Biblical Series XIII: Jacob's Ladder by Dr. Jordan Peterson
Thank you very much for showing up again. It’s really good to see everybody. One of the things that I’ve been realizing, as a consequence of going through these stories, is that the degree to which they’re about individuals is quite remarkable. I think that’s really telling. One of the reasons I prefer Dostoevsky to Tolstoy is because Tolstoy is more of a sociologist. He’s more interested in the relationships between groups of people—this is an oversimplification. Obviously, Tolstoy is a great author. But I like Dostoevsky better, because he really delves into the souls of individuals. I think the degree to which all of the stories that we’ve covered so far in Genesis are about individuals is remarkable. They’re quite realistic, which is quite remarkable, too. They’re not really romanticized, to any great degree. All of the people regarded as, let’s say, patriarchal or matriarchal figures in Genesis have no shortage of ethical flaws, and also no shortage of difficulties in their life. The difficulties are realistic. They’re major league problems—like familial catastrophes, famine, war, revenge, hatred, and all of those things. It’s not a pretty book. That’s one of the things that makes it great—that’s one of the things that characterizes great literature: it doesn’t present you with a whitewashed view of humanity, or of existence. That’s really a relief, I think, because—as you all know, because you’re alive—there’s no such thing as a whitewashed existence. To be alive is to be in trouble, ethically and existentially.
I’ve been reading this book, recently. I’ll talk about it a little bit later. It’s called Better Never to Have Been. It was written by a philosopher in South Africa, in Cape Town, named Benatar. That’s his last name. He basically argues…I think it’s a specious argument. I think it’s artificially constructed. But he basically argues that, because life is so full of suffering—even good lives are very much full of suffering—it’s wrong to bring children into the world, because the suffering outweighs the good—even in good lives. And it would also be better not to exist, for exactly the same reason.
My sense, in reading the book, is that he came to that conclusion and then wrote the book to justify it, which is actually the reverse of the way that you should write a book. You should have a question when you’re writing a book, and it should be a real question. It should be one you don’t know the answer to. And then you should be studying and writing like mad, and reading everything you can get your hands on, to see if you can actually grapple with the problem, and come to some solution. You should walk the reader, as well, through your process of thinking, so that they can come to—well, not necessarily to the same conclusion, but at least track what you’re doing.
I don’t think that’s what Benatar did—I think he wrote it backwards. And so I was thinking about it a lot, because that’s actually a question that I’ve contended with in my writing. There are Mephistophelean or Satanic figures, for example, in Goethe’s Faust—and also Ivan, in The Brothers Karamazov, who basically make the same case: existence is so rife with trouble and suffering that it would be better if it didn’t exist, at all. The problem I’ve had with that—there’s a variety of them, but one of the problems I’ve had with that is what happens if you start to think that way. What I’ve observed is that people who begin to think that way—that isn’t where they stop. They get angry at existence—which is what happened to Cain, as we saw in the Cain and Abel story. And then, the next step is to start taking revenge against existence. That cascades until it’s revenge against—well, I think the best way of thinking about it is revenge against God, for the crime of Being—which is, I think, the deepest sort of hatred that you can entertain.
When you’re in the grip of a really deep emotion—a really profound emotion, right at the bottom of emotions—you’re in something that’s like a quasi-religious state. That’s more or less independent of your belief, say, in a transcendent deity. You can be in a profoundly emotional state that’s as deep as it can be, and it can have religious significance, without that necessarily signifying about a transcendent being. But the problem with that argument is that you can gerrymander it endlessly. First of all, how do you measure suffering, and how do you measure happiness? How do you assign weights to them? There’s just no way of doing that. You have to do it arbitrarily. And so you can make an argument that the suffering outweighs the happiness—you just weight the suffering more heavily than you weight the happiness, and that’s the end of that. So that’s a problem. But I think there’s a deeper problem.
I was reading this other book, a while back, as well. It was written by the guy who ran the Human Genome Project. I don’t remember what exactly it was called, but it was something like The Language of God. One of the things he referred to—which didn’t strike me as hard as it should have, to begin with—was that he thought that one of the phenomena, say, that justified a belief in a transcendent being was something like the moral intuition of human beings—that we have a sense of right and wrong. What happens in Genesis, in the story of Adam and Eve, is that the story announces the coming of the sense of right and wrong—the knowledge of good and evil. It isn’t something we ascribe to animals. It’s something that’s unique to human beings. Animals can be predators, and they can be gentle, and you can have a relationship with them. But you never think of an evil cat, or an evil wolf, even though they’re predatory. But human beings have this capacity to judge between good and evil, right and wrong. It’s really an integral part of our being.
