sun adoration rituals have been commonly practised by many cultures around the world and throughout the ages. It’s also a central reason why solar rituals form a central tenet in my own sacred practises. I know conceptually that the earth revolves around the sun and that the sun is not moving across the horizon but that’s not what I feel when I sit on a hill and watch the a spectacular sunset colouring the bush in red and orange hues and filling with a sense of wonder and mystique.

Another example is death. We know rationally that one day we will die, although we spend most of our lives avoiding that thought. Why? It’s an embodied fear, a felt sense of our own finiteness being swallowed and brought to an end by the endless stream of existence. Which is why death has a sacred flavour and honouring death and its sanctity is an important element of our living existence. Death rituals are a sacred part of life. Peterson calls this state a tragedy; the internal knowledge that our own finiteness is dwarfed by the infinity of the universe. Yet it is also exquisitely beautiful, precious and sensual, even. The sacred cannot omit the sensual because the senses are fundamental to feeling the sacred. Which is why sex and death are so inextricably related: the mystery of procreation is creating the finite out of the void and the mystery of death is leaving the finite back to the void. And if you don’t believe that childbirth is a sacred mystery ask any new parent about the sense of awestruck ‘wonder and amazement’ they feel about the human they have made.

Peterson goes on to suggest that honouring the sacred, this edge of our world, where everything falls away into the unknown vastness of life and the universe, is a necessary aspect of existence and a counterpart to the dryness of rational, material life. In this I am reminded of Joseph Campbell’s aphorism that in life we must strive to honour the mystery of ourselves through the mystery of the universe. And the way we honour this is not rationally, because the finite and rational mind cannot comprehend the infinite, but through rite and ritual, prayer and supplication and through sacrifice as these are all modalities that are resonate somatically and in the deep unconscious sea.

The appropriate feeling here is instilling reverence or awe, rare qualities in our modern world. If we stop and think for a minute the world abounds in miracles: robots and AI, space exploration, nanothechnology, the internet, cloning and so on. Yet, we are so used to these wonders that we take it all in our stride. We can barely conceive of how significantly the world has transformed in the past hundred years and it is even more difficult to experience the same sense of awe and reverence for the world and cosmos that was felt by our ancestors. We have become blase and with that has come environmental degradation, disembodiment and dissociation from our animal roots. Yet there is good evidence that feelings such as awe and reverence are beneficial and promote pyschological wellbeing. Awe and reverence imply a certain degree of respect for those things which we don’t understand or that are greater than us in scale. Thus an embedded sense of reverence for our place in nature, for the mysteries of the universe, may act as catalyst for us to protect nature and these very mysteries. When we realise our place in the scheme of things, no matter how insignificant, then we are less likely to meddle in our environment.

So I have to acknowledge that the cliché’s regarding India are true. India really is a sacred country because Hinduism is a religion par excellence for honouring this liminal doorway between the finite and the infinite. There are lingams and yonis in every shrine in every village worshipping that sacred act of creation. There are a plethora of sun temples and moon temples and elaborate rituals regarding how the dead are farewelled. There are celebrations for everything in between. If you are in the thralls of the dead hand of rationalism you could do much worse than immerse yourself in India’s sacredness, throw away all reason and allow the terrifying edges of existence to rear up in your awareness in all their awe-inducing power.

Or you could do 400 micrograms of LSD; it’s tantamount to the same thing.

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At the same time, it’s not necessary to be religious in a traditional sense in order to venerate the sacred in our lives. I like to think that the idea of the sacred is not important from either a secular or theistic perspective, but from a personally pragmatic and psychologically-grounded approach, as a concept that is incorporated into our lives for growth. In practise, this is performed by physically meeting the sense of our own finiteness through symbolic gesture and ritual in whatever meaningful way we can devise.

