If you missed my interview on WORT’s Radio Literature program last night, you can stream the audio using the player below. The first part of the show is about the Wisconsin Writers Awards and the 50th anniversary of the Council for Wisconsin Writers. The discussion of psychedelic science begins around the twenty minute mark. This program originally aired on WORT 89.9 FM and streamed at wort-fm.org.
Fairfield, Iowa, should be on everyone’s bucket list of unique destinations. Is there another American town that contains so many worlds?
In Fairfield, where 22% of the population lives below the poverty line, sprawling mansions loom over scruffy trailer homes. If you visit the Fairfield Arts and Convention Center, you might see an exhibit titled “Healthy Pollinators are Essential for Super Foods and Medicinal Plants” or, on another visit, a mixed martial arts cage match. In the checkout line at the Hy-Vee Grocery, the person in front of you might be a portly farmer in overalls buying a pack of Slim Jims and the person behind you a woman in a pastel sari with organic clarified butter from the store’s extensive vegetarian section.
The biggest contrast in Fairfield is between the “townies,” the 8,000 or so residents whose parents and grandparents lived there, and the 2,000 people they disparagingly call “roos” or “gurus,” a reference to their leader, the Indian religious icon Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The first of Maharishi’s followers arrived in Fairfield in the 1970s and transformed the town top to bottom. In the process, they changed the American spiritual landscape forever.
Every step on the long, strange trip is on display in Transcendental Meditation in America: How a New Age Movement Remade a Small Town in Iowa (University of Iowa Press, 2014) by Joseph Weber. A professor of Journalism at the University of Nebraska, Weber devoted three years of research and writing to the project. The result is the deepest and broadest portrait so far of an important movement that gets little attention and less understanding.
When Maharishi met the Beatles and introduced them to Transcendental Meditation (TM), yoga and Eastern spirituality were mostly unknown in America. His marketing genius brought TM into the mainstream. By 1974, he was successful enough to purchase the Fairfield campus of the bankrupt Parsons College and transform it into Maharishi International University. Fairfield quickly became the center of the American TM movement and a microcosmic laboratory of spiritual upheaval.
Relations between the two factions of Fairfield residents were shaky from the start. Weber provides revealing portraits of conservative townies and their idealistic counterparts in the TM movement.
He profiles Mayor Ed Malloy, a “roo” who tries to serve the whole town while remaining true to Maharishi’s teachings. He also describes the impact of young entrepreneurs who moved to Fairfield for the blissful atmosphere. They often credit meditation for their success, if not their failures, which are sometimes spectacular.
Weber also talks with people who claim the movement isn’t the peaceful, enlightened community it claims to be. A local farmer describes the trouble he encountered when he tried to start a hog feeding operation close to Maharishi Vedic City, a nearby community of the guru’s followers. The farmer became a national celebrity when Vedic City officials forced him into an expensive legal battle to save his land.
The saddest stories come from people who gave their young lives to Maharishi but were forced to leave the fold. Some disagreed with TM movement policy and dared to speak out in public. Others were excommunicated for showing interest in other forms of spirituality. Is this really how enlightenment works?
In many ways, Fairfield is a model for the changes happening throughout American society as the old ways yield to the new. The drama of changing generations, of red states versus blue states, occurred in miniature in Fairfield before it reached the rest of us. This unusual community is worth watching to see where we all might be headed.
Maharishi died in 2008 and his movement passed out of the public eye a long time ago. Until now, the subject never got the serious scholarly or journalistic attention it deserved. Joseph Weber’s Transcendental Meditation in America will be the standard work on the subject for a long time to come.
On the surface, evolutionary psych looks pretty grim. We pride ourselves on individuality and free will, but many of our choices and behaviors are determined genetically with mathematical precision and little wiggle room. For all our technological progress, human nature hasn’t changed much since it developed hundreds of thousands of years ago in Africa. Our minds pump out beliefs and emotions that were great for coping with saber-tooth cats but now cause us no end of trouble.
Given the fix we’re in, it’s not surprising that some people who study the subject speak of evolution as a kind of evil force. It bears a resemblance to the Christian devil—a deceiver who plants lies in our minds and self-destruction in our hearts. You can also look at it from an Eastern perspective:
maya, (Sanskrit: “wizardry,” or “illusion”), a fundamental concept in Hindu philosophy… Maya originally denoted the power of wizardry with which a god can make human beings believe in what turns out to be an illusion; by extension it later came to mean the powerful force that creates the cosmic illusion that the phenomenal world is real. …
— Encyclopedia Britannica
Buddha and the ancient sages weren’t talking about genetics when they described the world as an illusion. The concept of maya fits the modern evolutionary view, though.
What else would you need to create an all-consuming illusion? A million years of natural selection programmed our minds to see cause and effect in random chaos. We detect patterns where there are none. We detect conscious agents where none exist. Our experience seems totally real, of course, but that solid sense of reality is also generated by the mind.