I think you can make a biological case for that—as you can make a biological case for most of what is relevant about human beings, because we’re biological creatures. But we don’t really understand the significance of that. What happens in the story of Adam and Eve is that the realization of the coming to the knowledge of good and evil is actually represented as a shift of cosmic significance. It puts a permanent fracture in the structure of being. If you think of human beings as insignificant ants, on a tiny dust mote, in the middle of an infinite cosmos—a cosmos that cares less for us—then who cares, fundamentally, if human beings have the knowledge to distinguish between good and evil? But, if you give consciousness a central role in Being—and you can make a perfectly reasonable case for that, because without consciousness, there’s no Being, as far as anyone can determine. So it may be much more central than we think. I really don’t think there’s a counterargument to that. Not a solid one. You can state that consciousness is epiphenomenal, the world is fundamentally materialistic, and it doesn’t matter that there’s consciousness. You can state that, but you can make an equally credible case the other way. Certainly, our lived experience is that consciousness is crucial, obviously, and we treat each other—most of the time—as if we’re valuable, conscious beings. We wouldn’t give up our consciousness, even though it’s often consciousness of suffering.
I think another problem with the book is that it’s sort of predicated on the idea that life is for happiness. I don’t think that’s right, and I don’t think that’s how people experience life. I might be wrong, but it seems, to me, that people experience life as something like a series of crucial, ethical decisions. It’s something like that. I just can’t imagine—maybe I’m being naive about this—another being that’s like me, in most senses, that isn’t constantly wrestling, in some sense, with what the next proper thing to do is. It’s not like it’s obvious. It’s not bloody obvious. It doesn’t mean you’ll do the right thing, because you don’t—lots of times—and you know that, by your own judgement. You’re making mistakes, all the time. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re doing, and maybe it’s a mistake, and maybe it isn’t. Who’s to say? That isn’t what I’m talking about. I’m talking about when you know that what you’re doing is wrong, and you go ahead, and you do it anyways. People do that all the time. That’s also extremely peculiar. You’d bloody well think that, if you knew it was wrong, and you told yourself that it was wrong, that you just wouldn’t do it. But that isn’t what you're like, at all. You can tell yourself something is wrong 50 times, and you’ll do it the 51st time, and then you’ll feel like you deserve to feel, probably. But it doesn’t stop you.
I think the other problem with the viewpoint—the idea that the suffering of life eradicates its utility—is that it’s predicated on the idea that happiness—or lack of suffering, even—is the right criteria by which to judge life. I don’t think that’s how we actually experience life. I think what we do, instead, is put ourselves through a series of excruciating moral choices. One of the things that’s really significant about the Biblical stories—about the entire implicit philosophy that’s embedded in the stories, I think—is that that’s how life is presented, in the stories. All of these individuals—first, they’re individuals; they’re not groups. Second, they’re agonizing over their moral choices, all the time. All the time! And they have a relationship with God. It’s not a directive relationship, exactly. Even the people to whom God speaks directly—which, I suspect, is not something you exactly want to have happen—even the fact that they have a direct relationship with God doesn’t stop them from being tormented, continually, by their moral choices.
And so the world is presented as a moral landscape—not as a place that justified itself by happiness. It’s presented as a moral landscape, and people are presented as creatures who traverse through the moral landscape, making ethical decisions that determine the course of the world. That seems, to me, to be right. That’s not the same as happiness, by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a whole different category of Being. I’ve thought that through a lot. I think that we do make choices. What we do is contend with the future. The future seems to appear to us as a realm of possibility. That’s a more accurate way of thinking about it, than that the future presents itself to us as a realm of determined things. It presents itself as a realm of possibility. There’s good choices in that realm, and there’s poor choices—or, even, evil choices, in that realm. We’re negotiating, continually, deciding which of those choices we’re going to bring into Being. That seems, to me, to be phenomenologically indisputable, and we certainly treat each other as if that’s what we’re doing, because we hold each other responsible for our actions—with some exceptions—and that we’re deciding, each moment, whether to make things better or worse. That seems, to me, to be correct. I think that’s what these stories illustrate. They don’t say that directly—although, I think it gets more and more explicit, as the narrative unfolds.