The concept of the sacred goes hand in hand with the necessity of religion as a personal practise, given that one of the purposes of religion is to create room for us to face the sacred. But as I have written in other posts, this does not entail that you have to subscribe to a mainstream religion, shave off your hair and join the Hare Krishnas or any other cult for that matter. If we take religion in its literal meaning to re-bind, what the sacred asks of us is practical and conscious engagement, not empty participation mystique. Your own rituals and your own belief systems are enough. It’s not what you believe but that you believe in something and you take concrete action to honour and concretise those beliefs and symbolically honour your own dismal finitude in the endless universe.

Into the underworld

I haven’t posted in a while. There’s been a range of factors behind this, some technological or geographical but also psychospiritual.

When I started planning this trip I envisioned a kind of Hero’s Journey structure to frame it. Separation in the first six months, an underworld journey in the second and the last third, Return, although a return of what or whom I didn’t put much thought into. To support this, I’d crammed most of the intensives and workshops into the middle third of the trip (South and Central America) in addition to a few other intensive and immersve experiences. A tarot reading before we left also seemed to indicate that this period would be one of crisis and transformation.

It’s a case of be careful what you wish for.

In Japan my computer stopped charging properly but the pace of travelling was so frenetic that there was little space to take heed of it. By the time we arrived in the US my laptop had died completely and would not charge at all. Simultaneously, my phone had also started playing up and so I decided to do a factory reset on it. Something went wrong when backing up my data, which I didn’t realise at the time. When I did the restore I had lost much of my information including access to chat apps, my sources of connection with people back home. Apple were useless in assisting me fix my computer. There was an issue with the logic board, which meant sending it off to the factory. As I was travelling around they couldn’t pinpoint a location to send it to and so for six weeks I carried an oversized paperweight in my pack.

Adding to this was a slow withdrawal from my old life in Australia. Back home I realised had a definite social identity. I knew who I was with some certainty as well as my place in a well-established community. I had passions, plans for the future, strong social networks and a sense of community. The further I travelled the more abstract all of this felt. I became acutely aware of how our identities, our egos, are socially constructed and the further I went the more I sensed the Self residing underneath (more on this to come). Social media, politics and current affairs seemed increasingly irrelevant to who and where I was in life. The message coming through grew louder: withdraw and sever the strings binding me to my old life. And so I did.

One cannot undertake the Hero’s Journey without honouring the stages and their import. How could I enter an underworld, even of my own making, if I wasn’t willing to sacrifice that which bound me to the old world? In the myth of Orpheus, Orpheus is instructed to walk through the underworld and not look back at Eurydice, who is following behind him. Orpheus cannot help himself and at one stage looks back to her. She is condemned forever to dwell in Hades. The message is clear: when you walk into the underworld you cannot look back. There is only forward.

The past couple of months have been one of disconnection and focusing on the road ahead. Interestingly however, my computer was repaired only once I accepted that severance was necessary and took steps to make it so. The underworld journey has begun. I am loath to post about it while I am still in its belly. My priority at the moment is finishing the next draft of my novel and documenting as much of this journey as I can in my journal with the aim of constructing a longer work. So while I will post here from time to time it will be of intermittent frequency.

Deeper into the underworld, I descend…

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Travelling

Atu: The Magus

Lunar Intention: Union

Location: 15.6631° N, 73.7419° E (Mandrem Beach, Goa, India)

On the road again. The travelling life is a familiar and comfortable one, a flow state that I easily slip into. There’s a certain awareness and disposition that comes with this state: an embodied sense that surfaces at the start of any new journey.

Although I’ve always lived in Melbourne, and a ten-kilometre circle in Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs at that, frequent travel has been a recurring theme in my adult life. I have travelled to lose myself, find myself and re-invent myself; I have travelled for love, marriage and to escape unhappy relationships; I have travelled for birthdays and I have travelled for deaths; I have travelled for family, with family and to symbolically let go of a dead family member; I have travelled on a whim and because I couldn’t think of anything better to do with my life. I have consistently travelled to avoid my adult responsibilities in life but I have also travelled to leverage growth and change, because of spiritual inspiration or just because I thought it would make a good story later. Relevant to this blog, I have travelled to re-enchant my life whenever it feels bogged down in orthodoxy, monotony and order. Travel for me is the best counter spell to the curse of Greyface.

