Philosophy Smackdown with Jason Silva
Stuart and Andie talk with Jason Silva, philosopher, futurist, and host of National Geographic’s Brain Games, Shots of Awe, and the Flow Sessions podcast. Their talk is a wild ride through the nature of reality. It’s a mind-melting mind-meld of meanings as burners and as earthlings. It’s a hint on how to – as Danger Ranger said – “wash your own brain.”
They discuss life, death and how a bicycle can induce synchronicity and reverie. They discuss scheduling nowness and eternity. They explore how psychedelics induce pivotal mental states of suggestibility for brainwashing ourselves for the better, or succumbing to delusional thinking, or both. They try to control their ecstatic surrender, and if you listen closely, you may hear a love story hidden between all the philosophy quotations. Finally, they explore key ingredients to Burning Man’s secret sauce that doesn’t exist. But then again, does existence even exist?
Jason Silva’s Philosophical Phantasmagoria (Burning Man Journal)
Burning Man Synchronicities: What Are Playa Moments?
STUART: Our guest today is one of those people we get on occasionally who is probably way more qualified to talk about Burning Man philosophy than I am. Fun fact about me, I took exactly one philosophy class in college and I took an F in it. I took a proud F in Philosophy 100 at the University of Southern California.
And yet here I am the Director of Burning Man’s Philosophical Center. So anyway…
Our guest today is a philosopher, also a storyteller, a filmmaker, a futurist, and a media personality. You may have seen him on the little pixel screen perhaps as the host of National Geographic’s
Brain Games, or maybe on his YouTube show Shots of Awe or you might be listening to his podcast.
Oh my God. That’s right. It is Jason Silva calling in from – where are you right now in the world Jason?
JASON: Amsterdam Netherlands. And thank you for having me,
STUART: Sucks to be you. The life of a traveling philosopher to have to be in Amsterdam in the summertime.
JASON: Yeah, I know it’s been rough I gotta tell you. You guys Amsterdam fans? I’ve heard this rumor that Burning Man is sort of designed in the same shape as Amsterdam. Have you guys had that conversation?
STUART: Well, that’s interesting, because yeah, the canals do form that sort of a set of concentric circles. I never thought about that before. Yeah, we have a bunch of friends there. We have a pretty active regional community. Back five years or so ago we did our European Leadership Summit there. We had a blast. And we have a deep friendship with a group there called the THNK School of Creative Leadership who we’ve done a bunch of design work with. So yeah, a lot of friends over there.
JASON: I tell people that Amsterdam is the closest thing I have found in the default world to the experience of being in Burning Man. Not just because it’s considered the world’s most liberal city or the freest city in the world, the Dutch with their famous tolerance and sort of live and let live attitude to all kinds of people and customs and ways of thinking and being, but also their primary infrastructure for transportation which is the bike, which gives you this omni-directional freedom to kind of go with the flow, to step on the bike and not have a plan and see where you end up. And that gives me an embodied experience that reminds me of what it was like to be on the playa.
I feel like I kind of live in sort of a real life version of Burning Man, maybe a little tamer, but certainly the feeling of freedom is not so different in Amsterdam.
ANDIE: Do you experience a lot of the same kind of magical moments? Does anything like that happen to you there?
JASON: Oh, definitely. Part of the reason that I love being in a city that gives you the opportunity to move around on your bicycle is that you can meander, you can kind of be a flâneur on wheels.
And the sort of meandering allows for unexpected synchronicities all the time. I feel like car based cities constrict you by you having to impose the grid of having a destination, having a place you’re going, and then the road or the transport is primarily a means to an end. You’re on the freeway or you’re in traffic, and it’s road rage. And there’s a certain kind of attention that has to be paid because these metal boxes are very dangerous.
Biking through a city that’s made safe for biking gives you that childlike reverie, which is similar to biking through the playa and unexpectedly encountering magic here and there. But you kind of substitute a lot of the Burning Man art for the historicity of a historical city. Although there’s a philosopher, I think, I always butcher his last name: Huizinga. I think it is.
STUART: Yeah, that’s how I say it. I don’t know if I’m right.
JASON: He talks about something called the historical sensation. He’s got this interpretation of history of what happens when you encounter history. And he says, it’s so much more than just dry dates, but rather it’s a subjective experience where you feel transported to another realm, another time, certainly another way of being and seeing that is associated with a different time.
When I bike through a place like Amsterdam, if I’m listening to maybe classical music or something of the past, and then I’m encountering structures that were built in the past, I can sort of steward my interior experience to a feeling of transport, a feeling of being there in the past.
And that transport is similar to the feeling that I feel when I’m at Burning Man and I feel transported to something other. It’s really the encounter with otherness that I think makes us more present.
Michael Pollan calls it a sense of first sight unencumbered by knowingness. And “knowingness” of course, is the jadedness and the cynicism and the been theres and seen thats of the adult mind, as he calls it.
