This is a long one. A story. A cautionary tale of sorts. It could begin ‘Once upon a time…’ Instead, it goes:
Decades past, a young writer called Philip First had his first novel published. Arguably callow, at times defensively callous, introverted, hyper-sensitive, ill-at-ease, nay, aghast at finding himself in a world that made no sense, he predicted in that novel that humanity was driving hell-for-leather down a slippery slope towards self-immolation.
First had been grappling with being born into a species to which he could find little commonality. A species that exhibited every indication of being collectively insane. To make sense of the senseless he had turned inward. He immersed himself in philosophy, the arts, psychology, mysticism, martial arts, wisdom traditions and esoteric schools of East and West. This was an epoch characterised by unbridled hubris, of humankind pitted against itself and the natural world. Warnings of the consequences were writ large but it was easy to believe at times that no one else saw them. In that century alone the world had known wars more cruel and destructive in scale than anything before. Then the possibility of nuclear annihilation reared as west and east eyeballed each other over walls, razor wire, minefields, watchtowers and a seven thousand kilometre long Iron Curtain. They rattled missiles and crowed about the menace posed by the evil others who dwelt on the farther side of the barriers. New and ongoing wars abounded, biospheric pollution, ecological meltdown, corporate greed, rampant consumerism, man-made famine and drought… everything pointed to a dysfunctional species heading for catastrophe.
First’s first published novel was The Great Pervader. The title came from a work by the 4th century bce Chinese Taoist sage Chuang Tzu. In popular culture he is best known for his dreaming butterfly parable. Ironically, you might say, the era he is believed to have lived in is known as the Warring States period.
As regards the title of First’s novel, Chuang Tzu wrote:
‘My connection with the body and its parts is dissolved. My perceptive organs are discarded. Thus leaving my material form and bidding farewell to my knowledge, I become one with the Great Pervader. This I call sitting and forgetting all things’.
OK. Far from embracing the unitive nature of all things that Chuang Tzu spoke of, First’s Great Pervader explored the unembraceable; a maelstrom of discontent and alienation, an anomie rooted and contagious in the human mind. The Algonquin Cree and other First Nations peoples know it as wetiko, a mass-psychosis or mind-parasite manifesting in the form of a psychic epidemic on a global scale. Its dark kindred spirit is Jung’s concept of the Shadow or possibly what the author William Golding referred to as ‘the terrible disease of being human’. In its essence it’s a disconnection from others, from nature, from self and from the Earth that has given us life – and from the mysterium tremendum, the experience of awe and wonder at knowing ourselves to exist in a universe we cannot hope to fathom.
Hence, in microcosm, First placed a group representative of the human race in a central London apartment. Here they unhappily celebrated the birthday of a bullying, abusive corporate exec. Far below, crowds lit fires, burned effigies and set off explosions in the surrounding streets. Sometimes the explosions were quite fabulous. To a visiting alien, though, it might have seemed that the world was at war with itself. It might have looked like hell.
The fires, effigies and explosions were to celebrate the death of a deluded religious rebel who had endeavoured to overthrow a deluded king and parliament under the misapprehension of a belief system that had implanted in the rebel’s mind the idea that a virgin can give birth and a man can walk on water and anyone who fails to agree should be butchered. As if this wasn’t enough, the unbeliever would then be condemned to spend all eternity being consumed by flames in an imaginary infernal otherwhere.
That’s not very nice.
Oddly, the enemy king and parliament the rebel was trying to overthrow shared exactly the same belief. Both sides were cut from the same religious cloth but wanted to kill each other anyway. And though they didn’t see it, that infernal otherwhere that they called hell bore an uncanny resemblance to the everyday reality they had been instrumental in creating.
In First’s novel, a tale of inhumanity unfurled. Ensnared in a web of doctrines, dogmas, received wisdoms, prejudices, organised or cult religions and ideologies, these sorry reps were powered by inner demons, buried traumas and an internal voice telling them the only way was conflict. (That voice in all its irrationality is scrutinised in depth by the psychologist Julian Jaynes in his snappily titled work The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.) First co-opted this bicameral voice, a voice that brooks no opposition. It is a psychotic monster that denies love, destroys the sacred, directs the self to find fault in others and seek profit at all costs from the natural environment. It knows neither compassion nor empathy, is mindlessly intolerant of difference, tyrannically present and rarely examined. Thus, in a cacophony of re-enacted trauma, violence, sexual abuse and mutual self-destruction, First’s The Great Pervader had humanity hurl itself in near totality from the top-floor balcony as the planet appeared to burn. The few who remained, in a desolated world of their own creation, were the despoilers.
Actually, that last is not quite true. To some degree all of us were complicit. We still are. Some, though, were more invested.
No sugar coating, then.
