Alejandro Jodorowsky, ‘Psychomagic’
‘…danger is a part of life. If one wants to remain surrounded by his little world without questioning his function, it’s not worth it to try an act that entails risk! Better to stay at home watching television…. One becomes wise only in measures, as he goes through his own insanity’
It seems clear that this analysis holds a truth (and Jodorowsky has himself developed a singular therapeutic method for healing, part performance, part shamanic rite, which he calls ’Psychomagic’) and yet the praxis of contemporary therapies, as made manifest through ‘managed care’ programs or institutionalized delivery settings, has no room at all for this direction of travel. In my experience the majority of therapists, counsellors, trainers and managers of ‘talking therapies’ would, to quote Bill Hicks, respond to the ideas held within this piece ‘like a dog being shown a card trick’. Shortly thereafter they may well ring the nearest Professional Body to demand something be done about this aberration from therapeutic Newspeak, and denounce the cited authors as thoroughly ‘Ungood’. Which is to say that these days risk, in fact, is almost entirely to be avoided, airbrushed out of the therapeutic interaction, edited away through ‘risk management’ and policies of the standardized model. All of which has no effect upon the actual presence of risk, of course (one need only check the financial world for supreme ironies regarding the beautiful failures of risk management at any scale of choosing, from personal to cosmic), but nevertheless creates a dangerous illusion of control, or ‘management’, of a reductionist-rationalist order sat atop a polymorphous coiling and swingeing morass of chaotic dynamics. How very different from the early expressions of therapy in society, or of mass spirituality – the 60’s/70’s uptick in the culture of both feels a very long way distant, as far as the bold experimentalism of semi-naked encounter groups is from the sanitized gaze of the Cognitive Technician. How did those crazy therapists back then ever have time to get their clients to fill in a CORE form, or formulate a DSM category?
So what is risk? And what is panic? Risk, it seems is the ‘potential of a loss’ in whatever sphere, and constructs itself out of a series of probabilities and the worldview of choices and ‘gamification’. In English the word first appears in 1621 (as ‘risque’) and gains traction around 1655, seemingly marking a transition into a recognisably modern commercialism, broke free of the restraints of Fortuna andPrudentia. By our time everything is a risk, a calculus of insurance, health, finances, security, cyber-safety, identity itself… we are, par excellence, the Anxiety Society. Which brings us to panic – ‘a sudden sensation of fear, so strong as to prevent reason’, featuring anxiety, frantic agitation, ‘animalistic fight-or-flight reaction’. In other words anathema to our self-identity as civilized, in control, above all that messy, uncomfortable, primal stuff. Panic is both generated by our way of living, and yet utterly disallowed.
Giordano Bruno is right, of course, and he also knew a thing or two about risk, since, among other heresies, his insight about the universe being infinite and populated by other intelligent beings got him burned at the stake by the Inquisition in Rome in 1600. Quite a failure of personal risk management, one might say – and yet, Bruno has a crater named after him on the Moon – so maybe it was worth it for the fame (another contemporary fetish, indeed ‘being famous’ is the toxic mimic of actually being). I jest, necessarily, since of course the first casualty of risk-obsession and the complexities of managing phantoms, is humour. Anxiety makes us dry, arid, afraid of our own shadows. Projections of risk create Al Qaeda operatives under each bed, or lead to Daily Mail combination punches where ‘loneliness will kill you’ but ‘other people are all evil and out to get you’. Catch-22, the prison house of risk-anxiety, the cash-cow of vertical capitalism – assuage the prickling horrors with buying more stuff, remain unresolved and poised on the edge of collapse. Out of control but susceptible to being controlled.