What that does is it kind of dilutes our experience of the here and now, or it kind of makes it gray scale instead of color. We sort of relying on this autopilot of the benders and seeing that, so the adult mind, and so the environment has been mapped, it’s been labeled, it’s been tiled with language and concepts and presuppositions, and therefore nothing is experienced afreshly.
In his words: The good news is we’re seldom surprised the bad news is we’re seldom surprised.
I’m a lover of surprise. And so I’m always trying to figure out how do I sort of steward my environment so that I’m prompted into the now continuously and continually.
STUART: Yeah, I always say if, if I knew what was going to happen today, why would I bother getting up?
JASON: Wait, say that again.
STUART: If I knew what was going to happen, why would I even bother getting up in the morning? If I knew all the answers, life wouldn’t have any fun anymore.
But there’s a lot there to talk about. The notion of being a bicycle or pedestrian friendly city… I grew up in Los Angeles. You know, the map of Los Angeles is basically an archipelago with dangerous waters full of road rage in between them.
And I think inadvertently, we sort of created that initially in our early designs for Black Rock City leading to the famous debacle in 1996, where there was some car versus pedestrian fatalities. So, that was intentionally redesigned in that sense to be bike friendly, to be pedestrian friendly, to get people out of their cars, in the interest of Civic Responsibility and public safety.
But historicity – there’s really none. You know, Black Rock City to me is a very timeless place. Even though I’ve been going for 24 years, I have my own memories that I associate with it, but it is kind of a fresh look every time.
So let’s talk more about the map not being the territory. In your great little piece “Burning Man synchronicities” on your YouTube channel, which I just adored, I just got to say in six minutes, I think you put out more Burning Man philosophy than you can shake a feathered stick at.
You do nod out to The Situationists, which I also did in the theme essay for this year’s theme. And that idea of actually being in the here and now, being in an actual place, I think that’s, is that the principle of Immediacy? That we are actually there and not living through a simulation of what we think it ought to be.
JASON: But in a sense, it’s almost dangerous to be in a territory without maps. In a world before it was made safe, if you’re in a neighborhood you don’t know, it might be a dangerous neighborhood. I grew up in Venezuela, like, you go too far down some weird road, you might get robbed, you might… So, the sort of hypervigilance that comes with, like, “Don’t be lost!” you know.
That’s sort of taught to us since we’re children. “You might get kidnapped. Be careful.”
So even though there’s this human yearning for unmapped places and the excitement of discovering something, there’s also this kind of programming of like, “We’ve got to make the world safe.
We’ve got to make the world… sterilize it from danger.”And so I’m sort of walking around with this wrestling that’s happening inside of me between my desire to be lost in my terror of the unintended consequences of lostness. Let go, but then don’t become the cautionary tale of the person that let themselves go. Take the road less traveled by, unless that road ends up driving you off a cliff. There’s this conflict.
I’m a bit of a control freak even about my ecstatic surrender. I have this need to lose myself and to get lost and to encounter virginal terrain beyond my conceptual maps, because I love those spaces, but I don’t want to unintentionally dive into the shallow end of the pool and end up paralyzed. So I’m always trying to figure out what are the places where I can safely surrender, where I can safely get lost.
I love nothing more, honestly, than to be a stranger in a strange land, like a strange country in a strange region and smoke a joint and walk around, not knowing where I am and encountering otherness. That’s my favorite thing in the world, to stack the short-term memory disruption of cannabis that hurls you to the present moment, and compound that by actually being in a place you’ve never been.
But what I don’t want is to encounter real danger. So it’s always like, where can I get lost safely? Where can I surrender safely? Where can I let my guard down, my hyper-vigilance down? My conceptual maps, lay them aside, but not get into too much trouble, so to speak?
STUART: Well, for some people, I think that combination of cannabis and newness might have the opposite effect, might result in paranoia rather than pronoia. You talked about pronoia. What is that? It’s a term that I’m not familiar with.
JASON: Oh, that’s a great… I was introduced to this book about this concept of pronoia. And the book itself was a little bit maybe too woo for me.
ANDIE: It’s Rob Brezsny. Yeah.
JASON: But the word resonated because he was saying that you can either assume that all the dots are connecting in a way that’s conspiring against you, or that the dots are connecting in a way that serves the cause of your life. And I suppose both are an example of a kind of patternicity in our proclivity to find meaning from stimuli and connect the dots.
But I suppose if we’re able to craft meaning from data, it’s I guess better if that meaning serves us in a positive way, rather than agitates us into a state of distress.
ANDIE: I’m sorry to say it, but in Black Rock City, doesn’t it seem to happen more often? My friends, we don’t even call it serendipity anymore. We call it serentypical out there because it’s just, you expect it after a certain point, don’t you?
JASON: Yeah. I love serendipity and I love synchronicity. I also kind of just don’t want to drink my own Kool-Aid, so I’m always playing devil’s advocate against myself. In other words, synchronicity feels like magic and all of a sudden, well, the universe is conspiring me and it’s all making sense, but we all know that that can cross a threshold into delusional thinking that’s problematic.
