Medicine for wetiko

wetiko

Day before yesterday I was chatting with an old, close friend. She’s been dissatisfied with her life for a few years now and increasingly depressed about it because she can’t see the root cause, and therefore can’t see how to deal with it. It’s hard to watch, but there’s little I can do to help since her path isn’t mine. I can tell her about the practices that give me peace and joy and a sense of meaning, but they won’t work for her because she needs to find her own practices. But I have hope for this friend because there are already huge cracks in the old narrative of her life. I think she’s not quite ready to face the implications of that, but I think she’ll get there. I feel like my part is to get the thin end of the wedge into those cracks and give a little push.

I have been encouraging my friend (as I do everyone) to consider the possibility that depression is a natural early stage in the crumbling of one’s narrative, indeed it’s the only sane response at first. Actually, I think more often than not, what people feel at this stage is not so much depression per se as grief and a sense of heartsick impotence. The immediate instinct is to find medicine, but there is false medicine and true medicine. False medicine is an anaesthetic palliative of some sort, to numb the pain and quell the symptoms just enough to keep getting through your day as someone else’s human resource. That is slow-motion suicide. Big Pharma’s various emotional suppressants fall into this category, along with your alcohol, oxy, assorted Schedule 1 substances, porn (all too often), and consumption/hoarding. True medicine is waking up to wetiko reality even though it’s the scariest thing that can be imagined, and committing to staying awake. And then, in spite of it, choosing to spend every day in love, gratitude, awe, and ecstasy, and acting from there instead of from the fear. One does simply walk into Mordor, because there’s no other way.

I think this quote from one of Christina Pratt’s Why Shamanism Now? podcasts (unfortunately I don’t remember which one, so just listen to all of them), sums it up perfectly:

“If you want to call Trickster in, and that’s the only way to change the world, you’ve got to love it all, and give up your stories.”

So during our conversation, I opined that we live in a society so diseased, so collectively psychopathic, that its values are lies and slavery and our so-called “leaders” are effectively all evil. It’s Kali Yuga. But such times are the times that make heroes, and those of us who are aware can choose to start dreaming better. We Cassandras, the canaries in the coal mine, must put up with being branded lunatics, and still keep speaking our truths. Now is the time; today is the day. Start where you are. The good news is it’s up to us; the bad news is it’s up to us.

My friend said my worldview is dark. My roommate says that too.

I can’t deny my interior world is a little nuts, as I’m going through a rather sped-up initiation process (making up for lost time), which, if you have been there, you probably know is kind of like tripping balls 24/7. But goddamn, it’s beautiful. It’s gracious, it’s glorious, it’s ecstatic, it’s scary as hell sometimes, but it is anything but dark–if by dark you mean unduly cynical. If by dark you mean deep and vast and star-dazzled and mystical, well then, yeah, that’s a fair cop. I get many laughs and some tears from the irony that I probably enjoy more hours of pure bliss in a day with this “dark” worldview than my less cynical friends. But ever since I was a little kid, I have been a teller of unpopular truths. Why stop now?

Consider:

  1. There can never be equality in a socio-politico-economic system designed and predicated upon inequality. Our “leaders” are not only not our saviors, but insatiable wetiko pied pipers leading us deeper into danger. You have to be the change you want to see in the world, not vote for someone else to be it. Related to this: Resist the tyranny of lowered expectations. When you’re in a shithole, stop digging. Stop opting for the least worst and start supporting only what really aligns with your values.
  2. Consume less and think small. Maybe some source of unlimited renewable energy will be found/invented; I’m not holding my breath. We’ve been promised that some magical technological bullet was just around the corner, and for the past 50+ years, as far as I can tell all we have gotten is fancier toys and some increased convenience. That’s wetiko thinking. Whether such renewables are found or not, we need to start living as if the planet’s resources are as finite as they seem. Also, stop identifying with bullshit abstractions like nations or trans-national globalization and start identifying with your local community. Is progress real? I’m highly skeptical, but what is certain is that we have a hell of a lot of remedial work to do before we find out.
  3. Abandon the farce of philosophical materialism. Get right with the spirits. And for that matter all the other beings around us, whom we need to start recognizing not only as sentient, but as kin.
  4. Love it all and give up your stories. Dream lucidly. A heart filled with gratitude and love is the only medicine against wetiko psychopathy. From both permaculture and human history we learn that edges are the places of greatest abundance, diversity, and creativity–make room for the Tricksters there so someone else doesn’t do it for you.

These are my provisional prescriptions, and pretty much the point of everything I find myself saying these days. This is the advice I’d give my friend; I’m not sure she’s ready to hear it, but what the hell, maybe I will anyway. Do these sound “weird,” “dark,” or “cynical”? They seem pretty optimistic to me.