Part of the realism of the stories is that the people who are being presented are by no means good—maybe with the exception of Noah. Noah seemed to be a pretty good guy—although, he did get drunk, and end up naked, exposed to his sons, and so forth. But he isn’t talked a lot about as a character. It’s a pretty compressed story. But Abraham had plenty of problems, not least of which was his inability to leave home, and then his lying about his wife. There’s all sorts of mistakes. And then Jacob, who we’re going to talk about tonight, is an even more morally ambivalent character—especially at the beginning of the story. He isn’t the sort of person that you would pick out—especially if you were a hack writer—as the hero of the story. He does a lot of things that are pretty reprehensible, and it takes him an awful lot of time to learn better. And yet, he’s the person who’s put forward as the father of the 12 tribes of Israel. It’s from this flawed person that the people who’s story, you might say, constitutes the fundamental underpinning of our culture. It’s from this deeply flawed individual that that group emerges. So you might think of that as a relief, too, because you’re no knight in shining armour, with a pure moral past.
People make mistakes of catastrophic proportions, nonstop. That also means that these stories put forward something approximating hope. In their moral realism, they present the heroes of renown—the patriarchs of old, let’s say—who are realistic people, who have fits of anger and rage, who are murderous at times, who are deeply, deeply embroiled with family dispute, and who have adulterous affairs. They do all the terrible things that people do. The weird thing is that God is still with them. It isn’t obvious what that means, or even if it means anything. But it’s not disputable, as far as I can tell, that A, we’re conscious—and that consciousness is a transcendent phenomena, which we do not understand—and that the landscape that we traverse through is moral. Every story you ever watch, anything that grips your imagination on the screen, any story that grabs you, is a story of moral striving. It’s just not interesting, otherwise. The person has to be confronted with complex moral choices, and then you see the outcome. The good guy does it right, and the bad guy does it badly, and things don’t go so well for the bad guy, generally. If it’s a bit more sophisticated, the good and the bad are in the same individual. That’s a more compelling story.
So we could make the assumption, then, that it might be worthwhile thinking of the world—as it has been thought of, classically—as a theatre upon which the forces of good and evil continually strive for dominance. For the life of me—especially after I started reading deeply into 20th century history, and all the terrible things that happened in the 20th century, and all the terrible, unbelievably, incomprehensible things that people did to one another—I just couldn’t see seeing things any other way, as realistic. I don’t think that you can immerse yourself in 20th century history without coming to the conclusion that evil is a reality. If it’s a reality—it depends on what you mean by ‘reality,’ but it’s a fundamental enough reality for me. And if it’s reality, I don’t see how you can escape from the conclusion that the cosmos—as we experience it, at least—is a place of moral striving. That’s one of the things that’s really illustrated in the story of Jacob. I’ve found that quite striking.
In the last lecture, I ended with the Abrahamic stories—with the death of Sarah. That was Abraham’s wife. We’re going to continue from there. Remember that Abraham had a son, Issac. He was asked by God to sacrifice his son, which we talked about in some depth. I was attempting to make the case that the idea of sacrifice was one of humankind’s great discoveries. It meant the discovery of the future, essentially, but it also meant the discover that the future was something that you could make a bargain with: you could give up something now—something impulsive, some pleasure, even a deep pleasure, in the moment—and you could strive, and, hypothetically, you could make a covenant—a bargain—with the future, if your sacrifices were acceptable—and that seemed to mean ethically acceptable. You had to sacrifice the right thing. That vastly increased the probability that, not only you would be successful, let’s say, but that your descendants would be, too.
I don’t think that’s an irrational proposition. You have to leaven it a bit with the realization that, sometimes, you get sliced off at the knees, no matter what, because life has an arbitrary element, and that can’t be tossed out. But building in the arbitrary element, we’ll say, you still want to think, ‘well, what’s your best bet?’ given a certain amount of randomness. It seems, to me, that conscious, self-aware sacrifice, and proper ethical striving is your best bet. There’s another idea that—well, I’ve always explained it using the movie Pinocchio as an example. When Geppetto is trying to make his puppet into a self-aware and autonomous moral agent—which is what he wants, above all else—he aims at the highest Good he can conceive—which is the star that he prays to, essentially—and he hopes for the transformation. There’s also something in that that’s unutterably profound. Maybe that’s somewhat independent of the idea that you have to believe in God. I would also say that what it means to believe in God, in the Old Testament, is by no means clear. That’s something I also really want to talk about tonight. It’s not obvious what it means. What Geppetto does, at least, is aim at the highest good at which he can conceive. That’s actually been a philosophical definition of God, upon occasion—that God is the highest good of which you conceive. That’s different than the idea of a transcendent being, precisely. But it’s in line with certain interesting psychoanalytic speculations.
