Radical Ritual and Pragmatic Mysticism

In September 2017, I gave a talk on “Radical Ritual and Pragmatic Mysticism” for the Palenque Norte speaker series at Burning Man. The short description was:

“Our spirituality and rationality need to be big enough to hold each other. Conflict between them can be a hindrance, or a chance for growth.”

Here’s a summary of the talk:

When I moved to Peru last year, I was filled with a sense of purpose. I was going there to hold space for a conversation between analytical and intuitive ways of understanding the world, and to translate between the realms of rigorous academic research and profound shamanic practice. I thought I was being hired to co-lead a field station for ayahuasca studies. Instead, I stepped right into the middle of a conflict between cultures. I was prepared for tensions to arise between me and my coworkers, but I was not expecting that this clash of rationality and mysticism would shake me right to the core of my own belief structures.

Getting fired from the center for being “too full of science” was both personally and professionally wrenching, and it also provided an intense motivation to seek better frameworks for integrating an expansive, flexible rationality with a pragmatic, grounded approach to mystical experiences. We need robust and resilient systems to help us navigate the challenges that face humanity, in ways that steer between the rocky shoals of nihilistic meaninglessness and the treacherous whirlpools of self-delusion.

These places where reason and spirituality come into conflict can provide fertile ground for cultivating new ways of understanding and relating. If we can turn towards the tensions that arise when our existing belief structures are not able to meet our needs, we can find opportunities to help those frameworks grow and expand. I want to make spaces where we can allow our sense of the sacred to encompass the deep and beautiful metaphors that science has discovered, and where we can allow our need for analytical understanding to take in the complexity and uncertainty of the world in all its rich variety.

I don’t yet know where these paths will lead, but I know that we will need reliable, innovative, and flexible tools to support us in these explorations. I believe that the mindful use of psychedelics can play a key role in this process by catalyzing profound mystical experiences, allowing us to see our patterns from novel perspectives, and helping us connect with self-compassion. We also need practical ways to integrate these insights into the systems of thought and action that shape our daily lives; in other words, we need to develop rational rituals for pragmatic mysticism.

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