Adventures in the
Back around 1957, Norman Mailer, in a famous essay, “The White Negro,” defined the hipster as a person trying to build a new nervous system. Well, since then, the hipster evolved into the hippie, then the yippie, then went underground to hibernate for a decade and emerged, bifurcated, as the yuppie and the New Ager. Yet we still seem to be living in a post-Hip age, in which multitudes of people appear determined to build themselves new nervous systems. I have elsewhere defined this as “the HEAD Revolution” (Hedonic Engineering And Development) or the quest for “the Art and Science of using the human brain for fun and profit.”
Behind all the other upheavals and disruptions of our fractured age, an increasing number of our citizens seem to recognize that the brain circuity given to us by evolution and early imprinting/conditioning keeps us a level of mechanical behavior and stereotyped perception: they want to free their brains from the limitations of their “minds.”
I consider myself a typical survivor of the HEAD Revolution. I have participated in every aspect of the “Human Potential Movement” and—remarkably—I have not been clapped into a nut-house yet, and I haven’t even become a disciple of any “Guru.” I think my oddyssey might prove instructive, or at least entertaining.
I came to consciousness in a prehistoric age. Dinosaurs still roamed the Earth and attacked the habitats of men and women; the chief dinosaurs were called Hitler and Mussolini. I grew up in a typical Stone Age tribe on a long island called, simply, Long Island. My tribe were Irish Catholics and had seized an area called Gerrison Beach because, evidently, nobody else wanted it. There were no paved roads and nobody had central heating. You will be at a loss to explain how we spent our evenings when I tell you TV had not been invented yet. You cannot imagine the ignorance and brutality of those days.
I was told, on good authority, by the adults of the tribe, that wearing galoshes in the house causes deafness, that masturbation causes blindness and that saying the words “cancer” or “tuberculosis” aloud would cause somebody in the family to catch those diseases. As in other Stone Age clans, it was also believed that eating the body of a hero would give you heroic qualities, and our shaman weekly turned a piece of bread into the body of great hero who had died 2000 years ago, which we then ate.
Knowledge of economics was equally primitive. The men of the tribe were all unemployed because of some mysterious curse called The Depression. Some said this was caused by the Wicked Jews, and a few others blamed it on the Wicked Republicans, but most of the men felt that their inability to find jobs was their own fault. This caused them to drink more and become more Irish.
In 1937, when I was five, my father found work again; the Depression was ending, as mysteriously as it had begun. Dad celebrated his first paycheck by bringing home a radio, and I began receiving some signals that did not come from within the Irish-Catholic reality-tunnel. Mental activity, of a primitive sort, began.
I went to Brooklyn Technical High School and Brooklyn Polytechnic college, planning to become an engineer. Along the way, I met Protestants and Jews and was astounded that neither had horns; I became an atheist and, for a while, a Marxist. I dropped out of engineering and became a journalist.
Around 1958, at the age of 26, I began having classic Freudian “anxiety” attacks—heart palpitations, dizziness, and a sense of terror that I couldn’t explain; I was frightened, but I didn’t know what I was afraid of. I never understood what caused these symptoms, and 31 years later I still don’t understand fully, although I have lots of theories. Freudians would say I was in conflict between my Hedonic lifestyle and my early antisexual Irish Catholic training; Jungians might hazard that my “symptom” was the onset of a search for “individuation”—for self-definition on a higher level than that of the mechanical ego created by environment and accident. I finally decided to try Reichian therapy, since the symptoms appeared more somatic than “mental.” I didn’t know that this was the beginning of 31 years of explorations of “mind-body” relations and brain-change techniques, a true Jungian individuation process.
Reichian therapy was then being denounced as quackery by the American Medical Association, but I already had a tendency to distrust “experts.” (As a child, I had been cured of polio by the Sister Kenny method, which was also denounced as quackery by the A.M.A.)
Reichian “body work” consisted of manipulations of my muscles by the therapist, during which I experienced more acute terror than in the spontaneous “anxiety attacks,” together with a lot of (real or imaginary) pain. Every now and then I would have a “breakthrough” and my whole body would seem to “melt” into perfect peace for a while, sort of like orgasm in slow motion. This accorded well with Reich’s theory that brutal Patriarchal social institutions create muscular “armors” which then become psychosomatic symptoms; relaxing the muscles, he claimed, removes the cause of the symptoms.
