A commentary on John Vervaeke’s Awakening from the Meaning Crisis (Episodes 1-3)
Zombies and meaning
John Vervaeke’s lecture series: Awakening from the meaning crisis, is sufficiently important, broad, and rich, it seems to me, to warrant an extended commentary. My aim here is therefore is to have a conversation with the series. There have been 28 of 50 planned episodes so far, so I have a lot of catching up to do. Let’s start at the beginning. (Note: I will also jump around between episodes to compare and contrast ideas).
In ancient greek there are two words for time. Chronos means means linear, sequential time, whereas Kairos means something more like ‘turning point in time’: it blends the notion of time, crisis and and opportunity together. This, it seems to me, is the essence of Vervaeke’s series: to try to characterize this Kairos, the crises and opportunities present in this turning point in world history.
Perhaps the popularity of Vervaeke’s own series — in the wake of his collegue Jordan Peterson’s massive success — is a good indication of an awakening of some kind. Today public intellectuals and Youtube philosophers are developing massive audiences, which is a quite novel and welcome phenomena, after years of cynical marketing, talking heads on tv, and sound bites. It appears as if suddenly meaning has become a much more valuable commodity. And there also seems to be a need for these new priestly figures to help us understand the present zeitgeist.
Importantly, Vervaeke distinguishes between the perennial search for meaning—that is: universal existential suffering and the search for a meaningful life—and the particularities of the present meaning crisis, which has various symptoms related to our time. These include a rise in depression, suicide among young people, social media narcissism, the opioid crisis, a lack of interest in the political process, the rise of ideology, the fear of climate catastrophe etc. Basically, there is general sense that we are living in the end times.
Vervaeke presents a seeming paradox. On one hand, there is an all-pervading sense of nihilism, mindlessness, and an apocalyptic mood—represented in popular culture by the zombie apocalypse—a plague of the so-called living dead. At the same time there seems to be an renewed interest in things like neo-platonic philosophy, stoicism, buddhist psycho-technologies like vipassana meditation, hindu yoga, and psychedelics. In other words, arising simultaneously from this dark, almost suicidal, sense of gloom and doom, is a meaning renaissance of sorts.
It has almost become a truism to say that we are fast approaching the annihilation of the human species or at least the biggest apocalypse since the bronze age collapse, which wiped out the Egyptian and the other great early empires. However, and to be more hopeful, apocalypse also means ‘revelation’—or to ‘reveal’ and ‘uncover’ meaning. The bronze age collapse also created the causes and conditions for the Axial age to arise and a ‘modern world grammar’, as Vervaeke calls it. And although the axial age was, like today, a stark time of existential questioning, it also brought about mass literacy and all the major religions and philosophies of today.
Many people today are asking the questions: is this a new foundational age of sorts — or are we living in the end-times? Obviously Vervaeke doesn’t have the answer to these questions, but suggests that, on the eve of an artificial intelligence revolution, it is urgent to think about unifying principles to navigate the storms that are certainly coming. However, and before we can build new grand narratives, we must see through our various forms of self-deception.
Perhaps the first step in awakening from the meaning crisis is to notice our intense capacity for bullshit, which has been magnified of late in the internet age. The all pervasiveness of bullshit is directly proportional to the severity of the meaning crisis. When we lack an orientation towards truth and meaning, we inevitably find refuge in deception and a certain kind of gleeful but suicidal postmodern nihilism.
This has something to do with our machines and our tools—our incredible ability to create powerful technological appendages. It’s interesting that one of our first real technologies was clothing, or the proverbial fig leaf, covering our private parts, representing the the need to hide ourselves from God, so to speak. Deception seems to be a human inheritance and a double edged sword. This capacity for bullshit also makes us artists, entrepreneurs, and myth makers.
The fall from the garden of Eden is the story of how we became essentially cyborgs, Vervaeke tells us—that is, creatures dependent on tools and technologies. This also imparts in us what George Gurdjieff called a ‘being obligation debt’, or a certain responsibility: we are obliged to use our extensive magic technology with justice, humility, and mercy. If we abuse this privilege we can make the world a living hell. The cautionary tale of ‘stealing fire’ is to end up like Prometheus, bound to a rock, with our innards being continually devoured. How do we use our fire for the benefit of all, rather than to enslave us further in our own self-created bullshit.
The bullshit factories of social media machines can turn people into atomized zombies. And yet within the disease is a potential cure. First we have to understand what the machines are doing to us, and how to design them wisely, understand the powerful hypnotic sway they have on us. We also need to know when to retreat from them—to turn them off. This requires a whole ‘ecology of practices’ as Vervaeke says, to navigate this Kairos. These practices—for instance meditation and mindfulness—are remedies to self deception. And they help us to use the serpentine power of technology responsibly and wisely.
Psycho-Technologies and Flow.
Our technologies include not only external appendages like fire, clothing, and cell phones, but also internal ‘psycho-technologies’—one of Vervaeke’s most beloved concepts. Psycho-technologies arise from the subtle realms of thought and imagination. They are our intangible spiritual tools, like language, numbers, logic, meditation, contemplation, altered states of near clairvoyance, and various modes of metaphorical reasoning.
Psycho-Technologies help us get into ‘flow states’. Vervaeke’s thesis here is that flow states create meaning revolutions within us and in the society at large. Why? Because the flow state is the realm where we experience maximum meaning and go beyond the everyday bullshit of our chattering, monkey minds. I write, practice martial arts, and play music—a dancer dances, a gamer plays video games—all to get into a state of flow. In the flow state, time and space shift, expand, dissolve.
