Baby Wipe Communique(excerpted from the revised and expanded edition of
Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia)
Right before Labor Day every year, the temporary nation of Burning Man sprouts up for a week in the Nevada desert. A mix of festival, survivalist challenge, outdoor museum, and performance art spectacle, it is populated by the world's largest concentration of half-naked freaks. They're practical half-naked freaks, though. Since water and food and electricity are absent in that barren landscape, the determined revelers have to bring their own. The dangerous celebration culminates on a Saturday night, when fire-dancers bearing torches ignite a 60-foot-tall wooden and neon effigy -- the Burning Man.
During my maiden voyage there in 2001, I got sunburned in 100-degree heat, rarely slept for more than five hours a night, ate mostly canned tuna and dried fruit, had to drink water constantly to avoid dehydration, collected blowing dust in my ears, nose, and eyes -- and had the best time of my life. Forget Maui and the south of France and Florence, Italy: Burning Man was the closest I'd ever come to living in heaven on earth.
Its most deeply relaxing element was the absence of money, advertisements, and commerce. The community was run as a gift economy. Nothing was for sale except ice and coffee. When goods and services were exchanged, it was because they were given freely. This was beyond bartering. You didn't trade your treasure for another's treasure; you just handed yours over, no strings attached.
A second utopian feature of the festival was protection from media assault. There may have been some hopeless TV addicts among my 26,000 fellow citizens, but I never spied a single telltale rectangular glow emanating from a tent or RV. Corporate logos and advertising were banished, too, as well as all signs of America's other best and brightest brainwashers, like The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and The New York Times. Nor did any of Clear Channel's 130 radio stations infect me with their fake music and zombie newscasts. Within 24 hours of slipping into the safe haven of Burning Man's propaganda-free zone, I felt as if I had come home.
But my sense of sanctuary was not merely built on the absence of America's toxic culture. My new power spot was filled with things I loved: allies as smart and interesting as I am, most of whom were committed to being creators rather than spectators; car-free streets filled with bicyclists and pedestrians; gold top hats and green silk pantaloons and blue velvet frock coats and bras made of rubber shark masks; good, often surprising music and lots of places to dance; the Born Again Pagan Church of Lascivious Feminism, the Polyester Pagoda of the Palpitating Pulpit, and countless other homemade religions that included divine mischief in their ceremonies.
Everywhere I wandered I encountered exuberant, large-scale works of art. The elegant and improbable "Mausoleum: Temple of Tears" was made entirely of recycled wooden dinosaur puzzles. It hosted a steady flow of visitors, many in tears, who came to write messages on the walls, mourning or honoring their departed friends and loved ones.
Not far from the Mausoleum was the "Plastic Chapel," a two-story-high church whose facade was a mosaic of brightly colored pieces of plastic salvaged from dumps and junkyards all over Nevada and California. Here, priests and priestesses of every variety presided over roguish, rowdy, and puckish weddings. A few of the ceremonies were legal in the eyes of the state. But many joined together conclaves of polyamorous experimentalists for whom a two-person union was not inclusive enough. I myself officiated at a mass ritual in which everyone in a crowd of 300 got married to himself or herself.
Of the hundreds of sculptures and installations and murals and labyrinths and decorated vehicles packed into the eight-square-mile expanse, not all were sublime works of art. But some were, and many others were at least provocative, amusing, and aesthetically pleasing, even to a tough critic like me. My imagination was in a constant state of delighted arousal.
Adding to my pleasure was the fact that the gallery was the desert itself, an ancient lake bottom beneath a towering sky. Every creation had to be built to withstand dust storms, gale-force winds, downpours, and extremes of temperature.
Back in America, far from the independent republic of Burning Man, teams of Tibetan Buddhist monks have become famous for bringing their sand paintings to museums. Painstakingly laying out colored grains in precise designs on large platforms, they work for weeks. But the masterpiece survives only a short time. Then its makers sweep it up and dispose of the sand, exhibiting their freedom from attachment and demonstrating the transitoriness of life.
Many of the works of art at Burning Man had a similar fate in 2001, as they do each year: to be dismantled or even destroyed at the end of the festival. As a creative artist who has had to resort to all manner of spiritual trickery to prevent my ego from appropriating what my soul makes, I regard this as a celebration of my deepest values.