However, in the midst of the carnage one character knew revelation. The soon to be deceased Richard Pike had unwittingly engaged with a full entheogenic experience. He found himself standing before a shimmering green door and in a moment of epiphany he knew hope. He saw possibility in the understanding that others are not the enemy and that nature, possessed of its own intelligence, has the answer. He was visited by a sudden emergent sense that Life itself is Green. With that revelation the door he faced swung wide and a goddess stepped through. She explained that all did not have to be lost. Imminent disaster might yet be forestalled. But we needed to heed the warnings.
She might have been Cassandra, set to be ignored. She wasn’t. She was Corinne, but she was to be ignored anyway. With the others she was going to die.
Relatively speaking, when The Great Pervader was published the green movement was in its infancy. Decades would pass before the birthing of Extinction Rebellion.
First felt there was little option but to lock horns with the mind-virus and explore that darkness in the hope of navigating a way through. It was a monster to write. Harrowing to read. Heck, it was an ordeal, an auto-da-fe, a merging with all that lurked in the deepest darkest recesses of the human psyche. The violence shocked, the language was weaponised. Humour was casually unleashed to have the reader question his/her own knee-jerk laughter. Emotional toxicity and the bicameral voice dominated.
Some folk were outraged. Some shrieked accusations of gratuitous orgiastic savagery, drug-fuelled indulgence and pornography, which was rather missing the point. It was certainly explicit, but porn’s sole purpose is to stimulate sexual arousal and in his depictions of emotional and physical abuse, distress and resurfacing trauma First was multi-edging, aiming at another emotional reaction. The characters acted in the manner dictated by that tyrannical inner voice. All of them, in some way or other, were slaves to beliefs assumed as knowledge. They mocked the misfortunes of others, disregarded their needs, undermined and denied their capacity to love, to connect, to know peace or appreciate the sheer miracle of being. Belief assumed as knowledge is a dangerous thing.
First considered the book a warning. He framed it as an interrogation of our times, a misfortune-telling that he naively believed people would perhaps shock people into a new awareness, take to heart and act upon.
They weren’t. They didn’t.
But what did he expect, producing something so fucked-up?
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” ― Gospel of Thomas
Well, it was more hope than expectation. He hoped to fix the world.
He planned a trilogy. The next book, Dark Night (of the world’s soul) would begin to reveal the possibility of a way through that psychotic maelstrom by embracing rather than fearing or resisting the unknown. By welcoming uncertainty and the unfamiliar, accepting that we know so little, rather than aligning with false certainties. By a growing sense of Self and the beginning of a realignment with nature. The third book would be a revelation.
So First’s Great Pervader was unleashed by Paladin books upon an unsuspecting world. It garnered little interest, though reviews were not unkind and a couple of producers from BBC and independent tv came sniffing. Nothing emerged from that. Funding, probably. Sales were surprisingly sufficient for a second edition but then the remainder-bin opened its maw.
What that inexperienced writer had failed to grasp all those years ago was that readers don’t pick up novels in order to be bludgeoned to death. They don’t come to your pages to have their beliefs and presumptions torn apart. Underlying falsehood? Looming catastrophe beyond anything they had ever experienced? Not their concern. A young novelist challenging the world to stop all this and be nice to each other? Nah. At least, not when it’s in-your-face.
So the years passed and now here we are, throwing ourselves from the top-floor balcony. Even now the clarion call is for saving the planet when in fact the planet needs no saving. Earth has been evolving for an estimated four-and-a-half billion years and will continue to evolve, with or without us. Homo sapiens (not clear how the sapiens got in there) might have affected a minor alteration of planetary DNA, and the world may burn, but it will continue nonetheless. Nature will reclaim what we leave behind. Perhaps even now the planet is marshalling herself to shrug us into oblivion whilst ensuring that the monkey never again gets to the top of the tree. Humanity may be a pestilence, but a minor one in the universal scheme of things: a species that heeds no warnings, even its own.
Perhaps something as simple as a slight adjustment of the terminology might have virtue. If humanity faces the fact that it’s itself – it’s us – that needs saving, could the instinct for self-preservation kick in? Or, as bewildered citizens of a science-fictional Dystopia, are we still too bonded to the need to consume and find fault?
Feeding hungry ghosts is a Buddhist concept that, in common with wetiko, describes a pattern of addiction and self-aversion that results in the craving to fill an insatiable inner void at all and any cost. And as the human race continues to try to fill that void, time is running out. We need a cure.
