Tuesday, September 7, 2010


It was quickly becoming clear to me that the strangest thing on this trip was not the ayahuasca, but what the people who drank the ayahuasca believed. A lot of people believed in a cosmic order of things: we have a purpose, everything happens for a reason, that when we die our energy or our soul will recombine with the universe in an endlessly repeating cycle. All of these things are pretty common New Age fare, and with only a slight change in wording are as fundamental to most religions as they are resistant to any kind of rigorous scientific analysis. But the belief system that really got me was Human Design, which you can sort of describe as the German engineering version of some these sentiments. Pretty much everybody I spoke to was into the stuff - which for those of you who haven't been taking notes, was a system for understanding who you are and what your strengths, weaknesses and destinies are, based on the date and time of your birth. If you are thinking "that sounds a lot like astrology," I would have to agree. However, its adherents would insist otherwise. They claim that it is a completely scientific system. I've yet to get the science about it, but I did like what the system recommends that I do: float around, not work, assess things quickly. To my mind, the fact that it was appealing made it all the more suspect - we are easily lulled into believing that which we find attractive.

The Ryder, the guy from whom I was renting part of a house, was a big proponent of Human Design. It turned out that he was a professional: giving people Human Design readings and guidance was actually his job; this had taken me sometime to ascertain since jobs were so rare in this town that it seemed impolite to ask about them. He was not at all put off by my skepticism - a rare thing in hippielandia, which is often filled with circular reasoning and an us/them magic world vs. material world animosity, in which few people seem willing to bridge the gap between whatever twinkles they see and the world of concrete that we all see - and simply suggested I learn enough about the system to attempt to understand some of its basic predictions/suggestions and see if they were useful. Hard to argue with that.

Looking at Human Design would turn out to be less about looking at Human Design and more about looking at how I decide what to believe, a theme that echoed throughout my whole trip to Brazil, but we'll get to that shortly.

One night, I overheard The Ryder describing a particular element in someone else's Human Design makeup, which sounded kinda familiar. The string of thoughts this would result in turned out to be the first step into the murky waters of a possible magical world that on the one hand seems as foolish and starry-eyed as you could imagine and on other hand I've never been able to complete wash off. My memory is imperfect, but basically the trait had to do with really being ruled by one's emotions; if this trait wasn't properly addressed you would be battered about by the constantly changing turbulence of your emotions and always left somewhat desperate and unsure. There was a way to work with this so it actually turned out to be hunky-dory (part of it was never making decisions on the spot), but the specifics don't even matter so much. What did matter was that it sounded like he was describing my partner, Kali-Kava, as if he'd known her for years.

Figuring out if that was actually in her "Design" seemed like a pretty good first real assessment of the system's validity. A few days later I got her birth info and it turned out that this trait was in her Design. That was a little weird, but not as weird as the rest of her Design, which even in the very brief version he gave produced on the spot, described to a tee It was one of the most uncanny moments of my life. I was kind of excited, because I like the idea of a strangely magical and logical world, but it really seemed like it must be a trick or a coincidence; I felt like I should poke around till I found the mirror behind the curtain that was producing this illusion. However, it was a moonlit night on a porch in the middle of Brazil, and Kali-Kava was thousands of miles away, and I don't think she had ever been closer to Brazil than Miami. It marked the beginning of a very subtle sea change in my understanding of the universe. Hearing a person's character so accurately described by someone who'd never met her, based just on her birth info, kinda put everything up for reassessment. If something this crazy could be true, really everything was up for grabs. It was exciting and a little eerie.

I haven't yet researched Human Design fully, but my contemplation of it has caused me to give considerably more thought to how I decide what to believe, and what I consider to be "Truth." To contemplate such heady questions, it seems fitting that we start with a quote from a bonafide French Philosopher, one Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard:

(To give due credit, I should mention found this quote in Breaking Open The Head, the book by another skeptical New Yorker, Daniel Pinchbeck who, curiously enough is also trying to come some conclusions about shamanism and psychedelia. I'm reading this book now, and I like it for the reasons people like it - vivid and brave descriptions of pooh-poohed and marginalized subject matter, and more importantly, excellent summaries of other, more daring books. I also find his book annoying for the reasons people find it annoying: the weirdly distant skinny hipster detachment he has to the whole process and the degree to which he lets fear define his drug experiences.)