When I visited Toronto a year before my first Burning Man, astrologer Richard Geer asked me, "What are the conditions you'd need in your world in order to feel like you were living in paradise?"
"Let me get back to you on that," I said at the time. It seemed too abstract and remote a fantasy to entertain.
But 13 months later, during my revel in the desert, I had a practical answer: Many of the conditions I'd need to feel as if I were living in paradise already existed at Burning Man.
The idea for the Beauty and Truth Laboratory hatched there at the Burning Man festival in 2001. The birth occurred officially around 6 p.m. on Friday, the day before the Man burned.
Five of us were squatting in a circle under a 20-foot by 20-foot canopy. We yakked and free-associated as we sipped vials of Red Bull, an energy drink containing legal but stimulating ingredients that I liked to imagine were the more sensible equivalent to poet William Butler Yeats having monkey testicles sewn to his chest back in the 1920s.
With me were two other members of my band, Sacred Uproar, guitarist George Earth (Burning Man "superhero" name: Maniacal Miracle Maker) and chanteuse Jessica Rice (Burning Man superhero name: Lush Confuser). Our group was rounded out by two new friends we'd met when they'd participated in our "Brag Therapy Rite" during our first gig some days before.
Firenze Matisse was a young literature professor from Massachusetts who was writing a science fiction book about a gang of radical leftist Peruvian shamans conspiring to cast spells on American political leaders. Thirza Guest was a thirty-something German journalist who claimed to have scored candid interviews with a range of political celebrities from Russia's President Vladimir Putin to India's "Bandit Queen," though she had not yet found any mainstream media willing to publish them.
All five of us had succumbed to the alchemy of Burning Man. Our skins had drunk so deeply of the desert sun and wind that we'd turned translucent brown. If I stared hard enough, I swear I could catch glimpses of the blood rushing along beneath the see-through outer layer of my arm. The mist-like white dust had caked permanently in every body crevice, especially the corners of our eyes and up our nostrils. Though now and then each of us had stumbled upon some prodigal and improbable feast -- one night the camp next to ours had given away fresh sushi served on the nude bodies of human "platters," for instance -- more often we had forgotten to eat or else munched on ephemera as we trekked to the next party. Our dry, cooked bodies had become thinner.
And then there was the matter of our altered relationship with sleep. So as not to deny ourselves any of the inexhaustible variety of playtime activities spread over Burning Man's eight square miles, none of us had lain down for longer than five or six hours on any night since we arrived. Weariness was not the result, though. Instead, we'd been transformed into liminal creatures who dwelt in an in-between realm that was composed of equal portions dreamtime and waketime. We were having lucid dreams with our eyes open.
It was in this setting that the Beauty and Truth Laboratory announced itself.
Thirza nudged me in the right direction. "Hey, Rob," she said to me, "you know how in your 'Crimes That Don't Break Any Laws' shtick you imitate that pompous German guy? Do it for me. I'll give you some pointers on refining your German accent."
She was referring to a passage in one of Sacred Uproar's performance art pieces, in which I mockingly imitate Udo Kier, a German film actor who specializes in playing villains.
I obliged her. Born and raised in Berlin and the daughter of a linguist, she could no doubt provide me with dialect tips. I puffed up my chest like a swaggering braggart, then repeated, in my best German accent, the statement Kier had made in an interview I'd heard.
"Evil has no limit! Evil has no limit! Good, on the other hand, does have a limit. It is nowhere near as interesting. It is boring! It is dull! Good is not worthy of my artistry!"
"You've got the 'evil has no limit' part down," Thirza mused. "If I close my eyes, I could picture it coming out of the mouth of my ex-husband. But when you said 'good does have a limit,' you lapsed into a kind of Cockney twang."
Before I could enlist her to correct my diction, Firenze interrupted me. "I like that 'evil has no limit' bit," he said, "but my favorite part is the rant you go into right after that. What is it? 'How dare the editors of The New York Times act as if good has a limit?!' Or something. Do that one."
I launched into the rap he was talking about. In contrast to the pretentious pose of my previous riff, now I spoke in a low, conspiratorial tone. "I hate to admit it, but I have to say that most everyone everywhere seems to agree with Udo Kier. And I am in a tiny minority in my belief that evil is a fucking bore. But how dare Udo Kier, or for that matter the editors of The New York Times and Stephen King and Eminem and Ridley Scott -- how dare they proceed on the assumption that 'good has a limit' and that 'good isn't as interesting' when there are so few smart artists and thinkers who are brave and resourceful enough to explore the frontiers of beauty and truth and joy and compassion?"