As a means of re-enchantment, travelling drops me into a state of deep experiencing that is marked from the numbed trance of my domestic life. The greatest tool of re-enchantment is being able to adopt the role of flâneur and cultivating the state of meditative contemplation that comes with a flâneur’s lifestyle.

Travelling re-enchants because it sharpens one’s psychic and somatic awareness. I am conscious of my being moving through new and unfamiliar environments; I carry an awareness of how my clothes hang on me, how new climates affect me and a material sense of the contents of my pockets and bags. I notice more the effects of food and my interactions with strangers. My sense of personal safety and responsibility is piqued; my curiosity about everything that goes on around me, insatiable. Travel tests my resilience and resourcefulness through a range of material and emotional discomforts. This method of re-enchanting allows me a greater sense of the limits of my personal boundaries, limits I am often not challenged to explore to any depth in the humdrum of life back home. Crucially, travel gets my creative juices flowing. The link between walking and creativity has been well documented and I find that the flâneur lifestyle agrees with this. I can happily walk for miles a day when travelling and my journal entries become essay length on all manner of topics.

Travel is my life for the next 18 months. I can barely comprehend this length of time and who I will be by the end. It has been 5 years in the making, as it took me some time before I could leave. I had to overcome a number of (material and psychological) financial obstacles, I ended one relationship and started a new one and I went on several shorter journeys in the intervening time. As the trip’s gestation period has been so long, the original motivation for this trip doesn’t exist anymore. When I first started planning this trip I wanted, in part, an avenue to avoid having to settle down but also a means to try and massively re-enchant my life through extended wandering. The nuclear option of re-enchantment through travel! Generally after a big trip I can maintain that heightened state of aliveness for anywhere up to 3 months. My hope was that by going nuclear I could make it more or less permanent or acquire the tools and resources to help me do so. The thing is my need to escape and re-enchant my life is not as strong now as it was 5 years ago. It has been an ongoing and well-integrated process for several years. Re-enchantment is not something I find somewhere else, but a continual conversation in the here and now. Furthermore, the travelling life is nice, but I’m at an age in my life where I coo over babies and daydream about what it would be like to own a house in the bush and know my grandchildren. I have transitioned to a more mature phase of life that doesn’t crave or revolve around constant escape and adventure.

So I am on the road again and in the curious position of having lost the original motivation to go on the road in the first place. I’m also well past the point where I have any interest in following well-worn tourist trails and tick-a-box travelling, if I ever really did (I wrote about this exact thing many years ago in my essay Khosanitis). I leave behind an amazing life in Melbourne and have little need for the nuclear option; the integration of my personal and magickal lives has taken many years but these days they are synonymous. Adding to all this is the deeply felt sense that when I return my life will be radically different. I will be living in the country, babies will be a thing and so will a new career that doesn’t involve a 9-5 grind. Effectively, this trip marks a distinct separation between two phases of my life. I think we all experience these moments. Most change occurs incrementally but sometimes events and circumstance dramatically pull down the curtains, leaving us in no doubt that one act has ended and another is about to begin. This is my current reality. I am enjoying something of an intermission between acts, but an intermission that’s still a feature of the whole play and one which will determine what happens in the next act. I feel that this intermission and the absence of a need to travel for any other reason than for itself gives me immense freedom to create something new and lasting from this journey.

I like this freedom. It’s not the freedom of running away to solve a problem or the freedom of desperately trying to re-enchant a life that has gone stale. Which is freedom ‘from’. Now I have freedom ‘to’: the freedom to be, to create and to dive as fucking deep as I can. Antero Alli says that to fly we need to have both feet on the ground. With my feet firmly planted I can obtain great heights but also greater depths. Apart from a vague arrow on a map, I have no real idea of where I’m going, but I do know that with every step the ground beneath my feet becomes illuminated. The world is a massive place but at least I can see where I stand.