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A glimmer of coagula

For the past year or so, it’s been all solve and no coagula for me, but I think I’m finally beginning to get a vague sense of solidity. I imagine it like the first dream of the benben stone coalescing within the chaos of Nun, just a slightly denser bit of void, or a twinkle in Atum’s eye. I don’t yet know what shape it will take or whether I will alight upon it, and whatever I write about it at this early stage will probably be embarrassingly rambling, clumsy, and naive. Yet it seems like a good time to try and thrash it out.

At this moment peace of mind is hard to come by, and I look back on easier times and think what I wouldn’t give for a little equanimity. (“Serenity now!”) But just realizing that I want peace of mind actually gets me a little closer to it. Meanwhile, I think magic is becoming more of an ontology for me than a practice per se. Being such a newbie, I never had what you’d call an intensive or adept magical practice, but at any rate, right now simply living magically in an entangled universe is enough. Spells, rituals, offerings, incantations, what have you are all complications I can’t deal with.

serenity now

A question has been bouncing around in my head, not really a question so much as a contrast, between seeking to experience and be in the world with as little abstraction or analytical overlay as possible (i.e., gnosis as I understand it) and seeking to actively participate in the shaping of the world according to one’s desires through magic. Far be it from me to tell you your business, but for me the latter is dependent on the former. My biggest struggle when it comes to magic (as a practice) is that I perceive the universe to be thoroughly entagled, an Indra’s Web, and my mind as I have always known it is a pitifully inadequate tool for navigating such a reality. When I have taken action to improve the circumstances of my current incarnation I get a lot of synchronicities in response that suggest my tiny actions are having bigger effects, and yet I suspect that it may be more due to the change in my consciousness than to the specific actions themselves. (Paging Dion Fortune…) Which is not to say that magic is only about intent or (gods forbid) vibrational level; but perhaps in spite of myself I leveled up in terms of gnosis. It’s just one metaphysical proposition among many, but the only ontology that has ever really made sense to me is that embodied human life as we know it is a virtual reality, or a dream. Occasionally we get a glimpse of the programmers’ code, or half wake up for a moment, but mostly we mistake it for the only and ultimate reality. I see no reason not to dream lucidly and make your incarnational circumstances as enjoyable as possible, but after glimpsing that code (mixing metaphors, sorry), I don’t know…it just feels a little hollow. (Cats in libraries indeed.)

I’ve been reflecting on how I got here, in case it gives me any idea of where I’ll end up next. I often read that the practice of magic is all about power, or at least about self-determination, but what brought me to this point was just the desire to see more of that Code. From an early age I sensed aspects of reality that I felt certain were real but which I couldn’t quite grasp or directly interact with. One form this took was ghosts, another was some kind of mental communication with someone or something who knew things I didn’t, another was apparently feeling others’ emotions. Mainstream ontologies insisted this unseen world didn’t exist, but I knew that was bullshit and became convinced that the unseen was realer than “reality.” I read a lot of mythology and folklore trying to learn more about this elusive Otherworld. When I was about 12 I started making an active effort to communicate with it. I got my first tarot deck. Come to think of it, it might have been some other unique cartomantic deck. I can’t for the life of me remember what it was called, but it had Egyptian deities and the backs of the cards were orange. I saw it behind the counter at Tower Books (aging myself) and eyed it furtively for a long time before finally getting up the courage to ask the cashier to get it out for me, and my mom for money to buy it. In the end I couldn’t make much sense of it, but I had been bitten by the divination bug. I tried my hand at runes, and had especially good success with Yijing (I Ching) casting. A few years later I started with astrology.

We moved to a part of the country with a mostly Latino population and I became interested in curanderismo, but didn’t have any obvious way into that community. At the same time my aunt and cousin kind of got into Wicca. It was all intriguing but I remained an outsider looking in. In retrospect I realize that what I wanted, and what I needed in order to commit, was some kind of incontrovertible response from the Other side. I guess ghosts weren’t enough. I didn’t want power, what I wanted was to have faith. All I knew was, I sure as hell didn’t want to be in the driver’s seat, but I was desperately hoping somebody was. The reality I knew as a teenager was not something I dreamed of controlling, but of escaping. Had I known more about Gnosticism at the time, I probably would have gotten really into it, as I understood the Black Iron Prison at a visceral level.

Anyway, fast forward, I found a copy of The Teachings of Buddha in the nightstand drawer in a Los Angeles hotel and kept it, delved into Buddhist and Advaita philosophy for several years, and had my first encounters with Shinto, got disenchanted by science, made a decision to re-enchant. But now I didn’t want to escape the world but to engage with it more fully. I was still trying to read the code but coming at it from a different angle. Strangely, the virtual world became more poignantly beautiful to me once I had had some incontrovertibly real experiences of the Otherworld.

Would (neo-)paganism get me closer to it? I wondered. No. It lacked an ontology/cosmology/theology that was as concrete as my experiences of the Other, and all these pantheons of gods and goddesses of this or that abstraction, or worse yet “the” God and “the” Goddess, just didn’t feel real. While I’ve always accepted polytheism as the most likely scenario, I struggle with understanding what a theos is. Even now, my experiences with “deities” take two forms–either I have a sense of something like a manner-of-being-or-doing-with-its-own-awareness, or of a very specific and usually very localized powerful noncorporeal entity, similar to the concept of kami in Shinto, which is why Shinto appeals to me so much.