Ending with a flourish, I blew a kiss in the direction of the sky.
"You know I'm a fanatical new convert to you and Sacred Uproar, Rob," Firenze said after a pause, "but if I have any problem at all with your stuff, it's that you're a bit heavy on bitching about the old world and a bit light about imagining the new world. I mean, you talk about how newspapers are obsessed with reporting bad news, but you never actually say what the alternative would be."
"He's got a point," chimed in Jessica, offering me a fresh bottle of Red Bull to replace the one I'd downed. "You say that the hypothetical good news should be just as entertaining as the bad news that everyone seems to think is so fascinating. It can't be ho-hum stuff like, 'Two thousand planes took off from American airports yesterday and every one landed safely.' But you really don't give many examples of what that entertaining good news would be."
Suddenly I felt like a pregnant woman who hadn't known she was pregnant until the labor pains kicked in. Which they had just done. I felt a big ripe creation pushing to get out.
"Are you or are you not one of those smart artists who's brave enough to explore the frontiers of beauty and truth?" asked Firenze with mock solemnity.
"I am," I said. "I want to be." I winced as something like a contraction shuddered through my mind's eye.
"You really should start a think tank," Thirza said. "A place to brainstorm about interesting kinds of sweetness and light. Not the fluffy, glazed-eyed New Age junk or the withered, sentimental Christian crap."
"Only trouble is," I said, "most smart, educated people wouldn't be caught dead near a discussion of sweetness and light, no matter how interesting it might be. Me and you guys might be the only fools I can round up for our think tank."
"Hard-core sweetness and light!" George spouted. "Kick-ass joy and peace! Razor-edged harmony!"
"Aren't you forgetting that you are right now in the thick of the most concentrated assemblage of mutated brains on the planet?" Firenze said. "If the North Koreans, or for that matter the ass-souls in Washington, D.C., wanted to ensure a future enslaved to anachronistic modes of consciousness, all they'd have to do is nuke Burning Man."
"Unfortunately, I don't think there's enough time to get a decent recruitment drive going here this year," I said. "Most everyone's leaving on Sunday."
"I once dreamed I worked as a corporate headhunter," Jessica offered.
"I'm ready to get started as your recruitment chief immediately."
"I'm on the team," Thirza said.
"Me, too," said Firenze.
It was then that my new creation popped out. I'd given birth. I looked at my watch. It was 6:16 p.m. PDT, August 31, 2001. I wondered what its horoscope would be.
Its name was immediately clear: Beauty and Truth Laboratory. It would be a tribe of hope fiends. A hotbed of loving geniuses. A gang of lunatic saints and emotional giants and crafty optimists. A think tank of sacred agents and scientific poets and dissident bodhisattvas and virtuoso bliss-iinvokers.
The Beauty and Truth Lab would be an actual place, or maybe a web of places, where compassionate masters of rowdy bliss gathered to explore the frontiers of beauty, truth, love, justice, integrity, goodness, pleasure, fun, redemption, and emotional intelligence. Part of it would serve as a real laboratory, a matrix where we could conduct actual experiments. Our purpose would not be merely to make our own lives richer, but also to offer inspiration to others through the books, music, performances, and films we'd generate in the course of our work.
"Where are you going, Rob?" Jessica asked, seeing that I had risen out of my squat and was walking away. "Your gang's ready to launch a crusade. Give us some direction."
"I will return shortly with a plan," I said. "But right now I'm being urgently called on to carry out an emergency walking meditation."
I veered out onto the dirt road adjoining our camp and headed toward the edge of town. A happy cacophony of live and recorded music poured in on me from every direction. I could make out at least four different styles. This profusion, which streamed every hour of the night and day, was one of the elements about Burning Man I loved and hated best. It meant I could always find a place to dance, even at 7 a.m., to pretty much any kind of beat I was in the mood for. But it also meant that the only possible way to sleep was to be armed with a defense of earplugs and the kind of sound-canceling headphones worn by jackhammer operators.
I passed a camp where four men wearing leather skirts were playing a punk version of klezmer music. Another camp had bleachers where people sat and called out for passers-by to entertain them. Then there was the Inner Demon Rodeo, where you were encouraged to mime the action of hog-tying your inner demon.
