There is a time in every artistic and scientific field when a precocious and promising young star appears. More often than not, as time goes by, the young star proves to be a meteor, blazing their ephemeral light for too a short time. Very few cultivate and nurture their spark of genius into adulthood and see the full fruition of their gifts.
In the realm of prestidigitation and sleight-of-hand artistry, such a very young practitioner of magic was a kid called Joshua Jay, who has passed the test of time, having grown into the artist true to his early vocation. Unanimously acclaimed and esteemed by his peers, Joshua is presently a successful international performer, lecturer, author, magic creator and consultant, event producer and Guinness World Record holder. He has fooled Penn & Teller and recently has appeared on Jimmy Fallon. Although still in his mid-thirties, Joshua has skillfully played his cards. From Ohio, Jay is now based in New York, and has made the world his stage.
I recently had the good fortune of catching Jay's latest show, Six Impossible Things. Whatever your notion of a magic show, this is likely something different: the audience is not expected to simply watch magic but to experience it. With only 20 guests allowed at every show, Six Impossible Things is an immersive hour-long experience, brimming with mystery, intrigue, and spellbinding magic. Directed by Luke Jermay — another well-respected magical performer in his own right — Six Impossible Things is a show with a soul. Imagine having been invited to someone's very cozy, quirky and fascinating home; a place where magical things happen right under your nose and in your very hands.
Taking his guests by the hand into the Wonderland of his own creation, Joshua has the elegance, warmth, and caring attitude of a master host. As Joshua himself says, "The interplay between magician and audience isn't only the most important part of a magic show; it's what makes magic unique in the performing arts." A seasoned performer, he comes across as an amiable and approachable gentleman, an ordinary "guy next door" who nonetheless makes extraordinary things happen. Jay's greatest gift may be the way he brings magic to people with a richness and sincerity — exemplified by this emotionally intimate and playful participatory show.
I believe that Joshua Jay is one of the true illuminati, contemporary magicians who understand and embody the lesson subtly suggested with the phrase in magician David Devant's iconic poster: "All Done By Kindness."
I'm not the only one who loved Six Impossible Things. By public demand the show has been extended a few times; the next round begins in March. If you happen to be in New York, see for yourself how deep the rabbit hole goes.
Mind metaphysics, or positive thinking, is a fascinating and mysterious field of personal exploration and inquiry. The guiding principle and basic tenet of mind metaphysics is that thoughts are causative, i.e. thoughts — those intangible acts of cognition, attention and intention — can actually shape reality and the material world in accordance with our wishes and desires. With roots in ancient Hermetic traditions, this profound idea made its way into culture, though not without resistance, via the New Thought and Human Potential movements, and more recently, Positive Psychology, as well as myriad incarnations in business motivation and the self-help industry.
The Miracle Club is part memoir, part historical map, part "operating manual" for manifesting your true will and your heart's desires. The promise of the book is pretty simple: you can make miracles happen. There's a catch though: miracles ain't free — there is work to do.
Grounding his reflections in personal history and a life of experimentation, Horowitz comes across as the real deal: he is an authentic "adept mind" and he knows his stuff. Moreover, endowed with a deep and wide knowledge of the terrain, Horowitz is able to present the essential lineage of modern thinkers who shaped our present understanding of mind metaphysics.
Last but not least, Horowitz has curated an intellectually rigorous guide for the willing practitioner: a collection of tools and ideas to make, quite literally, miracles happen. You don't have to believe, just follow his invitation to the fringes of reason, and experiment with the ideas offered. As Horowitz says:
I believe that thinking, in a direct, highly focused, and emotively charged manner, expands our capacity to perceive and concretize events, and relates us to a nontactile field of existence that surpasses ordinarily perceived boundaries of time and thought. This outlook is less a personal doctrine than a line of experimentation.
Let's pause a bit on this crucial point. Does the mind actually affect and influence reality? This question calls into focus the very notion of what reality is, at its most fundamental level. Is reality matter, energy, spirit, divine intention, nature? Or some combination of the above? According to Horowitz, the mind indeed has creative agency, but its workings are just one thread — a meaningful one — in a tangled web of accidental, biological, natural, and psychological forces.
We live under the accidents of fortune, illness, forces of nature, traumas of the past, and on the waves of relationships with others, who may possess conflicting needs and aims. These are lawful facts of life. But the mind also wields a shade of influence — it is an influence that we don't fully understand, but one that is accorded steadily greater credibility by generations of study in medicine, psychology, biology, and the physical sciences.
This is an undoubtedly labyrinthine and thorny philosophically playground, but what if we are actually co-creators of our own reality? What if our thoughts play a greater role in shaping our experiences and circumstances than is generally acknowledged? What if there are human capacities, still little understood, for affecting the world in a manner beyond our current understanding of physics? The persistent scientific skepticism over mind's effect on matter is often based on outdated assumptions about the nature of reality itself. Simply the fact of acknowledging and clearly describing unusual aspects of reality can encourage a renewed and fresh psychological experience of these possibilities. It's as if our intellectual and social practices "switch on" and "switch off" a set of latent universal human potentials.
I argue that we can pierce the thin veil that separates mental and spiritual experience, thus using our minds not only as tools of cognition and motor function but as instruments of navigation into higher, unseen realms of psychology and cause and effect. We may be unable to see, describe, or fully identify these other spheres of existence — but their impact is palpably felt in our lives.
So just give these ideas a try. Experiment with the capacities of your mind, and see for yourself what happens. And if you experience results: go and tell other people. That's the game.
What do I personally believe of all this jazz? As a practitioner of mind metaphysics techniques myself — and having decided to write the praise for this book in the first place — my own beliefs are summed up by the lovely, suggestive rhymes of author Henry Van Dyke:
I hold it true that thoughts are things;
They're endowed with bodies and breath and wings;
And that we send them forth to fill
The world with good results, or ill.
Ricky Jay – magician, sleight-of-hand artist extraordinaire, actor, author, scholar of weirdness and oddities, Guinness award winner for throwing playing cards – passed away on November 24th at age 72.
A personal note should say enough for my love of this man's work. I have only one object hanging on my studio walls: an original print of Ricky Jay's book cover "Cards as Weapons."
I was a teenage kid when I stumbled upon the card-magic bible "The Expert At The Card Table" by S.W.Erdnase. This book became an obsession of mine for a few years; eventually I translated and published the work in my native Italian. One day I got my paws on a VHS tape of a man who took Erdnase's century-old presentation "The Exclusive Coterie" and brought it back to life – with humor, a charming style, and a never-before-seen flair. I was completely enraptured. That performance set the bar for artistry and excellence for years to come.
Ricky Jay's long time friend, collaborator and co-conspirator Michael Weber said, "The real mark of an artist is not becoming known as the finest exponent of their art. It's when the only way to describe what they do is to name them."
Well, Ricky Jay's name is set in stone: an artist in a league by himself.
The world is full of places of wonder. Some of them are physical places; others are places of the imagination. The College Of Extraordinary Experiences is both. Once a year, the Czocha Castle in Poland (a real 13th century castle), becomes a most unusual and peculiar college, much like Harry Potter's Hogwarts. Only this one is real — and it's not for kids. In order to try to convey the nature and the spirit of such a one-of-a-kind place, allow me to provide a bit of framing and context.
Welcome to the Experience Economy
In 1998, consultants and authors B. Joseph Pine and James H. Gilmore published an article in the Harvard Business Review, introducing the term "Experience Economy" for the first time. The following year, the authors expanded their ideas into a successful and widely influential book of the same title. Thus the Experience Economy was officially born, and the word "experience" gained new meaning in the business world.