To take a concrete example, Hermes. There’s much talk across these magical internets about trickster deities, among them Hermes, and if you look at his list of attributions he’s certainly a god for the modern age. But the only Hermes I have ever experienced I can sort of approximate as a conscious liminality which is also an Axis Mundi that can be traveled between worlds. Hermes to me is (for lack of a better term) a state of awareness, a mode of experience and of being-in-the-world. Not a god of thresholds, but a conscious Thresholdness. It’s very hard for me to think of making offerings or petitions to Thresholdness, to Liminality. I can’t dial “him” up like a person (I tried); the closest analogy I can think of is it would be more like temporarily plugging into another dimension. It’s that vast. This being doesn’t speak to me in words; “he” simply is present or not present in any given quality of experience. I can’t help but think that maybe people in antiquity had a similar experience, given that, as I understand it, Hermes basically means “Boundary-Marker.” Although not the same being, my experience of Shiva has been very similar in type. I realize the irony as I type this, because language forces me to render this in terms of the very abstractions I’m trying to avoid, yet the experiences are quite concrete.

This way of relating to powers feels very primitive (in the phylogenetic sense of ancestral, of the root) to me, free-form and highly individual in a way that we commonly shorthand as “shamanistic.” However, absent the community service part of the job description, I can’t call myself a shaman. Still, I find this freedom and individuality really appealing, and authentic, and grounded in a way that, for the moment, requires further exploration. It feels like Code. So in practical terms I find myself cycling back to my entry point into magic, meditation. But instead of a discipline it’s now a reprieve.

What scares me

scared egg

There are a lot of things that scare me: heights, water (especially when I can’t see to the bottom), having a job, not having a job, bankruptcy, homelessness, rape, relationships, commitment, having my teeth knocked out, losing my hair, rejection, being buried alive, making people unhappy, causing a car accident, choking to death alone…basically I am a chickenshit. I manage to soldier through in spite of myself, but I always worry the next time will be the time I lose it and just can’t go on. Ironically people often perceive me as strong and then lean on me, which causes me to buckle under the strain–or more often, freak out and run away before I can buckle, and, well, that’s probably a big part of why relationships are on that list. I barely have enough backbone for myself, let alone two people. But I digress.

But lately what fills me with existential dread is the idea of trying to get to know this inspirited landscape in which I live from scratch, without the benefit of myths, folklore, names, or pre-fab religion.* Our ancestors did it, sure, but we don’t have the same cognitive faculties they did. Our fundamental neurological wiring is probably the same, but the effects of environment and upbringing are quite different. It’s often been repeated that in brain studies of Tibetan monks or other experienced meditators, their brains work differently from the general population. I remember one study in which the researchers made some loud noise next to (I think it was) Matthieu Ricard while he meditated, and his brain–even the limbic lizard brain–didn’t register any startle reaction. It has also been remarked that different cultures perceive, e.g., distance very differently. The below explanation by John Michael Greer sums that up neatly:

“The example I have in mind is borrowed from Oswald Spengler, and it has the immense advantage of absolute simplicity: the representation of distance. In Western painting from the Renaissance straight through to the present, art that attempts to look like what it portrays—realist art—represents depth by way of linear perspective. The shapes of what’s being portrayed are canted and slanted, angled and foreshortened to fit our way of representing space; lines converge on one, two, or more vanishing points that represent infinite distance. Learning how to draw those lines and fit images to them is an important part of becoming a realist artist in our society, because to us, an image that doesn’t follow the rules of perspective doesn’t look real—that is, it doesn’t represent reality the way we do.

This all seems very straightforward until you notice that no other civilization in all of human history has used linear perspective in its visual art. The traditional painting styles of China, Japan, and other east Asian societies use a different kind of perspective—atmospheric perspective, which works by fading out colors of distant objects—and so get a different sense of depth, one that people from Western societies find exotic. Most other traditions of visual art don’t use any kind of perspective at all, and many of them—the art of ancient Egypt is a good example—avoid the experience of depth entirely…

The Egyptians had the geometrical chops necessary to lay out a scheme of linear perspective, and they certainly had the artistic skill to do it. That’s just as true for the Chinese, the ancient Greeks, and all the other cultures around the world who developed rich, realistic, highly capable traditions of painting but never saw any reason to use our kind of perspective. Art historians by and large flounder when they try to explain why it is that something that’s so obvious to us eluded the eyes and imaginations of so many other people for all those millennia, but the reason’s quite simple, really: people in these other times and cultures didn’t see distance the way we do, because the representations they created in their minds didn’t look like ours.”