We escaped the predators in Africa and wound up trapped in a state of enchantment, permanent tourists wandering bug-eyed through a Disney World of cognitive errors.
It looks bad. However, if evolutionary science can show us the problem, perhaps it can also help us find a solution.
Once I understood that we’re all stuck with the same lousy programming, I found it liberating. For example, I used to get really angry about the widespread acceptance of unscientific beliefs. You’ve probably seen the data—46% of Americans believe that God created humans less than 10,000 years ago. 41% believe in ESP. 20% believe that vaccines cause autism.
I used to think that people who believe those things must be clueless or duped. Now I think they believe those things because they’re human beings. As I said in a previous essay, we’re all hard-wired for magic.
What’s more, since belief in magic is tied to our survival instincts, it’s almost impossible to resist. Over the years, I’ve tried to offer alternative explanations to people who believe they have psychic powers or miraculous healing abilities. The response is often something like “I know what happened because I saw it myself and you can’t tell me that what I saw is wrong.”
There’s not much you can say to make a person question his or her bedrock experience. It’s screwed in as tight as can be. That doesn’t mean that we should give a pass to foolish ideas, however, especially in dangerous cases like vaccine denial.
Perhaps, when this situation comes up again, I’ll emphasize that I don’t doubt the experience in question. It’s as real as anything to the person who had it. Instead, we should doubt experience itself. It just isn’t reliable. Mine isn’t. Yours isn’t. Evolution is always out to trip us up and we must be vigilant.
You are the first line of defense against your own experience.
I’ll be appearing as a guest on the Radio Literature program on WORT, Madison’s community-sponsored radio station, at 7:30 PM on Thursday, April 24th. Host Marilyn Taylor will interview me about the Council for Wisconsin Writers and the 50th anniversary of the Wisconsin Writers Awards. The discussion may even include a bit of Reason and Magic. Madison listeners can tune in at 89.9 FM. The program will also be available for live streaming at wortfm.org.
In the beginning, there was a noise in the bush. Our ancestors were sitting around a campfire, huddled in a small group. Half of them thought the noise came from a predator, a huge animal with sharp teeth ready to attack. They leapt up from the fire and ran for their lives.
The other half stuck around to analyze the situation. “Maybe it’s a predator or maybe it’s just the wind in the trees.”
Wind or predator? We don’t know, but we do know that the people who ran away survived. They lived to reproduce and pass their genes on to their children and their children’s children and so on down to us. Even now, we still get nervous when we hear a noise in the dark.
* * *
Perhaps these “just so” stories should come with a label: “Not for literal consumption. For illustrative purposes only.”
The stories may be shaky, but they illustrate a real problem. Why do some human behaviors and psychological traits persist across time and culture even though they seem harmful or pointless? Why do we humans have compassion, self-sacrifice, infanticide, empathy, and common standards of beauty?
Questions like these led to the science of evolutionary psychology. Proponents claim that puzzling traits like self-sacrifice make sense as evolutionary adaptations—they may not do much for contemporary individuals, but they had survival value for our ancient ancestors. They may have outlived their usefulness, but they’re still there in our DNA and in our minds.
Take the campfire story above. The trait in question is known to psychologists as “agent detection,” the ability of humans to detect other beings with a conscious purpose. Our minds detect agents willy-nilly. We do it when we’re in the presence of other people and we do it with inanimate objects.
I’m not the first person to suggest that agent detection is a basic part of religion and magic. I doubt it’s the whole story, but I think that you could build an evolutionary model of magic from a collection of traits. Perhaps these four:
• Detecting agents where there are none
• Detecting patterns where there are none
• Mistaking correlation for causality
• Valuing stories over evidence
These traits may have outlived their evolutionary purpose, but they’re buried deep within us and they’re not going anywhere. They shape our experience and drive our behavior relentlessly whether we like it or not.
The best we can do, I think, is to understand magic for what it is and find a graceful way to live with it. Ironically, skeptics and believers often fail at this task for similar reasons. They take magic at face value. They witness the evolutionary spectacle of faces in the clouds and voices in the wind. One group snickers in contempt and the other asks the wind for advice.
Personally, I’m a rational materialist. I also read Tarot cards. I don’t believe that Tarot cards reveal the future or give me information that I couldn’t obtain through ordinary channels. I do Tarot because I’m a rationalist, because I need help connecting with the powerful, irrational forces flowing deep inside me.
Everybody’s path is different. At some point, though, I think you have to bite the bullet and go native. We’re all hard-wired for magic.
The latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine has an excellent article about the misuse of quantum physics in pop culture. If you’re familiar with New Age media like The Secret or What the BLEEP Do We Know, you’ve seen how quantum theory gets twisted out of context to support everything from ESP to cancer therapy.
Author Dale DeBakcsy confronts the problem head-on by examining some of the most common misconceptions about quantum mechanics. For instance, in the pop culture version of quantum theory, your consciousness determines the state of electrons and other particles to create any reality you desire. According to DeBakcsy, it’s just the opposite. Quantum theory allows random selection from a limited number of very precisely defined states, and only on a very tiny scale.