Broadly retracing the history of economy, Pine and Gilmore identified four main developmental stages of "economic offering." This progression goes from early human societies, mainly concerned with "Commodities," to the Industrial Revolution and large-scale production of consumer "Goods," followed by a steadily increasing demand for "Services," and finally, in the present day, the latest form of economic offering: "Experiences." Amply corroborated in the past two decades, the book's thesis is that in a world saturated with largely undifferentiated goods and services, the greatest opportunity for value creation (and revenue growth) lies in staging experiences. Companies stage an experience whenever they engage customers in a personal way, hopefully creating long-lasting memories, with the promise and ambition to make lives more fun and exciting, or simply better.
Offspring of the Experience Economy is the broad field called "Customer Experience Management," with its many virtuous examples and smart practices, as well as a wide range of goofy and vapid interpretations of the concept. Sorting the signal from the crap, the word "experience" is now an integral part of the corporate lexicon, and all things "experiential" are big business.
Into this milieu enters Nathan Shedroff and his breakthrough work Experience Design. Published in 2009, the book addresses the idea that experiences can be intentionally designed to achieve specific effects and desired outcomes. Introducing this new discipline, Shedroff's pioneering goal was to identify criteria and strategies to effectively design experiences for customers, consumers, users and viewers. As Shedroff himself wrote:
The design of experiences isn't any newer than the recognition of experiences. As a discipline, though, Experience Design is still somewhat in its infancy. Simultaneously having no history (since it is a discipline only recently defined), and the longest history (since it is the culmination of many, ancient disciplines), Experience Design has become newly recognized and named. However, it is really the combination of many previous disciplines; but never before have these disciplines been so interrelated, nor have the possibilities for integrating them into whole solutions been so great. Experience Design as a discipline is also so new that its very definition is in flux. Many see it only as a field for digital media, while others view it in broad-brush terms that encompass traditional, established, and other such diverse disciplines as theater, graphic design, storytelling, exhibit design, theme-park design, online design, game design, interior design, architecture, and so forth. The list is long enough that the space it describes has not been formally defined.
Now, almost a decade later, "Experience Design" is undeniably a thing, woven into our everyday life. The rules of the game may still be in flux, but it has grown into a multifaceted and hyper-dimensional field of inquiry, recognized and established within academia, with dedicated research departments, professors, and PhD candidates.
The College of Extraordinary Experiences (COEE)
Among the wide range of human experiences, "the experience of the extraordinary" is certainly a most fascinating one, with deep, archetypal roots in the domains of religion, mythology and the numinous. Its timeless allure and intrigue has implications for any modern experience designer, whose ambitious goal is to tap into the well of the extraordinary to retrieve fragments of beauty and enchantment. Being myself professionally dedicated to designing "magical experiences," my time at the College was truly mind-blowing. I've never seen anything like it; discovering a place devoted entirely to Extraordinary Experiences was a pure delight.
COEE is at minimum three things: a College, an Extraordinary Experience, and a Community.
First, it's a full-fledged College: a place for higher education and intellectual discourse, offering hands-on, real-world crash courses on Experience Design. Following three guiding principles — Rapid Prototyping, Co-Creation, and Flexible Focus — this intense five-day event has the flavor of an "unconference." There are a few loosely structured activities, as the core of the program is a co-created and co-designed immersive learning space. Information, ideas and practices flow among participants through facilitated group discussions, thought-provoking workshops (where PowerPoint presentations are adamantly banned), and impromptu conversations. One wishes all learning was as enjoyable, and all enjoyment as profound.
Second, like a nested Russian matryoshka doll, COEE is itself an Extraordinay Experience, self-reflectively focusing on Extraordinary Experiences. It's like Hogwarts meets Disneyland, thoroughly spiced with Burning Man ethos and costuming. For five intense days and nights, you live in a real medieval castle, nestled in gorgeous natural surroundings of breathtaking beauty. Spectacular things happen in this unusual, immersive environment, stimulated by a parade of colorful and wild activities, and playful mind-bending events. You are quickly advised to come to terms with the FOMO syndrome: there is so much going on, you can't get to, or even see, all of it. You'll never know when and where the next thing will happen. Whatever is in store for you, however, will certainly deserve the term "extraordinary."
Third, it's a global community of practice. The temporary inhabitants of the Czocha Castle are a heterogeneous mix of practitioners, researchers and scholars, from different industries and backgrounds. Participants include fine artists, escape room designers, musicians, college professors, event planners, immersive theater actors, professional pranksters, movie producers, theme-park specialists, professional facilitators, C-level executives, and entrepreneurs. The proportion of super-smart, creative, successful people is embarrassingly high. The connections forged at COEE become a community, one that offers its wide-ranging creative prowess to projects and ideas beyond the event itself. Since its inception, COEE has assembled a solid following with a sparkling network of alumni, including all the graduates from the previous gatherings.
And then there's "the secret sauce" that holds everything together, making COEE the unique and exquisite experience it is. To avoid pointless spoilers — and being sworn to secrecy — all that can be said is, "What happens at the College stays at the College." And that's that.
COEE is a large-scale immersive game, a complex mystery box, an ongoing treasure hunt where the prizes are sustained and massive doses of wonder, knowledge and meaning. Learning how to navigate this Escher-like environment, finding your way through hidden passages to secret rooms, discovering what it's all about, is part of the deal. The College is a place of intellectual sophistication, emotional thrills, and just damn fun. The end result is without a doubt a category-defying transformative experience — on a professional as well as a personal level.
COEE is the crown-jewel production and brainchild of Claus Raasted, Paul Bulencea, and Philipp Jacobius — the pulsating powerhouse behind Dziobak Larp Studios. Based in Copenhagen and operating worldwide, DLS is a design collective devoted to all sorts of immersive events: from live action role-playing to alternate reality games. Claus, Paul and Philipp, with their uncanny skills as gentle Dungeon Masters and inspiring community leaders, have shaped COEE into what it is today: an astonishing, living, breathing "social sculpture."
Sounds like an extraordinary place to experience, doesn't it? Well, it is. Do you feel you belong there? Would you like to play? If you say the magic words, the castle gates may open for you.
Knock here: firstname.lastname@example.org. Just so you know, the waiting list for 2019 is currently open. Spots are limited. Personally, I am SO returning next year. Fuck yeah!
Every year, summer brings a merry-go-round of global music festivals. For the past 15 years, I've been keenly surfing the international weirdo festival circuit, from small parties to mainstream mega events. The one place I keep coming back to—and attended again this year—is the EDM festival, a psychedelic tribal gathering, called OZORA.
OZORA Started in 2004, OZORA has steadily grown to become a global center of psyculture, bringing together 30,000 people from all over the world to a remote location in rural Hungary. This temporary village is a weird wonderland, populated by a carnivalesque parade of neo-hippies, steampunk freaks, impish elves, delightful fairies and other eccentric creatures with dreadlocks, dressed in fancy costumes and impressive tattoos.
This colorful bunch of happy mutants entertain themselves for a week, dancing amidst a blizzard of sensory stimulations: a dozen music stages powered by hundreds of DJs, live bands and stage performances, art installations, LED-illuminated structures, kaleidoscopic lights and laser projections. On top of all that, the event offers daily yoga sessions, cooking classes, massage workshops, fire-spinning and juggling lessons, a visionary art gallery and a mind-expanding lectures series featuring prominent underground intellectuals. All in all, it's an electrifying, playful and intense experience. For my money, it's the quintessential experience in exotic, otherworldly fun.