Practice also influences the acuity of your senses, as for example when a blind person develops acute hearing and smell because they rely more on those senses in the absence of vision. The point is that your mental/cognitive capacities are shaped by the uses you put them to. If we had all grown up in a culture where animism was the dominant philosophical paradigm (rather than materialism), we would be much better able to perceive the life and the spirits active in the world around us.

For some reason, this concept seems to cause extreme cognitive dissonance for some people. It’s a bit mystifying to me because I think it’s self-evident–there’s more than one way to construct a world, and they all work to varying degrees. The variability in their efficacy seems to have a lot to do with how adaptable they are, because the ecological conditions of which they are a part are constantly changing. If your worldview, say, drives you to destroy your home planet’s atmosphere, we could say that it is less than efficacious. (We might also speculate, then, that such a worldview will either adapt or die; but that’s a topic for another post.) But I guess having holes punched in your worldview is the fastest way to get on the 8th-9th house rollercoaster, and to be fair, it is a scary ride.

I’m aware of changes in my mind that started when I went to college and became concretized over a dozen or so years of postsecondary education. Prior to that time, I was an avid artist: I drew and painted in every free moment. I doodled through all my classes and doodled through my lunch break; doodled when I got home from school until I went to bed. I had a burning need to express myself through visual art, and when I was interrupted or prevented from doing it I got very irritable. (Artistic temperament + teenager = no fun for anybody.) The subject matter of most of these drawings and paintings were characters from myths and folktales, and each one was a portrait of a distinct individual. I never knew in advance what they would look like; their appearance unfolded as I drew. I used to say they drew themselves.

From my very first year in college I suddenly found myself unable to draw. Or rather, if you had given me an assignment to draw something, I could do it rather competently (I drew many stone tools, artifacts, and bones in my archaeology classes, for example), but I had no inspiration, no passion. I have never regained that artistic inspiration. Occasionally I get an idea to draw something, but when I can even talk myself into starting–my skill is not up to the task, and knowing the finished product will never live up to my vision, I usually can’t bear to begin–I end up abandoning the project before I finish, when it becomes obvious that it has failed to live up to my hopes. When I was a teenager, art wasn’t about how well the finished product matched the original vision, it was that I couldn’t not do it. Often there wasn’t much of a vision at all–it was more like hand-eye channeling.

After spending a dozen years (about 25 if you count my whole educational career) engaged primarily in non-fiction reading and writing, I’ve gotten pretty good at that, but in retrospect I don’t think the cost of my art-channeling was worth it. In addition I’ve developed some personality traits/habitual thought patterns that are annoying: in particular, I became very defensive. I had bulleted mental lists of anticipated counter-arguments to my ideas, and bulleted mental lists of counter-counter-arguments. One also tends to become an increasingly dogmatic and conservative thinker. Academia is extremely hierarchical and tradition-bound; you have to follow the rules to get ahead (although there’s enough of an element of favoritism, backstabbing, and sudden shifts in intellectual fashion to keep things unpredictable). You know your every idea will be attacked just as a matter of course, and that you must always be prepared to give supporting evidence. Now I believe everyone should be able to articulate the reasons for their opinions–if only because it makes for better conversation–but being that defensive is frankly sick. And it makes you kind of an asshole. (My housemate/best friend, a professor and scientist, does this to me all the time and sometimes it makes me want to gut punch her.) I think I’ve gotten over that, for the most part, but it takes conscious effort and intent.

My longwinded point is that through specific patterns of use, I’ve gained certain mental abilities (e.g., logical analysis, science writing) and lost certain mental abilities (everything else). I am now dedicated to regaining some of those lost capacities, but one of my greatest terrors is that I’ll never be able to. I’m no spring chicken, and my mind’s not as elastic as it once was. Huge tracts of brain appear to now be permanently dedicated to ’80s song lyrics. Even if I live another quarter century I’m scared that it won’t be long enough to unlearn all the bullshit.

As I argued previously, I feel that we North Americans of European descent have to start from scratch in getting to know Turtle Island and its denizens, but we can’t even do that without first retraining our brains. (Africans seem to have adapted much better to life in the Americas, and I imagine it was at least partly due to the fact that they arrived without Age-of-“Enlightenment” mental baggage. They already had spirit-recognition skills, and that plus dire necessity forged some incredibly vital and powerful spiritual and magical traditions. I would be curious to learn more about the experiences of Asian-Americans in this regard.) I am as convinced as I possibly can be that our minds are not the same thing as our brains, yet our minds have to use our brains to operate our meatsuits, so there is some kind of feedback loop there. Even if I’m wrong about that, my own experience says that minds have to be trained just as much as brains do.

I realize this is why a lot of people use entheogens. I’m not arguing against entheogen use, and I’m aware they are used even by societies that don’t suffer from our particular set of cognitive limitations; but I don’t think they are a substitute for liberating your mind from the Black Iron Prison that is Western scientist-nihilist-capitalist-materialism and the inculcation of obedient-little-worker values. They are a useful tool but not sufficient unto themselves.

Damn. I meant for this to be a short post. I guess I had more to confess than I realized.