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Paying death’s wages

A while back, I posted about how a couple of encounters with my own mortality had served as deeply personal initiatory experiences. The post garnered a lot of feedback from a range of people, both online and in person, which took me completely by surprise. What surprised me even more was the disparity in the tone and flavour of the feedback I received. Most people seemed to get the post and gave supporting comments about me showing vulnerability and insight, which was nice (flattery will get you far); more than a few, however, seemed to miss the point entirely and I was flooded with messages along the lines of ‘get well soon’ or ‘I hope your results are in the clear’. This confused the hell out of me and led me to wonder if I had communicated my experiences with a lack of clarity.

My intention in writing the piece was not to garner sympathy but to attempt a personal meditation on a recent cancer scare and show how encounters with illness and death can lead us into deeper states of being. Yet, sympathy I received in abundance.

After mulling it over and speaking to several close friends I came to several conclusions about why my post wasn’t received as I’d intended:

  • I’d failed to communicate the story as effectively as I could and therefore people had drawn the wrong conclusion (however, this doesn’t explain why many people did get what I was writing about)
  • It was published on Facebook and nobody actually reads anything on Facebook, not being the greatest medium for nuanced communication
  • The piece had cancer as subject matter and some readers were too triggered to actually absorb the contents. As a friend said to me: “people lose their shit when cancer is involved”
  • Some readers just didn’t want to know about it, for the same reason that they don’t seek out initiatory experiences or encounters with death in their own lives

I don’t claim to know which of these is the correct answer or even if there is a correct answer, but I do think the last couple of these raises some interesting issues.

Writing a meditation on illness and death is a little against the grain for the way in which our culture tells us to direct our attention. People don’t want to know about death. It’s saved for the end of life when, having been staved off for so long, it makes its presence known with interest. I suspect also that people aren’t interested in discussions of illness or death because they would then have to contemplate their own deaths. It’s that superstitious mindset that says if you don’t think about or mention a thing then it may never happen. And if you contemplate your death than you really need to start contemplating the meaning of your own individual life.

As Stephen Jenkinson writes, we live in a death-phobic society. However, in order to fully live, we need to pay the wages of death. It’s an interesting, gnomic turn of phrase and I think it’s absolutely spot on.

We must pay death’s wages by carrying death in our pocket through our entire lives. Death is present from the moment we are born, from the second of our first inhalation, the imbued, deeply embodied knowledge that life is preciously finite and infinitely precious. Initiation, a different kind of birth, wakes us up to this: welcome to life; one day you will die.

Initiation shows us that death is the price we pay for being alive in this world. Death is the final word; without it our lives have no meaning. In mathematical terms, a life is a set that is composed of all its elements. Any contemplation of life in its entirety must include its own death as an element. We can ignore death but we cannot exclude it. We cannot forestall it. Death doesn’t make deals and it exacts its due eventually. The problem is that generally we can’t afford to pay in a lump sum at the end; the price is too high, the suffering too great, and then we do anything to avoid going gentle into that good night. By honouring death, the little death present in every single moment as it bursts into existence and vanishes into the past, we give meaning to life. Death must receive the acknowledgement that it’s due. When we carry death at our side our lives are deeper, richer, more purposeful.