Collective Joy Events Barbara Ehrenreich, in her brilliant book Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, analyzes and documents the phenomenon of "Collective Joy" events throughout the centuries. Ehrenreich interprets this kind of playful and partyful festivals—having their pre-Christian precursors in Roman Saturnalia and Greek Dionysian rites—as rooted in ecstatic religious traditions that have been repressed and marginalized by European and Euro-American mainstream culture for centuries. The cyclical re-emergence of such events in Western society seems to fulfill a deeply rooted impulse of the Collective Unconscious. Present day electronic dance music festivals are a direct offspring of counterculture happenings and events from the 60s and 70s. They are also the latest expression of the ancient lineage of Ehrenreich's Collective Joy event, archaic revivals of the spirit of Dionysius—the archetypical God of ritual madness and religious ecstasy.
Festivals are Temporary Autonomous Zones, happy bubbles where a group of strangers can escape from the routine pull of everyday life. Rhythm, music and dance are ancient and acknowledged technologies for ecstasy, whose "synchronizing force" has the power to arouse, enchant and enrapture, allowing individuals to synch with one another and become a collective. The DJs, acting like the techno-shamans-in-residence, are the ones capable of modulating the "collective energy" of the crowd partaking in the dancefloor ritual. The singular combination of people and place, music and dance, and (if one is so inclined) psychoactive compounds, can lead to communal connection, a flow state, bliss, feeling of cosmic oneness, and ultimately to that altered state of consciuosness called trance.
Are these poeple idiots? I believe that everyone should be able to access their own Collective Joy experience of choice. However, I am not suggesting that everyone should attend these kind music of festivals. As a matter of fact, most of the people I know (besides my close-knit psy-tribe), would find such places unpleasantly weird and terribly chaotic! To many, the sustained collective dance may appear incomprehensible and hellish, the repetitive music beats boring or outright disturbing. Unless one is personally drawn to these places, the true significance of such events and the potential thrill of "the vibe" is something lost in translation. Leading Italian ethnobotanist Giorgio Samorini comments about a possible outside observer witnessing such events:
People who know nothing about this and watch this, their fair judgement could be: "These are idiots." I usually say to them: "Hey, pay attention to your judgment. Because there, on the dance floor, these people indeed discovered something. There is something wonderful, that you don't understand. First try to study and know something about what is the Collective Trance."
OZORA Festival Official Video 2016:
Let's dance! It's been said that: "Those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music." However, it is during such festivals that I find some of the most entrancing, innovative, sophisticated sounds. And I do believe that some of these sounds can be savored even in a home-like context. While I can't guarantee you'll reach a trance state listening to this while dancing in your living room, it might be fun to give it shot. Being an amateur DJ myself, here's a cherry-picked selection from my personal playlist. Let's see if I can make you dance!
Here are three of my favorite tracks (elegant rhythms with refined melodic lines). Each one has its own character and vibe—downtempo beats, gently escalating to something that invites you to move your body and get down with your funky self! In no special order, check out:
Moment Of Eclipse:
Remix is among my favorite, playful art-forms. Here are two refreshing remixes of well-known pop songs, by acclaimed sound conjurers:
For upbeat grooves, to enjoy while spacing out by yourself alone, or for laid-back social occasions, trust the sonic tapestries of psy-dub maestro OTT:
Shifting gears to a more mellow vibe, here is something a bit more from a meditative, and contemplative, zone. The poetry of chillout is courtesy of Carbon Based Lifeforms.
Last but not least. One the most glowing albums that has provided me with endless doses of wonder and joy. Music that speaks to the body, mind and soul.
From the heroic imagination of Shpongle, check out Nothing Lasts… But Nothing Is Lost:
Here's a provocative question to ponder: Do you believe in luck?
We generally believe we're in control of our lives; we proudly take credit for our achievements and tell compelling stories about our intentionally designed successes. And that's all nice and good — we indeed should enjoy our share of merit. However, the larger picture reveals that no matter how carefully and meticulously we plan our lives, we are all subject to unforeseeable, unexpected, uninvited, uncontrollable events that can make or break the day. In our complex world, Joseph Conrad's words sound truer than ever: "It is the mark of an inexperienced man not to believe in luck." Luck is indeed a slippery notion, loaded with emotional, philosophical, and mystical connotations.
Better Lucky or Talented?
A few years ago, Nassim Nicholas Taleb packed two strong punches to our collective ego. With his influential books The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness, he brought to wide attention how deeply randomness and unpredictability affect our lives and reality. This notion is confirmed in the recently published Scientific American article "The Role of Luck in Life Success Is Far Greater Than We Realized: Are the most successful people mostly the luckiest people in our society?"
Physicists Alessandro Pluchino and Andrea Rapisarda, together with economist Alessio Biondo, attempted to quantify the roles that luck and talent play in successful careers, using a mathematical model simulating the evolution of careers in a collective population over many years.
The results: "Even a great talent becomes useless against the fury of misfortune. …In complex social and economical context where chance is likely to play a role, strategies that incorporate randomness can perform better than strategies based on the 'naively meritocratic' approach. … A growing number of studies based on real-world data, strongly suggest that luck and opportunity play an underappreciated role in determining the final level of individual success."
Such conclusions may sound brutal to die-hard meritocrats, self-proclaimed self-made persons or delusional egomaniacs. For the rest of us, we can decide to play along and, while sharpening our axe, consciously incorporate chance into our lives. So here follows a favorite game of mine, that can be played alone or with others; all that is required is a six-sided die. Called The Dice Man, it is inspired by the 1971 book of the same name.
The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart
A modern cult classic, The Dice Man is a zany, funny, existentially subversive novel. It tells the story of a psychiatrist living a bored and unfulfilled life who begins making decisions based on the roll of a die — leading him to a happier, more joyful life. The lucid perversion of using dice to navigate life, part of his crusade to liberate himself from the illusion of choice and control, was meant to hack his ego and undermine his personality. The Dice Man Game goes like this:
1. The next time you face a situation with multiple options available, compile a list of six actions you might potentially do. According to The Dice Man: "We all have minority impulses which are stifled by the normal personality and rarely break free into action." Writing down a few different options is a way of acknowledging and recognizing the potential of the "minority impulse" that, in the end, may be a better choice than your ego can admit. Give yourself permission to explore some wild and far-fetched crazy shit.
2. Shake the die, roll it, and see which choice is decided. Then just go and do the action dictated by the die. See? It's pretty simple. There's a catch though: if you decide to roll the die, you have to actually perform the option the die indicates. Otherwise, don't bother to seek the Wisdom of the Die. Thus speaks The Dice Man.
Sounds like a dangerous idea, doesn't it? A bit like playing a prank on yourself or fooling around when something serious is at stake. But it's an alluring game, imbued with a sense of risk and adventure. Generating a random option can be liberating! It can spice up a routine and surprisingly make your day. A branching multiverse is just a dice roll away. Good luck.
It's been 10 years since the writing of The Atlantic's now classic essay Is Google Making Us Stupid? in which Nicholas Carr addressed how our reading habits (and our cognition in general) have been collectively affected by the use of the Internet. Carr observed his own scattering of attention, a lessening of concentration for extended periods of time, which overall makes the act of reading more and more fragmented, impoverished and shallow. To quote Carr's eloquent metaphor: "Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski." And over the past decade, our nearly ubiquitous access to the World Wide Web has made things worse.