After six months, I was not having the anxiety attacks any more, and felt more relaxed and confident than ever before in my life. Therapy was terminated. A side effect of my bout with Reichian body work appeared: American Indians and other so-called “primitives” began to fascinate me. I had developed an empathy for a world-view, or reality-tunnel, outside of both Occidental religion and mechanistic science. The “orgone” or Life Energy in Reichian theory was also known to Native Americans, who called it Wakan, and I felt sure, whether it should be considered a physical energy or not, it definitely described a mode of perception that our racist society had somehow lost. I read a great deal of anthroplogy and was astounded that so many “modern” people still have the attitude of Victorian “mental imperialism”—the belief that all non-Occidental cultures “are” “by definition” “inferior” and “superstitious” (Liberal bigotry) or “Satanic” (Christian bigotry.)
In 1959, two years after reading Mailer’s vision of the Neurological Revolution and six months after melting my “body armor” (according to the Reichian theory), I smoked my first marijuna cigarette. (This contradicts Reichian theory, which claims no person without armor would ever be attracted to pot.)
I got interested in the Devil Weed because a Black jazz musician had tried to describe the cannabis “high” to me. “Like, the last time I was stoned,” he said, “I dropped a quarter on the rug. I picked it up and I looked at it and saw it. I hadn’t looked at a quarter that way since I was a little boy.”
I had been studying General Semantics, and I recognized what my friend was describing: Korzybski, inventor of General Semanctics, called such perception “non-verbal apprehension” or “returning to the silent level.” I hadn’t yet heard of Zen or yoga, and didn’t know that similar practices were called “meditation” in those traditions, but I knew from Korzybski’s exercises that non-verbal awareness definitely stimulated the brain, relaxed the emotional circuits, and often increased creativity.
One of Korzybski’s basic exercises consists of staring at an ordinary object—say an apple—for several minutes and trying not to form words or ideas in your head. Korzybski seemingly “invented” this himself, not knowing it was an old yoga technique. Pot sounded quicker and easier than staring at apples, an exercise on which I had already spent a lot of time. I paid $3 for 3 joints and began to see my favorite paintings and hear music in new, enriched ways.
I found that pot definitely increased the effectiveness of Korzybski’s non-verbal exercises. It put me into silent meditation with great ease,and often triggered the “melting” ecstasy of Reichian muscular relaxation, in which the ego seems to merge with “Life Energy” inside and outside the skin. Later, when I discovered Zen and yoga, I found that pot boosted the effects of both Zen meditation and yogic (mantra) meditation. I was delighted with the “discovery”—and it wasn’t until the late ’60s that I learned the Shivaite Hindus had made this discovery a few thousand years before me, and even have a mantra to use with pot: “Bom! Bom! Mahadev!” (Roughly: „Boom! Boom! Great Big God!“)
Meanwhile, I was practicing the verbal part of General Semantics. This derives from Korzybski’s theory—also “discovered” by Whorf and Sapir and sometimes called the Sapir-Korzybski-Whorf Hypothesis, in anthropology—that the language we speak, and think in, determines what we perceive. Korzybski went beyond Whorf and Sapir in arguing that ordinary English and most languages contain “primitive” assumptions that program us to perceive an Aristotelian universe of block-like entities and to conceive these “things” as populated with indwelling “essenses” or spooks that give them their “natures” or properties. In order to sense/perceive/comprehend the modern scientific (non-Arisotelian) universe—consisting not of “things” but of relationships between space-time events—Korzybski recommended both non-verbal exercises of the sort illustrated above and also the use of modified English to remove Aristotelian “neuro-linguistic” habits. (He coined the term “Neurolinguistic.” The NLP people lifted a lot from him, as did the Gestalt Therapists and the Rational Therapists.)