Furthermore, we must leave room for death’s voice in our lives not just for ourselves but for those we know and love. To love someone is also to carry the weight of their death. When my mum died five years ago, my dad and I took quite divergent paths to how we processed our grief. My route was to try and ‘let go of it’, as if the grief was something that needed to be processed and resolved. In contrast, my dad had my mum’s ashes interred in a metal box (painted in Collingwood colours, no less), which he placed in a part of the garden surrounded by wombat figurines, a totemic animal for her. Even to this day he sits out there and talks to her as he has his morning cigarette. My brother and I worried at first that his inability to ‘let go’ or move on was unhealthy. It took me some time to realise that the opposite was true; that my desire to move on was the unhealthy desire whereas my dad’s was perfectly natural. It is the duty of the living to bear the dead. We need to retain that kernel of grief in our hearts to keep the dead alive, to remind us of the imprint they have left upon us, in our hearts and souls. That grief reminds us that we in turn will be grieved and begs the question of how we would like to be grieved.

Even though I had begun practising ancestral rituals at the time I was blind to this truth and it took me a long while to realise it. In fact, it was only upon looking my own death in the face did I fully understand my obligations to those ancestors who have died. This knowledge took my ancestral practise to greater depths than I could have even realised without it.

Before departing overseas I had the pleasure of writing up my own death plan. It was an interesting experience contemplating how I wanted to be remembered by my family and friends and my hope that my personal values, what I stood for in life, would be honoured. I’d like my death to be a celebration of my life: music, poetry and dancing are mandatory. I would like my ashes scattered along the Black Spur in Healesville and I want a Thelemic ritual. Yet, such is the taboo of discussing death in my life that I felt awkward telling me siblings that I had done so. Though it was received as I’d hoped, it was that case again of not wanting to name a thing unless it happened. I suggested to my dad that I do his death plan too.

“What do I care, I’ll be dead,” he responded.

“Okay then, we’ll play the Carlton Football Club theme song at your funeral.”

No you will not!

“So you do care what happens at your funeral,” I replied, laying down my trump card.

And we do care, as much as we try and avoid thinking about it. This is how we pay death’s wages; contemplating the legacy we leave behind us and for future generations. Death will eventually be paid. We can pay it in instalments or in a lump sum and this choice informs the depth and meaning in our lives.

Before I end this post, I want to clarify as emphatically as I can that I do NOT have leukaemia. I have precursor cells to leukaemia in the same way that a mole is a precursor to a melanoma. And a very mild form of leukaemia at that: so mild I probably wouldn’t even notice that I had it. The likelihood that it will develop into anything is 10-15% so that’s 85-90% that it won’t. Given that there is a 30% chance the average person will develop cancer at some point in their life, I’m already winning. Also, I maintain a very healthy lifestyle, so knock those odds down a few percentage points and I’m winning even more. I’m fit, healthy and have a deeply rich life.

At the same time there is a great unknown attached to all of this. Leukaemia is a scary concept to contemplate no matter how benign. A course of immunotherapy isn’t exactly a holiday, so there is a sense of some Damoclean sword hanging above me. But here is the crux: I am incredibly grateful for this. I am grateful for these experiences that remind me of my own mortality, of the fragility and ephemerality of life, because they also make me appreciate the preciousness of life. Without seeing my life flash before my eyes in a Balinese hospital or contemplating my own mortality in the Bardo that is waiting for an appointment with a cancer specialist, I would still be skimming on the surface of life without recourse to contemplate my own death. These experiences remind me I only have one shot and drive me to live more deeply. I want to carpe the fuck out of that diem.

But even in the midst of a deeply rich life death must be paid. One day my life will end. It is this death and the grace in which I depart that will provide my life with its ultimate meaning.

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Neurocam and the theatre of re-enchantment (Part 3)

So deeply did some of the Jejune Institute’s participants descend down the rabbit hole that the project’s creators had to organise a mass debrief and closing ritual to gently return them to the real world. By the time it had wound up, nearly ten thousand people had signed up with the Institute but nobody knew what it actually was. Was it a) alternate reality game, b) strange cult or c) bizarre participatory art project? It’s the subject of the Spencer McCall’s somewhat histrionic 2013 documentary The Institute, which ends up drinking the Kool Aid and leaving the audience no wiser by its end.