In any case, here's Lyotard:

'Being prepared to receive what thought is not prepared to think is what deserves the name of thinking.'

As far as I can see, opening your mind involves not just taking in new information, but putting the whole operation of your mind up for revision. My approach right now is to basically throw every way I have of believing out the window and see how much sense it makes as its battered and bleeding form tries to struggle back inside. We'll call it the 4 Habits of Highly Defenestrated Epistemologies.

1) The first thing that had to go was the importance given to the knee-jerk assessment of veracity as a function of the speaker. By nature, I'm skeptical of hippies and BP's PR people -- generally anything really far left or far right. This is not so much because I don't think anything out there could be true, but if you're out there, it seems pretty likely to me that you've been listening to one frequency too long to be accurate. So if stuff is coming from way out, I really need to see a bridge from there to something familiar, or a pretty in-depth blueprint of the construction or the island you're on. That stuff tends to be difficult for hippies , because a lot of times they have an opposition to or serious lack of facility with all that mechanistic logic that allows you to build that stuff. And since it's not a real big part of their life, they don't need it to be there to accept something as true. Without really seeing the mechanism, I'm very suspicious of those worlds. However, as I realized upon reflecting on the whole procaine situation, I'd gone a little gung ho with suspicion; just because you haven't in this moment been given a clear explanation, that doesn't mean something's not real. I - and I imagine a lot of people who consider themselves to be intelligent and skeptical (two of my favorite traits) - would tend to discard things at this point. When presented with a foreign idea whose explanation we find inadequate, instead of digging around for a better explanation, one disregards the idea. It's quick and it's effective for making sure you're not buying into fairy dusted horseshit, but it can be a very 'baby-with-the-bath-water' approach. As such, I've been a) putting a lot of energy into not disregarding what someone says based solely on the number of crystals they're wearing around their neck, which is in itself a huge study in self-restraint and b) being open to the possibility that the presentation of a freaky idea by someone who doesn't have the information or the kind of concrete thinking skills that I think of as making beliefs real, doesn't mean that it's automatically untrue. A poorly presented but fascinating argument doesn't necessarily make its conclusion false; worse, it leaves the curious and intellectually rigorous listener with task of digging around till they find, or fail to find something logical enough to support the conclusion. Which is somewhere in between the definition of an open mind and the pain in the ass.

2) Even though I love logic and mechanical explanations, and they are the metric by which I measure the validity of many things, they're not perfect. I can think of three major problems with logic. 1) First of all, by the time you've reduced anything that can be handled by 'logic,' you've simplified it. You've taken out some of the shades of grey, you've rubbed off the hard edges, you've shaped it into something solid and concretely manipulable. Which is awesome. And it's how the internet and space travel and iphones can exist. But it's not good enough for an absolutely rock solid understanding of what is real or a complete explanation of how the universe works. 2) Logic is a construction. It may be an incredibly powerful and valuable construction, but it is a construction. Without being expert in any of them, I can tell you that no system of logic, no physical science, no economic model is perfect, simply because there's more than one, and people debate and make improvements on them all the time. Logic is an evolving enterprise. It would follow therefore, that it couldn't possibly be the absolute truth. It's not done yet. 3) Then you have to actually use it, which is to say simplified representations of the world are put into imperfect models by even more imperfect human beings. The capacity for error is, well, Titanic. Worse, just like any other construction, the more you build, the more significant any minor integrity issues become. If you build a table and one of the say ten pieces of wood in the table is an eighth of an inch short, it might be a little rocky. If you build a skyscraper with the same margin of error, the foundation could be crooked by an inch or two and by the time you get only a couple dozen stories high, you've got something completely unsustainable. Of course, you can be more precise, which is why it's possible to build sky scrapers, but the nature of the universe is infinitely more complicated then municipal construction. Moreover, it's much harder to know when you're in error. A child can tell if a skyscraper is crooked. A good engineer can tell by looking at the blueprints how stable it will be. But the finest minds in the world alternately win Nobel Prizes or go insane troubleshooting more sophisticated logical constructions in physics or economics. And that stuff is infinitely simpler than the ultimate nature of the universe. The real problem with logic is the amount of faith we have in it. People who consider themselves to be somewhat fluent in its language value it so much that they mistake its constructions for reality. We believe in logic. We believe in things we believe to be logical. And most people with any amount of intellectual discipline hold logic as both the ultimate measuring stick of truth and the sword with which to vanquish the pretenders. Logic, like religion, can easily become a dangerous devotion to a belief system that blinds you to what is actually real. I'm not saying it's not great, I'm not saying I'd feel safe going to the deli to get yet another priced carton of coconut water without it, merely that we would be as foolish to fail to recognize its limitations as we would be to abandon it completely.