 

*I am trying to research the Native lore of this region, but there doesn’t seem to be very much, at least not that is accessible to white folk. It seems the colonists did an extra thorough job of wiping out the people here.

Mythic reality?

pareidolia-peppers-l

“Myths are things that never happened but always are.”

–Sallustius, 4th century AD

 

“A mythology is a system of affect-symbols, signs evoking and directing psychic energies. It is more like an affective art work than a scientific proposition.”

–Joseph Campbell

 

“If you think this is ‘mere’ fiction then fuck you, you’re already lost. It is Mythic, and Myth is probably the only eternal thing.”

Gordon White

I’ve always had a certain fondness for Gnostic philosophy–not that I’m any kind of expert on the subject–but I don’t hold with it 100%. I realize, in fact, that there was a lot of diversity among so-called Gnostics and their beliefs, so it may be that I am inadvertently reinventing a philosophical wheel that some fringe group of them wore down to the nub 2000 years ago. I imagine I could be down with a neo-Gnostic revival of some sort.

The points on which I diverge from the Gnostics are principally these: (1) though I like some other aspects of Neoplatonism, I don’t share the Neoplatonic cosmology of hierarchical emanations from the Monad; I think I’m just too antinomian to like anything hierarchical. (2) I don’t think spiritual = good and material = bad, for so many reasons. My understanding is that not all Gnostics held this opinion but it does seem to have been common. And (3) while I basically agree that what we perceive, or interpret, as “reality” is anything but, I don’t necessarily think it has to be viewed as an archonic prison. It certainly can be, and I think for those who never worry about the nature of reality, it becomes a prison by default. But, at least hypothetically, could it not also be a university, or a temple, depending on how one approaches it?

It’s this last point that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

For many years, I have felt that our “reality” is virtual, sort of like a flight simulator. I’m not sure where I came by the idea, but it was before The Matrix came out. It was really more an intuition than an idea, I guess. Who might be running the simulation, or why, I don’t know, and have always figured I wouldn’t be able to understand anyway. Ever since I was a kid there has been a “voice” that periodically drops a little mind-bomb on me that changes my way of thinking about reality, and I think this was one of them. (I don’t know who or what that voice is; I don’t hear it externally, and it sounds like my inner monologue except that it knows, or claims to know, things I don’t.) I imagine there is probably a real reality within which the virtual reality exists–which may be what we experience when we have numinous encounters–but I don’t think most people access it, and when we do, it’s pretty much ineffable.

These are working hypotheses, or operating assumptions. They’re in a state of perpetual beta testing. I know I’m only seeing shadows on a cave wall here, but at the same time, I have to admit that this model makes so much sense to me on a deep level, feels so right and natural, that I find it hard to get outside of it.

Another bit of information passed on to me by the voice in my head is that what’s most important about your life are your relationships. Not in the romantic sense, or at least, not only in that sense; but the way it was presented to me–if I can find the right words for it–is that the interactions with other conscious entities are the only thing in this virtual reality that is really real (albeit not necessarily in the way you perceive them to be from within virtual reality). Each of us has our own virtual reality, but our relationships are nexus points where our data set expands. These, then, are opportunities to break out of prison. This would also apply to our relationships with non-physical beings, of course, and those are arguably even better opportunities to break out of prison because when we experience the numinous or ineffable, it’s like we get a peek at the coding of the virtual reality program. When you recognize that code for what it is–a script, a text–it blasts you out of imprisoning concepts of reality.

Recently I was having what passes for a conversation on the internet, i.e., talking past each other, and I was finally able to put into words an idea that has been nagging at me lately. Our seeming realities are not so much virtual as mythic. I mean, I don’t know about you, but my “reality” behaves like an affect-symbol system. When I ask myself, for the sake of intellectual rigor, whether materialistic models of the universe might not be accurate, I cannot find any rational way for a purely material universe to produce the amount of meaningful patterns and coincidences that I experience.

In Chris Knowles’ latest two posts, he proposes that synchronicity is “misdiagnosed psi”:

“Now, ‘Synchronicity’ is a useful term in some settings– a kind of accepted shorthand for discussing unusual experience– but in others too often becomes the dinnerware we take out for guests but rarely use for ourselves. It’s a kind of quasi-scientific window dressing on a reality that our forebears understood as magic or religious phenomena….Hence you get the whole idea of acausality, a split-the-difference notion which tends to alienate both believers and skeptics. I don’t think meaningful coincidence is acausal, do you?

(Emphasis is original but I removed some bolding at the beginning.) Indeed I do not believe meaningful coincidence is acausal. Of course the inevitable counter-argument is that the coincidence is not meaningful; but after a while, it gets awfully hard to explain away even just the volume of coincidence in a human life, let alone what makes those coincidences feel meaningful. To quote Knowles again, “Coincidences happen all the time. They are the latticework that underlies the whole of Creation.”