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Jejune Institute debrief

Had the Jejune Institute not been created in the city that had also given birth to the Cacophony Society, Discordianism and Emperor Norton, I’d consider it a direct rip-off of Neurocam: An opaque organisation with no clear motive or purpose, muddied with mis- and disinformation, that sends its participants on crazy missions for no obvious rhyme or reason. Sounds awfully familiar.

It’s probably not helpful to compare, but I see Jejune as an example of what Neurocam could have been. Unlike Neurocam, the Jejune Institute had greater resources, narrative structure and went on for much longer, although it’s much easier to undertake massive art projects (the answer was c, by the way) in the US than Australia where the scale of everything, including arts funding, is so much greater. And it’s that scale which excites me. Think about it: that ten thousand people signed up for an organisation they had no clear idea about with the sole desire to have their realities fucked with points to a genuine human need. Similarly, by signing up for Neurocam we were aiming for a state of art-induced psychosis, where the barriers between reality and performance become permeable. Neurocam gave us that in part. The Jejune Institute’s participants received it in spades.

I’m a gamer from way back and using language and imagination to enchant my reality has been deeply imprinted. ARGs never really did it for me; mostly they seemed to be elaborate efforts in product placement and fuck anything that the dead hand of neoliberal corporatism touches. Also, most ARGs are centred on problem solving rather than character and interaction, which is fun to a point but not particularly fulfilling. I’ve always found LARPing to be immensely enjoyable although I think that’s more from the catharsis that comes from bashing things with giant foam swords than any inherent fantasy. The problem I find with all three is that they approach a sort of uncanny valley that strives for verisimilitude but always comes up short.

This is why Neurocam and the Jejune Institute are so powerful. Through participation you surrender control of your reality and enter a liminal zone where interpretation of reality is multivalent and there is no internal leap of imagination required, because any fucking thing could be possible. These are play and the imagination’s Temporary Autonomous Zones, the places we run to when tabletop roleplaying no longer cuts the mustard. Possibility abounds. An immersive game world is created around you, which is beguiling and almost impossible to extract yourself from without debrief.

A similar device is used in David Fincher’s 1997 movie The Game, where Michael Douglas slowly has his entire reality undermined to the point of madness and thus wakes himself up from the torpor that his life had become. Because that’s what we ultimately want from these immersive experiences: to be shaken awake from our slumber and to know magic and possibility. And the only way to get it is to be driven towards madness.

At the end of it all though, we are just participants relying on external forces to re-enchant our world. Even Jeff Hull, the creator of the Jejune Institute talks about wanting to “give participants experiences” with just enough leeway for independent thought. That is, they are guided throughout with bare autonomy. I find this troubling. There must be a line between subverting our reality as our own agents rather than as actors in another’s charade, which harks back to the issue of immediacy I discussed in the previous post. How do we create our own re-enchantment that is not reliant on the imaginations of others?

A Little Nonsense Now and Then is Relished by the Wisest Men

<em>Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures</em>

Willy Wonka had it right. So too did the Symbolists who played games to distort their reality, the derivé being a case in point. Ten years ago in Kathmandu I swallowed a choice block of hash and took myself on a derivé through its narrow and twisted thoroughfares, exploring the many old temples and shrines that litter the city, dodging cows, cars and monkeys and wandering with no direction or intent, guided only by the random flash of sign or symbol or sudden feeling of instinct. For six hours, I felt as if I was living in a vast magical ritual full of purport and occult meaning and saw a Kathmandu that exists on the other side of the liminal veil.

This kind of self-derived re-enchantment comes from a derangement of the senses however it is done (with chemicals, ritual, dance, movement, voice, games or whatever the imagination can produce). In fact, the imagination is the only limit on how you can achieve such derangement. Aleister Crowley suggested pretending you’re a puppet whose every move is controlled by ‘Ajna’. Antero Alli recommends going out for a walk and only seeing the spaces between things. The aim is to walk towards madness without actually going mad (I use the term mad to mean a complete derangement of rationality and the senses rather than as a perjorative) and therein lies the art and also the danger. You may not come back but unless you want to spend the rest of your days as an empty husk on the couch glued to your reality TV shows, you have no choice. You must take that leap!