3) At pretty much the opposite end of the spectrum is a more visceral, trust-your-intuition type approach. I've always been a big fan of this for assessing yourself, your motivations and most of all, other people. It succeeds for all the reasons logic does not. There's no constructions, no confusion, just a simple feeling. I often hear people trying to assess potential lovers, sublettors or employees based initially on credit reports, a string of check boxes from match.com, college attended or some other quantification ready metric. That stuff seems very valuable and real to me, but it's clear to me that the first sorting should take place in your gut.

I came to these conclusions in a fairly organic and unsophisticated manner, but over the years I have learned that people have delved into this idea with great ferocity. Kinesiology holds that your body can tell the truth from a lie, whether certain foods or nutrients are good for you at this exact moment and many other things as demonstrable in a clearly measured muscle test. This is definitely well into the deep left approach to medicine, but there are some studies that support it. The Human Design people are all about deep body truth called the Sacral Response. I heard something on Radiolab the other day about actual non-hippie scientists at Columbia discovering that the body (as measured by pulse, blood pressure, sweat excretion, etc.) was better able to recognize the subjects own voice then the conscious brain. For real. Yeah, body more accurate then brain. And there has also been a great deal of research recently into the intelligence of the enteric nervous system, the second largest collection of neurons in your body which located in your… gut. Apparently your gut has some pretty interesting things to say to you and none of them have the complexity or fallibility of the intellect. Most of the studies so far are about the effect on mood and disease, but the field is just in its infancy, and from an article in Scientific American:

"U.C.L.A.'s Mayer's work with the gut's nervous system has led him to think that in coming years psychiatry will need to expand to treat the second brain in addition to the one atop the shoulders."

So I think there is a lot to be said for this kind of visceral, flash of an eye response. However, I don't think it's perfect. I call my sublettors' references before I actually let them move in. The brainier perspective is definitely important. Moreover, the gut method is fraught with potential problems. First and foremost, I think you have to be pretty honest with yourself and really clear in order for it to work. Second of all, people who eschew logic wind up believing in all sorts of things that aren't true; some people's guts are on crack, and some confuse their guts with a whim, or fantasy, or crowd mentality or any number of other things. One of the great virtues of logic is that it is possible to look at its component parts and attempt to trouble shoot it. It's pretty hard to check the origins of a feeling that comes from inside you for manufacturing defects.

So here we have another important, but imperfect method for understanding the world.

4) Direct access to truth. This is sort of the super extreme version of trusting your gut. Basically, you just pay really close attention to your belly button and you figure the meaning of life and the course of the stars through the universe. This is meditation, taoism, shamanism, etc. The basic idea is that through some kind of concentrated focus or meditation, without with the addition of some kind of holotropic agent, music, dancing or some other catalyst, you can ascertain the workings of your body and the universe as whole. We'll throw into this category channeling, noetic knowledge and plausible explanations for the ridiculously-accurate-but-telescope-free Mayan astronomy or any similar ancient knowledge whose origin defies explanation. Basically, all the really weird shit. It's ridiculous, except that it has yielded some remarkable successes. The origin of the basic principles of taoism - and by extension Chinese medicine, amongst things - basically came from people sitting really still and paying very close attention to what their organs told them. And when they got bored with that, they used the same methods to come to an understanding of the universe as vibrating waves of energy, something western science has only cottoned to in the past few generations. Less unequivocally, people argue the prevalence of the snake in ayahuasca visions is actually an awareness of the double helix in the DNA and that the ability to work directly with this energy, and thereby affect expression of the individual's genetic information is the means by which very powerful shaman can heal diseases. The second is some far lefty thought. The first is in so many books it almost seemed silly to even waste a sentence writing it down. As a way of ascertaining truth, it has all the pluses and minuses of the gut reaction times ten million. Basically you can figure some real deep stuff out, but since no one else can even use the same microscope it's pretty hard to verify or analyze the results.

