Fear and Loathing on the Playa
What a bad trip taught me about the nature of reality
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What follows is the story of my encounter with an egregore — and/or a schizoid break. This encounter ended with me getting arrested by the police at Burning Man, taken to a jail in (the aptly named) Lovelock, Nevada, where I spent a night in solitary confinement in an orange jumpsuit— my only experience behind bars. This was a number of years ago now.
I realize my esoteric interpretation of this experience can easily be dismissed as delusional. Indeed, it was, no doubt, the direct result of a too-large splash of Albert Hoffman’s potion I licked off my wrist earlier that evening, given to me by a scion of one of the world’s wealthiest families, during a wedding celebration at a plug-and-play theme camp.
It was the night I finally had my version of the Fear and Loathing / Hunter S Thompson shape-shifting alien horror trip. In retrospect, I don’t think my psychedelic portfolio would have been complete without this misadventure. I don’t regret it, even if I am still embarrassed by it.
After writing Breaking Open the Head, I over-indulged in the Romantic pursuit of excess celebrated by William Blake, Arthur Rimbaud, Beat poets, Jim Morrison, and their ilk. I took Blake’s proclamation seriously": “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom… You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.” I sought to field-test Arthur Rimbaud’s ideal of visionary derangement:
“A poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses. All forms of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he exhausts within himself all poisons, and preserves their quintessences. Unspeakable torment, where he will need the greatest faith, a superhuman strength, where he becomes of all men the great invalid, the great criminal, the great accursed — and the Supreme Scientist! For he attains the unknown! Because he has cultivated his soul, already rich, more than anyone! He attains the unknown, and if, demented, he finally loses the understanding of his visions, he will at least have seen them! So what if he is destroyed in his ecstatic flight through things unheard of, unnameable: other horrible workers will come; they will begin at the horizons where the first one has fallen!
At Burning Man that night, I conclusively learned what “more than enough” means, nearly destroying myself in my “ecstatic flight through things unheard of.” The lesson has remained. Hopefully it has brought a level of wisdom I can share with future “horrible workers” seeking the “unnameable.”
Psychedelics are known to be non-specific psychic amplifiers. They take whatever is already inside you and turn up the voltage 10X. Subjectively, one often has the sense that reality bends, ripples, reconfigures itself around your shift in perspective. At the end of this essay, I will offer some theories in support of the perspective that this is, in some way, true.
Soon after the wedding party, I got separated from all of my friends. When you are alone late at night, particularly if you are high, the playa can seem like a soulless carnival. Wandering alone and tripping, I subjectively believed I had been tricked into entering a lower half-dimension, a bardo realm/soul prison that was like a degraded facsimile or simulacrum of Burning Man. Benevolent Burners had been replaced by soul-less NPCs (non-playable characters, like quasi-sentient AIs). The psychedelic had wiped my sense of linear time. I was certain I was going to be trapped in this half-dimension for eternity. In my recollection, I kept stopping people in the empty dust-shrouded desert and begged them to help me get back to Center Camp. They refused to assist me. They dissolved like ghosts — dispersed like mist — as soon I let them go.
After what seemed, subjectively, like many hours, I became increasingly panicked. I forgot I had taken a drug. Finally, I ran into the blazing lights atop a police truck and a group of cops standing by the dance floor of a theme camp. In my confusion, I must have shoved one of them. They put me in handcuffs and took me to the police station on the playa. From there, I was transported to Lovelock.
During my trip, until I woke up sober the next morning, I was absolutely convinced that everyone I interacted with — other Burners who were under arrest, mostly for drug busts, and the police — were alien shape-shifters (“Grey alien” typology). They were, I knew, experimenting on me, playing with my mind. I took the police van ride to Lovelock with a group of busted Burners who seemed like shady, low-grade counterfeits — alien imposters — of the actual festival-goers.
Recollections from psychedelic journeys tend to be very sharp, as if etched into your psyche. I still don’t completely reject the possibility that what I experienced until I came down the next morning, was, somehow, a kind of murky half-dimension or Burning Man simulacrum. A charged field of psychic energy permeates Burning Man. Burners endlessly recount synchronicities, telepathic links, paranormal flare-ups. I have spoken, also, with indigenous ayahuasqueros who say they find it difficult to work with clients who go to Burning Man: Their clients have “psychic crud” in their field which they find hard to clear out.
Certainly, for any materialist or mainstream psychologist, it would be obvious I simply experienced temporary dementia, chemically catalyzed, rather than opening any dimensional portal. I wonder, however, if we might consider certain kinds of breakthrough experiences, whether beatific or horrific (or both), from a “both/and” rather than an “either/or” perspective. When occult episodes or spiritual breakthroughs happen, they seem, in retrospect, over-determined. Yet, at the same time, they are too individual, too unique, to be predictable.
The two polarities of either/or versus both/and correspond to the “first attention” and “second attention,” described by Carlos Castaneda and Antero Alli, among others. Alli writes:
The first attention refers to that awareness linked to language, thinking and the automatic assignment of labels and meanings. The second attention refers to that awareness linked to presence, energy, and phenomena without any assignment of meaning or labels or thinking. Both attentions are important and necessary for different reasons. What we pay attention to informs the content of our minds; how we pay attention informs the quality of our consciousness.