Games and art have their place. Neurocam enlivened my world by expanding what was possibly in my reality and through it I met some great (and not-so-great) people and had a fun time. But I was motivated by a desire for re-enchantment, to have my world fucked with, and rather than do it myself I handed that responsibility over to strangers. And if the Jejune Institute attracted nearly ten thousand people this suggests that I am not alone and that there is a general discontent with the state of our individual realities. Sometimes it’s necessary to hand over the keys of our derangement to others. And while this is something which Neurocam, the Jejune Institute or anything external can provide, every time we go through an initiation or rite of passage we give away our mental and physical integrity to others. I may touch on this in future posts. Ultimately, however we are responsible for the re-enchantment of our own worlds.

So go forth, walk towards madness but never find it. Let imagination be your guide.

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Neurocam and the theatre of re-enchantment (Part 2)

For me, the question of what Neurocam actually was is the least interesting one. In fact, it was exactly this question that precipitated Neurocam’s demise. Far more interesting are the questions of what Neurocam created, what it could have been and why it failed.

The prosaic explanation is that Neurocam was an interactive art experiment by Melbourne Artist Robin Hely, whose oeuvre is centred in the manipulation of his audience. Hely describes Neurocam as being:

…loosely based on the idea of unwitting audience participation as explored by John Fowles’ 1966 novel, The Magus, in which the main protagonist’s entire reality is gradually subverted by what is presumed to be an elaborate work of theatre, in which the relationship between director and audience is redefined and the world itself becomes the stage.

This key idea can be traced back to G.K. Chesterton’s 1905 novel Club of Queer Trades, in which an organization known as the Adventure and Romance Society set about perpetrating complex theatrical fabrications in order to give individuals a series of unexpected life-changing experiences.

Project Neurocam similarly attempts to mask its content, context and objectives in an attempt to construct spontaneous, evolving narratives where the participants are a key component of the work itself and the role of the artist is continually being redefined by the involvement of the audience.

Neurocam’s original website contained the following by a quote by the organisation’s ‘CEO’ Bridget Fisher:

Some of the most rewarding experiences we have come about through random circumstances of which we have no real understanding. It is sometimes important to commit to something we know very little about if the act of commitment in itself becomes part of an experience.

Every person who signed up for Neurocam did so because they wanted to have their reality fucked with on some level. Underneath there was a desire for re-enchantment, to have the carpet pulled out from them as they are exposed to something beyond their ken. There was a yearning desire to participate in a greater mystery than that offered by mundane reality. Why else would someone sign up to strange and shadowy organisation and allow themself to be sent on weird assignments for no obvious purpose?

And in that respect Neurocam worked. It asked its participants to accept that answers were out of their control. Relax, have fun and accept whatever comes up.

Not knowing also subtly forces to question our own reality; every situation becomes multivalent with interpretation, which is why some random guy crossing the street to ask me the time can be perceived as a test by the agents of Neurocam. This constitutes re-enchantment of the world, pure and simple. Re-enchantment recognises the subjectivity of our own experience and that there are potentially hundreds of explanations for even the most objective-seeming occurrences. Re-enchantment causes us to question the certainty of our reality.

I am reminded here of Thomas Pynchon’s magnificent The Crying of Lot 49, in which the protagonist Oedipa Maas is made executor of her ex-lover’s estate and becomes embroiled in a vast, far-reaching conspiracy that progressively engulfs her reality with each new revelation. I believe that Neurocam and The Crying of Lot 49 describe a system obverse to that of progressive initiation.