I took psychedelics and it was four in the morning and then she showed up and she looked at me and everything was amazing. And/or then I thought that I was the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and
I ended up in a padded room for six months. That’s not so interesting, but…
STUART: Well, even sort of delusional thinking there is magical thinking and you do make reference to actual experience of magic.
JASON: I’m using poetic language. I should say that.
JASON: What is magic? I mean, when I kiss a girl that I really like, I describe that as magic. The sun was setting, my favorite song was playing. It was nothing but magic. What I really mean is that the subjective experience was one that seemed to exceed the sum of its parts. That’s transcendence, that’s what great art does. When you’re editing a film and you have the actors doing the performance and you have the camera coverage, and then you had this song and you set this mood and all of a sudden the audience has a cathartic experience where the sum of the parts adds up to more than the parts, and that’s a mythopoetic experience, you know.
But again, when you use words like magic and you know that magical thinking is a thing, and patternicity is a thing, you have to be able to separate church and state.
Alain de Botton will say a journalist may be more accurate in describing the details of an event than a poet, but a poet may nevertheless reveal truth of a deeper sort beyond the literal grid.
So there is a space beyond the literal grid. There is a truth from which nothing can dislodge us, as they call it catalepsis, but that’s different than like factual truth.
Facts are real, but there’s also like subjective and poetic truth. There’s also the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wildflower and infinity in the palms of your hand and eternity in an hour.
But even the people that organize Burning Man, when they build the grids and they tell you where you’re going to park – the Burning Man operation still knows how to delineate between the objective world and mythopoetic world. And as long as you can keep those somewhat distinct, you become sort of a functional dream, versus a crazy person, right?
STUART: Very well said. And the rational part of me says, “Okay, so you had a random encounter on the playa with your high school boyfriend. You reconciled after all these years, you fell in love.
It changed your life.” But the rational part of me says, “Well, maybe you guys were on the same commuter train sitting at opposite seats and didn’t see each other because you both had your heads down in your phone.”
So I am interested in what are the actual building blocks of creating that experience of magic. Yeah. Where’s the grimoire? Where’s the playbook for doing that?
JASON: You know, that line that says “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper?” That’s a poetic interpretation of it, but like you said, if I’m buried in my phone, it’s not the same as if I’m looking at the world like a newborn child. In some sense, expectation can become reality. It certainly shapes what you see.
George Carlin once in an interview was talking about Psycho-Cybernetics, this thing in the seventies that was all the rage for attaining your goals. He said that it basically worked by leveraging your brain’s pattern-seeking mechanisms.
So he says the brain is a goal oriented machine. You can prime your brain to achieve your goals by these impressions that you can purposefully plant. So he says the first impression might be like “I want a car.” Second impression is “I write it down.” Third impression is “I review what I’ve written.” And then now you go out into the world and everywhere and you look, you see that car. It’s like,
“Oh my God, like now I’m seeing the car everywhere. It’s so serendipitous!”.
In a way, it’s a little bit like sort of having this handshake relationship between the mystery and the semi-objective ways that you can steward that mystery in a way that serves you and makes your life more beautiful. Those synchronistic moments when you bump into that person on day five, after you thought you lost them in Burning Man, and then what happened, and then whatever…it’s “nobody would believe it if it wasn’t true” kind of thing. And that happens all the time! But how, and what makes it that?
And then somebody like Erik Davis will say, “Well, juxtaposition is the formal operating space of synchronicity.” When you have this “demolition derby of reality constructs colliding on a parched void,” as he says, and people are like blasted open by psychedelic compounds that increase suggestibility and then you’re encountering outrageous art that is something beyond anything that you might’ve pre imagined, and so you’re hurled into this space of radical openness, and then your pattern recognition is increasing. And so he says you’re having evanescent lightning bolts of meaning firing all the time. You were definitely like adding fuel to the fire, and you’re harnessing human psychology in a way, to create delightful encounters with magic. It’s like that Dr. Seuss. “Oh, The Places We’ll Go.” You’ve probably seen that Burning Man video that was on.
STUART: Oh, too many times. Yeah.
JASON: Why do we read children a book like, “Oh, The Places We’ll Go”? Nothing about that book is built on fact, and yet that book is more true than most books we’re taught in high school.
ANDIE: My mother gave me that book for high school graduation, actually.
ANDIE: She thought it was much more appropriate for that age.
JASON: There’s a reason we say that Burning Man is so healing and so beautiful and so important and such an initiatory experience, and you learn truths that are deeper than the literal grid.
There are truths beyond the literal grid, but there are also truths that are non-negotiable, right? Like, the facts that make an airplane be able to take off and land, or the facts that make a jet engine so reliable, and the engineering that goes into making that jet engine.
But then there are other things that are seemingly more plastic, that are more malleable, that are more personal. There are truths that are just for us, the truth of myth.