This is one of the things I really liked about Carl Jung. Jung was a radical thinker. It’s just beyond belief. I’ve read a lot of critics of Jung, and I’ve always got a kick out of them. The things they accuse Jung of are so trivial compared to the things that Jung actually did that it’s like accusing a murderer of jaywalking. Jung was unbelievably radical. Here’s one of his idea. He believed that psychotherapy could be replaced by a supreme moral effort. The moral effort would be something like aiming at the Good, and then trying to integrate yourself around that. The Good, at which you aim, would be something approximating what you would be like if you manifested your full potential, and that you’d have a glimmering of what that full potential was. That would be the potential future you. He thought of people as four dimensional entities, essentially—that we’re stretched across time, and that you, as a totality across time, including your potential, manifested yourself, also, in the here and now. Part of what your potential manifested itself was something like the voice of conscience, or intuition. It’s an amazing idea. It’s an amazing idea! Because it’s like what you could be in the future beckons to you in the present, and it helps you determine the difference between good and evil. It’s a mind boggling idea. I think that it’s an idea you have to contend with.
He went further than that. This is also a remarkable idea. He was interested in the symbolic representation of Christ. Psychologically speaking, he thought of Christ as the representation of the ideal potential human. It’s something like that. At minimum, that is what Christ was—a symbolic representation of the ideal potential of the human being. For Jung, there was no psychological difference between who you could be—in the future, beckoning to you in the present—and orienting yourself in relationship to Christ. Psychologically, those were the same thing. So that’s a pretty mind boggling idea—like, seriously. That’s a mind boggling idea, especially when you add the psychological idea that one of the things that characterizes your ideal future self is the ability to make sacrifices—the deeper the sacrifice, the better—and also to recover from the sacrifice, so that’s the death and rebirth. The part of you that’s most essential to your full flowing, as a being, is your ability to let things go, and then spring back from that—so to die, in some sense, and to be reborn in the service of a higher good. Then, the next part of that is that the direction of the world depends on you doing that. So not only your own life, but your family’s life, and, because we’re networked so intently together, the whole panoply of humankind—and, maybe, the structure of the cosmos. You might think, ‘well, no,’ but it’s not so simple.
First of all, one person can wreak an awful lot of havoc. There’s no doubt about that. And, as we get more technologically powerful, that becomes even more relevant, important, and crucial. One of the things that Jung said was that we had to wake up, because we are too technologically powerful to be as morally asleep as we are. That seems, to me, to be self-evident. Yeah, for sure; that’s true. We’re half asleep, with nuclear bombs. It’s seriously not a good idea.
And then you might ask yourself, too, ‘well, what is the ultimate potential of a fully developed human being?’ We certainly know that you have admiration for people who are more developed, rather than less developed—that just happens automatically—or you have resentment. But that’s ok. It’s the same thing; it doesn’t matter. But it’s not like you can’t identify them. You can identify them. They’re put forward to you in drama, fiction, and all of that, constantly. So that’s another form of moral intuition. You can discern the wheat from the chaff, let’s say.
The other thing that I was thinking about that’s worth consideration, too, is that—and maybe this is petty, but I don’t think it is. Somebody asked me the other day if I believed in miracles. I hate being asked questions like that, you know? It’s also people asking, ‘do you believe in God?’ I don’t know what they mean when they say that, so I don’t know what to answer. I don’t think we’re necessarily going to talk about the same thing. In any case, I said yes. I have a variety of reasons for that, but one of them is that the consensus among physicists is that we can track the origin of the cosmos to something like a hundred million of a millionth of a second after the Big Bang. It’s so close to the Big Bang that the difference is literally infinitesimal. But the consensus is that, before that—whatever that is—the laws of physics themselves break down. Well, what do you call an event that exists outside the laws of physics? By definition, that’s a miracle. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a transcended deity that caused the event. That’s a separate issue. But it does imply a barrier, of some sort, beyond which we can’t go, where some other set of rules apply. I find that interesting, as well.
All right. So Sarah dies, and Abraham makes a bargain with the Hittites, to purchase a burial place for her. They offer it as a gift, and he insists upon paying for it. It’s a little story that basically indicates two things: that Abraham was the kind of guy that you trust, very much, when you see him, and that, even if something is offered to him as a gift, he’s going to do everything to be reciprocal about it. So it’s not a massively important part of the story, but it’s in keeping with the same narrative flow.
