Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Practical Neurology in the Home: Hacking The Default Mode Network

These thoughts come from a conversation with Mike Parker, a qualified Solutions Focused Therapist and originator of Liminal Coaching. In the course of discussing depression and his work we got into what the DMN is about. We are not neuroscientists, but two people whose background is in articulating personal experience and the technologies that we've found useful for navigating the immensity and weirdness of being human. Most of the opinions expressed below are from Mike.

If you suffer from depression, you'll be unpleasantly familiar with the experience of depressive rumination, a state where you tell yourself bad things about yourself and the world and can't stop doing so. If you consume neuroscience interpretations, it's not hard to get the impression that there's a level organization in the brain that is responsible for depressive rumination, that you have a villain in your head. 

This level of neural organization has been called the Default Mode Network. It's supposed to be a pattern of interconnection between different brain regions that is seen on fMRI scans, the brain imaging that highlights neural activity through the variations in blood flow that show up on the scans. The fMRI patterns are the primary data; the rest of what we read about such things are interpretations.

It's easy to read about the DMN and come away with the impression that it's some kind of permanent structure. This is not the case; however, it is a type of complex, multiple interconnection pattern between separate brain regions that shows up consistently enough to get a name. Its appearance is associated with the resting brain, hence the word 'default' in the name. It's a type of configuration that comes up when we're not engaging with the outside world.

It does seem to show up when we are very inwardly focused, and that includes being focused on pain and distress. Research by Alvaro Pascual showed that focusing on a particular scenario caused more and more neurons to be repurposed to that task. This was the first real proof of neuroplasticity in the 90's when it was still considered dubious fringe science.
Another implication of this is that negative rumination can create as much stress, anxiety etc as actual events. This shows up in relatives of holocaust survivors who, unable to stop themselves imagining what their relatives went through, ended up needing treatment for real PTSD.

That's an example of how bad compulsive, negative internal monologue can get, and the DMN has come to be associated with that miserable state.

But it really isn't as simple as that.

The DMN is active in depressive rumination, but not only then. The DMN switches on in a certain mode when we do deep visualisation and scenario creation with our imagination.  That doesn't mean DMN causes negative rumination any more than my TV set being switched on means it is responsible for the show  content. It would be good to see DMN results for people doing focused positive magical visualisation or in positive guided trance. More than one practitioner using trance in treating depression describes it as a negative trance, a powerful imaginative state.

All of this stuff around DMN assumes that somewhere someone has more than the faintest inkling what it's doing. Here are a few examples.

This is an interesting and fun video on how awe actually results in the DMN switching on and people being more right hemisphere focused.

Then there's Social Neuroscientist Matt Liebermann claiming the DMN is only for social thinking, at 10 minutes here. He doesn't explicitly say DMN in this short video but does in his book Social: Why our brains are wired to connect.

So right now the DMN is being positioned as responsible for a number of different things. I think it is a general purpose complexity processing capability in part and probably has a lot of other functions as well. Certainly it turns on in REM and is implicated in memory processing.

My own take (based on theorising to the most inclusive simple explanation) is that it is analogous to general purpose computers. In other words it depends what you run on it as to what it does and it depends which of many possible functions you utilise. So in my own work I use trance and metaphor to do what I see as stimulating a particular kind of symphonic activity. Of course I don't have the huge sums necessary to conduct fMRI or even reasonable EEG studies to begin to support this model in the reductionist paradigm, so rely on the time honoured approach of combining that amount of best science I have the bandwidth for, abductive reasoning, what I can see working, and the ever present knowing that it is all metaphor anyway. If you delve deep enough into any evidence-based scientific statement you will always arrive at imponderables and the limits of the current metaphor.

My main thought about most of this type of research is that it shows really interesting and suggestive correlation that then gets conflated with implied causation in most of the thinking and presentation around the results.

Conversely, in my experience with clients, repeatedly having them build the scenario of their preferred future and what better looks like, prior to using trance (where the DMN is activated) for re-patterning has the corresponding effect. A kind of deliberately engineered positive rumination if you like.

So the DMN is much more than a structure which supports depressive monologue. It is also a much less defined, permanent kind of thing.

I also believe that the DMN is not a constant symphony of just selected brain regions but regions activated and included in the network can differ and the degree to which they are engaged can differ so I think the suggestion that DMN is these areas of the brain linked in this way always is really misleading. I suspect the same is true of what they are calling TPN (Task Processing Network).

I think both these terms are desperate reductionist attempts to freeze and explain the systemic holistic operation of the brain as a result of a few sets of interesting experimental results which suggest to me a vast field of systemic resonant possibilities. I have no doubt that different forms of systemic resonant interlinking across different areas of the brain is correlated with and possibly partly causative of an infinite number of different states of mind.