That’s why I’m so interested in people like Joseph Campbell and Alain de Botton and Erik Davis, and people who write about the truths beyond the literal grid, but who also are people who have their feet on the ground. If you can have both, it makes you a more effective human because you are at this intersection of our divinity and our mortality. You could argue our mortality is like the fixed facts you can’t argue with, and then our divinity is the truth beyond the literal grid. We’re both.
ANDIE: So do you think it was serendipity? How did you find Burning Man?
JASON: My mentor, my first job out of college took me to Los Angeles and I was working for a network that Al Gore started called Current TV…
ANDIE: Oh, we know them well.
JASON: Yeah. My boss at the time, who became my mentor, he was the Head of Programming. His name was David Newman. You know him? Yeah. He created the Black Rock movie theater. I forget the name of it. This is what I love about Burning Man is just this sort of the ‘theater of the absurd’ quality of a lot of the installations, right? A movie theater against the desert backdrop?
What is this? But that’s exactly what makes it so great.
ANDIE: Black Rock Bijou.
STUART: And popcorn.
JASON: Yeah, totally.
STUART: You can’t have a movie without popcorn.
JASON: For almost seven years he wanted me to go and I kept avoiding it. I just was worried I wouldn’t get to sleep. And if I don’t sleep that’s it, I’m going to have a hissy fit. I just thought it would be too intense for me – not the art, not the outrageous beauty, but just the sleep issue, believe it or not.
Then eventually I got to the point where I was like, I need to experience this, even if I have to go mad in order to get through it from lack of sleep. And my friend Seth Bunting, he had just been saying that he would hold my hand through the whole process. And I went for the first time in 2018, believe it or not, pretty late, pretty late. And then I went again in 2019.
It was everything… I spent years reading about it and the best essay that I ever read about Burning Man thus far, it was the Erik Davis piece “Beyond Belief.” And I’m a huge Erik Davis fan. His book “TechGnosis” is like one of my Bibles. And that essay where he talks about the power of juxtaposition, and that seemed to be the rules of synchronicity were governed by juxtaposition or something like that. He was hinting at the playa moments and the things that happened in this magical place and how it was just a stage for magic, basically.
I suppose another way of thinking about it is that when you watch a movie, you know they’re actors and you know it’s produced and you know it’s not real. And yet the experience you have as you watch it is real.
That tells me that you can create the conditions that are deliberately constructed; like a magic trick where, you know it’s a trick, but it’s still magic. It’s inexplicable, even though you know there might be an explanation.
After reading that essay, I was so curious to go and see if what I imagined it was, was what it would be, and sure enough it exceeded my expectations just because you have to go there to know there.
The embodied experience of being there was more profound than what I had read. However, the words that I had read did map that terrain. I still felt like Erik Davis’ words were an acute representation or rendering of that experience.
And part of my love is to take ineffability and to try to find the words. Usually poetic language is the only thing that will work to capture ineffable experiences. But poetic language is a powerful thing; it’s very flexible and very moldable.
And so I went and and everything that I was hoping would happen happened in a way that I didn’t expect, but I was glad that it did. And I fell in love and I experienced the most intense synchronicity that I could possibly imagine surrounding falling in love. So to that end, I’ll be forever indebted for that experience.
STUART: I want to talk more about magic and the conditions that can lead to magic. You know Larry Harvey, our founder, he used to get asked all the time, “What is it? What is the one thing? How do I create this somewhere else, at my festival, at my whatever.” And he always said, “There is no secret sauce. Stop looking for it.”
JASON: Is that what he said?
STUART: Yeah, There is no secret sauce, but there’s part of me – I guess it’s the alchemist in me – that lives in between the myth and the science that wants to identify what those factors are.
We talk a lot about creating a container for people to have their own unique, idiosyncratic, transformative experiences. But what are some of the elements of that container? And you touch on this a little bit in that six minute piece.
So what about the place itself? One question I get asked a lot is, “Can Burning Man happen, can we have that same intensity of experience somewhere other than that big, epic, prehistoric desert?”
JASON: It’s nice that that desert is like a blank canvas. The tabula rasa quality of it means that it can hold the contents of all of our imaginations together. The vastness and the flatness is a huge objective quality of it. It does really lend itself in a cool way. I haven’t been to AfrikaBurn or some of these other places, and I don’t know if they feel as epic or if they feel as vast.
I certainly feel like the proximity to San Francisco just allows for a kind of imagination, and the amount of resources that can be brought from, you know, such a wealthy area and such a free-thinking area.
So it does feel like a perfect storm.
STUART: It is a lot of blank space, and infinite space, really; you know, infinite sight lines and all that. There’s no shortage of room for anything.
You talk in that piece about signaling, and the difference in signals that one receives out there on the playa, the absence of some of the ones that we get used to (and kind of take for granted) and maybe the presence of some new ones. How important do you think that is to catalyzing that experience?
JASON: It’s huge because the human-designed world is one that is etched with prompts, and usually the prompts are to give us orientation and warning. Like “Red light, stop. Green light, go. Turn right for Buenos Aires. Turn left for New York.” They’re either orientation or ‘warning, do not cross’ or danger.