My nascent musings about the Beauty and Truth Lab had hit a snag. How could I justify calling it a laboratory for beauty and truth? Those two terms alone didn't cover anywhere near the total territory I was concerned with. To be accurate, shouldn't it be something like the Beauty and Truth and Love and Bliss and Goodness and Justice and Liberation Laboratory?
And another thing. I wasn't interested in just any old beauty and truth. The words themselves have been so grossly overused by so many people to promote such widely different agendas that they've been gutted of meaning. Say them aloud and you're likely to provoke a numbing sensation in your listeners' imaginations.
It would be at best a half-truth to say that the laboratory was a sanctuary to explore "beauty." That dead arrangement of letters could be invoked to describe everything from a supermodel flouncing down a Milan runway in a faux fur bikini to a sleek high-tech jet fighter gleaming in hateful splendor on the deck of a carrier battleship. Our lab would have a sacred duty to ignore fraudulent pretenders to beauty like that. It would aspire to investigate wild beauty that awakens radical curiosity, convulsive beauty that potentiates the longing for freedom, fierce beauty that rouses lusty compassion, and shocking beauty that mobilizes healing mischief.
All the other virtues needed rehabilitation, too, having been similarly paralyzed through overuse and exploitation. Shouldn't our laboratory specify that what we were really interested in studying was not "truth," a concept that was long ago stripped of its meaning and vitality, but rather crazy wisdom that makes you allergic to dogma? Not just "liberation," but ingenious liberation that is never permanent but must be reinvented and reclaimed every day? Not merely justice, but a boisterous justice that schemes and dreams about tricks to diminish the suffering and increase the joy of every sentient being?
I thought of the possibility of coining new words to replace the used-up old husks. "Beauty" could become, maybe, "allurabliss," for instance. "Truth" might be "swirloluminous."
The Allurabliss and Swirloluminous Laboratory?
Nah. That wasn't right. Too esoteric. Though our lab would never hire marketing experts to advise us how to manipulate our message so it would reach the widest possible demographic, neither would we want to ignore the reality of what people are entertained by. We needed a name that was simple and catchy.
My walking meditation was taking me past the camp of the Burning Scouts of America. I hadn't visited them yet, but I'd read their spiel somewhere. They were dedicated to teaching the love of chaos and hedonism. If you signed up for one of their programs, you could earn Demerit Badges in "Unfocused Rage," "Spitting into the Wind," and "Gender Mutation." Drunken scoutmasters might take you on a naked tour of all the theme camps that were doling out free massages, and foul-mouthed Burning Girl Scouts would serve you charred cookies and over-ripe peaches.
As much as I was tempted to stop and partake, the urge to keep trekking was stronger. I'd begun to feel more contractions. Labor had resumed. Was there still another creation in me? Was I going to have twins?
That's when the word "pronoia" popped into my wide-open mind.
I wasn't initially sure of all the implications of its appearance, but I could see how it might be useful for the Beauty and Truth Laboratory. I loved the term and had been using it gleefully for several years, though it had never made it into any dictionary. It had been coined in the mid-1970s by Grateful Dead lyricist and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, John Perry Barlow, who defined it as the opposite of paranoia: "the suspicion that the universe is a conspiracy on your behalf."
The Scottish psychologist Fraser Clark revived the word in the 1990s. He referred to pronoia as "the sneaking hunch that others are conspiring behind your back to help you." Once you have contracted this benevolent virus, he said, the symptoms include "sudden attacks of optimism and outbreaks of goodwill." Working with the Zippies, a group of gypsy ravers, Clark organized the Zippy Pronoia Tour to America in 1994. With a boost from a cover story by Wired magazine, the tour's parties and performances spread the word.
Shortly thereafter, a website devoted to pronoia appeared on the Web at pronoia.net. It has mostly been devoted to telling the story of the Zippies.
So why exactly had the concept shown up in my intuition at exactly this moment, in the midst of my walking meditation at Burning Man? I knew my creative process well enough to understand that it was a crucial clue about how to proceed. Did it mean I should call our research center the "Pronoia Laboratory"?
No. My logical mind couldn't buy that. Although "pronoia" was a euphonious coinage with a built-in association to the well-known word "paranoia," it was unfamiliar to most people. As the name of an organization that aspired to provide a populist alternative to the mainstream media's toxic stories, it would be too limiting.