God forbid, though, that people might be empowered with the idea that they could alter those resonances at will. The internalised edifices of their own oppression might then dissolve and how would anyone have power over them then?

We are looking at something here which is the neural correlate of at least part of our construction of a whole world out of narratives. Access to this level of organization doesn't require exotic technology; we do it all the time in trance, and it is directly available in therapeutic interventions such as Liminal Coaching. As Mike writes in his promo:
'Liminal Coaching works to calm panic, help you accept sudden change, and see new possibilities.
And when you're free of stress, you'll feel free not just to survive... But to thrive'.

You can read more about this at

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

A Crown of Runes and other books by P. D. Brown

P D Brown is an accomplished poet, storyteller and runestone-carver, whose recorded stories are available here. His published poetry includes The Hidden Door. This is a collection of retellings of Old Norse tales; many will be familiar to those who love the Eddas, but you've probably never read them in carefully-constructed modern English that echoes the atmosphere of the original poems.

As he writes in the blurb:
'These retellings are in part prose, in a style of the spoken voice, for they were first composed to be told from memory to live audiences. The rest is narrative poetry, echoing the original use of verse-craft and "painting with the gift of speech".'

Last year he sent me his collection A Crown of Runes. The introduction contains a very brief guide to the three main historical rune rows, and an explanation of the title. The poems in this book follow the Anglo-Saxon futhorc, so they are 33 in number. They are all in sonnet form, which consists of fourteen lines with alternate or more complex rhyme schemes. A set of fourteen sonnets in which each poem ends with the line that will serve as the first line of the next poem is called a crown of sonnets. So the first 28 poems form a double crown of runic sonnets, the final line of the final poem being identical to the first line of the first. Ear, the final rune in the Crown, ends on:
                  A formless force, a power to expand.
- and this is the first line of Feoh.

The sonnet is a longer form than was employed in the traditional rune-poems. This gives the poet space for reflection and PD uses that space to reflect on aspects of the rune that impact on modern life; you may, as I did, recognize your own thoughts in many of these verses. This makes these poems quite unique.

Why is this book important? Because by expanding our idea of how we can write about runes, PD makes them more vivid for us. The Crown shows us a new way of relating to these ancient signposts to mystery, a way which is closer in time and culture to us than are the original, early-mediaeval verses. Such an approach revitalises both the runes and the sonnet form.

I'm glad PD has employed a new typesetter, because, at the expense of picking nits from such fine work, the first e-edition of his Hidden Door collection was marred by a typo right in the title. A Crown of Runes shows no such infelicities, not does his latest collection, Dark Fruit of an Ash, which he sent me during our communications about Crown of Runes. This book is subtitled 'The Pennings of a Ranger-Poet' and this is no idle metaphor; PD really does work as a forest and wildlife ranger in Aberdeenshire.

The outdoor life and love of the seasons and places and living beings, shines through everywhere in this collection. For just one instance, the poem 'On Broadleaved Woodland' follows the seasons of a year, but also the sad tale of a people who are now alienated from the woods:
'We lived there once and never can again'
There's a 'Requiem for a Road-Killed Fox', and a lament for the probably-impending extinction of the mistle thrush, in humanity's inhumane rush to spread our species over every other. Corvids speak to us in these lines - a jay, a crow, jackdaws, ravens and, synchronistically for me in my magical world, a magpie.

These are moving poems. The speech of the ravens may carry your heart away in their carrion claws. These books are all highly recommended for anyone who loves poetry, the land and its beasts, the ancient mysteries and well-told tales.

Monday, 24 February 2020

Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience by M. R. Bennett and P. M. S. Hacker

This book was written by a neuroscientist and a philosopher. I am qualified in neither of those disciplines, so I can't give it a full specialist review. But it was written for the non-philosophical public, especially neuroscientists. I'm sure I'm not on my own in consuming interpretations of neuroscience, so here's my two penn'orth.

Much of what scientists say about neuroscience is highly dubious; that's what this book is about - unpicking the meaningless statements that experts have made. The philosophy author, Dr Hacker, is a specialist in Wittgenstein-style analysis of statements and claims, and he is trying to return the interpretation of neuroscientific data to the terms of lived human experience, so that it actually makes sense in plain English.

I've thought for a long time that there's a lot of nonsense in what are presented as the 'findings' of neuroscience. We get headlines such as 'yes it's true we really do (eg - 'fall in love'; insert here any normal human experience) brain scans show it.' There's an obvious confusion of levels here, and the ideology of such statements is that we know nothing, and science knows all. Embodied wisdom is nothing, scientific discourse everything. Science will eventually know all (with sufficient funding, presumably). The underlying philosophical confusion goes back a long way, to Descartes, usually, and our culture's reluctance to go beyond his substance dualism.