From first attention or ordinary consciousness, I can easily dismiss my experience that night as a sad LSD meltdown. However, from second attention, I sense I got caught in a trap devised by Burning Man’s powerful egregore — an autonomous psychic entity or collective thought-form; “a specific psychic intelligence of a nonhuman nature connecting the invisible dimensions with the material world,” according to Mark Stavish. This entity — or semi-autonomous complex created out of the event’s collective psychic energies — punished me for turning against it in my writing and thoughts. It threw me into a shadowy half-dimension, an underworld, taking revenge.
At the same time, one could just as accurately say that my unconscious created this scenario. But, then, what is the link between the personal and collective unconscious? Is it so easy to say where one begins and the other ends? Or do they bleed into each other?
I have also had many “second attention” experiences that were euphoric, benevolent, and ecstatic. Cumulatively, such events convinced me that our consensus reality is more psychically malleable than we generally imagine. According to Alesteir Crowley, “Magic is the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will.” I think there is something to this — not only the conscious but also the unconscious aspects of our being continuously influence what we experience as reality.
Is it possible that we can, by changing our consciousness alone, directly affect the world around us? Here are three philosophical approaches supporting this idea:
1. Jean Gebser
The philosopher Jean Gebser defined different “structures” of consciousness, each with a different way of perceiving and interacting with time and space. He named these structures the aboriginal/archaic, magical, mythological, and mental-rational. He proposed that humanity is currently racing toward a new structure of consciousness, which he called integral/aperspectival. Gebser theorized that the integral/aperspectival structure of consciousness will be characterized by a more holistic, non-dualistic, and multidimensional understanding of reality. This new structure will synthesize the previous structures, transcending and including their respective insights while overcoming their limitations.
In Gebser's view, magic and its associated practices, such as spell-casting, function within the magical and mythological structures of consciousness because these structures are denoted by a fluid, non-dualistic reality-construct. However, in the mental-rational structure — focused on analytical thinking, quantification, and objectivity — magic would not be effective due to the dominance of dualistic thinking. But something akin to "magic" will work in the integral/aperspectival structure. We will understand and realize it differently than in earlier structures. Integral “magic” will be based on a comprehensive model of reality, incorporating insights from quantum physics, spirituality, and other fields, transcending the limits of the mental-rational structure.
2 Quantum entanglement
We see this transcendence of outmoded mental-rational thought-structures underway in current physics. With quantum entanglement, the properties of two or more particles become linked so that the state of one particle immediately influences the state of the other, regardless of the distance between them. This goes against the classical idea, which assumes that physical processes in a particular location do not depend on the properties of distant objects.
Quantum physics experiments repeatedly demonstrate the universe is “not locally real.” Local realism is deeply rooted in classical physics, which assumes that objects have definite properties and are influenced only by their immediate surroundings. Quantum entanglement defies this intuition, revealing that entangled particles can influence one another's properties instantly, even when separated by vast distances. This phenomenon has been experimentally confirmed through various tests, such as the Bell experiments, which were designed to test the predictions of quantum mechanics against those of local realism.
The implications of the universe being "not locally real" are profound: The nature of reality at the quantum level seems fundamentally different from our everyday experiences and intuitions. It subverts the classical understanding of space and time, as well as entrenched ideas such as causality and locality. In a "non-locally real" universe, the idea of an objective, independent reality separate from our observations becomes untenable: The boundary between observer and observed is blurred.
3. Morphic Resonance
According to Rupert Sheldrake's theories of morphic resonance and morphogenetic fields, nature inherently possesses memory, and forms and patterns in the universe arise from the collective memory of similar systems. According to Sheldrake, morphogenetic fields are non-material organizing structures responsible for the development and maintenance of forms and behaviors in both biological and non-biological systems.
Sheldrake’s idea of morphic resonance suggests that the memory within these fields is cumulative, with each instance of a particular pattern or behavior reinforcing the field and making it more likely to be replicated in future instances. In this framework, the habits of nature are not governed by fixed laws; they are shaped by the collective memory of similar systems.
Assuming that Sheldrake's theories apply to human consciousness, then our thoughts, beliefs, and perceptions would not only be influenced by morphogenetic fields but also constantly influence them. Therefore, changes in human consciousness would contribute to the transformation of these fields. As more people adopt new ways of perceiving and understanding reality, the collective memory within the morphogenetic fields associated with human consciousness could change, potentially affecting fundamental aspects of reality. If Sheldrake is correct, human consciousness is an integral part of the universe, actively participating in the shaping and transformation of reality through our ongoing interaction with morphogenetic fields.
Are there many levels of reality — half dimensions, bardo realms — that we can accessed through non-ordinary states of consciousness or via the second attention? Can such realms become, provisionally, as real as this shared reality in which we find ourselves embedded now? Could an evolved, intentional occult practice — an experiential investigation made by a collective of alert, curious seekers — transform the morphogenetic fields that define the underlying patterns and structures of nature, culture, and cosmos? This is a subject to be explored in my new seminar. I suspect it is worth finding out.