The conspicuous consumption of our daily reading is a steady stream of piece meal information coming from a medley of screens: we endlessly scroll through posts, comments and messages, nervously bouncing from site to site, skimming, browsing and searching, jumping from our latest email or text to social media chatter, compulsively trying to satisfy our information craving. Reading is not what it used to be, and that's that.
But reading comes in different shapes and forms, and is not only for absorbing content. Imagine this: take a few minutes to sit down quietly with someone you care about. Choose a piece of writing you like, and share that piece of writing—reading it loud to the other person. You'll find something uncanny going on.
Reading aloud to another person is indeed a peculiar experience, something we are not used to, or if we are, it's mostly for children. In the past, reading aloud—and listening—was a widely enjoyed leisure activity, as well as a way of giving and receiving advice. Going far beyond a simple sharing of valuable content, the spoken word casts an enchanting magic spell, becoming a transformative force to alter consciousness.
In fact, reading aloud breeds human moments. A notion coined by Harvard lecturer Edward M. Hallowell, a human moment refers to the psychological encounter that can happen when two people share the same physical space, actively listening to one another. During a human moment people are totally present—physically, emotionally and intellectually—offering each other undivided attention, concentrating on the here and now, with no desire to be anywhere else or in any hurry to move on. Such moments foster connection and intimacy, and are vital to our mental health and general wellbeing. Yet we have fewer and fewer of these moments, even with our closest friends and family. And that sucks!
To Read Aloud
To take a crack at this kind of reading/listening experience, we have a portal straight to that Middle Earth where magic happens: To Read Aloud – A Literary Toolkit for Wellbeing by Francesco Dimitri. Born and raised in Italy, Dimitri is one of the most successful and popular Italian fantasy authors. A writer of both fiction and non-fiction, he moved to London at the peak of his career to find a bigger pond, and started writing in English.
To Read Aloud is a refined example of the literary self-help genre (it is noteworthy that Dimitri is on the faculty of The School of Life, an outstanding literary/philosophical establishment founded by philosopher Alain de Botton). The book is a curated selection of 75 extracts from heroes of Western literature: Epicurus, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Giacomo Leopardi, Aleister Crowley, Oscar Wilde, Simone de Beauvoir, Anaïs Nin, Neil Gaiman.
The book is divided into thematic sections—Love, Loss, Lightness, Pleasure, Work, Nature, Change, Chaos, Wonder—with each piece acting as a probe for existential exploration, shedding light upon timeless and eternal aspects of the human experience, deepening the knowledge and understanding of our existence. Each section opens with a piece written by Dimitri himself, deftly interpreting tales from Greek mythology with amusing wit, irony and lightness.
Overall, To Read Aloud is a goldmine of a collection: each literary gem can be savored independently, yet are woven together to form a rich tapestry of beauty and meaning. This treasure will crack your mind—and soul—open, both when read aloud and otherwise.
It is common in industrial and post-industrial societies to suppose a rigid, almost antagonistic division between work and play. We work in order to earn enough money to afford us time for something called fun or play—the antidote for work. Moreover, "play" is most often associated with children's pastimes, geeky video games, or other unproductive activities considered the opposite of seriousness. Maybe there is more to play than meets the eye?
In the classic study Homo Ludens, the great scholar Johan Huizinga pointed out the anthropological relevance and the profound evolutionary implications of the human activity called play. Huizinga saw the instinct for play as the central force of civilized life: "Law and order, commerce and profit, craft and art, poetry, wisdom and science. All are rooted in the primeval soil of play." Five hundred years before LEGO registered the trademark, Renaissance magus Marsilio Ficino used "Serious Play" (Serio Ludere) to describe the way the fathers of Western thought operated: "Pythagoras, Socrates, and Plato had the habit of hiding all divine mysteries behind the veil of (…) serious play". And speaking of divine mysteries, in the Hindu mythology the god Brahman creates the world itself, as it were, through Lila — "divine play." Play seems to be serious business after all.
Play is a state of mind, a highly sophisticated approach to life and work. Play is a fun, flow-inducing experience, among the most enjoyable states of consciousness available to humans. Play is a space for experimentation—a primal learning environment that allows one to take controlled risks without dangers. Play is a delightful, exhilarating feeling of creative accomplishment, of heightened functioning, optimistic engagement with the world around us. At its best, our play makes us feel alive, present in the moment, and fully activated as human beings.
In this time in history, when the rules of the games we play are being rewritten, it may be worth injecting a healthy dose of playfulness in our daily lives—seeking more fun, lightness, engagement, and fulfillment.
My personal interest in such a timeless topic recently led me to curate the TEDxPwCMilan event titled More Than Play. Produced by PwC Italia, one of the Big Four accounting firms, the event was designed to foster learning agility, explore the concept of play and its beneficial implications at the personal and organizational level.
Among the high-profile speakers, Boing Boing editor and Institute for the Future researcher David Pescovitz shared personal tales about the importance of playfulness in his work. He described how play was and is a driving force behind Boing Boing itself; a pillar of the Futures Thinking methodology practiced at the Institute For The Future; and a crucial factor for the success of the Voyager Golden Record Kickstarter campaign. Each of these examples share a common thread: being moved to create and produce just for the fun of it-—eventually resulting in amazement at the unexpected fruits of one's play.
It may be a long way before work will overcome its reputation of necessary evil, and before the divide between work and play are bridged. And let us not even forget the countless people working under inhuman conditions, those for whom work itself a distant dream, and the reflections upon work and play a luxury. However, I sense signals of hope. In the words of philosopher Alan Watts:
"This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play."
There is an underground current of thought beneath Western culture, running quietly like a vein of quicksilver: The Hermetic Philosophy. This ancient and multifaceted phenomenon is often found rising up from the shadows during times of intense cultural transition and upheaval.
The words hermetic, occult and esoteric are used interchangeably to refer to ideas and beliefs associated with the mystical "Perennial Philosophy" that infused every major religion, and diverse cultural streams, over the past millennia. Rooted in ancient Egyptian and Judeo-Christian traditions, these secret beliefs went mainstream during the Renaissance, a revival that continued through the Enlightenment to modern interpretations in the New Thought and New Age movements and the secular Self-help movement of recent years.
However protean and multifaceted the phenomenon, the essence of most esoteric teachings is that we go about our daily lives asleep, unaware of the true nature of reality and our place in it. This state of affairs engenders numbness, inner disconnection and lack of meaning, with a desolate question lingering in the backs of our heads: Is this all there is? Maybe, there is more than meets the eye. Unlike modern materialism, the Hermetic Philosophy pictures the cosmos as a living entity, the Anima Mundi experiencing itself subjectively. Every thing – fragments of The All – are linked together in a web of correspondences and resonances between microcosm and macrocosm. The ultimate goal of the "Way of Hermes" is to wake up to a divine reality: the actualization of the spiritual nature of man.
The Ritman Library
For those of us enthralled by such ideas – and the wondrous, precious tomes expressing them – the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica (BPH) is a must-see. Also known as The Ritman Library, it is aptly located in Amsterdam, a city historically known for freedom of religion, freedom of expression and freedom of printing.
One of the largest collections of hermetic books, The Ritman Library is a true temple of secret knowledge and awareness, containing more than 23,000 volumes, including many rare and invaluable first editions; a wealth of manuscripts and engravings on hermetica, alchemy, mysticism, gnosticism, esotericism and comparative religion, by legendary heroes of the imagination such as Marsilio Ficino, Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, Giordano Bruno, Jacob Böhme and Robert Fludd.