We become fully human and even superhuman in the flow state. Real presence and aliveness are characteristic of a flow, a state beyond bullshit. In the flow state, we feel fully alive, not mechanically zombie-walking through our existence. This is also the state of real learning: cascades of insight, both verbal and non-verbal, arise to remake and transform us. Real education can be measured by how effectively the learning technology gets us into this kind of flow. We therefore need to create educational contexts with feedback for our errors that continually push us towards greater insight. The fact is, the human being is always in search of this flow, and will even risk death to experience it.
It’s important to note that ‘flow’ doesn’t mean relaxation or ease necessarily—but a challenging state of maximum learning. Vervaeke uses the example of rock climbing: the mountain will constantly give the climber life or death information, and he or she will need to be extremely present or risk falling. This also shows how flow states are potentially dangerous and deceptive, causing the human being to contort itself endlessly in search of a peak state, and neglect the more mundane aspects of human existence. The taste of flow can also lead to addiction, the hungry ghost like need for constant feedback and stimulus.
Sometime about 40 000 years ago, a quantum change occurred in human beings. Vervaeke shows that, disturbingly enough, the first signs of this leap in cognitive development were projectiles or bone tipped weapons. The early hunter could now ‘project’ something into the future and tell the story of the past. Having ‘projects’ and reflecting on the success and failure of these projects, and beginning to express them as stories and myths— puts us in the flow of time and history.
Behind the hunter and his projectile was a visionary guide: enter the shaman. Vervaeke describes the shaman as the first rock star, faith healer, and artist — but we we could add alchemist, proto-scientist, teacher, and even diplomat. And the Shaman, was (and perhaps still is, archetypically speaking) more instrumental to the health and power of a society than we imagine.
The Shaman may have been the first person able to think ‘outside the box’, according to Vervaeke. His or her great achievement was to ‘meet the strange’ or ‘the stranger’ in the way that an ordinary person, bound in the tribal ego, could not. This was achieved literally but also through imaginative ‘soul flights’. By way of example, the bear Shaman of Siberia supposedly inhabits the soul of a bear, helping the hunter to understand the bear’s movements and making him extremely skilled in tracking the bear.
Another interesting point Vervaeke puts forward is that the shaman may have been responsible for the leap from hunter gatherer societies to more extensive agricultural civilisations. Through diplomacy and the magic of communication with the stranger, the shaman created networks beyond the tribe, planting the seeds for larger cultures to develop.
The shaman’s task was, among other things, to break through our mimetic projections, to give us a non-egoic, non-conventional perspective, disrupting the stuck patterns of the world, and allowing for new information and wisdom to emerge. Disruption is how we learn, much more than rote and imitation. Through fasting, meditating, dancing, psychedelics, and entering various altered states, the shaman developed clairvoyance, healing powers, and brought cascades of insight to the tribe. He may have been the first to create psycho-technologies, in other words, to lead people to the state of flow.
The Shaman keeps the tribe in a state of dynamic aliveness, and prevents us from becoming purely reactive and mechanical creatures, unable to deal intelligently with novelty or to reflect on ourselves. The shaman introduces novel information into the tribe. Today perhaps we need modern shamans, to ward off the zombie apocalypse, and to help us develop more sublime and advanced flow states.
The Nine Dot problem
To illustrate how the Shaman thinks ‘outside the box’, Verkavke presents something called the nine dot problem. When most of us do this basic puzzle, we fail to see a simple solution, because that solution lies beyond the parameters of our habitual framework. Vervaeke says: ‘You have to disrupt your framing in order to get an insight’ — a profound point. We need shamans for precisely this reason.
This is a pedagogical issue. How do we create insights from flow states? Real learning occurs, I would argue, not through memorising a lot of information or generating beliefs, but in creating contexts where we can get into a state of flow. Vervaeke says: ‘You shouldn’t reduce all of your sense of knowing to believing’. That is: you can’t answer the nine dot question through your beliefs or known logics, but only through exploration and deep experience.
As a healer and magician, Vervaeke says the Shaman was the master of the placebo effect, but he also acknowledges that the placebo effect is very real and effective. Of course, placebo cures are considered ‘bullshit’ by our hyper-rational standards, but that doesn't mean they can’t be effective. Actually, the shaman is not engaged in bullshit but in radical truth — even if that truth expresses itself in unconventional, non-linear, and symbolic terms.
This brings me to a potential disagreement I have with Vervaeke: is he correct in trying to understand the shaman merely from a rational perspective? For example, I’m not so sure a Shaman cannot actually inhabit the soul of a bear—and I’m willing to suspend disbelieve in this unexplained phenomena. Is Vervaeke stuck within his own ‘nine dot’ paradigm. I’m skeptical about his rational scepticism, even if, philosophically and spiritually, he is exploring territory that goes way beyond the new atheist paradigm.
Note: This is not a summary of Vervakeke’s ideas, but a discursive exploration. In other words, I have scattered my own insights and examples among his. I may not be always representing his ideas fully or accurately, but I am doing my best to add something to the conversation, rather that just repeat what he has already said. My apologies in advance to the good professor if I get something wrong here. I’m open to correction.
Others essay in this series:
The Man, The Lion, and The Monster
Higher States of Consciousness
Christ and Gnosis
Science and the Death of the Universe
Metanoia — A change of heart
Understanding the Meta-Crisis
Religion and Horror
The Religion of No Religion
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