But acupuncture does work pretty damn well.

The reason I'm traipsing through all these ways of looking at things is not because I find typing such to be such a fascinating activity, but because I find myself having too many conversations with people who are really invested in just one of them, or put too much faith in those conclusions they have drawn from just one of them, be it some sacred bit of channeled knowledge that is beyond reproach or that the current most advanced scientific understanding of something-or-other that they find to be equally beyond reproach. And I think that's pretty naive. I don't believe that we as a human race have a complete system for understanding anything more complicated then billiard ball type classical mechanical events. I think a lot of our overzealous faith in logic comes from those things which it easily describes. There was a time when certain learned Europeans, which is to say the people from whom we inherited most of what we considerate be 'thought,' considered classical mechanics to be a perfect and complete system. And understandably so, because this was the Enlightenment: giddy and drunken with the power of reason, which in its heady and prodigious youth had burst free from the tyrannical triumvirate of fear, superstition and religion that preceded it and set about building a playground of wonderful and useful machines out of clear, finite and measurable pieces. People thought they could take that clarity and extend off the billiards table into the whole universe. And that was their hubris and to an extent ours, if we put too much faith in any scientific system, (or more damagingly, if we just don't consider it, because as these people are very much our intellectual forefathers, we have simply been inundated with the perspective since day one. If we don't all do a little defenestrating, we'll just believe that this is reality). If you go far enough, any system of understanding breaks down. Classical mechanics was great for falling apples but really went to hell once you looked inside an atom. Staying with physics, which is held up as the height of rationality and is the logically-minded man's completely-unassailable path to the meaning of the universe, even the modern theories still don't work with each other. Quantum mechanics, - the part of physics that looks inside the atom's most popular interpretation "The Copenhagen Interpretation," sees increasingly smaller subatomic particles that have a paradoxical ability to exist not in a single place, but as probability that they will be in a range of places, a concept that should make anyone's head spin with confusion, but also sounds like the dancing waves of energy that adherents of Eastern spiritual practices had figured and gotten perfectly comfortable with thousands of years ago by staring at their belly button eight hours a day - does not correspond with the other big part of physics, general relativity, which gives us, amongst other things, gravity.

On the simple: you can either have a nuclear power plant to power your city, or you can have the gravity to hold the power plant in place. Can't have both in same theory. You could argue that we'd be better off without either, but since they're both here, I would say a complete theory would have to explain both. And it doesn't. But it does get worse. A friend of mine who actually has a background in physics pointed out to me that "Superposition" is just the leading interpretation of quantum mechanics (further evidence for inconclusiveness of anything we call science ) and that "other areas of science also don't fit together in practice but are assumed to fit together - which is probably a good assumption but it is interesting to note - for example, virtually none of chemistry is derivable from physics - similarly very little of biology is derivable from chemistry - we assume that if we had enough computing power we could derive one from the other, but we haven't actually done it, and it is probably computationally impossible," so I am done hopping that all understandings of the universe could be held in the same hand. And I'm also done believing that one is the ultimate truth. Maybe those kids at CERN will figure it out, maybe it's in the next glass of ayahuasca, but really, I don't think we're gonna get there any time soon.


there is some even weirder stuff to consider, such as the somewhat unique nature of 'source monitoring' in western culture - which basically is a somewhat cryptic way of saying we're the only ones who give no real credence to our dreams, visions or hallucinations, but I'll stop for know. I'm just saying I've really given a lot of thought to clarifying not only what I believe to be true, but also, the mechanisms by which I assess truth, because I don't think that mine, or anyone's for that matter, are perfect.

All of this is a little maddening, but it reminds of me of something I heard the moderator say at a conference I attended this spring. In thanking one of the presenters of a fascinating but frustratingly-inconclusive paper, the moderator commented that like most good research, the most remarkable thing is that it suggests further paths for research and raises more questions then it answers.

Just in case I haven't been clear: I'm trying to deliver questions, not answers.

There are arguments in favor of eschewing logic almost completely-- that it is a hinderance in the understanding of the true nature of the universe or, humanity or (as Kali-Kava insists) at least the feminine nature. This is an argument that I'm going to state without really having much of a conclusion about either way, but I have to say, I think logic or anything constructed or abstract is often a latecomer in the cycle of awareness.