The library was founded by Joost Ritman, a successful Dutch businessman who, at age 16, had "a sudden and deep experience (…) that everything is One. In a single moment I realized that there is a profound connection between origin and creation, between God – Cosmos – Man." This mystical emergence steered the man's life, who instead of filling his parking lot with Ferraris, decided to create a "treasure house of the human spirit."
The ultimate documentary, The Ritman Library: Amsterdam, is finally available, a joy for bibliophiles and hermetic aficionados alike. Shot by talented Italy-based creative team Sara Ferro and Chris Weil of Artoldo Media, the 90-minute feature film is a magic portal into the library, guided by the founder Joost Ritman, the library's director Esther Ritman, the bibliographical team, as well as Dr. Marco Pasi, Professor of the History of Hermetic Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam.
A charming tour into the history of Western Esotericism, the documentary celebrates the library's historic volumes as poetic maps to the divine essence, as charts to inner landscapes and to outer hyperspace, as fruits of man's never-ending quest for meaning and beauty beyond the mundane. Moreover, it's a reminder of how books have always been powerful engines of cultural revolution and carriers of important intellectual heritage, hard-fought theories and ideas often deemed as dangerous and heretical when first published.
The whole magic community mourns the passing of Eugene Burger, at age 78. One of the most influential magicians of the 20th century, as well as an exceptional human being, he will be sorely missed by a vast network of loving friends, students and fans all the world over.
The impact of Eugene's contribution to the art of magic is preeminent. His massive body of work shifted the consciousness of magicians, opening doors to new exciting realms of theatrical and artistic expressions of magic.
Eugene's life was a perfect blend of the active and contemplative: a master performer, he worked in the most prestigious international venues, receiving the highest accolades from the industry and his peers. His magic was strong, infused with wit and humor, a warm and infectious laugh, and gentle kindness. Just being in his presence produced joy and pure delight. Along with his performing career, he was an esteemed philosopher with a divinity college background at Yale University. A gifted writer, a sharp thinker, an enchanting storyteller, an encouraging and generous teacher who left a deep mark in countless students' lives.
The Magician Philosopher
Some of Eugene's most important musings revolved around magic's relevance as an art form, and the role of the magician in present times.
Why is it, that society seems to need magicians to enlighten them? Why didn't Steven Spielberg wipe the magician off the face of the planet? Because what he can do on a screen is far more fabulous than what I can do at a table. But it didn't happen. Maybe there is something in us, as human beings, maybe the human heart cries out for magic. (1)
Eugene was convinced that magic could still be relevant for a modern, disenchanted, hyper-rational audience. Reframed in intelligent ways, magic could become a tool capable of offering memorable and, in some cases, even transformative experiences. Having a profound interest for the power of symbols and stories as transforming agents in human life, Eugene suggested that:
In the deepest sense (…) an experience of magic involves a mental linkage between the magic trick that is being performed and other emotional concepts, experiences, dreams, hopes, ambitions, fears, nightmares, and more. Perhaps the linkage is to archetypes and magical symbols present in the Unconscious, as Jung suggested – these powerful mental images, found especially in our dreams, that are our links to the magical universe of enchantment, symbol and myth.(2)
Building on that, "Conjuring at its best functions symbolically to awaken us to another realm of experience: the magical dimension that points us toward the Mystery that lies behind and beyond all experience." (3)That's what Eugene sought to celebrate: the notion that life itself has inherent magical qualities, filled with surprise, wonder and astonishment for those whose hearts and minds are open to receive them.
The Magic and Mystery School Legacy
In his last years Eugene led a kind of movement to reinvigorate symbolic consciousness into the magic community. Together with Abigail Spinner, Jeff McBride and Larry Hass, he was a driving force behind the Magic and Mystery School in Las Vegas, presently the most important school for serious students of magic. Designed as a safe space where magicians can reflect on important questions about the art of magic and their involvement with it, the School has no interest in advocating a particular philosophy. Students are invited to make decisions based on their own experiences and values, thereby taking their own magic in a more individual direction.
Interviewed by Erik Davis and Maja D'Aoust, Eugene articulated some thoughts on his personal approach to magic:
"I think there are a lot of ways to skinning the cat, as it were… I'm not going to presume that my way is the best way, it's just the way I happen to be in at the moment. I'm not going to say this is the only way to approach magic. If you just approach magic as entertainment, fun, isn't-this-silly-and-goofy, that's a valid response — and for some people that's all they get out of it, or it's that only what they are able to bring to it (…) For myself, I believe that all human behavior is representational and so magic is representational too, and points beyond itself to meanings." (4)
I don't feel I'm just part of the entertainment business. I think there's something deeper going on here. That magic is a deep and profound and wonderful art. (5)
Into the Big Mystery
Eugene embraced the terminal phase of his life with his usual grace, clarity, humor, peace of mind. He was unfettered and ready to meet with the ultimate capital M Mystery of life: "For the end is something that we must all confront. . .when we accept the end, we find that it signals the birth of a new beginning." (6)
It seems appropriate to quote one of Eugene's favorite death-and-resurrection myths (that he often used as the closing of his show): At the end of time, the God Shiva appears and dances the Tandava dance, a weird and terrible dance of fire, in which the entire material universe is destroyed. And the universe is no more. There is only silence, vast cosmic sleep. And out of this cosmic sleep, the God Brahma wakens himself, looks around and seeing nothing, nothing lovely or beautiful, he decides to create the universe once more. And creating it, he retires, pleased with his eternal play.
And so, until the day Brahma reawakens and recreates the universe anew, Eugene will sleep the cosmic sleep. But his Spirit will live in the hearts of those who loved him, and in the performances of the magicians he inspired — gleefully pleased with his eternal play.
Michael Caplan, A Magical Vision (Montrose Pictures, 2009)
Eugene Burger, The Experience of Magic (Kaufman and Greenberg, 1989), p. 16
What do you after you Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out? Well, you go and Find The Others.
Last May 2017, I flew to London for the staging of Cosmic Trigger — The Play, a sheer delight for any Robert Anton Wilson fan, a masterpiece of high weirdness befitting the book it derives from. The experience proved to be more mind-shattering and category-defying than I could have ever imagined. A 23-night run hosted at The Cockpit Theatre, the play is an ambitious theatrical event: an intense four-hour long immersive happening, an experimental and multi-layered metafiction, intellectually challenging and spiritually intoxicating, a disorienting dance of Discordian confusion and uncanny mindfuck. An extraordinary cast of actors created a colourfully wild, merry parade of countercultural icons—along with Robert Anton Wilson and his wife Arlen, Robert Shea, Timothy Leary, Alan Watts, William Burroughs, Albert Hoffman, John Lilly, Jacques Vallee, Aleister Crowley—in brief, great fun!
Not only that, Cosmic Trigger — The Play has the inherent magical qualities of a collective ritual or mass initiation: it is "a narrative so utterly complex and so thoroughly self-referential that it becomes to all intents and purposes alive." As magicians know, " by doing certain things certain results will follow."
Hail Daisy Campbell!
The mastermind behind such a unique endeavour and artistic achievement is director Daisy Campbell, who pulled some cosmic and genealogical strings to bring her vision to life. Daisy is the daughter of the late famed British director Ken Campbell, who achieved notoriety in the 1970s for his nine-hour adaptation of the epic science-fiction trilogy Illuminatus! by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, among other works. Daisy half-jokingly says she was conceived backstage during the show run (where her mother, actress Prunella Gee, interpreted the role of Discordian Goddess Eris).