So for instance, in stead of attributing behaviour or thought to a person, the writer attributes it to a brain. They write 'the brain thinks' or 'the brain decides' and so forth. This Hacker rejects as the 'mereological fallacy', the misattribution of the action of a whole to one of its parts.

This kind of thinking is not unrelated to the abyss that reductionism opens into. Not only are superfluous entities rejected, as per William of Ockham, but much of how we frame our experience is chopped away too. This is the kind of thinking that sets up a straw man of 'folk psychology' to slay, this being a false representation of ordinary language grounded in immediate, lived experience.

The most extreme tendency in this discourse is the eliminativism of such writers as Daniel Dennet. Faced with the so-called 'hard problem' of consciousness and its relationship to matter, instead of seeing that this 'hard problem' is an artefact of Cartesian dualism they proceed to deny the reality of anything called consciousness.

Fortunately, most people's minds reject eliminativism as a deeply flawed idea. The mental immune system knows it's nonsense. But because some people are convinced by it, Bennett and Hacker show us how to slay this chimera, by patient analysis of the language used. There's a whole appendix on exactly how Dennett is wrong.

It seems to me that much of the horror of the current culture is based on such anti-human notions, so eliminating eliminativism is an important philosophical task. Bennett and Hacker show that in fact the arguments for eliminativism are so transparently poor that only an ideologue would be taken in.

But that ideology is a terrifying thing, nothing less than the elimination of any respect for human subjectivity. Were it to succeed, it would be the triumph of the Expert, the High Priest of the deepest lies ever told - that your subjective experience is meaningless and irrelevant. Anyone who is not chilled to the marrow by this kind of thinking has simply not looked closely at it.

Such thinkers, the religious zealots of Scientism, want to squash the human world down to a tiny part of its true span, not in the spirit of bringing something up close to examine it - that's good science - but in the spirit of eliminating the rest, the parts that can't be fitted into the Procrustean bed of some dualist theory. This is part of a colonization of inner realities that was well under way with Christianity and continues forward into its offspring, Scientism. This colonization results in the destruction of the personal authority that comes from having a meaningful inner world. Which of course suits those in power.

The authors credit neuroscience interpretations where credit is due, acknowledging that neuroscience is great at neurological interpretations of sickness. This has led for instance to some useful improvements in ideas around depression.

I don't agree with everything these authors write. Their very approach is the sort that can slide into nit-picking, and it seems to me that that is what happened in their discussion on memes. This term was coined by Dennett's co-religionist Richard Dawkins and, although Dennett uses the concept as a tool to eliminate subjectivity, and they rightly criticise this, the term is quite a useful neologism. Also their arguments against a private inner world seem odd; it seems perfectly obvious to me that we do have private mental domains. Maybe I didn't understand what they are getting at.

I've written this review more to get the subject out of my system than to recommend the book. I read it because Alan Chapman recommended it to me after a discussion about the bearing neuroscience has on spiritual awakening, and I'm glad I read it. So I'd only recommend it if the stuff that neuroscience interpreters write annoys you as much as it does me in the way it so misses the point, and you'd like some tools to help them with their confusion, or blow them out of the water.

Sunday, 16 February 2020

Jeffrey Kripal's The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge

In about 1980 one of Robert Anton Wilson's books, I forget which, had a cartoon in it, of a hippie juxtaposed against a scientific looking type. The caption was: Hey man, are you only using half your brain? As an acidhead with a science degree, I liked this; it was part of the drama of early chaos magic, or at least that's how I saw what we were doing, combining the rigour of science with openness to magical experience. For too long, people had either been space cadets who'd believe any old flim-flam, as long as it had shiny bits and rainbows on it, or 'hard-headed' science types, who rejected anything they couldn't measure.

So when I picked this book up (as the result of listening to Kripal interviewed by Gordon White), I was already someone who'd been there, done that and worn out the t-shirt decades before. And I wasn't much impressed with the first couple of chapters, in which he writes about various scientists who'd gone through some epiphany or other, left behind their naïve Scientism and adopted a spiritual perspective. The kind of epiphany that frees the scientist from Scientism he calls the flip, hence the book's title. Sure, these were interesting experiences, but was this to be just another of those books that lists some people's weird moments?

No, it's more than that. A lot more. Kripal shows scientists who continue practising science without the dumb religion of Scientism, in which anything that you can't do in the lab doesn't actually exist, thereby deleting the majority of human experience. And he also shows how their philosophies are breaking new ground, even to the extent of giving us a glimpse of what a future intellectual culture might look like, with neither science nor magic and religion being rejected.