But it was euphonious and evocative. Couldn't it be useful as long as it was not the first thing that newcomers encountered? Maybe the name of our think tank would be "The Beauty and Truth Laboratory," with pronoia featured prominently in our benevolent propaganda and artistic products.
I had reached the edge of the formal city of Burning Man. Now the wilderness began. This was not a picturesque desert dotted with cacti, scrub, and lizards. It was barren playa for as far as the eye could see. As I stepped out into the emptiness, the wind came up, blasting me head-on with a dusty whirlwind.
An urge to write overtook me. The number of good ideas welling up threatened to exceed what I could hold in my short-term memory. I wanted to commit them to paper. But reaching in the back pocket of my shorts, I found nothing where I usually kept my small spiral-bound notebook. Damn! How could I have gone out on a walking meditation without something to take notes on?
At least there was a felt-tip marker in my vest pocket. I supposed I could try scrawling notes on my skin. But I quickly realized that would be problematic. I was sweating. Although it was getting on toward 7 p.m., the temperature seemed still to be in the 90s. I made an attempt to inscribe "pronoia" on my left forearm, but the ink barely penetrated the moisture.
Then I spied a possible solution. In the distance, lying on the sand, was an open box of baby wipes -- the moist towelettes most commonly employed to clean the butts of infants who've pooped in their diapers. Out here in the middle of the desert, where there was no running water and you had to import every drop you used, many adult denizens of Burning Man regarded the baby wipes as indispensable aids to maintaining their personal hygiene.
It was unusual to see a box of wipes reduced to litter, though. "Leave no trace" is a central tenet of the Burning Man commitment to ecological impeccability, and most burners live up to it.
I ran to the potential treasure. It was the "Quilted Northern" brand, antibacterial and scented. Not my personal favorite -- I hated wipes with cloying perfumes -- but I wasn't in a position to be picky. And other than that problem, I was in luck. The open box meant that all the wipes had lost their moisture. They would be easy to write on.
Using the plastic box as my writing surface, I jotted down notes as I continued to walk. "But hold on," I wrote. "Wait a minute. Is pronoia a big enough concept for the Beauty and Truth Laboratory? Is it poetic enough?" So began my "Baby Wipe Communique."
I was having doubts about pronoia. I mused on how neither John Perry Barlow nor Fraser Clark had developed the notion beyond their brief one- and two-line definitions. They'd given us little to go on. Pronoia was "the suspicion that the universe is a conspiracy on your behalf." It was "the sneaking hunch that others are conspiring behind your back to help you." Not exactly a well-developed philosophy.
Despite periodic searches of the Web with Google, I'd come across only three other analogs of the pronoia meme over the years. All were very brief and none invoked the word "pronoia." In his book Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, J. D. Salinger had the character Seymour Glass write in his diary, "Oh, God, if I'm anything by a clinical name, I'm a kind of paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy." Then there was philosopher Terence McKenna, who had once said: "I believe reality is a marvelous joke staged for my edification and amusement, and everybody is working very hard to make me happy." Philosopher Robert Anton Wilson had uttered advice that also sounded pronoiac: "You should view the world as a conspiracy run by a very closely-knit group of nearly omnipotent people, and you should think of those people as yourself and your friends."
As I ruminated now on how unripe the concept of pronoia still remained, I was dumbfounded. I'd vaguely thought about the paucity of discussion before, but for the first time I wondered if there were some collective blind spot that had prevented it from flourishing. In an ironic burst of paranoia, I even entertained the possibility that there was a conspiracy to prevent pronoia from catching fire in the collective imagination.
How else to explain why it hadn't spread with contagious glee, at least through bohemian and underground culture? It wasn't just another generic version of the "positive thinking" movement. It didn't have the cult-like associations of teachings like "The Course in Miracles." Pronoia was snappy and seductive, a feel-good yet saucy meme just begging to be turned into a pop philosophy for hipsters. The New Age movement alone should have seized upon it long ago. How many wannabe gurus might have made fortunes selling self-help books like Embracing Pronoia: Fifty Ways to Live as if the Whole World Is Conspiring to Help You?
Even I myself had displayed a curious passivity in relation to pronoia. When I first happened upon the term years ago, I recognized that it echoed the spiritual teachings of Hermeticism, which I had been studying for two decades. This tradition, taught in the mystery schools of the West for centuries, is a synthesis of Qabala, astrology, alchemy, tarot, and magick. One of its core principles is that despite superficial appearances to the contrary, all of creation is on our side; that the very structure of reality ensures our eventual liberation from suffering; that life is a divine conspiracy to awaken us to our god-like nature and become co-administrators of the divine plan for evolution.