In 2013, Daisy received an inner call and decided to answer it, adapting Cosmic Trigger into a play, a manifestation of her inherited artistic and theatrical legacy — both in homage to the mind-expanding philosophy of Wilson and to her father's epic production of Illuminatus! Synchronistically attracting a crew of crazy comrades and producers, the whole production became a full-throttle magical adventure for all involved. Cosmic Trigger — The Play eventually debuted in Liverpool in 2014, creating the space for finding the others .
Robert Anton Wilson
RAW has been a true maverick of the mind, arguably one of the most intriguing and important esoteric thinkers to emerge from the American counterculture. Uncle Bob, " the Carl Sagan of religion, the Jerry Falwell of quantum physics, the Arnold Schwarzenegger of feminism, the Helen Keller of art and music, the Nelson Mandela of white supremacists, the James Joyce of swing set assembly manuals, the Lenny Bruce of funerals, the Salvador Dali of assembly line workers" (1)
RAW's works deeply affected and stretched many minds. There is deep, widespread sense of gratitude among those whose lives he touched with his books, talks and friendship. His mind-stirring books are paper-and-ink equivalents of psychoactive compound, providing rich, meaningful metaphors for the forest of symbols we navigate and experience. Armed with an unusually creative way of using language and a peculiar sense of humor, he explored domains as diverse as chaos magick, Jungian pyschology, cybernetics, Neuro Linguistic Programming, tantric sex, yoga, Zen Buddhism, Freemasonry… and many other esoteric or counterculture philosophies. The basic tenet of his agnosticism and multi-model thinking is that any perspective we have on the world is bound to a massive tapestry of beliefs about the world itself. These sets of world-describing (or world-creating) beliefs he called reality tunnels. Once we recognize we are living inside a particular reality tunnel, which limits everything we can perceive, we gain the freedom to shift to another. Reality is always plural and mutable belief being the death of intelligence.
Our culture is turning to steam
Published in 1977, Cosmic Trigger is 40 years old this year, though it seems as relevant as ever. "In fact," Daisy Campbell says, "the world he predicted, it's just here, we are living in it, everything is actually happening, right here, right now. And his antidote to the world madness is to recognize the limits and dangers of our single vision and limited reality tunnels, and the hypnotic trance we are collectively living." (2)
Further on that, writer John Higgs (himself an inspiration behind the play) wrote:
"Wilson's books depict a bewildering world of conspiracies, half-truths, lies, fake news, incompetence and our inability to find anything resembling objective truth. Or to put it another way, it describes the world as it is now, ten years after his death. (3) In Cosmic Trigger, RAW talks about the psychological state where you have no way of making sense of what is happening, where all your maps have run out, and where you have no fixed point with which to orient yourself by. He called this place Chapel Perilous. This is where we are now as a culture." (4)
Sounds like an announcement of cultural collapse and apocalypse. According to magician and graphic novel writer superstar Alan Moore, whose voice leads the opening invocation of The Play :
"Most people find the word 'Apocalypse' to be a terrifying concept. Checked in the dictionary, it means only 'revelation,' although it obviously has also come to mean end of the world. As to what the end of the world means, I would say that probably depends on what we mean by world. I don't think this means the planet, or even the life forms upon the planet. I think the world is purely a construction of ideas, and not just the physical structures, but the mental structures, the ideologies that we've erected, THAT is what I would call the world. Our political structures, philosophical structures, ideological frameworks, economies. These are actually imaginary things, and yet that is the framework that we have built our entire world upon. (…) History is a heat, it is the heat of accumulated information and accumulated complexity. As our culture progresses, we find that we gather more and more information and that we slowly start to move almost from a fluid to a vaporous state, as we approach the ultimate complexity of a social boiling point. I believe that our culture is turning to steam." (5)
Waiting for the apocalypse, let's have a party!
In his later years, Wilson had become a beloved resident character in Santa Cruz, and in 2003 the mayor of town proclaimed July 23rd to be Robert Anton Wilson Day , encouraging " all the citizens to join in commending him for consistently extending the boundaries of modern thought and providing a model of courage and intelligence in an age sadly short on heroes" (6)
This coming July 23rd, Santa Cruz will host a RAW celebration — a day of talks to celebrate his legacy, with contributions from Daisy Campbell, Erik Davis and Richard Rasa of Hilaritas Press, and an evening party with legendary DJ Greg Wilson. To receive information and details, subscribe to the newsletter on the website – or just tune in to the signals leading to the party. That's where you'll find the others! Fnord.
Images from the play by Simon Annand. Poster by: Amoeba Designs
Published in 2014, Seven Brief Lessons in Physics has been an immediate smash hit. In less than 80 pages, Rovelli takes the reader on a friendly trip from the far edges of the cosmos to the edges of the quantum world, addressing some of the hottest ideas revolutionizing our present understanding of the world. And he does so with unassuming innocence, and his enchanting prose makes complex subjects a piece of cake.
In one of his most rhapsodic fragments Rovelli writes:
"There are absolute masterpieces which move us intensely, Mozart's Requiem; the Odyssey; the Sistine Chapel; King Lear. To fully appreciate their brilliance may require a long apprenticeship, but the reward is sheer beauty."
To this list of timeless masterpieces of human ingenuity, Rovelli appends Einstein's celebrated theory of general relativity, which he calls "the most beautiful of all theories".
Now, here's the deal: modern physics is an unbelievably complex, impenetrable and obscure "thing," well beyond the comprehension of any layperson, however well-read. It obviously requires a very long apprenticeship to just get a sense of the terrain (sorry, but watching movies like What The Bleep Do We Know?! or The Secret does not entitle anyone to use the expression quantum physics in any meaningful way).
That's where Rovelli's act of legerdemain lies: he admirably avoids the trap of pedantically trying to explain his shit, while doing an outstanding job evoking the beauty embedded in such mind-warping intellectual endeavors. The whole book is a moving and unabashed hymn to beauty. Rovelli provides enough contents and context to allow the readers to get excited and marvel at the splendors of modern physics, while acknowledging the open-endedness of the quest, and the ocean of mystery upon which we are ultimately suspended.
Counterpoint to the limits of our understanding of reality is a deep sense of aesthetic appreciation, poignantly articulated (although with a more all-encompassing epistemic stance) by psychedelic raconteur Terence McKenna:
[Reality] can't be understood. It is a receding mystery. It cannot be brought under the aegis of rational apprehension. It says in Moby Dick, "reality outran apprehension." It always outruns apprehension, because apprehension is the primitive functioning of the primate neural network. You do not measure the depth of the universal mystery with the neural network of a primate. Our role is not to understand but to appreciate. We have an immense capacity for resonance with beauty, for aesthetic awareness, appreciation of form, and appreciation of how things go together.
It all boils down to this: our immense capacity for resonance with beauty – and our microcosmic craving for it. Carlo Rovelli alchemically distills pure beauty from dark matter. Seven Brief Lessons in Physics is a tuning fork to make the soul resonate with the harmony of the spheres.
Image of Blue dragon-glaucus atlanticus for photo collage by Sylke Rohrlach.
This month marks the 40th anniversary of Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here. It's a good time to celebrate that moment, when the portals opened and a stream of cosmic creative force spilled into our reality.