I mean, typically the instructions are to hold you in place so that you don’t step outside the line of the law. And while of course I understand, we’re just a bunch of like wild hairless monkeys. If we don’t have some constriction and some feedback loops to hold the whole thing together … Even Burning Man has some rules that underlie the mechanics, how it’s built.
But I think the problem’s that so much of those instructive prompts can at some point become oppressive. At some point it just kind of feels like you live in a world that wants to hold you in place, and the price is nothing less than everything – you know, your vitality, your freedom, your sense of adventure, your rebelliousness, your cosmic curiosity.
And not only that, but because the prompts in the world are usually so oppressive, you either numb to them (which I have been known to do) or you walk around and you see a sign that says “No
Trespassing,” the sign just feels that much more terrifying. The more suggestible you are, the more oppressive prompts can stranglehold your psyche.
However, the opposite is also true when you go to a place that is permissive and inviting you to open yourself, to be more suggestible, without your defense mechanism and you’re shielding, and then you have these prompts, like Olivia Steel’s “Everything you’re looking for is inside of you.”
The power of the right words when you’re walking across that desert and you see these big, bold letters across the landscape, telling you exactly what you’re wanting to hear,
ANDIE: “LOVE”. “BELIEVE”
etched on the landscape, like a kind of augmented reality.
ANDIE: that you can climb.
It just feeds back to you something that you know to be true on a mythic level, but it sort of incarnates it in this moment. So you may have lost the person you love and you’re lost in the desert. And then this sign appears and tells you exactly what you want to hear, but in a way it’s sort of like improv theater that takes place in the desert. Immersive theater kind of works that way. The things in the environment become characters – maybe not to tell you exactly what’s going on – but to give you the right prompts to keep you going on this adventure or to set a mood.
There’s a stage designing of phenomenology of sorts. You know, you’re being queued and sort of nudged into opening up or into feeling this way or indulging this fantasy or this romance.
And again, we’re playing with our minds and we’re playing with our own suggestibility. We’re sort of manipulating ourselves, but like on purpose,
ANDIE: Like Danger Ranger said, brainwash/ “wash your own brain.” [What’s that quote?]
the way we do when we go to a play. You know, like create this make believe thing that isn’t true, but that’s also more true than most things. I like playing in that space, and I realize that sometimes we take it too far. Perhaps there are people that are destabilized by this malleability of our perception and our thoughts and feelings.
ANDIE: Well sure, “Buy this” signs, for example. We get manipulated into buying things and to getting treatments we don’t need.
STUART: To me, even more profound is the absence of signaling. We are bombarded with messages, particularly through advertising and through branding. It’s super-saturated with commerce, and the absence of those messages to me creates an environment where Jesus, I gotta think for myself for a time. I gotta actually notice these other things.
Particularly with me, it’s outdoor advertising. I’ve spent a lot of time locked in combat with outdoor advertising because you don’t want to look at it, and you create mechanisms for blanking it out in your head and not looking at it. You’ve created a mindset that’s really about not seeing and not experiencing, right?
JASON: That’s right. Hundred percent. You’re protecting yourself from all of the people that want to sell you bullshit. Sometimes I really do think that to stay an interesting person requires a really strong mind and a real deep connection with your essential nature. To really know what you’re curious about, and to be strong enough, to ignore the things that are not going to serve that curiosity.
There’s a stubbornness that comes with, I think, staying interesting. You know what I mean? Staying interesting and interested rather than being numbed out and overwhelmed, which is so common these days.
STUART: The idea of Decommodification gets mistaken so often for simply a lack of commerce, when to me much more vital to that is the lack of advertising and branding and that ability to experience people in a direct sense. You talk about – you’re not being sold to; we assume very often in encounters with strangers that they’re gonna try to sell us something which makes it very difficult to have real authentic interactions with people because everybody’s in it for something.
These are ideas that are kind of pounded into us one ad at a time. So to me, there’s a certain freedom there to realize that products are not my desires, that brands are not people, and that there are real people here who aren’t just economic actors swimming in the same sea of commerce that I’m in.
ANDIE: Yeah. How often at Burning Man have you ever walked up and said “So what do you do?” That’s not a conversation you have out there, and you don’t get the social cues of what they’re wearing. Like, I can’t tell when you’re wearing a banana costume if you’re a doctor or a fry cook.
JASON: It’s an effect of the place. Like there’s a feeling, for example, like if you’re on a boat and you encounter another person on a boat, there’s like this kind of nod that we kind of have. You wave to strangers in a way you don’t in the default world because you’re both on boats. Same way, you’re biking or motorcycling, or maybe you’re doing a pilgrimage and you see another westerner that if you saw them anywhere else, you’d ignore them. But here you kind of look at each other. “Hey, man. What are you looking for? How’s your journey?”
Travelers have that camaraderie, and I think Burning Man is a highly concentrated version of that. We’re all like in this absurd place, in the middle of the desert, looking to grieve and laugh and extaculate all over ourselves, even though it’s like, “Why do you come to Burning Man?” Well, like I’m literally here to blow my mind wide open a thousand times over, to lose my way and find my way all at once and upside down and inside out. Bring it on.
