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Paris and the Single Dose

Taking the Kohaku Challenge —

haku2

Previously I have written about my daughter Eliza’s reaction, as a two-month old child, to the sight of a neighbor’s cat leaping up onto the garden wall up where it turned to look back at us, tail twitching in the bright sunlight. Pointing at this emissary from a land of gorgeous dreams, Eliza’s plump-fat baby legs kicked straight out, and she turned to me, eyes wide, to make sure I too had witnessed the miracle. A few years passed before I again observed anything as splendid as Eliza’s first cat-encounter, and it happened at midway through Hiyao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, which we were watching on our big TV.

The heroine of the film, Chihiro (also known as Sen) has saved her friend Haku from the evil sorceress, Yubaba. Haku, who is sometimes a boy, but now appears as a beautiful dragon, green and white. He is crazed after his battle with Yubaba, and fatally wounded too, his blood flying everywhere, gouting the walls. Rising to the occasion, Chihiro grabs the snarling dragon by his jaws, and buries her thin arm deep into his gullet. Depositing a magic pellet there, she uses all the strength in her scrawny body to hold the dragon’s snout closed, preventing him from spitting the medicine back up. Watching this remarkable feat of courage, Eliza lit-up the way she had in our back garden – her eyes wide, her legs kicking out. For a few moments, Miyazaki’s art had returned her to the brilliant immediacy of the moment.

In his “The Trip Treatment” a few issues back in The New Yorker, Michael Pollan describes studies once again being done on psychoactive substances. One of the challenges the researchers face while conducting these comparative studies is how to conceal who the control subjects are; those given actual doses of psilocybin tend to announce themselves in florid ways — laughing uncontrollably for minutes at a time, prancing around and proclaiming the sacredness of all they see. Toward the end of the article, Pollan describes how psilocybin and other hallucinogens do not excite the brain so much as reduce activity in a neurological structure scientists have only been aware of since 2001: the default-mode network (dmn). In passing, Pollan notes that children exist in a state in which the dmn has not yet developed: “they are tripping all the time,” comments another researcher. And then the default-mode network arrives to help restrain any operations of the frontal cortex that are not oriented toward the mind’s sober, problem-solving capacities – think of it as your inner Republican.

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Locking your own personal dmn into a closet for a couple of hours with the help of a psycho-active substance, is, by all accounts, a transformational experience. The new research Pollan cites is focused on the out-sized effects such substances have on patients in hospice care confronting the certainty of death in the near future. With a single dose, Pollan reports, patients are relieved of depression and anxiety, as well as any lingering addictions that might be complicating their glide path into the beyond. A psilocybin trip is one of those experiences you have and, yes, everything from then on is forever altered. After only a few seconds on these drugs you know certain very basic things about the capacities of the mind. This knowledge, which can also be acquired through meditation practices, according to Pollan, is inherently threatening to the status quo, and it must be handled with care.

For the remainder of the article, Pollan, along with the researchers he cites, takes pains to qualify any criticism of the dmn, which they position as the foundation of a healthy ego, the pinnacle of life’s achievements, etc. This tip-toeing sensitivity is easy to understand given the three-decades long caesura in research into psychoactive substances that followed Timothy Leary’s un-modulated embrace of the substances in the 1960s, and his zealous advocacy of LSD as an instrument of social change. In The New Yorker, a very sober young empiricist (Robin Carrhart-Harris of Imperial College, London) nevertheless describes how the default-mode network comes to dominate perception, reducing all to a kind of “trickle” in the grip of the “overbearing ego and the rigid, habitual thinking it enforces.”

Recently with Eliza, now 14 years old, the necessary movie to see was Olivier Assayas’s The Clouds of Sils Maria with Juliette Binoche and the much-admired Kristin Stewart in the leading roles. Oblique and wry in its star-gazing, the film traces the operation of a cultural machine centered around an aging movie star (Binoche). Assayas is focused on a perspectival shift that takes place in the star’s appraisal of the dynamic between two fictional characters in a piece of theater that launched her career. Cast now in the role of the older woman, Binoche’s character pivots into a new world view, the change symbolized by another dragon, a serpentine cloud formation that winds in through the passes between the Swiss alps. Skating the edge of the preciousness that has always ruined the films of Eric Romer for me, Sils Maria swerved close at time to a parody of French-i-tude, but the film also reminded me of Assayas’s quite remarkable work in the 2010 German mini-series Carlos. That narrative also turns around elusive shifts in the cultural matrices of power and knowledge, leaving the rock-star revolutionary Carlos (aka, The Jackal) bewildered and paranoid after the fall of the Berlin wall, as vulnerable in his African exile as a beached whale.

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What struck me as most remarkable about Carlos was how it called back the staggeringly different cultural tone of the 1970s—embodying what Raymond Williams calls a “structure of feeling” from that time. Shifts in such structures (although technically I don’t really believe anything is structured in this way) result in altogether different assumptions about the possible, re-defining the choices we make with an alarming circularity. Again in Sils Maria we encounter the feeling, greatly subdued, of a fundamental shift taking place in our sense of what is possible. The implications are disconcerting. We are encouraged to be skeptical of our own common sense view of things: whenever we are certain we are right, we are invited to know that we are wrong. This, in turn, leads to the question of how it might be possible to navigate on a collective level without certainty, constructing the world as we go. We are thrown back into an aesthetic realm of engagement and relationality without reified generalities—Capitalism, Democracy, Justice, Truth—providing their false light along paths to nowhere. The political here comes to resemble the artistic process–a slow feeling-one’s-way-across-a-dark-room in the mode of not-knowing, or, to use philosophical language, aporia.