Another thing I’ve been thinking about, and it’s something I want to write about in greater detail but the ideas aren’t quite ripe yet, is pareidolia. (That link goes to the Wikipedia page, and let me just take this opportunity to say I in no way endorse the opinions of Wikipedia editors, but they usually follow the latest hegemonic paradigms, so are a good summary of consensus reality.) Pareidolia is a skill that I have taken to practicing in order to hone the ability. The notion that pareidolic percepts–or pareidolica, as I call them–are generated from random data is an assumption that, as far as I know, has yet to be tested. I guess those data are as random as anything else in “reality,” which I suspect is not at all. Which is not to say that every percept is “real”–are those bell peppers really freaking out?–but that doesn’t mean it’s not a useful skill to have in your magical toolkit.

silver-gilt square-headed brooch from Grave 22, Chessell Down, Isle of Wight. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 6th century.
Silver-gilt square-headed brooch from Grave 22, Chessell Down, Isle of Wight. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 6th century.

Back in 2001, two Norwegian archaeologists, Lindstrøm and Kristoffersen, wrote an article that was very influential in helping me wrap my head around the cognitive and consciousness differences among cultures. The article’s central premise is that Migration Period animal-style art–the complex, interlaced beasts that adorned metalwork of the broadly Germanic and Nordic world during the so-called Dark Ages, including what we think of as “Celtic” knotwork–constitutes mythic hypertexts. These texts superficially look like visual gibberish but become legible, that is, their hidden pictures emerge, to a viewer in a light hypnotic or trance state. Those who were skilled in achieving such an altered state of consciousness could act as interpreters or mediators for less skilled viewers, or those not able to see the texts. (Not everyone could access the texts closely, because this style of metalwork is found on items limited to the very wealthy, primarily mature women of the chiefly class.) Conversely, contemplation of these representations also helped to induce the necessary state of consciousness, meaning these art objects were not only texts but tools. So an ability to achieve a trance state would have been a valorized talent among elite women, which fits with what we know about the social role of seiðr among Norse women.

Now, a trance state might indeed render animal-style art hypertexts legible–I really wonder whether Lindstrøm and Kristoffersen tried it themselves–but so would skill in pareidolia. From my own experiments, I can say that one’s ability to perceive pareidolica does improve with practice. It if were socially validated, e.g., if the person who spots Jesus in a tortilla is hailed as a seer, I can only imagine it would enhance one’s motivation to practice. In short, I think one gets better at spotting omens and synchronicities (and perhaps also other subtle environmental cues from animal tracks to facial expressions). In short, I suspect it is one of a number of skills including, but not limited to, lucid dreaming and meditation, that make one better at spotting the code that underlies “reality.”

Maybe it’s because of where my attention is focused that it seems there are just too many life events that look as if they are following a mythic script to be random. I know too well what the counter-arguments would be: that pareidolia is illusion, as is the meaning attached to coincidence; that myths are based on human behavior and perceptions and therefore of course human lives look mythic; that I shouldn’t be listening to the voices in my head. Am I reading into reality? Like all my other hypotheses about reality, these remain in perpetual beta. But I propose that pareidolica and synchronicity are also “affect-symbols, signs evoking and directing psychic energies.” In my experience, there is a phase in magical learning where you have to accept everything as real before you can learn how to distinguish signal from noise, and learning to read and write mythic code is no different. It’s part of undrinking the Kool-Aid of materialism. But I have to say, if I may compare my life’s text to literature, my life pre-magic was Harriet-Carter-catalogue-beside-the-toilet and my life now is Shakespeare.

When the map draws the territory

Are there infinite parallel universes, and if so, do we move between them? Does the universe shape itself to meet our expectations? Does the territory determine the map, or the map the territory?

Thanks to The Daily Grail’s news briefs, I recently learned about something called the “Mandela Effect.” The term describes a phenomenon where large numbers of people remember past events that never happened, and takes its name from one of these alternate memories, that Nelson Mandela died in prison in the 1980s, prompting riots in Africa. What separates these alternate memories from just misremembering or being ignorant of history is (1) they are shared, down to the details, by thousands of people; and (2) for the people who have them, the memories are often embedded in the social matrix of their lives–they remember the discussions they had with others about the events, for example–and consequently, questioning these memories means questioning all the memories they are embedded in. It’s not easy for them to dismiss the memories as just an error.

Berenstain Bears

There are many of these alternative histories–here is a list–and it so happens that I share one of them. I remember having some children’s books featuring the The Berenstein Bears. I can remember my mom reading them to me, and I remember she pronounced the name Bear-en-steen. (She says she remembers it the same way. I specifically asked her to tell me how the name was spelled, and she said B-E-R-E-N-S-T-E-I-N.) Then I can remember, when I was a little older, wondering if it shouldn’t be pronounced Bear-en-STINE, since after all it appears to be a Germanic name. I started reading at age 3, I could read cursive from at least the 1st grade (the Berenst#in Bears name is always written in cursive script), was always a really good speller, and I read and re-read many times a Berenst#in Bears book in which the daughter has her first day at school. For some reason I really connected empathetically with that story. So I know I saw the word myself and am reasonably confident I would have remembered the spelling correctly. But as an adult I started hearing it pronounced Bear-en-STAIN, and assumed it was just an idiosyncratic pronunciation of Berenstein. When I first saw it written BerenstAin, I assumed it was a misspelling based on that idiosyncratic pronunciation. Later, I thought that, as implausible as it seemed, maybe I had just been mistaken in thinking it was spelled BerenstEin. Now I find out there are many, many other people out there who, like me, remember reading The BerenstEin Bears books as kids.