Pronoia was a more simplistic and pop culture-worthy meme for expressing this same set of ideas: seemingly a perfect fit for me. I had long been an aspiring Hermetic magician disguised as a rock musician and horoscope columnist. I'd built my entire career on translating esoteric spiritual themes into entertaining forms that could be enjoyed by people who'd never heard of a mystery school. Pop culture was my milieu.
So why didn't I start writing a book about pronoia when I first encountered the meme? In The Televisionary Oracle, the 486-page book I worked on from 1991 to 1999 and published in 2000, there was only one small reference to pronoia in the last chapter. And why hadn't I at least made pronoia a regular theme in my syndicated weekly astrology column? (Later I determined that between 1989 and 2001, I'd mentioned pronoia in my column only three times.) I had never invoked pronoia by name in a single song I'd written.
If there were a cultural blind spot that prevented pronoia from flourishing, I had suffered from it as much as anyone.
By now my walking-and-writing meditation had taken me far from the babble of music flooding from Burning Man's hundreds of generators. I was surrounded by pure desert. Memories of the glorious past few days, accompanied by the emotions they roused, rushed into my awareness with an intensity akin to what I imagined would happen during the instantaneous life review that comes with a near death experience.
I remembered arriving at the gates to Burning Man about 2 a.m. on Sunday night after the day-long drive from my home in Northern California. As I climbed down out of the RV to check in, three dusty-skinned women wearing white turbans, white silk bikinis, and black work boots danced around me, their faces aglow in the torchlight. One sang, "Welcome home, Rob. We've been waiting for your return since the Big Bang." (How did she know my name?) They converged upon me with swarming hugs and kisses. Each whispered a secret in my ear.
"Your Burning Man superhero name is 'Friendly Shocker.'"
"You're like the chrysanthemum, which needs long hours of darkness to bloom."
"In my dream, you were a good trickster who did healing mischief to defuse the terrible mischief committed by the evil tricksters in Washington, D.C."
That was just one of a score of recent memories that flooded through me as I stood transfixed with gratitude in the vast white desert wasteland. I recalled Sunyatta, a classically trained ballet dancer, teaching me how to do a professional pirouette as we danced inside a circle of flames . . . globe-trotting activist Pax, who'd been arrested during demonstrations in 17 different countries, regaling me with the story of the idealistic 18-year-old woman who initiated events that led to the overthrow of the repressive Bulgarian government in 1996 . . . my band Sacred Uproar conducting a "Chaotic Meditation" ceremony in which hundreds of reverently irreverent bohemians kicked their own asses, bragged about what they could not do and did not have, mimed throwing rocks toward heaven as they sent complaining messages to God, simulated the sounds they would make as they gave birth, and cast love spells on themselves.
During the six days I'd been at Black Rock City, I glided through the streets without a taint of fear, no matter what the hour. I had eaten fresh sushi off naked bellies while dancing to the funky Arab Celtic music of the best band I'd never heard of; had played a giant game of billiards using bowling balls; had taken a joyride on a wheeled version of Captain Hook's schooner as it swayed with scores of sweaty dancers dressed like characters from my dreams; had enjoyed numerous no-strings-attached gifts from magnanimous strangers, including a free foot rub, free homemade organic beer, free palm reading, free portrait-painting, free sky-diving lesson, and free kisses. I had also sampled a variety of soulmates at the Costco Soulmate Trading Outlet, a clearinghouse for soulmates that offered "quality name-brand and private-label soulmates at substantially lower prices than can be found through conventional wholesale sources."
The values I held most dear were reflected back to me wherever I wandered: generosity, playfulness, luxurious conviviality, a relaxed attitude about sexuality, spirituality that didn't take itself too seriously, frequent celebration, and love of creative ritual. I've been in love with more than a few women in my life, but this was the first time I'd become infatuated with a time and place.
As the rush of memories subsided, I turned my attention to my surroundings. The full moon was rising over the black mountains in the east. Maybe because there was so little humidity in the air, the silver globe looked closer and more spherical than usual. It had an intimate presence -- wasn't as flat and lifeless as it seemed back in the civilization that burners called Babylon. I fantasized that it was a sentient creature gazing back at me.