For example, it's pretty easy to argue that music is often the leading edge for the majority of youth/cultural movements. The first thing the kids have to say, they say it in music. We even name our movements after the type of music - punk, hip-hop, emo. The reason why there are more twenty year old rockstars than novelists isn't just because playing guitar is more likely to get you laid, it's because the genesis of expression is preverbal (which may also be why playing guitar is more likely to get you laid). And pre-logic and pre-symbolism and pre-everything constructed. The first awareness comes from within and the first utterance is rhythmic, it's a gurgle, it's a scream or a desperate gasp for air. Eventually, we spin that into something more concrete, more able to be manipulated and constructed into something that can be communicated more abstractly, and we call it language, or philosophy. And just as science brand science has only recently been able - with all its wonderful logic and precise measurements - to describe the movements of celestial bodies as accurately as the Mayans, or arrive at the understanding of subatomic particles which is implicit in eastern philosophies, it seems perfectly reasonable to me that all sorts of things, including perhaps Human Design, the shamanic/psychedelic understanding of the world, or even things that seem to me totally cornball, like elves and auras, will eventually be found and understood by a kind of science and a kind of logic more advanced than what we have at our disposal now. Remember, the earth was once flat and the center of the universe. So although I'm not about to jump on board with logic as hinderance, it seems pretty easy for me to imagine that the kind of logic with which we are familiar may be totally inadequate to comprehend realities that perceived by more direct means, in the way that the 19th century telescope was totally inadequate to be able to perceive a quark.

Before I was in Brazil, I looked at lot of things, particularly hippyish things, with a perspective I'll dumb down as 'I am here, in logic, and whatever craziness could only be valuable if it can make it to me here.' However, what I have found to be useful while considering the world of weirdness is to see how far one can extend into the realms of the strange, without completely losing a foundation of rationality. I found the world is a lot more interesting of a place when I stopped looking for proof that things were true and started to see if I could find a perspective, which could incorporate the 'far out' while still retaining the stabilizing influence of logic. In any case, looking at things in this light is an uncertain endeavor and does have the downside of leaving you with a lot of interesting ideas that you can't completely defend or discard, but honestly, irrespective of substances, I find this kind of perspective to be catalytic to a much more colorful world. And to the extent that you find what I'm writing about to be interesting, I would invite you to consider the possible utility (and entertainment value) of approaching things from this 'could it be true, could I stay in me (and by my extension my invaluable logic/belief system), but get to there…' angle, as opposed to ruling things out because they are too far out, because the person who said them looks weird or that they do not immediately come with a bridge to what you consider to be rational or familiar.

The greatly simplified explanation for the mechanism of Human Design is that the stars are sending an every changing pattern of tinny, massless subatomic particles called neutrinos out into the universe (this is also true in science brand science as well) which influence our sun, (not sure if that makes it into regular science) whose neutrino output at the moment of our birth imprints our 'Design.' That part is not in science brand science and I am not at all in the business of trying to get that to hold up in a court of law, but walking home that night, and the subsequent ayahuasca voyages, I looked up at the stars and I have to say I could very readily believe they were watching over me and wanted to be happy.

But of course, I was high.

* * *

A few things you may find interesting related to all this.

I first read about the similarities in the perspective of quantum mechanics and eastern spirituality in a book called The Dancing Wu-Li Masters. It was written in the '70's so it's not exactly up-to-date, but it gets the idea across pretty well.

Regarding the ayahuasca/shaman/healing/snake/DNA thing, Jeremy Narby is supposed to be the man. He has book I've not read called The Cosmic Serpent, DNA and the Origin of Knowledge.

Regarding the gut brain thing, there is a book I also haven't read called The Second Brain by Michael Gershon, which is well summarized in this NYT article.


The Radiolab show I referenced is here:

the whole thing is fascinating, but the part about your body recognizing it's own voice is about 49 minutes in.

And there is yet another recent Radiolab about words, which has at xx has a segment about a woman who suffers a stroke and loses her language (temporarily) which thrusts here into a universe in which there in which her life is pure experience - completely devoid of the constructions of thought, logic and language; she makes it sound beautiful.
starts 31 minutes in

This original story is available from TED:

and, from the so there department,


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