Unfortunately, most physicists look the other way while pop culture celebrities manhandle their discipline. Only a few, like Dale DeBakcsy, bother to put up a fight. As he puts it, “Electrons have done a lot for us, why not return the favor?”
There’s a good chance you’ve heard about Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything. She’s getting a lot of media coverage and very positive reviews. (Disclaimer: I haven’t read the book yet.)
Wild God is Ehrenreich’s public confession that she’s a mystic, a person who started having powerful visions of heightened reality as a young girl. This revelation wouldn’t raise any eyebrows in a book by Deepak Chopra or Sylvia Browne, but Ehrenreich is an atheist best known for hardheaded books about politics and economics.
What’s more, Wild God doesn’t follow the conventional script of the former skeptic who sees the light. This is not Proof of Heaven. Ehrenreich can’t deny her perception of a living cosmos, but she’s unwilling to interpret it as anything more than personal experience. She’s still an atheist.
So, we know it’s possible to be both a skeptic and a mystic, at least for one person. They say that one person is an outlier and two are a trend. I discovered number two on a recent episode of Oh No Ross and Carrie.
Unlike Barbara Ehrenreich, “Fire Lyte” is a believer—a practicing neo-pagan who worships the ancient gods. He performs rituals and works magic like thousands of contemporary Wiccans and shamans. Unlike most of them, however, he doesn’t feel the need for any supernatural or paranormal beliefs. No psychic powers. No quantum healing. He can fully appreciate his religion within the context of science and rationality.
In their unique ways, Ms. Ehrenreich and Mr. Lyte came to terms with reason and magic. It’s fascinating that they came from opposite directions—one from belief and one from atheism—and wound up in a similar place. They both discovered the common ground that exists between the two poles of human nature, the two powerful forces that get out of whack in so many of us.
They say that two people are a trend and three are a movement. Are you number three?
“You know, it’s a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish.”
— Richard Nixon, 1971
Today, four decades after Nixon inaugurated the War on Drugs, 85% of Americans support the use of marijuana for medical purposes. 54% support outright legalization. There’s still a long way to go, but there’s hope for a happy ending to a sad story.
The situation with psychedelics isn’t as clear-cut. Although the medical and scientific potential of psychedelic drugs was apparent back in the 1950s, politics won out. The substances were banned, the research halted, and the whole topic buried in a very deep hole.
The story of the psychedelic renaissance is, well, a long, strange, trip. It’s all on display in Neurons to Nirvana: Understanding Psychedelic Medicines, a new documentary on the politics, culture, and science of psychedelic drugs.
Directors Oliver Hackenbull and Mikki Willis collected film clips dating back to the days when LSD was a laboratory curiosity. We see footage of the Good Friday Experiment in 1962 when psychologists administered psilocybin to a group of divinity students, establishing the mystical nature of the psychedelic experience. We learn that Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was an enthusiastic proponent of LSD for treating addiction.
The hippies are there, of course, with the long hair and loud music that scared the Silent Majority into line with the drug war. One revealing clip from this period shows a clean-cut young woman reading a pamphlet titled “LSD: How Can We Fight Back?” The story could have easily ended there.
They say that “Only Nixon can go to China.” Likewise, the public faces of the new psychedelic renaissance bear little resemblance to Timothy Leary. They’re mainstream MDs and scientists with impeccable credentials. Neurons to Nirvana features a number of them.
There’s Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins and Charles Grob of UCLA, both of whom have studied the use of psilocybin for treating end-of-life anxiety in cancer patients. Ingrid Pacey, M.D., studies the use of MDMA/Ecstasy for treating PTSD. The who’s who includes Stan Grof, David Nichols, Stephen Ross, David Metzner, and many others.
Most important, we hear from patients, people suffering from serious medical conditions who found relief through drugs that were feared and condemned for half a century. These are the people who will bring the psychedelic renaissance to the mainstream public. Regardless of your politics, everybody has a grandparent with cancer, a spouse with a drinking problem, or a friend who came back from the Iraq war with PTSD. The village comes together when there’s a little girl trapped in the well.
Neurons to Nirvana provides an excellent introduction to a vast and messy topic. There are other films that cover specific aspects of the psychedelic story in greater detail, but none that give a better overview. It’s the one to have if you’re just having one.
The Wisconsin premier of “Neurons to Nirvana: Understanding Psychedelic Medicines” will be on Monday, April 7, at 5:00 PM in the Marquee Theatre at UW Union South. This documentary explores the new science of psychedelics with some of the leading researchers in the field. After the film, there will be a Q&A session with director Oliver Hockenhull, UW scientist Nick Cozzi, Northern Illinois University psychologist Thomas Roberts, and therapist Bruce Sewick. See you all there?
I’ve added a section on the Downloads page for book reviews. The books there contributed a lot to the ideas in this blog. Eventually, I’d like to put together a reading list of books related to skeptical mysticism. Suggestions welcome.