I think human beings, we need that more than we’re willing to admit.
Elizabeth Gilbert, she wrote “Eat, Pray, Love”; she’s wonderful. She was talking about the characteristics of great art. She says there’s two characteristics of a great art in order for it to land. She says, great art has to paradoxically be both surprising and also inevitable. Surprising in that it makes you go, “I did not see that coming. There was no way I could have ever predicted that.” And then at the same time, it’s inevitable that it makes you go, “But of course.”
So I would say great art also includes a beautiful moment between two people; that’s art. If you’re at the Temple at Burning Man and you’re crying your eyes out, that’s art. Art isn’t just object-oriented. Art is a subjective experience of communion and catharsis and transformation, whatever it is, and surprise.
JASON: Of course, I’m bumping into my high school sweetheart to reconcile with her naked in the desert. Of course, she’s here now to give me a kiss and pick the broken pieces of my heart. That’s what makes great art. It’s surprising and also inevitable. That intersection is magic and that’s Jungian synchronicity.
Jordan Peterson says that’s an example of when the objective world and the narrative world touch. That’s it. When the narrative world and the objective world touch. That’s it.
STUART: And that is the philosopher’s stone right there.
JASON: Yes. Of course.
STUART: That’s the secret sauce, right? When you can get to there. You can describe where you were, but to back up and describe how you got there is a different matter entirely.
I want to move just one step over on the Venn diagram from magic into religiosity. There’s a line in the same wonderful piece that we achieve states of reverence where we can source from the holy to heal. How is that related to creating this kind of environment for open experience?
Is there a religious angle to Burning Man? I get asked all the time.
JASON: Absolutely. The religious impulse to me is more pluralistic than just like, you know, reading the Bible. When I say the religious impulse, I think when I’m moved to the point of tears, that is a reflection of the religious impulse.
Alain de Botton says you don’t cry when something is sad necessarily. Sometimes you cry because something is more beautiful than you expected it to be.
And then he’s like, “Well, what does that mean?” There’s a cognitive dissonance between what you thought something was or the limitations of the beauty of something, and then what you actually encountered exceeded your expectations of even the most beautiful thing that you possibly imagined. So when something is more beautiful than you expected it to be, or you’re seeing something that hints at the exception to the rule, that feels like divinity. In a world of death and aging and illness and loss, here I am beholding starlight. And that physiological reaction feels better than all the money in the world.
It’s like when Pico Iyer says “You don’t travel to move around. You travel in order to be moved.” Well, I need that. And I need that because to be moved to me is the antidote to existential despair.
It somehow resolves everything for me.
STUART: Yeah, we all do yearn for that. My favorite situationist was Raoul Vaneigem who wrote famously that even though God has been abolished, the pillars that once held him aloft still rise to an empty sky. That urge is in all of us to achieve those moments of transcendence, that thing that is larger than us.
You know, we talk about Burning Man being a humanist philosophy, but in a sense there’s also a transhumanist or superhumanist element to it there too, because we’re all looking for something bigger than just us shaved monkeys.
JASON: A hundred percent. Burning Man is a sort of templar of ecstatic technologies deployed to hurl us into domains of reverie and bliss and awe and wonder.
There’s a great science the subject matter of awe in positive psychology circles out of Berkeley and Stanford and places like this. And they describe awe as an experience of such perceptual expansion that these mental models of the world that we carry are forced into a state of accommodation.
We make these models of reality as we grow into adulthood, and these models, or these maps, this autopilot, the blueprint of the world that we keep in our heads, is what we use to orient ourselves.
So we’re not really like children exploring everything anymore. We’re like adults, and I know what’s up and I know where north and south is, and east and west, and I know this neighborhood. I can be busy thinking of other things as I orient myself in this world that has been mapped.
But then when you finally see something that exceeds those maps, it puts you in a state of accommodation – which is kind of similar to getting down on your knees, and like humility before something bigger than you.
JASON: Bigger than your maps, bigger than your calculations, bigger than your limitations. As F. Scott Fitzgerald says, finally, I’m compelled into aesthetic contemplation face to face with something commensurate to my capacity for wonder.
You know, my buddy once called me a cognitive ecstasy addict. But to me, the feeling of, some call it heightened qualitative intensity…
You guys know that Terence McKenna quote, where he’s talking about a baby lying on the crib and all of a sudden in the window there appears this majestic, sweeping, glistening, effervescent miracle, and the baby’s staring at it wide eyed. And then the mother says, “Honey, that’s a bird. That’s a bird,” and just collapses the miracle into a word, you know, that robs it of its mystery.
So I’m very intentional about wanting to see the thing before I call it what it is. You know, I forget which artist said it, but he says to see something is to forget the name of the thing you are seeing.
ANDIE: I know this one! Paul Valéry.