He outlines the ideas of a few key thinkers in flip-world, classifying the extent of their departure from Scientism. The first stop he notes on this journey is panpsychism, which is getting to be quite popular with scientific thinkers - not as the answer to everything but as something considerably more realistic than Cartesian dualism. 

His second stop is dual-aspect monism, in which both matter and consciousness are aspects of a third, deeper principle. This is a philosophical standpoint with a lot of pedigree. It can also be seen as a favoured metaphysics for chaos magic, in that mind and matter both arise from chaos.

His third stop is quantum mind. Now I must confess to being a bit over most of the 'quantum physics = cosmic consciousness' stuff; that was being peddled back in the 1980s too, along the lines of 'Look, quantum physics shows you can believe in magic now!', and the metaphor is getting a bit threadbare. But Kripal follows Alexander Wendt in insisting it's not a metaphor, but that quantum metaphysics can rescue us from the prison of dualism.

His fourth metaphysics is cosmopsychism. He expounds the 'priority monism' of Philip Goff, 'the top-down view that the one and only fundamental entity in the universe is the universe itself, and that all conscious subjects are partial aspects of this more fundamental unified subject.'

The fifth and final, the furthest departure from Scientism, is idealism, the 'position that mind is fundamental and that matter is an expression or manifestation of some cosmic or universal mind.' This is another metaphysics with an ancient pedigree in both Western and Eastern philosophies. This is where it gets exciting. AI researcher Bernardo Kastrup writes of the role of imagination in forming the world:

'... in consensus reality synchronization emerges across the imaginations of multiple conscious entities, so to form a coherent shared picture. The constraints entailed by such emergent synchronization may be what we call the laws of physics. Perhaps the apparently fixed mechanisms of nature are merely an epiphenomenon; an emergent property of the sympathetic harmonization of different imaginations, imagination itself being the true primary substance of reality.'

Now that's my kind of talk. We can continue to do science without being Mr Stupid. Scientism is profoundly dehumanizing; Kripal defends the arts against Scientism's zealots who would relegate the arts to a secondary, unimportant human activity where in fact he shows the humanities to be prophetic in nature:
'In the humanities, the truths discerned almost always offend or violate the status quo and the comfortable... This is precisely why these truths are so important'

These shifts in culture will not be easy:
'I am certain that many will consider my emphasis in this book on extreme religious experiences and anomalous states of consciousness an eccentric means to argue for the future centrality of the humanities, much less the irreducible nature of consciousness. I make no apologies. We must be bolder. We must proceed through an intentional and systematic ontological shock if we are ever going to arrive at the future of knowledge.' [My emphasis]

This is where it gets exciting for the future of culture. Our present culture is Scientism-based, and its basic philosophy is that we live on a bleak prison planet where all that matters is individual survival and greed for more stuff. That culture does seem to be in its death throes. For the last few years, I've been asking myself what a culture could look like that had spiritual awakening at the invisible centre point of its cultural mandala.

The values I would see reflected in the culture include an attitude to the world that doesn't just see it as resources for humans to exploit, but as a thing in itself, a thing which has its own sacredness. A society in which human life is valued for its own sake rather than what people can produce.
A massive shift away from materialism.

This book has part of the answer: once we learn to value mystical experience and its implications for how the world really is, we will have to undo much of the intellectual world of Scientism. This will give us the opportunity to learn to live as what we really are. Kripal calls this cosmic humanism.

The Flip is a shard of a possible brighter future. What this future requires from us is a little optimism about the possibility of integration of science and spiritual reality. In these stupid and scary times, that might seem like a big ask. But it's what we need, and it's happening out there. Kripal shows how broad the movement is, how many professional scientists are making brave attempts to integrate their science with their cosmic experiences. Sure, these are a specialist subset of the population, but hopefully books like this can spread these ideas to lay readers.

Should you buy this book? Yes, if you're interested in science, in (readable and relevant) philosophy and want to think about what the next stage of civilization might look like. Yes, if you want to find real things to take heart about in the fertile chaos of the world.

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

John Higgs - The Future Starts Here - Adventures in the 21st Century

John Higgs's other books are enjoyable, well written and sometimes downright inspiring, which is why I decided to buy this one. From the things people were saying, I was also led to think: This is going to be a feelgood book, like that newsletter 'Future Crunch', wherein you get the good news about the world to counteract the learned helplessness generated by the mainstream news. This generated a bit of resistance in me before I even read it; I certainly wouldn't describe myself as a miserabilist, but sometimes the statements people make to cheer us up are so poorly-researched or downright shallow that they can have the opposite effect.

But I was mistaken. It's nothing like as simple as that.