Pink Floyd need no introduction, being one of the most influential superstar bands of the 20th century. Their sound concoctions, played and aired for millions of hours all around the globe, generated a sonic morphic field of unparalleled beauty. These guys hit their musical nail heavy on our collective subconscious' head.
Wish You Were Here, Pink Floyd's ninth studio album, strikes a balance between commercial craftsmanship and inspired artistry. Ironically more shining than their previous album's lunar success, this work remains a remarkable exemplar of the prog rock and psychedelic era. The band conjured up a melancholic soundscape, weaving kaleidoscopic interstellar jams carrying emotional weight, grief, loss, disillusionment, yet leaving the door open to the manifold possibilities of love and mystic enchantment.
Forty years after the release of Wish You Were Here we live in a world where the experience of consuming music is peculiarly fragmented: we listen to tunes on YouTube, impatiently skipping from to song to song, or randomly accessing tracks on iTunes and mp3 players. In our hectic and disenchanted times, the electro-mechanical reproduction of musical artworks contributed to the loss of aura in artworks in general. Devoting our full and undivided attention to listening a whole album – from the beginning till the very end – is a sporadic experience and a rare luxury. So, to celebrate Wish You Were Here – for those who know and already love it, as well as for those who still never had the pleasure of diving into it – here is suggested a simple ritual, to make yourself a gift.
Get a copy of Wish You Were Here, carve out 45 minutes from your day, find a quiet space, unplug, load the album on your favorite player, get ready and press "play". Let the Pink Floyd's music fully penetrate your ears and pierce your soul. Timeless magic awaits you.
For the true Wish You Were Here fetishists, here's an extra goody, the documentary about the making of the album:
It's never too early to start thinking about your own death. Remember that you're going to die. We are all going to die. You. Me. All of us. Sooner or later, we are all inevitably going to meet the Grim Reaper. This fundamental truth of the human experience seems to be forgotten or neglected on a daily basis by most people. In a society charmed by the myth of eternal youth and obsessed with the idea of indefinitely prolonging life, talking about death is generally viewed as kinda creepy — it's not the most popular conversation starter at a cocktail party.
Maybe I'm just on the verge of some sort of clichéd mid-life crisis (I'm turning 40 in a few months), but I've found a deep resonance with this eloquently-titled post It's never too early to start thinking about your own death, written by Los Angeles-based mortician and death theorist Caitlin Doughty.
The author writes:
I see death as a good thing. Death might appear to destroy the meaning in our lives, but in fact it is the very source of our creativity. Death is the engine that keeps us running, giving us the motivation to achieve, learn, love, and create. (…) The great achievements of humanity were born out of the deadlines imposed by death.
Now, that's an uplifting and life-affirming reframing of the topic: the awareness that the clock is relentlessly ticking can paradoxically be the very source of our creativity. Instead of the quixotic techno-utopian efforts to outsmart the gods, by attempting to overcome death altogether, I believe that any reflection on death can be fruitfully refocused on the issue of how we consciously decide to spend our time.
We are living in frenzied times – so much do to do, so many things to see. However, the overwhelming excess of options and possibilities carries with it an unprecedented risk for distractions. In spite of all our gizmo chasing, our app hopping, our compulsive tweeting and binge web-surfing, time slips away faster than ever. A Sisyphean sense of futility persists despite all this rushing about — how then to know when you are spending your time well, and in a meaningful and worthwhile way?
How am I spending my time?
More than a hundred years before Bill Murray's endlessly looped day in the cult movie Groundhog Day, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche proposed a thought experiment:
What if a demon crept after you one day or night in your loneliest solitude and said to you: "This life, as you live it now and have lived it, you will have to live again and again, times without number; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh and all the unspeakably small and great in your life must return to you, and everything in the same series and sequence—and in the same way this spider and this moonlight among the trees, and in the same way this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence will be turned again and again—and you with it, you dust of dust!" (…) The question in all and everything: "do you want this again and again, times without number?" would lie as the heaviest burden upon all your actions. Or how well disposed towards yourself and towards life would you have to become to have no greater desire than for this ultimate eternal sanction and seal? [The Gay Science, 1882]
Are the things I'm doing today worthy of being done again and again, times without number? I find this thought experiment a compelling way to gauge my actions. It intensifies the weight of the present moment and counteracts my default tendency to procrastinate, to think that I'll always have plenty of time on my hands. Re-examining my priorities against the passage of time can be an eye-opening, if at times terrifying, exercise.
A Memento Mori made of playing cards
The idea of time's passing can seem quite abstract. Therefore, it can be helpful to keep handy a Memento Mori, an object meant to serve as a symbolic reminder of our own mortality and the inexorable passing of time. Memento Mori's have traditionally taken the form of a skull, an hourglass, or other symbols of transformation, and designing one's own, personal Memento Mori can be a fun and creative exercise.
Primed by Kevin Kelly's countdown clock, I was finally prompted to take action after reading DIY Magic by Anthony Alvarado, a whimsical collection of reality hacks. One of his meditations is specifically devoted to creating a personalized Memento Mori, to achieve "a fuller appreciation of life, gained by cultivating an awareness of death."
(…) There is a long, rich history of people who thought it very important to remind themselves and others, once in a while, that we humans don't get to live forever. Granted, a lot of them were monks and philosophers, who tend to be a gloomy bunch. But awareness of one's own mortality does not have to be morbid. I believe that it can be inspiring, uplifting, and help remind you of your focus and purpose.
Being a magician, I decided to tackle the experiment using a tool of my trade: a pack of playing cards. Conveniently enough, a pack of cards has a peculiar embedded property, lurking beneath its surface: it functions as a sort of calendar. A deck of cards is made up of four suits – hearts, clubs, spades and diamonds – representing the four seasons. The 13 cards in each suit represent the 13 phases of the lunar cycle. There are 52 cards in a deck – just as there are 52 weeks in a year. Finally, adding up all the numbers in each and every card the result is 365 – the number of days in a year. So, one pack of cards can be a fair visual representation of a solar year. Pretty uncanny, eh?
In the center of my Wunderkammer there's a structural, steel I-beam – a kind of axis mundi if you will – connecting the ground floor to the upper floor. The flanges on either side of the beam are perfectly spaced to fit a pack of cards. It seemed an auspicious match for my quirky installation. I took 39 used packs of cards – one pack for each year I've already "played out" – and stacked them on one side of the beam. On the other side of the beam, I stacked another set of new decks, equal to the number of years I expect to live (according to the average male life expectancy for Italy). Seen as a whole, the result is a kind of "lifetime hourglass" made of playing cards.
This has become my Memento Mori meditation: every week, I shift a single card from one pile to the other: one more card has been played, one more week moved from the future into the past. This ongoing weekly meditation provides a visual representation of how many cards are left for me to play, it helps me recenter my priorities, urging me to play my cards well.
How we spend our days is how we spend our lives
The most common complaint of our fast-paced hyper-connected society is the feeling of "not having enough time". Many people feel hopelessly robbed of their time by their jobs, seeming to have traded meaning for money. In the long run, a perpetual state of rushing about can create a desperate sense of estrangement and anxiety that no amount of compulsive busyness, bustling, or buying stuff can ever fill.
Thinking about death and the transience of time – and playfully building one's own Memento Mori – entails addressing the crucial question: What do you want to do with your life? Pondering such a big existential question, I always find solace in the timeless words of wisdom by Alan Watts, who reframed the question thusly: What do I desire?