I am not the least bit surprised, with our incompetent educational system in the process of melting down and the shocking level of ignorance about history among the general public, that lots of people in the would be in error about many facts. Many of the alternative memories listed at Mandela Effect sound to me like things that might have been easily mis-heard, misspelled, etc.–for example, was the Sara Lee jingle “Nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee” or “Nobody does it like Sara Lee”? I remember trying to figure out what that jingle was saying years ago when it was current. I couldn’t make out the words either way, I’m still not sure what it was supposed to be saying, so it’s easy to imagine people might have heard it one way only to find out later it was in fact the other wording all along. Reece, author of the Wood between Worlds blog, points out that many of these Mandela Effects center on things that happened far away. Americans are not exactly known for our in-depth knowledge of contemporary African cultures, so it’s not entirely surprising that a lot of us assumed Mandela died as soon as he stopped being talked about all the time on CNN. Besides, memory is notoriously unreliable (cf. the classic example of eyewitnesses in criminal cases). And sometimes there really are alternate versions of things. Maybe ten or twelve years ago, my mom and my aunt (separately) watched the movie How Green Was My Valley (1941) on TV. Neither had seen it in decades. They both were perplexed that it had a different ending than they remembered from when they saw it in the theater as kids. It turns out that two different endings were made, one bleak ending that follows the book, and one happy ending for 1940s American tastes which was shown in theaters when my mom and aunt were young. On TV a decade ago, they showed the depressing cut. But in that case, the existence of two endings is historically attested, so my mom’s and aunt’s confusion could be easily resolved.

Indeed, nothing would surprise me less than to find out that Hollywood would change their stories (e.g., the titles or endings of movies–the subject of many Mandela Effect claims) and then blatantly deny it. Same goes for Madison Avenue, politicians, 24-hour news networks, and sadly, a lot of scientists. What really blows my mind is that so many others (ostensibly half a million people in the case of the Berenst#in Bears) have the same seemingly mistaken memories, even in cases that don’t seem like simple misunderstandings, and that many of the memories revolve around the kind of trivial details that never make it into the history books. Needless to say (but I’m saying it), the implications for how we understand history, memory, magic, divination, and the entire nature of the universe are huge. Because if these alternative memories aren’t just mistakes, it means that the change happens retroactively, to rewrite history so that the bears were always BerenstAins all along.

I think all of us who are not reductionist-scientistic-materialists are pretty accustomed by the time we reach adulthood to constantly being told we’re wrong, and to never seeing our metaphysical perspectives represented in official statements on reality (e.g., in school, government, etc.). It’s annoying, but not exactly a surprise. I wonder if this makes us a little less easily convinced that we just remembered wrong? Maybe we’re just a little bit more likely to say, I know what I know. But the Mandela Effect doesn’t only happen to us weirdos.

The usual proposed explanations for the Mandela Effect include: (1) everyone with counterfactual memories is just wrong; (2) parallel universes, in which it is apparently possible to move from one universe to another and never realize it until somewhere down the road, some little detail doesn’t match up; and (3) paradox caused by time travel within the same universe (think Quantum Leap). I don’t find any of these remotely persuasive and I have my own hypothesis.

I suspect that the Mandela Effect is like synchronicity, in that the significance is all in how it affects the experiencer. In other words, it might look like coincidence (or ignorance, or credulity, or faulty memory…) to the outside observer, but the person having the experience knows what they saw and their world is a little unraveled when they find out they were “wrong.” They are forced to question not just the experience itself but the entire context they remember around the experience. I’m sure some people are just mistaken, probably 99 out of 100, but if even one of us is right, how do we explain it?

I am not impressed by the parallel universe model. That idea has a lot of currency in our culture because it’s such a standard sci-fi trope, and that’s why I think it’s easy (and lazy) to fall back on that explanation. But the multiverse model doesn’t actually explain anything (beyond apparent wave-function collapse) and it’s impossible to support or falsify because it makes no predictions that can be tested. Theoretically, these many ‘verses should be reducible to, subsumed within, some larger thing (megaverse?), and that then puts me right back to wondering what the unified theory might be that would explain both parallel universes and the apparent slipping between them. Not to mention, if people can slip between universes, why couldn’t some of the books that said BerenstEin? Over to Reece:

“As it is popularly understood, Everett’s model [the Many-Worlds hypothesis] seems more like what the Mandela Effect is describing.  They both revolve around these worlds of counterfactuals.  However, at a deeper level, Everett’s model isn’t like the Mandela Effect at all.  Everett’s model deals with quantum mechanical events.  The death of Nelson Mandela is not a quantum event, and seeing his death on TV is not a quantum observation.  The numbers are also hugely different.  The Mandela Effect’s universes focus on some specific key memories; they don’t even realize the entire space of anthropocentric counterfactuals (where is the universe where Plato never met Socrates?), but just a few specific Mandela events.  On the other hand, Everett’s universe splitting occurs essentially every time two or more particles are made to interact to a certain extent; this is way, way, way massively more universes than we can even begin to really fathom.”