Yes, it's a book full of good information about the world today. But it has a larger purpose - to expose the endemic scourge of nihilism in the cultural mainstream. He traces 20th century optimism about the future and how it died in the 1980s, using a lot of examples and building a very convincing case. In his opposition to this trend, he's not advocating blinkered optimism, but 'pragmatic optimism' - looking the future 'in the eye, to truly understand the problems ahead and then adopt an optimistic approach regardless.'

It's no wonder Mr Higgs has been known to quote Salena Godden's superb catchphrase 'pessimism is for lightweights.' Here he is:

He tells us the media have been indulging in a kind of conspiracy of despair; this is not so incredible when you see an (apparently) deeply-pessimistic book such as Human Compatible by Stuart Russell reviewed in the Guardian and The Future Starts Here is not even mentioned in the review as a counterbalance to such thinking.

The book has 9 sections, amongst which are lengthy refutations of commonly-held fear-ideas. One is that AI is not coming for your job. This is a delightfully underwhelmed deconstruction of the myths about AI; for a start, AI is really not very good. Even in the case of facial recognition software, which has had a lot of money pumped into it for obvious reasons, we get truly pathetic levels of performance:

'South Wales Police experimented with facial-recognition software ... and from May 2017 to March 2018 the technology flagged up 2,685 individuals as people of interest. 2,451 of these proved to be false alarms. In London, the facial-recognition system used by the Metropolitan Police only correctly identified two people, according to information released under Freedom of Information laws in May 2018. Neither of these people was a criminal and no arrests were made.'

Chapter 4, 'The Metamodern Generation', starts off by asserting the differentness of the various post-WW2 generations, using the common definitions of Boomer, Gen X, Millennials (defined as those who came to adolescence around 2000) and Post-Millennials, known as Gen ZZZ by some unkind folk.

The start of that chapter was challenging for me: a tale of law students who were refusing to study rape law and wanted the word 'violate' expunged from their law books. Surely it's not just me, being an old-fart Boomer, who finds this obscenely stupid, and deeply antithetical to anything that can be dignified with the term 'education'?

But if it pushes my buttons to that extent, there has to be more to it than that. Remember, whatever generation you're from, the student politicos? Ambitious individuals who take some issue and whip up support to launch themselves on a political career? This idiocy sounds like the Gen Z version of that kind of social predator, taking some issue that is already in social media and driving it to ludicrous extremes, because basically no-one else will, so it provides a USP for that politico, a handhold on the slippery slope of political mendacity. The people who drive such things will, I imagine, be doing something much nastier in ten years' time.

So that was how I found some way not to condemn a whole generation because of its more idiotic excesses. However, the very fact that such balderdash can exist at all does make me ask what is wrong with Gen Z. And Higgs does a good job of redeeming Gen Z; this is a generation whose values lean strongly towards service. Their hyper-sensitivity may be the main driver behind their commitment to global issues such as Extinction Rebellion, and if the future needs anything, it's people who are driven to serve, to oppose rather than abjectly accept the cynicism of the cultural mainstream.

I ended that chapter feeling decidedly more optimistic about the future; it's in the hands of people who actually care, whose idiocies will fade into history, while they work to preserve and reform the human world.

In that chapter, Higgs introduces us to metamodernism as the philosophy that is replacing postmodernism. We can all breathe a deep sigh of relief at that - the corpse of PoMo has been stinking the place out for a while now. We can now move on from that pretentious anti-science nonsense and the misuse of the word 'problematic' as a noun.

The etymology of metamodernism is encouraging; it's not from 'meta' as in 'overview', but 'from the Greek word metaxy. Plato defined metaxy as being between two contrasting poles. ... The way that post-Millennials can oscillate between being childlike and sensible, or being conservative and liberal, is a ... contemporary example of metaxy'
He quotes one Luke Turner: 'it is important to oscillate between opposing poles rather than choosing one and identifying with it ... the mercurial condition between and beyond irony and sincerity, naivety and knowingness, relativism and truth, optimism and doubt, in pursuit of a plurality of disparate and elusive horizons.'

Astonishingly, this is pretty much the 'Polarian method' as defined by Edred Thorsson in his description of the path of Odin and those who would emulate him. Thorsson writes:
'It is in the eternal ebb and flow, in the dynamic process - unending and without end - that the ultimate synthesis is found - not in a state of being. This is the essence of what I call the "Polarian Method".'

I can't see how we could have got from Thorsson's words to those of Turner, but these interesting times make for strange bedfellows, and in such an exoteric context, Polarian thinking is an excellent antidote to rigid, dogmatic positions.