That’s it. And I’m not saying we have to live there all the time, because then we would just be astonished and disoriented and wouldn’t get anything done. But to pay regular visitation into that virginal noticing I find revitalizing. It just brings back an afterglow into the everyday.
ANDIE: So you’re carrying that into your quotidian activities and it helps you do better?
JASON: It helps you retain an ambiguity about what you know, and what you don’t know. It helps you be a little more humble. What is it Jerry Garcia said? “To get really high is to forget yourself, and to forget yourself is to see everything else.” So it kind of gets you past your self-involvement and your self-obsession.
And it just kind of shows you prejudgment, the places that you’ve mapped, but now you’re open to new information, perhaps accommodating yourself to new data for those maps. It’s a child-eye view. It’s a heightened plasticity.
And I think there’s no coincidence that in all this new psychedelic therapy science that’s coming out, they’re calling what happens in a psychedelic state.
I think it’s Robin Carhart Harris, the neuroscientist, he calls it ‘pivotal mental states,’ states of increased plasticity where deep adjustments can be made into the firmware. The basic maps, the basic limiting beliefs can be tweaked. And I think Burning Man is analogous to a psychedelic experience and analogously perhaps sort of engenders that pivotal mental state for that deep adjustment to transpire.
All of these things are speaking to the same process, I think.
STUART: And for many people, those two things do work together. I know a lot of transformative experiences at Burning Man are enabled, facilitated, or sped along by a psychedelic encounter.
JASON: And thank God we have (what are they called?) the harm-reduction places where people have bad trips at Burning Man?
JASON: Zendo. That’s important. Again because when you’re dissolving the boundaries of the self, and you’re becoming borderless, and you are encountering such acute otherness, you can also encounter fragments of your nightmarish shadow self. You know?
JASON: You might see things that you cannot handle and weren’t prepared to handle, and the adventure could go sour in a way that could be psychologically traumatic. It’s good to have a place to go that’s not just an emergency room.
STUART: Black Rock City has never been a safe space, even without psychedelics, for your psyche.
ANDIE: It’s already weird enough.
STUART: You’re going to have your mind blown and have to think for yourself even as it is. So yeah. They do the Lord’s work, as we say.
STUART: Hey, let’s talk about death.
ANDIE: Let’s lighten the mood a little.
JASON: I don’t like it.
STUART: I know you don’t because you talk about being afflicted with this overbearing awareness of our own mortality.
My experience is kind of the opposite, that having grown up in, particularly in American culture, death is shunted off into the broom closet.
STUART: You know, a lot of smart people like Jessica Mitford have written about how it’s just been sort of expunged from our culture.
And to me, that reinforcement of my own mortality is part of what happens to me every time I go to Black Rock City. I am reminded every time that Man burns that I’m one step closer to the grave.
And to me, that’s a positive thing, cause that’s a little kick in the ass to get going and to do those things that I was going to do someday, because I’m reminded that someday might not come.
Then I might, I might not finish this sent…
JASON: Yeah. I hear you, of course. And that kick in the ass is a positive side effect of mortality salience – if it does agitate you into not putting things off. If it wasn’t for that positive attribute, what is so positive about dying?
I remember reading this article about Umberto Eco where he was talking about his view on death. I actually would love to read it to you. “I am one of those people who don’t miss their youth because today I feel more fulfilled than ever.”
And then he says, he’s talking about his death,
“The thought that all that experience will be lost at the moment of my death makes me feel pain and fear. The thought that those who come after me will know as much as I do, and even more, fails to console me. What a waste, decades spent building up experience, only to throw it all away. It’s like burning down the Library of Alexandria, destroying the Louvre, or sending the beautiful, rich, and all-wise Atlantis to the bottom of the sea.
The stories we make up, compelling though they may be, are just an expression of our inevitable failure to preserve the only story worth preserving. No matter how much I pass on by writing about myself, or just these few pages, even if I were a Plato, Montaigne, or Einstein, I can never transmit the sum of my experience.
There has rarely been a more painfully lucid writer.”
That’s just how I feel about it. I think that we’re so precious and our interior life is so rich, and I just can’t fathom something so immeasurable being subject to entropy. It just doesn’t compute with my intuition. And yet, because I have no evidence of life after death, I’m forced to accept the despair of something immeasurable dying. How can something immeasurable die? I don’t know, but it hurts me to think about.
STUART: You have just outlined the fundamental problem that has led to the development of all religions since the beginning of human existence.
JASON: No doubt.
STUART: I don’t know, maybe I just get more stoic about it as I get older.
JASON: Of course.
STUART: As more people around me die, the influence of others dying is stronger on me then I imagine mine will be on myself because, I’m not going to be up in the rafters like Tom and Huck looking down on their own funeral.
ANDIE: Oh, I’m going to.
STUART: Are you going to dance on your own grave, Andie? That’d be awesome.
JASON: Often when I’m moved by something beautiful, I am ecstatic that I can feel such things. There’s this sort of metacognition where I’m just like, I’m moved, and then on top of the fact that
I’m moved, I’m so happy that I exist so that I can be moved.