For instance, Korzybski recommends abandoning the “is” of identity (as in “The fetus is a person” or “the Congress is a bunch of gibbering idiots” or “Bread blessed by a priest is the Body of God”) and using functional descriptions. This clearly indicates what level of abstraction you are speaking or thinking on. “The electron is a wave” becomes “Measured with certain instruments, the electron appears as a wave.” (In this way, instrumentalizing rather than essentializing, scientific statements limit themselves and a great deal of absurd and unproductive “philosophical” debate becomes unnecessary.)
Sometimes, a statement translated from E (ordinary English) to E-prime (instrumental English) becomes obviously self-reflexive. “The fetus is a person,” for instance, becomes, “I find it necessary to classify the fetus as a person, in my system of metaphysics.” In this way, E-prime constantly reminds you whether your speech refers to an objective instrumental “outer reality,” which anybody with the same instruments can confirm, or a subjective “inner reality” made up only of your imprinted/conditioned verbal habits.
Korzybski’s modified English contains several other gimmicks to scientize our thinking/perceiving; others have been added by students of Kozybski. For instance, Bucky Fuller abandoned the words “existence” and “non-existence,” since they have no operational (instrumental) meaning, and replaced them with “the tuned-in” and “the not tuned-in.”
(That which is not-tuned-in by my brain is not necessarily “non-existent;” it may be tuned-in by somebody else’s brain, or may become tuned-in with a new instrument. That which the pot smoker tunes in remains not-tuned-in for the booze drinker. Etc.)
I have been fairly well retrained in Korzybskian/Fullerian E-prime by now, and one of the unexpected side effects has been that I often understand Zen riddles and Sufi jokes that appear inscrutible to most Westerners. (For instance, “Who is the Master who makes the grass green?” Do a little silent meditation and speak only in E-prime, and the answer will soon dawn on you.) I conclude that General Semantics does, gradually, in time, program you out of your culturally conditioned reality-tunnel into a receptive-alert silent apprehension similar to that sought by many forms of Oriental mysticism.
Another side effect of General Semantics: many physicists think I know more physics that I, in fact, do. New Scientist once even claimed that “Robert Anton Wilson” must be a pen-name for some major physicist. Actually, thinking in E-prime, I understand the gist of the relativist/quantum universe without extensive training in the details.
In 1962, I discovered peyote and Zen. The peyote came from a Civil Rights worker, who told me it opened the brain to even more Alternative Realities than pot. The Zen came to me because some local Quakers had imported a Zen Master, Yositani Roshi, from Hawaii, to teach meditation.
I attended Zen meditation classes for about six months and did peyote about 40 times in the same year. At one point I became a “mystic” and believed “God” had manifested to me. Most of the time, however, I regarded what I was doing as breaking imprinted/conditioned circuits in the brain and experimenting with alternative circuits.
I must stipulate, however, that having experienced “God,” I could not forget or dismiss the experience, especially since it repeated itself spontaneously, in milder form, several times. It took me about two years to decide that I had a pantheistic (or panpsychic) sensibility, but did not seem to feel any need to wed myself dogmatically to pantheistic (or panpsychic) ideas. (Pantheism sees “God” everywhere, even in dust. Panpsychism, less “radical,” sees consciousness everywhere, even in dust.) That is, I felt the universe and everything in it as “alive” and/or “divine,”—visibly, palpably pulsing with “orgone” or “Wakan” or “prajna” or some dancing erotic energy of that sort—but I did not objectify this mode of perception and make declarative sentences in the form “Everything is God” or “Everything is alive.”
I gradually realized that Zen, as a discipline, attempts to get you to the sensibility of feeling pantheistic/panpsychic relations, while preventing you from falling into any dogmatic verbalisms about the experience. Alan Watts tried to popularize this distinction with the slogan, “The menu is not the meal.” Korzybski had stated it even earlier in the words, “The map is not the territory.” (Korzybski’s way of teaching this consisted on having you pinch yourself, then say “pinch” aloud, then write the word “pinch,” then pinch yourself again, etc. until you totally realized the distinction between whole “mind-body” experience and left-brain words or concepts about experience.)