Higgs does a nice job of trashing social media. Apparently, Zuckerberg at age 19 referred to the first few thousand member of his fledgling Facebook as 'dumb fucks'' for trusting him. Now, we are seeing an exodus from FB, especially among younger users.
About this, Higgs writes: 'The way the platform can be used to trigger negative emotions works as a powerful addictive drug on the Baby Boomer generation, yet this repels the young.'
I'm warming even more to Generation Z!

In the penultimate chapter, 'Fixing Things', the author confronts climate gloom and rejects such positions as the Dark Mountain Project. Some years back, I read a good deal of their stuff and it struck me as, ultimately, selfish and whiney. Saying there is nothing that can be done and that everything is fucked and all we can do is huddle together and weep collectively is not a good way forward on any level as far as I'm concerned. Higgs sees this attitude as a facet of the Gen X tendency to nihilism, which he addresses in the earlier chapter about generational differences. 'Once you adopt that position you no longer need to worry, or keep thinking about the problem, or look for solutions. Giving up is seductively easy, especially as you get older.' There is always reason to doubt, and never a time to give up hope. Higgs sees Dark Mountain founder Paul Kingsnorth's hopelessness as a yearning for an impossible golden age of humans living in a perfect harmony with pristine wilderness. As Higgs puts it, 'Giving up eventually becomes inevitable when what you seek can never be found.' We just have to live with the mess and make the best of it we can. Which will be a lot better than abandoning all effort.

In the final chapter, 'More Than Individual', Higgs muses on where the mainstream's culture of individualism has got us. He quotes Chris Bateman on how, 'once you have cut the ties that were unique to you, you become adrift in the same mass-culture corporate networks as everybody else... Pursuing individuality in this way results in becoming, essentially, the same as everybody else. The background and relationships that were discarded turn out to be the very things that would have made you a distinctive, unique individual.'

This seems obvious to me, but then again I've been involved for years in magical currents some of which articulate 'radical traditionalist' positions. The radical traditionalist argues for small against large, for family and 'organic' community as against corporate and state methods of organizing society. Sadly, the 'organic' bit in 'organic community' is often interpreted along racist lines, ruining the whole argument as far as I'm concerned; who wants to be stuck in a village with a tiny gene pool run by people who hate anyone who is different from them? So it is refreshing to find that the basic idea of the strength of family and local community against the corporate state is gaining currency without the shameful idiocy of racism. 

His parting shot is at the recent rise of the populist ultra-right, as 'the twentieth-century world view lashing out and trying to save itself from coming change ... like Canute ordering back the waves.' Let's hope he's right.

One bit of astonishingly good news that I was surprised not to find in this book is about the best projections we now have on the growth of world population. The old projections were based purely on what had gone before, with no accounting for new variables. Those projections leave us with a version of the future with nothing but overcrowded cities, starving people and no wildlife; it's hard to avoid very bad dystopias when thinking about such a relentless march of overpopulation. However, some clever researcher a few years ago worked out that the biggest factor in reducing birth rates is the education of women: the more educated women you get, the fewer children they have. Projecting the curve with this variable increasing realistically, we get a population which peaks over the next century then starts declining*. Without that effect, there would be little cause for hope.

Reading this book was quite a ride for me, as you may have noticed. It changed a few of my ideas for the better, particularly about the generation in whose hands we are leaving the planet. It's a gripping read, and possibly his best book to date. Buy it, especially if you are over 30. In fact, it should be compulsory reading for anyone in that age group. 

(*See for instance

Monday, 25 November 2019

Would You Know Yet More? The Runa Interviews with Edred Thorsson

Edited by Ian Read and Michael Moynihan

This is one of many books that feature the words of Edred Thorsson, but it is the only one which involve an interviewer. The book consists mostly of the interviews conducted by Ian Read for his Rûna magazine, which ran from 1997 to 2009, plus a 2019 interview done by Joshua Buckley and Michael Moynihan.

Ian Read supplies a foreword, and the text is nicely organized according to the themes of the questions, so it's possible to follow an idea through the relevant chapter. The themes include:
- The Rune-Gild, Cosmology and the Gods, Monotheism and modernity;
- Asatru and the neopagan revival;
- The Woodharrow Institute;
- The Goths;
- J R R Tolkien, the Spear of Destiny and the Modern Mythos;
- Tradition and Modernity;
- Towards the Birth of an Odian Philosophy: Hans Naumann and Nietzsche's Ewige Wiederkunft.