Alternatively, following Bruno, if all things ‘concur in a perfect unity’ then risk is but a naturally occurring phenomenon, anxiety simply a bio-psycho-feedback loop from our Ice Age nervous system to our contemporaneous identity, alerting us to a splitting off, a sense of being less-than-present here and now. So the praxis of panic therapy becomes a détournement, a way of using panic against itself, turning risk inward toward a confrontation with its own abstracted irrelevance, recalibrating us as present in and to the ‘Now’, the point at which, properly understood, no risk can actually arise (this reminds me of Ram Dass’s pithy phrase, ‘Dying is Absolutely Safe’ – if it wasn’t where would we be but Universal Pandemic Panic!). This is well known and understood, be present, be in the now, and all is well – so why is it not apparent? I think it has to do with toxic mimics again. Who is present in the now? The answer, surely, is no-one. The part of me that could ever be afraid of risk and pushed through the outer-hells of anxiety into the core of panic, well that part of me is made of condensed illusion, the neutron-star of false self-hood. And, consequently, it cannot enter the ‘Now’ – it needs must remain separate in space-time, creating the fundamental gap within which panic and anxiety arise. The whole set-up is exquisitely beautiful, nuanced with the most decorous and sublime traceries of indigenous wisdom. That in me which fears my own death is precisely and only what is doomed to die.
So if we can’t manage our way out of risk, or shackle panic outside the city gates, what hope is there for egos everywhere? We must agree with Lorca
‘We will have to get down on all fours and eat the grasses
of the cemeteries forever’
Federico Garcia Lorca, transl. Robert Bly ‘Pequeño Poema Infinito / Little Infinite Poem’
But what is Lorca really getting at, beyond the startling and humbling images of his duende-soaked pen? It seems to me that the answer lies in play. More precisely, in purposeless play. What quicker way to slide beyond puritanical obedience to abstract fears and the dire gauleiters of ego control than sheer, unmediated, unconditional play? Purposeless play is in love with qualia, the suchness of experience. Erwin Schrödinger put it like this:
‘The sensation of colour cannot be accounted for by the physicist’s objective picture of light-waves. Could the physiologist account for it, if he had fuller knowledge than he has of the processes in the retina and the nervous processes set up by them in the optical nerve bundles in the brain? I do not think so.’
(From ‘What is Life? The physical apsects of the living cell’)
Purposeless play requires defencelessness, an act of surrendering control, of self-forgetting – this is the price of admission to the circus of play, precisely nothing and everything about who you think you are. If we gain entry to the state, for a while, the mind relinquishes its need to comment and interpret, to measure and calibrate experience against its abstracted model. We relax behind our conditioned reflexes and responses, we leak out from the constraints and masks of normalcy and embrace instead the chaotic raptures of playful not-knowing.
‘…as the activity of the mind comes to a stop, all the feelings dependent on the internalized memories disappear… the sense of familiar identity always includes, explicitly or implicitly, the feeling of others. The feeling of self swims in an atmosphere of internalized relationships’
(AH Almaas, ‘Intimacy’, from ‘Luminous Night’s Journey’)
The drum of the cosmos is beating
Do you hear it?
(Henryk Skolimowksi, ‘The Drum of the Cosmos’)
The stillness and the doublness are vital elements here, if we can remain in the centre of play, without purpose, not as miners for meaning nor prospectors hunting a profit or a cure, what mysteries do we encounter, maybe we can ‘slip into the masterpiece’?
‘Behold the gates of mercy
In arbitrary space
And none of us deserving
The cruelty or the grace’
as Leonard Cohen puts it (‘Come Healing’, from ‘Old Ideas’). He continues,
‘O troubled dust concealing
An undivided love
The Heart beneath is teaching
To the broken heart above’
From this core of simplicity, lyric and flowing, a motionless movement – the implicit motility of phenomena, we ache and we curl like flames upon the burning bush consuming no fuel, motiveless, aware of the simplest things as radiant spiritual truths, no longer properly a person but rather, as Almaas says, ‘something that is the source of a person’. Being-becoming, in Heideggerian terms. Being spontaneously revealed through the mind as Understanding, in the language of the Diamond Approach. The world-in-self and self-in-world of Bede Griffiths. The Logosynthesis becoming Cosmocracy according to Henryk Skolimowski. The only moment of fulfilled art, in Jodorowsky’s estimation.