Like other the “children of the sixties” (although I was older than most of them) I proceeded from explorations with peyote to further illuminating and educational adventures with LSD, magic mushrooms—and various nefarious compounds I won’t even name here, lest some innocent decide to try them just because I survived their awful onslaughts. I began to understand another saying of Alan Watt’s: “The universe is like a giant Rorschach ink-blot. You can find any meaning in it that you want.” The more I experimented, the further I advanced into what Olaf Stapledon once called “Agnostic Mysticism.”
By around 1968, my view became that of J.B.S. Haldane, a Marxist biologist who practiced yoga: “The universe may be, not only queerer than we think, but queerer than we can think.” I went further than that and started telling people, “The universe may be, not only more intelligent that we think, but more intelligent than we can think.” This later came back to me, further elaborated by Joanna Leary (Tim’s third wife): “The universe may be, not only more erotic than we think, but more erotic than we can think.” Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, I suspect, sort of expresses all three of those views at once.
I had given up Zen meditation as soon as I discovered mantra meditation (around 1965.) Different strokes for different folks, different scenes for different genes, etc.: the yoga of mantra worked better for me than the Zen practice of counting my breaths. Later, I took up hatha yoga (the stretching exercises) but never practiced systematically. I often want to cry out, as Crowley did in 1919: “Though I’d rather be beaten with clubs and cactuses/Make me return to my yoga practices.”
In 1970, due to a casual suggestion by Alan Watts, I began studying Cabala. One of the most amusing and amazing early exercises involved giving up the use the word “I” for one week. I found this semantic trick even more remarkable than giving up the “is” of identity, and I still recommend it to everybody except those obviously on the edge of psychosis.
Later in my Cabalistic work, I began the invocation of the Holy Guardian Angel. I did not take this metaphor literally, and was open to whatever might happen, but I must have gotten the lines crossed or something. For about a year and a half I had the periodic conviction that I was in communication with an extraterrestrial Yoga Master from a planet in the system of the star Sirius. Cabala also produced numerous instances of what appeared to me as clairvoyance, precognition, “out of body experience” and plain old ESP (all of which faded after a few years of the practices) together with a rising crescendo of synchronicities that has not termined even yet.
I have many “models” or reality-tunnels to categorize these experiences. For instance, (a) I have simply gone bonkers, although in a ego-syntonic rather than ego-dystonic way (b) the brain has many circuits not normally accessed and Cabala (especially after yoga and Zen and psychedelics etc.) allows you to access those circuits (c) opening the ego to the Jungian “collective unconscious” always calls up the image of the Guide or Mentor, and often triggers synchronicities, some of which may “look like” ESP or its even spookier cognates (d) some nice guy in the Sirius system “really is” concerned with advancing the evolution of domesticated primates on this backward boondocks planet.
I tend, most of the time, to prefer the model that by self-experimentation I have opened new brain circuits that create a reality-tunnel basically similar to those of many mystics in history but uniquely flavored by my own scientific education and my science-fictionish “style” of conceptualizing. In other words, I don’t know what the hell is going on in this incredible universe, but I feel quite sure it contains infinitely more than dogmatic materialists or dogmatic religionists have ever imagined, or ever can imagine—until such time as they themselves experiment with brain-change technology.
“God” or something a lot like “God” seemed very real and close during the hotter or more intense Cabalistic experiments. I treasured these transcendental moments, but still resist the word, “God,” which as Bucky Fuller once said, “seems a pitifully small concept to encompass the synergetic harmonies of Universe.” I have had more body-work over the years, and feel fairly sure that Reich’s techniques do not remove “muscular and character armor” all at once. A variety of massage and manipulation techniques, used when necessary, help prevent the return of armoring and also, I think, tend to have a mildly rejuvenating effect.
As the 70s went on, I gradually lost most of my interest in psychedelics, feeling that chemical brain-change had taught me about all that could be learned that way. I began experimenting with bio-feedback and the Gurdjieff techniques, especially the semantic trick of thinking of the body and body emotions as “it,” rather than “me.” I also spent two years trying various brain-reprogramming tapes using mild hypnosis to implant positive suggestions. All of this brought me ever closer to total belief in the Buddhist proposition that what happens has no meaning, and, except for actual pain, most human suffering emerges from the “frames” or “reality-tunnels” we impose on “meaningless” (non-verbal) experience.