There's a lot of high-powered ideas in here. I'll just pick a favourite. In the piece on Nietzsche and Odian philosophy, Thorsson makes a very interesting point about the history of thought:
'At present, our chief task in the development of a true philosophy rooted in timeless Germanic principles lies in the translation of mythic thought into theoretical thought. ... The process ... here is identical  to what happened in India, where mythic patterns encoded in the Rig Veda were used as sources for the theoretical concepts expressed in the Upanishads... A similar process took place in Greece, where Homeric myth became a springboard for the theoretical speculations of the Hellenic and Hellenistic philosophers.'
This possibility in Germanic thought was 'blocked by the onrush of Christian theology...', so that this process is only now being resumed.

In the same piece, writing on Nietzsche's idea of eternal return and how it can relate to the traditional Germanic idea of aptrborinn, of being born again within the clan, it becomes clear that we are not being reborn in order to be perfected. We do 'not look for far-off unknown blessings ... but rather we should live in the way that we want to live once again, and as we want to live for all eternity!'

Buy this book for what its title promises - as close as you'll get to the thoughts of the most influential contemporary teacher of the Germanic esoteric reawakening.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Welcome to Paradise! and... Westworld? and Midsommar? Ozora Festival

It's evening, and very warm at Budapest airport. We get on the minibus shuttle - it's for Ozora Artists. Here's I'm an artist - I'm going to speak on 'Psychedelics and Magical Energy' at this gigantic psytrance festival.

I have to admit my previous exposure to psytrance - two parties in the late 1990s/early noughties -was not encouraging. Naively, I was expecting 'psytrance' to mean 'psychedelic trance', but no-one was interested in psychedelics at all, only in pills and coke and squabbling over nitrous oxide hits. So I hesitated when I was invited to speak at Ozora, but not for long, because it did sound like something better than that. And it was.

I meditate on the long, winding drive, and it's exceptional. I'm in a bliss of trusting to a guidance that took me through each moment of experience, a silent knowing that was there in some of my teenage acid experiences but which I'd mostly lost since. I feel as though I've come home.

The festival has a giant entrance sign, welcoming us to paradise, and then an orange drive-through pavilion as the entrance. We get our wristbands and artist's lanyards and queue up for some chips. The festival at this stage is darkness and sound and confusion. We meet a friend, drink a beer and get another lift. The car is struggling with the hills, I'm beginning to wonder if we will be stranded in the middle of the night, but we arrive at our apartment in a village, Kisszekely, about 15 km from the site. I learn one Magyar word - koszi, thanks.

We breeze into our apartment some time past midnight, talking as we decompress from our journey, unaware that we were waking up flatmate Ayana Iyi, who's also talking at Ozora, on psychedelic witchcraft.

The next day it's hot. I'm beginning to wonder whether it was a good idea to opt for the off-site apartment, it being so far from the site, but it's no problem - the Ozora staff are happy to give us lifts to and fro at any time of day or night. I've never had such great treatment from organizers. This is the day of my presentation, so we make our way to Chambok House, where the talks and discussions take place.

My talk seems to go down well. I'd no idea how many people to expect or what level of interest; I'm guessing 50, but it's nearer 200, and people are enthusiastic enough to get up and do some energy work. People reported amazing states of consciousness and one person got healed. The next day, a participant came up to me and told me how she'd used a chi-ball energy portal to find the man she'd been looking for. All in all, one of the best audiences I've ever had.

Now we've got a chance to explore the site properly. Catching sight of the timeless traditional architecture of the Artibarn, I'm suddenly in the film Midsommar, in that beautiful reconstruction of an ancient heathen village (before they start offing people).

After music, art is the big thing in this festival. The land is owned by a rich Hungarian chap who loves the psytrance scene and many of the structures are permanent. Art events are on all the time. Walking across a field, we hear what sounds a bit like a warm-up for the Anvil Chorus from Das Rheingold - it's some people improvising around the sound of hammer and anvil.

The Mirador art gallery is a tower, filled with a stunning display of psychedelic art, so good we get overloaded and have to pause our viewing for a day.

Climbing the tower gives fantastic views all round the site.

And right in front of it is a Cat Temple.

Then we get the biggest visual shock of all. From the Mirador tower we have a vague sense of the main stage field behind the trees, downhill. So we start down some wooden steps that drop about 200 feet between platforms. As we emerge from the trees onto the first platform, we finally see the main stage field and gasp at the sheer scale of it. Judy says, 'It's like Westworld!'

Later I'm back at Chambok House for the panel discussion, alongside Kilindi Iyi, Dany Nemu and Ferdinando Buscema, discussing 'Magical Psychonauts: Intersections of Magic and Psychedelics'. The room was packed, and the questions were interesting. Magic, or at least the possibility of it in people's minds, is thriving in this subculture.