Is there a cure? Hmmm…
Encounters in Latin America and elsewhere in recent years with ayahuasca, psilocybin and 5MEO DMT, administered mainly through the agency of indigenous curanderos and medicine spirit guides in rainforest and mountain locations far from the ‘civilised’ world, have shown me that there are greater dimensions of the mind than we commonly experience. Other realities exist that we are part of but largely oblivious to, something far greater than we know. These substances are considered sacraments in shamanic communities. They reveal to us that we have access to other dimensions where consciousnesses and nature spirits exist independent of us. They know us and have the ability to teach us if we are only willing to be taught. To some this will seem like fantasy. It’s certainly a big ask for many to accept the idea that nature has a consciousness and will inform and enlighten us if we allow it.
I am encouraged by the way these natural substances, known for centuries if not millennia by indigenous peoples, can benefit humanity. And, in anticipation of possible shrieks of protest that I’m promoting illegal drug use, it’s important to point out the advances made in recent years by many highly reputable research institutions including Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Imperial College, Greenwich University, King’s College and UCL London, among numerous others. Ongoing trials with these natural substances have repeatedly demonstrated measurable remedial effects on mental illness, depression, anxiety, addiction, PTSD, OCD and more. They can bring about an expanded spiritual awareness. They reveal the means by which we can return to nature and to valuing and loving the world that is our one home. We can realise that we are participants in something numinous and vast and so marvellous that words cannot possibly come anywhere close to describing. They are one means by which we can temporarily leave our material form and become one with Chuang Tzu’s Great Pervader, to then return with a greater understanding of what it will take to save ourselves from ourselves.
Journeys into the depths of the Amazon rainforest or the Andes to participate in shamanic sacramental ceremonies may not be for everyone. Nor are results guaranteed. What is notable, though, is the respect indigenous communities worldwide have for their environment. More, they consider the forest, the mountains, the desert to be their mother. They take from her only what they need and they respond to her with reverence and gratitude. Much can be learned from these peoples.
Inner work confronting the Shadow, confronting wetiko, acknowledging the hungry ghost within, is not an easy journey. The first test lies in the acknowledgement that such phenomena exist. Then it’s about acknowledging that the Earth is the only home we have and it’s our responsibility to respect her. Our survival depends on this. So much destruction has already been wreaked, but might crisis yet be the catalyst for positive change? We are phenomenally inventive, we don’t lack inner resources, we are just largely blind to them. I hold hope that it can be done. Nature is the great healer.
As Martin Ash I devote myself to exploring the mysteries of consciousness. This is at the heart of all my novels. And that young writer, Philip First? He was me. He was I. I was that troubled youth (and that is a nod to KV). I’ve learned a great deal since that time but almost everything I feared back then is coming true. Beware of anyone who tells you they have ‘the Truth’ or ‘the Way’. They are liars, and there’s no shortage of them. There is no One Way. We are diverse but we are one species, struggling to understand itself. We have brought disaster upon ourselves but I want to have faith that collectively we can beat it.
So go well, be safe, love the Earth, experience wonder and awe, involve yourself in the arts, travel if you can, make space for the ineffable, plant trees, don’t fear getting lost, immerse yourselves in the natural world, and be kind to everyone you meet, including yourself. And when darkness closes in, don’t run. And don’t project it onto others or the world. Embrace it. It has something to tell you. And remember, like all things ‘This too shall pass’.
“The object in life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.” Marcus Aurelius
Here are links to a few of the writers and ideas I’ve referenced directly or indirectly in this ramble:
Stephen Harrod Buhner: a writer, explorer and ecologist with an unparalleled relationship with nature and the imaginal realm.
Jeremy Narby: ‘The Cosmic Serpent’ is essential reading for anyone with even a mild curiosity about the nature and potential of ayahuasca.
Dr. Gabor Maté: ‘In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts’ – a deeply compassionate study of the wide spectrum of addiction, disconnection and their underlying causes.
Paul Levy: ‘Dispelling Wetiko’, I haven’t yet read this but it’s considered an authoritative reference on the manifestation of wetiko and how it may be overcome.
Anthony Peake: The Infinite Mindfield – a mind-blowing read, one of many from a foremost thinker of our times.
Julian Jaynes: ‘The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind’.
James Oroc: ‘Tryptamine Palace’ and ‘The New Psychedelic Revolution’ – definitive insights into visionary culture and the potential benefits of entheogens.
Rick Strassman: ‘DMT, The Spirit Molecule’ – an account of the ground-breaking early-nineties study into the therapeutic potential of dimethyltryptamine and its effects on human consciousness.
Elaine Pagels: ‘The Gnostic Gospels’ – authoritative examination of early writings considered heretical and banned by the Orthodox Church.
Kurt Vonnegut: one of the USA’s greatest twentieth century novelists and social commentators.
William Golding: nobel laureate, best known for ‘The Lord of the Flies’.
Martin Ash – oh, yes, how could I forget little old me?
I could add more but I don’t want to swamp you.
And finally, here’s a handy tool to help you steer clear of grasping gurus, shameless shamans and noxious new-agers. https://sebpearce.com/bullshit/