In 1977 I began experiencing angina pectoris. A medical examination revealed no physical problems with heart or lungs, and no explanation. At a friend’s suggestion, I went to a Christian Science practitioner, who talked a good deal of what seemed like nonsense to me. A half hour after leaving his office, my angina went away. It has never returned.
I went back to the CS practitioner a few times, to discuss how that system works. Then I began reading Christian Science literature, and it also sounded like nonsense. Many years later, I read A Course In Miracles and that also seemed like nonsense to me, but I have observed that, like Christian Science, it “works” a lot of the time, for those who give it a try.
I began practicing my own (Zen-Korzybskian) version of Christian Science on myself and seemingly got healthier and younger. I am still working on this project, using various techniques from Sufism as well as Mrs. Eddy; I only began to understand the function of Christian Science “nonsense,” however, when I read The Psychobiology of Mind-Body Healing by the hypno-therapist Ernest Lawrence Rossi, Ph.D. Basically, Dr. Rossi suggests, a certain amount of non-sense serves the useful function of keeping the conscious mind busy and puzzled while the “faith healer” or hypnotist slips in positive suggestions to the unconscious. (I am over-simplifying somewhat, as always happens in articles this short.)
Between 1978 and 1981 I abandoned all mystical and occultish gimmicks, concentrated on the neurological models of Dr. John Lilly and Dr. Timothy Leary, and earned a Ph.D. in psychology, entitling me to inflict my madness on others. Outside of re-reading the classics of psychology and updating my knowledge of neuro-science regularly, in those years I experimented only with mantra meditation, to maintain tranquility and to stave off Wrath, Envy and other diseases of the ego. Occasionally, I use my own agnostic brand of Christian Science to banish various physical symptoms; my medical check-ups indicate that my measurable health corresponds to my inner sense of youthful vigor.
Between 1985 and the present, I have experimented extensively with brain-training machines of various sorts: (a) bio-feedback machines that slowly teach you to change the frequency of your brain waves; (b) electromagnetic machines that directly condition the brain to various frequencies; (c) light and/or sound machines that, like the e-m machines, train the brain to whatever frequencies one desires; (d) the Acoustic Brain Research tapes that combine soundwaves to slow brain frequencies with mild Ericksonian hypnosis and Neuro-Linguistic Programming to implant positive suggestions.
I have found all these machines interesting and seemingly beneficial, but I think they will appear primitive within 5 or 10 years. The pace of research in brain-training appears to me to be accelerating so rapidly that I imagine a major breakthrough very soon. (I sort of suspect it will take the form of a computerized brain tuner that will allow you to train your brain for various harmonies of frequencies—Zen Master 101, John Lilly 102, Einstein 103, Beethoven 104, etc.)
Due to my interest in the latest electronic HEAD tools, I have met several neuro-scientists and have had my brain waves scanned several times. It appears I have a high degree of left brain/right brain synchrony, characteristic of Zen Masters, and a lot more alpha waves than average. (One researcher said that if I had higher alpha I’d be too “spacey” to work as hard as I do. Ultra-high alpha seems typical of the types called “mere ecstatics” by Sufis, or “bliss ninnies” by Californians. The New Age contains numerous cases.) I also have more theta and delta than normal, a pattern which parapsychologists claim to have found in “psychics.” One researcher said nobody had brain waves like mine except a certain famous “psychic;” but another researcher said many creative artists also have a brain pattern similar to mine.
I have never felt any attraction to legends about Atlantis, doctrines of reincarnation and karma, channeling, or most of the other dogmas of New Agers. Rather, I tend to agree with Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche, who called such ideas “spiritual materialism”—belief systems that have no relevance whatever to the work on ego-transcendence that Mysticism demands. I always feel amused, but never offended, by the Protestant Fundamentalists who vehemently assure me I “am” enslaved by Satan and by the Materialist Fundamentalists who assure me, with equal passion, that I “am” as crazy as a waltzing mouse.
Frankly, I’m having a hell of lot of fun with my new Head and think all this experimentation has enriched my life immeasurably.
Adventures in the HEAD Revolution
by Robert Anton Wilson appeared in Critique, Issue 32 (1989/90).