Interestingly, Jodorowsky is very clear that whether as theatre or therapy, this art arises out of ‘errors’ or accidents, those sudden openings up to the core. Such moments ‘Just born … should immediately die’ because ‘the only traces it will leave will be carved into the interior of human beings and will manifest in psychological changes’. This honouring of the purposelessness is an important part of the return to ordinary consciousness, toward integrating the whole experience without making efforts at categorising or possessing it – a nuance, I think, of the discriminating wisdom or ‘Diamond Guidance’ essence, one might say. Integrating from the Self, not according to the diktats of egoic self. Put more poetically,
‘Even though she sleeps upon your satin;
Even though she wakes you with a kiss
Do not say the moment was imagined,
Do not stoop to strategies like this’
‘As someone long prepared for the occasion;
In full command of every plan you wrecked –
Do not choose a coward’s explanation
That hides behind the cause and the effect’
(Leonard Cohen, ‘Alexandra Leaving’, from ‘Ten new Songs’)
‘Man may intellectually argue himself in and out of anything. But he can only defend it as long as he has not experienced the fact that he is wrong. Once he has come to the interior realization that a situation is not right, he cannot rest until he does something about it’.
Now, we may quibble about the optimistic view of ‘Man’s’ ethics contained in that statement (many are, of course, perfectly capable of directly knowing a thing to be wrong and yet continuing to toe the party line and behave as though nothing has changed – why else the need for whistleblowers so definitive of modern institutions and states?) but the gist of it is accurate, we can argue anything – until confronted and overwhelmed by our direct experience – and where is experience ever more direct than in the twin primary mysteries of our lives, at birth and at death? So, after being born, the ultimate risk is our own biological death – or more acutely, our fear of our own death, and beneath even that, our fear of final extinction, of non-being.
No amount of spending power, or hedging, or poker-faced bluffing will mask or counter that elegant trump card in the deck of life. Death is not life’s opposite, but the part of life that goes beyond itself. All things pass, all human lives most certainly. This is natural, not a cause for panic nor for putting in an urgent call to the risk management specialist and ‘loss-adjustor’ at your insurance brokerage! Here’s George Harrison on this very theme:
‘There’ll come a time when all of us must leave here
Then nothing Sister Mary can do
Will keep me here with you
As nothing in this life that I’ve been trying
Could equal or surpass the art of dying
Do you believe me?
There’ll come a time when all your hopes are fading
When things that seemed so very plain
Become an awful pain
Searching for the truth among the lying
And answered when you’ve learned the art of dying
But you’re still with me
But if you want it
Then you must find it
But when you have it
There’ll be no need for it
There’ll come a time when most of us return here
Brought back by our desire to be
A perfect entity
Living through a million years of crying
Until you’ve realized the art of dying
Do you believe me?’
(The Art of Dying, from ‘All Things Must Pass’)
‘Grow. Expand. Shine. Be weightless. Play the game of Time and Space. Bless the World. Dissolve the I. Be a dot. Free yourself from Language’
To better our rootedness in being we need to develop a relationship with eschatology, our own end, the end of our therapeutics, the end of the world itself. Imagination naturally includes endings, leans into them, thrives upon them – often as a defence, a way of splitting us off from their reality. But equally, imagination is capable of staring death in the face, as executioner and angel, lover and completer of life. Jodorowsky, paints panic in imagination, with the four cardinal factors (add, subtract, multiply, divide) and a fifth (synthesis) and encourages another reflective dive into ending, behind the ephemeral, a sort of ‘Meditations on a bloated corpse’ inquiry –
‘I imagine various ways to die. I do it intensely. It is hard. Imagine the death of loved ones. It is hard. We fear … our ceasing to exist. To eliminate this, I have imagined a lot. I have turned myself into nothing: that is what happens when one enters darkness. I have made myself imagine the blackness, deep blackness that dissolves my I into emptiness. And then, the emergence toward existence and light.’
Death is awe, flashing at us the intensely personal, yet universal urgency to wake-up, it is the ‘first act of awe’ according to Skolimowski and as, made of light, it
‘struck with the beauty or wonder of Nature, (it) was the first spiritual experience’.
So where lies the real risk? If dying is absolutely safe, what price living without ever tasting that awe?