Framing things this way leads to a re-evaluation of our historical situation. The default mode network can be thought of as an element in our neurological software that needs a radical update. For much of our history as a species a tremendous asset, the dmn inexorably insures that the power to determine collective action falls to those least adept at “meta-cognitive processes such as self-reflection, mental time travel, rumination, and ‘theory of mind’–the ability to attribute mental state to others.” As if in the grip of an inexorable ratchet, our fate increasingly gets determined by those ruled instead by (again) “an overbearing ego and the rigid, habitual thinking it enforces,” those who have given up (in the words of Carrhart-Harris) their “ability to be open to surprises…to think flexibly, and…to value nature.” Inexorably externalized over thousands of years into the symbolic, political and economic structures that prevent an adaptive response to over-consumption, the default-mode network has today become a mortal threat to the survival of the species.

Thankfully, for the past few years a group of colleagues and I have been exploring a practical program for changing this infernal trajectory through an initiative designed to loosen the grip the dmn exerts on our collective life. Our highly secret Project Kohaku is rooted in the fact that social collectives have a version of the default mode network, and they are not hard to find. Inspired by Bill McKibben’s 350.org, we identified a select group of government ministers, corporate executives and leaders of global finance. Aiming for potent leveraging effects, we recruited (never mind how) a large group these conspicuously placed individuals for a one-day, medically-supervised psilocybin retreat called a “Captain’s Voyage.” Each “Captain” was attended to by a crack medical team, all of whose members signed strict non-disclosure agreements prohibiting any communication about what transpires on the “Voyage.” Photography and any form of audio-video recording were, of course, also strictly forbidden. Initial results from these Voyages – measured in terms of alterations in corporate policy, personal philanthropy, and new governmental initiatives and programs geared toward the peaceful resolution of long-standing conflicts – could not be more promising.

Cameron

I can’t divulge too much at this stage about Project Kohaku, though I have to say these are some big, big names (Prime Ministers, anyone?) But, after operating in secret for several years, we are about to open our lists to public inspection…and much more. In Paris, in December of this year, Bill McKibben’s 350.org will hold its march on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), seizing the last best chance to put the genie of climate change back into the bottle. In the last days leading up to this march, we will announce the identity of our 350 Captains to the world, and in spectacular fashion too. Arm-in-arm along the Champs-Élysées, these leaders have agreed to form a long executive conga line, and then to perform an immaculate can-can as they chant in unison Haku’s transformational declaration from Spirited Away: “I WAS THE SPIRIT OF THE KOHAKU RIVER!” Obviously, we intend to capitalize on the presence of the world media to demonstrate once and for all that our collective dmm is, in fact, capable of relaxing its grip in the interests of our common survival. In this way we launch our internal complement to the changes McKibben and Co. are advocating on the external, social level.

Project Kohaku is the kind of campaign I would never have imagined possible, but, in fact, it would be only the beginning if I weren’t making it up entirely. Moving forward, the program could be re-configured for less exalted individuals, so you would be advised to stay tuned. By harnassing the transformational magic associated with dragons of all kinds, I would be able to say, we can together make the most of our moment in time.

Comments

  1. Wow. You dropped a just bomb there!

    To quote another bomb, this time “The Population Bomb” by Anne and Paul Erlich: “Scientific analysis points, curiously, toward the need for a quasi-religious transformation of contemporary cultures.”

    God Speed!

  2. dov rudnick says:

    Fascinating read. Brings up a lot. It has been twenty years since the days when I might drop LSD but I remember the gist of the after-effects, that my sense of the nature of consciousness could never be the same…and yet daily social life requires some kind of sameness and common ground that we may at least work together and find common cause in any number of mundane activities with any number of folks….What interests me in this piece is that you point to what, in my mind, has become increasingly obvious, that we are in desperate need of a spiritual connection to the natural world…the word “connection” almost too weak. we need to feel the waves of a living world course through our veins if there is any hope for the radical changes required in human civilization. I applaud you in your work and pray that you are serious.

  3. A tripping commentary, Guy! Could I be 351st? If so, count me in on your march — although I think you give frontal lobes a bum wrap. This may be for a future conversation.

  4. Thank you, Janet, and, of course, I’ll put you down. Actually it’s crucial to point out that the default mode network exists to restrain and delimit the kind of operations the frontal lobe is allowed to do. There is nothing anti frontal lobe about this research. For what it’s worth.

  5. …………… and so much more cums to mind…..ken kesey…… yesssss… and one must re-read Howl, Dharma Bums and the Tentative Description of a Dinner Given to Promote the Impeachment of President Eisenhower…… and listen to every lp that came out between Rubber Soul and Dark Side of the Moon……….. and study cultural constructions…. because meanings just keep shifting…. the relationship between theatre and hallucinogens among the greeks and the peyote vision quest of the first americans and drugs and homosexuality in the brazillian jungle……. but here’s a little crumb ….. found this so interesting…. a writer suggested some years ago that psychedelics in the u.s. were about protest, political change and dropping out of the rat race ….. but in england they had a different set of associations …. with a rekindling of a mystical past and a return to childhood… hence, when jimmy hendrix got high he set the national anthem on fire whereas lennon and mccartney made Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane about places of childhood transformation and terror……… there was a time when the biggest rock stars in the world encouraged everyone to take drugs to expand their minds……. does that seem like a very long distance away now or just around the corner……?

  6. Jeremy says:

    Guy, will you and your family move to Montana so you can home school my children?

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