Also:

“The many-worlds interpretation is a scientific theory, and the claims it makes about ‘alternate universes’ are very specific and take a very specific form, and they take a form that is at odds with the idea of jumping universes.  If Universe A were in fact a separate ‘universe’ in the many-worlds sense, then we can’t cross to it from Universe E.”

In other words, why aren’t there Mandela Effects for literally every human experience? I don’t buy the Quantum Leap argument either. (For those who didn’t grow up in America in the 1980s, Quantum Leap was a show about physicist Dr. Sam Beckett, who is bounced around to temporarily occupy other people’s bodies at different times and places, seemingly at the will of an unnamed omniscient force, “setting right what once went wrong.”) But there are a couple of glaring questions: Sam Beckett went back to save people from getting dead or discouraged so they could make Important Discoveries or find True Love and stuff. Why would anyone bother changing the spelling of some children’s books or the lyrics of commercial jingles? I mean I know about the Butterfly Effect but I have a hard time believing the spelling of the Berenst#in Bears had a huge bearing on the future. Our putative time traveler would have to have gone to Ellis Island in the 1890s to change how some immigration clerk transcribed the name of the Family Formerly Known as Berenstein to affect the spelling on the children’s books. It would require deliberate intent, not just an accidental typo (as has been suggested by supporters of this hypothesis). And why do some–but only some–people remember the pre-change version of reality? I literally cannot think of any reason why that would even be possible. It also presupposes either a lot of time travelers or one time traveler who jumps around a lot to make inane alterations, like inserting turkey legs into portraits of Henry VIII. This time traveler would be one jerk of a trickster. (Q, perhaps?) Not to mention, the possibility of time travel has yet to be demonstrated, let alone the creation of technology that would facilitate it.

blue sky

A much more interesting possibility, to my mind anyway, is that our universe–or rather, the parts of it we access with our embodied human minds–is a holographic or virtual reality, in which each person’s reality partly overlaps with that of every other person. (And of course I mean this in a metaphysical, gnostic sense, not in an aliens-created-a-fake-universe-all-for-us sense.) We know this latter part is effectively true because of the influence of subjective experience, and we also know that people from different cultures not only have different worldviews in the conceptual sense, but actually phenomenologically perceive the world differently.  Thus, some perceptions are influenced by consensus while others are not shareable and thus theoretically impervious to consensus. For example, by consensus we all agree that the color of the sky is called “blue,” however, we have know way of knowing whether what I perceive as “blue” is the same as what you perceive as “blue.” Consensus can affect the naming, and even to some extent the actual perception, but it will never be possible to know for sure if the perception is shared and thus it might be totally independent. When we think of consensus though, there is what we communicate through language (e.g., with other members of our culture), but perhaps there is also content communicated in other ways? Something like a Zeitgeist perhaps, or even a Volkgeist, if that’s a word. Is it possible that people “remember” things that did in fact happen, but which the perceiver could not have actually experienced at the time, accounting for experiences like remembering an alternate ending of a film seen in the theater, which alternate ending was never released in theaters but did appear later on the DVD release? Could counterfactual memories be contagious? Or, since time is not actually linear, could people be remembering things they actually haven’t experienced yet, but will in the future? Questions abound.

For my part, the consensus reality of the BerenstAin Bears has nearly got me believing that I really just remembered it wrong. This means that I have the rare opportunity of consciously witnessing the process of my memories being rewritten. Unless I resist it, in a few years I may not only be convinced that it was always BerenstAin, but have forgotten that I ever saw BerenstEin. It’s not only our present perceptions of sensory stimuli that are constrained by our mental models, but also our memories. The map is not the territory, but what’s on the map partly (though not, of course, completely) determines what parts of the territory can be perceived. Which is why it pays to have as big, as weird, and as diverse a map as possible. It also reaffirms that we need to be very careful about how much we let our reality be shaped by consensus, and choose our company wisely.

The Mandela Effect reveals itself to really be an internal Rashomon Effect. The Berenst#in Bears are not a glitch in The Matrix, a government conspiracy, a “John Titor” typo, or a universal switcheroo. They are a secret tunnel leading out of the Black Iron Prison. They are a rabbit hole inviting us to jump in. They rock our world out of all proportion to the significance of the memory because we need to see how easily rocked (because largely fictional and contingent) our worlds are.