And then I’m also grieving that it’s not forever. All those things are happening at once. And that’s a beautiful sadness. And it’s a tragic comedy. You know, we didn’t sign up for this.
There’s a guy called Alan Harrington. He said “Any philosophy that accepts death must itself be considered dead, its questions meaningless, its constellations worn out. We must never forget we are cosmic revolutionaries, not stooges conscripted to advance the natural order that kills everyone.” So that’s the kind of stuff that hints at my rebellious “I will not go quietly into that good night” part.
And maybe it’s because I still sort of think of myself as a young chap that can say these things, but there is the pain of seeing those we love get older, and just the pain of transience. The beautiful pain, but the pain nonetheless. And it’s beautiful because we’re beautiful because even our grief is beautiful. But it’s still fucking horrible.
STUART: You will find no bigger fan of Dylan Thomas than me. To me, it’s kind of like you have to believe both.
Someone said once that the way to live your life is to live every day as if you could die the next minute and to simultaneously think you’re going to live forever. That’s the only way that you can lead a full life, to balance those two things and just live with that cognitive dissonance that you don’t know when it’s going to happen.
JASON: We know the mechanics of our nervous system well enough to be able to bypass its capacity to quantify the passing of time.
David Lenson in his book On Drugs, on the phenomenology of altered states, he says the primary thing that gets metamorphosized during drug use is time. That’s what gets transformed.
And so to renounce an altered state of consciousness would be to renounce surprise and delight and poetry and spirituality, and all of these things that hint at aspects of reality beyond entropy, and just the passing of time.
For me, my relationship with the Dionysian is I have to pay regular visitation to the timeless. And the irony is I’m realizing how contradictory, how paradoxical – what do you mean, you pay regular visitation to the timeless?
STUART: Schedule? You have a schedule for your timelessness?
JASON: Yeah, I do. Exactly.
STUART: That’s the cognitive dissonance right there.
JASON: Correct. You have to… On a Tuesday. I’m about to go have eternity this Tuesday. From one to four we’re going to have eternity.
There is a phenomenological account of deep nowness, and it’s intoxicating. It’s what I live for, but, you know, time still passes, unfortunately. But that kind of keeps you young. I think sourcing from the timeless keeps you young because you can taste the vitality of somebody who is not subject to being encroached.
It’s like, you can get older, but you can avoid growing old, so to speak. And that comes from being somebody that regularly revivifies their spirit.
STUART: Don’t count the candles on your birthday cake.
JASON: I don’t.
ANDIE: Gah. There’s only going to be a few.
JASON: I gotta say, it’s nice to be here with you guys.
STUART: Well, I’m just thrilled to have somebody to lock horns with and agree and disagree simultaneously over a lot of aspects of Burning Man philosophy. It’s all about discourse. That’s how we figure things out is by talking it out. I’m a Socratist all the way down. So I think we’re going to have to continue this conversation.
Hey, it looks like we might actually be back to Black Rock City next year. You coming with me?
JASON: I would love to go back. I would love to go back.
STUART: You are invited. You’re actually volun-told to join the Philosophical Center at Burning Man 2022.
JASON: Rock and roll. I’m just really grateful for you guys having me. I just love what you guys are doing, and what the organization that you’re a part of facilitates for so many people in the world is so important and so beautiful, and also ambiguous in the way it ought to be, you know? It seems to be free of the corroding effects of ideology and it’s open-ended enough to choose your own adventure and come up with your own interpretation, and to that end, I salute you.
ANDIE: That’s wonderful to hear.
STUART: Oh my god, this has been so much fun.
ANDIE: Thank you so much!
STUART: OK, thank you so much Jason Silva for joining us. Thank you, Vav. Thank you, Andie. Thank you, all of you, for listening.
Burning Man Live is, and always will be a production of the Philosophical Center of Burning Man Project.
If you want more Jason Silva, tune into his podcast Flow Sessions. Also check out his YouTube show Shots of Awe.
Burning Man Live is a production of the Philosophical Center of Burning Man Project, and unlike other forms of spontaneous combustion, it doesn’t just set itself on fire.
Big appreciations to Michael Vav, our Tech Producer and Story Editor; Andie Grace, Producer and frequent Co-Host; and our illustrious guest producers and occasional co-hosts: Logan Mirto, Rosie Lila, Dicky Davies, and who knows, maybe you. I don’t know. Call me. I’m Stuart Mangrum.
Our show introduction was designed by Jay Kanizzle, mutated by Vav, and voiced at various times by a variety of fine humans, including Molly Vikart, Anjelika Petrochenko, Laura Dane, LadyBee,
Molly Rose, Caboose, and this week’s invisible friend of the show, Sunny Disclaimer.
Thanks also to Kristy Neufeld, Deets Shay, and Leslie Moyer of the Burning Man Communications team for getting the word out, to the Philanthropic Engagement team for keeping the lights on, and to each and every one of you who threw a few bucks into the kitty at donate.burningman.org.