I swiveled around to bear witness to the setting sun at the other side of the sky. It, too, had lost its blank, two-dimensional veneer. It was no longer far away and abstract. It had swooped down very close. I couldn't help but register a detail that did not normally reach my conscious awareness: It was a ball of fire. And more than that: It was alive. It was a conscious and intelligent being, clearly not just a mass of soulless matter or a natural machine running on automatic.
I searched for a groove in my awareness where I could tune in to the thoughts of the living, sentient sun. Abracadabra! Suddenly I was flooded with its consciousnes -- as if we had slipped into telepathic communion. Not that I could immediately translate the sun's language into English.
Then I awakened to an even more amazing perception: The sun was acutely aware of me. It knew me intimately. It was beaming specific thoughts, made for me, directly into me.
Well, "thoughts" was not the right term. There was a fierce, musical, lilting quality to whatever the sun was beaming into me. As if a great deal of intelligent emotion were coming along for the ride. Lush, hot emotion. Delightful, surprising, demanding emotion. The more I allowed it in, the happier I became.
It was no metaphor. I wrote on one of my baby wipes: "The sun is singing its love into me." Not just my imagination, but my entire body was awash in a flood of erotic sensation. A contrapuntal weave of haunting melodies massaged me on the inside, leaving trails of delectable warmth. Flashes of unfamiliar longing arose and were instantly satiated by floods of pleasure, as if the sun were both the source of and answer to a primal desire I was feeling for the first time. To note merely that my cock was hard would be trivial: My entire body had an erection.
I became absolutely certain that the sun loved me personally. Its love was not just incidental or careless, provided because I happened to be within range of the radiance it showered down on everything unconditionally. No, the great eternal God known outwardly as the sun was beaming into me now, as she (or he?) had always done, a unique torrent of beneficence that was specially designed for me alone. And she did the same for every human soul, too! I knew beyond a doubt that each and every one of us receives a singular flow of the Sun Goddess's intimate blessings without end. Whether we appreciate, register, or take advantage of the blessings is another thing.
In the spiritual system I've studied for many years, I've been taught to bring my analytical intelligence with me everywhere: into sleep and dreams, into meditation, into shamanic journeys, into all unusual states of awareness. There are many realms of creation outside of what normal waking consciousness can perceive, but the data encountered while visiting those places is not necessarily more reliable than what can be gleaned on the material plane. Be discriminating, I've been cautioned, even in the midst of mystical rapture. Beware of illusion even when seemingly talking with a deity.
Under my own power, I've developed a corollary to this sensible advice: Never take myself too seriously, even when I seem to be talking to a deity. Along with keeping my skepticism in gear, nursing a giggling mockery of my own earnestness is a foolproof protection against being deceived on any plane of existence.
Fortunately, one of the perks of my spiritual training is that my discriminating, self-mocking mind does not feel a need to tear down all other modes of awareness. It knows it's a servant, not an omnipotent master above which there must be no other masters. I am able, therefore, to bring my Chuckling Kibitzer with me into interludes of mystical rapture without fear that I'll lose my grip on the mystical rapture. I'm psychologically double-jointed.
Right on schedule, the Chuckling Kibitzer appeared in the midst of my mystical rapture in the desert. "Fucking the sun, eh?" was its first comment. "Doing the nasty with the Goddess herself?"
I broke into a cackle, but the joke didn't disrupt my tantric communion in the least. If anything, it intensified my full-body hard-on. It's often the case that the Chuckling Kibitzer's humor helps me relax more fully into an experience I'm on the verge of taking too seriously.
"It's not too much for you, right?" the Chuckling Kibitzer continued after a pause. "You sure you're up for this much mojo? You're not going to get fucked to death, I trust."
That jab had a bite to it.
"I just want to make sure you're not going to have a stroke," C. K. pressed on. "As we know from the case of Semele and Zeus, gods aren't always careful about protecting fragile humans from their sublime blasts. Pindar said, 'Long-haired Semele died in the roar of the thunderbolt.'"
That made two quick mentions of death: unusual for C. K. What was he driving at? Ever so slightly, I slowed the acceleration of my expansive opening to the sun's gifts.