What is a magician? For most of the people a magician is a weird dude, wearing some odd attire with pathetic lapel pins or a clownish tie, possibly able to make balloon animals, trying to look cool and interesting with some wacky prop or a cheesy joke. Frequently endowed with an hypertrophic ego and cocky attitude, the archetypical stereotype of the magician looks like the G.O.B. character from the TV series Arrested Development. Sad but true, the perception of a magician in most people's mind is surrounded by an aura of triviality.
We all live inside our own bag of skin, experiencing and filtering the external world through our "reality tunnels". These "constructs" allow our Ego-complex to function and navigate in our day-to-day life; but, at the same time, such maps limit our perspectives, keeping our doors of perception mostly shut.
Since time immemorial, Man devised a wide array of technologies to hack reality tunnels, in order to perceive more of that "Something infinitely greater and more comprehensive" – whatever it might be. 1
Much before Science extended our vision onto the material world, it's been the Arts that helped man reach out beyond the mundane and the ordinary. The mission of the artist has always been to delve into the immaterial ineffable mysteries and bring back tangible forms that could stretch people's vision beyond its default limited mode. Beautifully put by Paul Klee: "Art does not reproduce the visible; it makes visible." So, in this sense, all of the Arts are technologies to hack our reality tunnel, intentionally affecting the consciousness of the onlookers, attuning them to wider realities.
Among the many Arts, it's the Performing Arts that have inherently transcendent and mystical qualities. Being well established their shamanic origin, performing arts were technologies to dissolve ego boundaries, reach collective ecstasy, a sense of oneness, during sacred rituals and prayers.
And among the performing arts, the one unabashedly concerned with the existence of transpersonal and numinous realms is the Art of Magic: conjuring, illusionism, prestidigitation, secular stage magic, sleight-of-hand artistry – these are different names for the mind-blowing performing art form par excellence. According to magician and philosopher Eugene Burger:
"Conjuring, at its best, functions symbolically to awaken us to another realm of experience: the magical dimension that points us towards the Mystery that lies behind and beyond all experience." 2
A Magician hacks one's "reality tunnel": through tricks-of-the-trade, shenanigans and tomfoolery the audience is provided a direct and dramatic experience (hopefully amusing as well as entertaining) that everyone's reality model is flawed and skewed, and there is "something" (read "the trick") that just slips through its cracks, unnoticed.
What now is showbusiness and pop entertainment was, once upon a time, something sacred, imbued with potentially spiritual undertones:
"The magic trick is such a powerful and effective teaching about the nature of our experience of the world that very few of the great religious teachers have been able to resist it as a parabolic way of presenting their mystery. Even in the Western traditions, Jesus spontaneously magicked water into wine. On the inside of the traditions which fostered these performances, the magic trick could be used to directly stimulate the mysterious experience to which it referred. (…). The trick, in its most powerful revelation, is just like a Zen Buddhist koan. It smashes the ordinary perception of the apprentice to pieces, leaving him nothing to intellectualize about at all. It leaves him knowing only the mystery of perception itself, by forcing him to the extremity of his efforts to understand it. (…). The magic trick can provide just such an opportunity to experience what lies outside the boundaries of ordinary knowledge." 3
Still today, along with its face value entertainment, we can consider a magic trick (what magicians call "effect"), as a tool to induce a potentially fertile cognitive dissonance, able to elict wonder and foster a temporarily exit from one's reality tunnel.
During the transition from shamanism to showbusiness, many of the magician's tricks have lost their mojo, becaming hyperreal and worn-out symbols. Detached from a meaningful context, noone understands anymore the need to make a rabbit appear from a top hat, or the sawing of a woman in half.4 The progressive emptying of meaning of (most) magic tricks turned them into pathetic and goofy evocations of past scenarios, forever severed from anything people can relate to.
"Showbusiness appears as the orphaned child of a divorce between art and ecstacy. (…) The emerging showbusiness is clearly "a degeneration of a once proud and powerful form of magical activity. The tricks are slowly losing their raison d'etre (…) the audience is beginning to lose touch with the ecstatic mystery toward which all the tricks really point." 5
This state of affair provides abundant material for withering showbiz satire, like the movie "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone". Along with the more degenerate incarnations, today's most successful magicians (and performers in general) are aware of the powerful shamanic forces at play, and are able to harness them to create mind-bending theatrical experiences. Clearly, some famous TV stunts have a precise shamanic flavour: flying, walking on water, being buried alive or standing still on a pole for days, catching a bullet with the teeth. However, even making a simple coin vanish and reappear from behind a kid's ear is, to some degree, the reenactment of an ancient magic ritual.
In his underground classic The Death and Resurrection Show, anthropologist Rogan Taylor tracks the origins of showbiz, offering one of his most suggestive and compelling hypotesis:
"It is only when there is a permanent breakdown of this ecstatic unity between performer and onlooker, that what we call "show business" comes into being… It is only when the onlookers no longer know the mystery which lies behind the performance, and to which it constantly refers, that they become an audience. In certain contexts, it might be true to say that the audience only comes into existence when it stops taking the same drugs as the performers." 6
And here takes the stage another ancient "reality hacking technology", straight from the shaman's bag: psychedelics. Mind altering substances are one of the most radical tools to access the transpersonal domain, a "gratuitous grace", fast track to direct encounters with high weirdness, to catch a glimpse of the "peacock angel".
Author Richard Doyle proposes a noteworthy neologism to indicate psychedelics: Ecodelics. Using this word Doyle wants to stress the peculiar feature of such compounds to provide the experience of being "involved in a densely interconnected ecosystem for which contemporary tactics of human identity are insufficient." 7 "Ecodelics seem to draw our attention to the whole. They dwindle the broadcast of the ego – which is not very good at perceiving the whole, just as we can't, unlike a butterfly, taste with our feet. With the ego dwindled, we can become aware of the noosphere – the message of the whole." 8 "While egoic perception insists on the radical discontinuity between self and other, material and divine, psychedelics oftern enable the apprehension of these categories as a continuum, a differential (often holographic) whole." 9
This is what ecodelics can help facilitate: making the separate whole again, lifting the veil of Maya and witnessing the cosmic connectedness of all things, in that constant flux physicist David Bohm called "the unbroken wholeness of the implicate order."
I do believe that, when contemporary stage magic reaches the status of a real Art form, it can offer the participants to the ritual (read "the show") a peak experience, a taste of the ecodelic state, where a moment of socially acceptable liminality is created, with the potential of unleashing the primal forces of wonder and astonishment.
One of my favorite examples of ecodelic effect, the play of re-uniting what once was broken, to finally perceive the whole, is told with a simple piece of thread, as in this video:
This essay was based on a Lecture/Show presented at Breaking Convention, Greenwich University, London, July 13th, 2013.
1. Holger Kalweit, Dreamtime and Inner Space (Shambhala, 1988), p.9
2. Eugene Burger and Robert Neale, Magic & Meaning (Hermetic Press, 1995), p.24
3. Taylor, in Burger&McBride Mystery School Book (The Miracle Factory, 2003), p.420
4. Donne a metà (Women in half) by Mariano Tomatis is the definitive documentary exploring the history and symbology of such a well know stage illusion, along with its abusive physical and psychological underpinning. [with English Subtitles]
5. R.Taylor, The Death and Resurrection Show (Anthony Blond, 1985), pp.46-50
6. Ibidem, p.40
7. Richard Doyle, Darwin's Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noösphere (University of Washington Press, 2011), p. 20