The next day it's really hot. Dancers walk round with those 5 litre garden sprays you pump up then release a fine mist. It's very pleasant for us, probably essential for people dancing in the 29*C sunshine. This is a scene where people look after their health and each other's. There's plenty of nice vegan food, no need to eat meat-industry waste disguised as burgers. We drink beer, for the heat, but not very much. There is almost no drunkenness on the site. I see one bloke staggering down the hill shouting and waving a bottle, but he is conspicuous by his rarity. We don't see any of those lairy packs of lads, pissed and coked-up, that infest most public gatherings.

In the evening we go to one of the smaller stages where the most interesting music is on to watch Tentacles of Static, an Ozric Tentacles reincarnation. They're great, playing against the spectacular backdrop of a thunderstorm which at first we think is a light show and distant sounds. The rain comes down thick and heavy. We just have to walk through it to our lift for the night, soaked to the skin. Back at the apartment, we chat and smoke with Xenia our driver and Alana.

The next day we check out the Dome. In the daytime it looks a bit like a gigantic WW1 German helmet with its low curving brim and spike on top, all made of thatch. By night, it's lit up with the most incredible lights inside and out.

As we walk in, we're hit by a gust of air laden with the unmistakeable tree-resin-and-petrol aroma of acacia DMT. People are lying in hammocks, in this loud, immersive chillout music, watching projections on the ceiling. We have arrived in the final realisation of Wagner's dream of the Gesamtkunstwerk - the total artwork, total immersion in artistic vision.

For Friday the forecast says thunderstorms, and they're not kidding. We're trapped in the bar for the first part of the day, while the rain buckets down and puddles become ponds. Since that experience on the minibus on Monday, it's easy to meditate with eyes open, switching into silence and eternity. A stylish couple sits behind me. She looks like a Japanese aristocrat; his face is Samurai, from an old print.

We check out the Ozorian Prophet, a daily print newspaper with news and interviews with people on site. It's a jolly publication, a bunch of good vibes, but a bit deluded in places - one of the articles has someone claiming there's no single-use plastics in the food area, someone who clearly has never had to use any of the bins on the site.

Eventually the rain recedes enough to escape the bar and wander. We see people building flood barriers and cutting drainage ditches. A truck appears and dumps sand on a major route. This site is being really well looked after. I get the impression that the organizers are actually spending a lot of the income on keeping the place nice. It's cheaper than Glastonbury for 6 full days, and much better managed.

We're back at Chambok House for a panel discussion on psytrance. I find myself agreeing with the  Australian DJ who says psytrance is too repetitious, a 'rectilinear steel prison.' The American DJ defends it, saying the insistent 'machine-gun beat', was essential to keep the trance going, or you get broken out of the trance. The repetition is a 'a warm blanket, a comforting thing.' It's clear that we are talking here about an actual technology for getting higher, based on the relentless monobeat. I mean, whatever floats your boat, but it's not my thing, that repetition. I prefer shifting, swirling rhythms that take you off in new directions, exactly the kind of thing that the Australian guy is saying are now 'transgressive' and 'forbidden' in the psytrance world.

Later, we take in a set by Youth with Gaudi on the small Dragon's Den stage, exactly the kind of 'transgressive' beats we were talking about this afternoon. This music has delighted in techno, dub, trance and drum-and-bass, and folded them all together into complex, shifting rhythms that are a joy to dance to. It begins to occur to me that the best way to understand the psytrance scene is that it's a church. Its sacrament is the 'warm blanket' of the monobeat and its limiting of the wildness of psychedelics, the collective ecstasy is signalled by people raising their hands at the climaxes of the music, its creed is caring and inclusive (insofar as any church can be inclusive) and its faith is that its beliefs are better for the world than the dominant ones out there. Which seems perfectly reasonable.

It's the final full day on Saturday. We've enjoyed some intense conversations in the car as we were ferried back and forth, on topics such as small-scale farming, the history of the region, working as a translator of Russian for the Hungarian government, children and psychedelics, and yoni balls. Today is much cooler, and I'm enjoying a major sacrament, so I'm doing fire breathing all day. I discover that each breath is a recapitulation of cosmology. That's maybe a story for some other time.

On Sunday it's time to go home. We wait in the Artists' Camp for the airport shuttle. I give my lighter and my last two joints to the man behind the transport desk, and he's delighted.

I never did well with churches, and psytrance dancing is too High Church for me - too prescriptive in its approach to gnosis. However, it was nice to worship with this congregation for a while; on the Saturday I danced to Youth's 'History of Trance' set, and I got the psytrance gnosis. And it's a nice congregation. Humans do religion; this is one of the better ones.

Ozora festival was much, much more than psytrance, and far better than I imagined. It was, in the end, one of the best festivals I've ever been to. Big thanks to everyone who made us so welcome, and to Giorgia for inviting me in the first place.