In most initiatory mystery systems, the candidate becomes increasingly intimate with a central mystery as he or she progresses through that system. From a rank outsider who knows nothing, each initiation reveals a different aspect and deeper levels of that mystery, so that by the time of the final initiation they will have enough knowledge to comprehend the central mystery in its entirety. The simplest analogy is that a piece of the jigsaw is added with each initiation, but each added piece is chosen specifically to shed light on what has come before and hint at what awaits in further revelations.

However, for Oedipa Maas and the participants in Neurocam, every time a new mystery is revealed it only complicates the picture. There is no objective truth to be grasped at the end of it all, just further confusion and paranoia. At the end of The Crying of Lot 49 Maas waits for the big reveal, the “crying of Lot 49” in auctioneer parlance, which will either explain everything or, more likely, send her into utter madness as the conspiracy she has unearthed breaches the ability of her mind to contain an understanding of it.

Conspiracy theories are appealing and addictive because they are the mind’s ways of systematising the ineffable connections between disparate events. They bring order to the chaos, because to abandon oneself to chaos is supposedly to head towards madness. But what if the truth was that to bring order to chaos is madness. What if accepting the inevitable chaos of the world we live in is the truly sane response. This is what Neurocam asked of its participants as we went down the rabbit hole and embraced what would socially be considered madness. As HP Lovecraft infamously said:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.

However, as humans we can only tolerate so much uncertainty. The nature of the human mind is that it needs to contain and understand its experiences, like Oedipa Maas trying to make sense of the complicated conspiracy of Trystero and Thurn und Taxis. And whilst Neurocam may have engaged its participants in a mystery, those participants couldn’t help but dedicate themselves to solving that mystery.

Neurocam’s greatest success was creating an entire community and subculture devoted to working out what Neurocam was. This was an inadvertent consequence that seemed to take even Hely by surprise:

Once the Neurocam community noticed Henstock’s blog (which turned up on a basic Google search of “Neurocam”), hundreds of operatives followed suit and started their own Neurocam blogs. Within weeks an online search on Neurocam revealed several pages all linking to various first-hand accounts from Neurocam participants detailing their latest experiences. This rapidly evolved into a series of online forums dedicated to collectively solving the Neurocam mystery.

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The formation of Neurocam’s online communities also had a lot of benefits beyond providing a means to engage with a broader audience. As the project was initially set up with a view to providing experiences exclusively for individuals, the rise of the online communities added another layer to the work. It allowed participants to work together with a collective goal – to collaboratively construct their own idea of what Neurocam was. This created endless speculation and theories about who or what was behind the project, which then become an integral part of the work. Neurocam, it seemed, was whatever its participants projected onto it.

I suspect that this is the point where Hely lost control of his project and Neurocam began to jump the shark. When the focus of Neurocam turned from blind participation to solving a mystery it became a piece of theatre. I also think because Hely didn’t foresee this occurring, he lacked the narrative drive to sustain it. It was only a matter of time before Neurocam collapsed under the weight of its own mythology.

In his essay Immediatism, Hakim Bey defines art and experience as existing on different grades of mediation. Watching a movie, for example, is a purely mediated experience. The audience sits on one side and is but a witness to the projections played out before them. A less mediated form of art would be role-playing games, where the participants are characters in the action, but are nonetheless still being led through a pre-configured scenario. A completely unmediated form of art would be a game of exquisite cadaver or a potluck dinner, where every participant is a co-creator of an event where the outcome is yet to be determined.

In the form of a mystery school, Neurocam existed as an immediate participatory art project. When the scene moved from participation to speculation then it morphed into mediated theatre and so the magic was lost. Neurocam became empty speculation not participatory mindfuck, destroying the sole reason for its own existence.

I don’t think Hely expected Neurocam to grow as big or carry on for as long as it did. I also don’t think he anticipated that an entire community would spring up ready to solve a mystery that really wasn’t a mystery but an experience with no aim or end. At its peak it was a fantastic ride, but it could not be sustained, as the natural tendency of the participants was to try and unravel it. And so it collapsed.

To be concluded…