"Even if the sun wants nothing but the best for you," C. K. continued, "even if the sun literally lusts to shower you with blessings that are meant to activate your highest potential, maybe you're not ready for them yet. Maybe you need to be your neurotic self for a few more years -- or lifetimes."
With the introduction of this doubt, the ecstasy I had been feeling abated a bit, but not much. On the other hand, a new emotion sprouted: terror. Soon I'd learned a new thing about myself: I was capable of feeling rapture and terror at the same time.
And this was honest, intelligent terror. It wasn't rooted in an archaic, superstitious guilt about feeling good; I'd shed the Judeo-Christian mistrust of pleasure fairly early on in my spiritual work.
No, this was terror of a higher order, a terror I'd sometimes faced during my many years of meditation and spiritual work on myself: What are the risks of seeking face-to-face communion with Divine Intelligence? What treasured illusions must be sacrificed? What part of me has to die?
All the best teachings I'd encountered agreed that in order for one's Higher Self to be born -- and it was only the Higher Self that could endure direct communion with the Creator -- the little self had to die. Hermetic philosophy asserted that there is an immortal part of each of us, an adamantine uniqueness that was never born and will never die; but our awareness can't inhabit that immortal part until we dissolve our attachments to the hodgepodge of conditioning that most of us mistake as our precious, fascinating, unique self.
And that dissolution can be excruciating, especially if a slew of attachments expire in one sudden swoop.
There in the Nevada desert, I was as scared as I had ever been. What if I opened myself so completely to the sun's raging blessings that I would be transformed into something I no longer recognized as me?
I understood that the gift was beyond my understanding. As brilliant and hot and sweet as it was, it was also dark. Majestic and intimate and perfect, but also wild. I was invigorated by the stabbing vortex of divine love, and I was annihilated by it. I wrote on my baby wipe: "What if the Sun Goddess is annihilating me with her staggering beneficence?"
I was not on drugs at this time. In fact, I had not ingested a single mind-altering substance, even marijuana, for 16 years. And while the vision in the desert was an extreme state, the gnosis it climaxed had been building in me for years. I had long been a connoisseur of the mysterious interplay of dark and light. The Televisionary Oracle, the book I worked on for so long, was a reverent exploration of the riches to be gleaned from hanging out with the chthonic embodiment of the Goddess.
My awareness that there can be no yang without yin, and vice versa, explained one of my problems with pronoia -- a reason why it had not yet bloomed in me and generated a New Age bestseller. The bare-bones version of pronoia promulgated by Barlow and Clark and McKenna and Wilson was a cute cartoon. It was suitable for framing as a pop culture icon, but was not sufficiently true to the complex poetry of real life to take root in me.
In the past few years, I had felt like a fraud every time I invoked pronoia. People had loved me for introducing the idea to them; they saw me as a bright light giving them permission to be optimistic. But I'd always been slightly embarrassed, aware that I was hiding some of my true feelings.
If I had ever said what I meant, I'd have told them that my pronoia has got to be a pronoia for the soul, not for the ego. My pronoia, if it ever took root, would overthrow your ego and my ego and everyone's ego, would overthrow the status quo, established institutions, and even reality itself.
But I had remained forever coy, never playing with pronoia to make it more aesthetically and ethically appealing to myself. I'd written nothing beyond the same one-sentence formulations that my predecessors had been content with. Questions like, "What does pronoia have to say to someone who has just been widowed or been in a car crash?" or "If I believe in pronoia, will I get my dream job and find my perfect lover this week?" had never won my attention; let alone the subtler inquiries, like, "What would a psychology based on pronoia look like?" or "Does pronoia require a belief in God?"
There at Burning Man, the Goddess of the sun finally thunderstruck me, forcing me to escape my lazy rut. I realized with a burst of rebellious joy that there was no reason I had to be loyal to the meaning of pronoia as promulgated by its originators. Pronoia didn't belong to them or anyone. I could use it any way I wanted. I could stretch it and bend it to fit my extravagant needs.
My benefactor, the sun, slowly dipped beneath the horizon. The sky's zenith had turned from purple to indigo. I sat down on the gray playa, facing the rising moon, and wrote for a long time on my baby wipes. The Beauty and Truth Laboratory had been born. The last line I wrote before trekking back to my camp to find my co-conspirators was a quote from the mathematician Ralph Abraham: "Heart physiologists find more chaos in the healthy heart than in the sick heart."
© 1995-2014 -- Rob Brezsny. All rights reserved