Ephron, who’s a Hittite, offers a burial place, as a gift. Abraham says, ‘no, you have to let me pay for it.’ And Ephron says he will, and that works out very well. So he has a good burial place for his wife. And then Abraham decides that Isaac needs a wife, and so he sends his eldest servant to Mesopotamia, to find a wife for Isaac. There’s a strange ritual that’s performed.
It says in the story that the servant places his hand under Abraham’s thigh, to swear. But that isn’t really what it means. It means that he places his hand…I don’t know exactly how to say this properly. Well, use your imagination, how about that? The idea—as far as I can tell—is that he’s swearing on the future people. It’s something like that. So that’s sort of what ‘testify’ means. Think about the root. Well, I’m not kidding! I’m not kidding. That is the derivation, right? It is the derivation. So, anyways, this is a serious issue. The servant has to go and find Isaac a good wife, and he wants him to find Isaac a wife who is willing to accept the same fundamental belief system, which is something like the belief in a God that is a unity, rather than a plurality.
The other thing that Jung was very insistent upon was that there was a relationship between polytheism and psychological confusion, and monotheism and psychological unification. I really liked that idea, too. You are a plurality—that’s one of the things the psychoanalysts were really good at figuring out, and that the cognitive scientists haven’t touched, yet. They’re way behind the psychoanalysts in that element of thinking. You are composed of subpersonalities, which all have their own desires, and their own viewpoint, and their own thoughts, and their own perceptions. They’re in a war with each other, constantly—maybe even a Darwinian war. It’s been portrayed that way by certain neuroscientists, and that one of the goals of life is to integrate all of that plurality into a hierarchical, ethical structure that has some canonical ethic at the pinnacle. We’ve talked a little bit about that. It’s not obvious what should be at the pinnacle, but we can guess at it. It’s that which we admire. That’s one way of thinking about it. It’s that which describes fair play across a sequence of games. That’s another good way of thinking about it. It’s the heroic ideal, but it’s combined with generosity—because the mythological hero goes out, into the unknown, slays the dragon, and gets the gold. But then, he comes back to the community and distributes what’s found. So it’s courage, plus generosity. And so all of that interior struggling that you’re doing is an attempt to bang yourself against the world with challenge, constantly; to hit everything together, like you’re beating on a piece of iron—to cure it, let’s say, so that you’re not an internal contradiction; you’re not a mass of competing gods. It’s something like that. Because it’s just too psychologically stressful, hard on everyone else, and impossible for them to get along with you, if you’re one thing in one moment and another thing in another moment.
So, anyways, Abraham insists that Isaac finds a wife from among people who are likely to carry forward the monotheistic tradition. I’m not sure that the monotheistic tradition is actually distinguishable from the individualist tradition. I think they might be the same thing, at different levels of analysis, because ‘individual’ means ‘undivided,’ in some sense. To be an individual means to be one thing. The other thing that mitigates against the idea of life as happiness is that it isn’t obvious that happiness is what moulds and shapes you. It’s something more like optimal challenge, voluntarily undertaken. It’s something like that. I think that’s echoed in the idea that everyone has a moral obligation to raise their cross—to accept the face of their mortality voluntarily. I believe that that’s the case. And I do actually think that that’s a prerequisite for proper psychological development. If you’re not willing to take your mortality on voluntarily, if you’re kicking and fighting about it constantly—and you have every reason to; don’t get me wrong—then you can’t act forthrightly in the world. You’re going to be afraid. And when you’re afraid, then you can’t voluntarily take on a challenge. And then, if you can’t voluntarily take on a challenge, then you can’t develop.
So, again, life seems to be—if it’s a proper life—the voluntary taking on of great challenges. Maybe that’s better than happiness. It’s certainly more noble. It’s not a word we use very much, anymore—the idea of nobility, because we’re so obsessed with happiness. But I think happiness—like, if it comes along, man, great. Wonderful. Don’t take it lightly, or for granted, because it’s fleeting. But the idea that that’s what you should be for, in some sense, just seems, to me—if that’s what life is for, then maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe that’s correct, because that isn’t what life is. But it isn’t obvious, to me, that that’s what life should be. I mean, if you really love someone—like your son, let’s say—would you say, ‘well, I hope he has a happy life,’ or would you say, ‘I hope he accomplishes great things?’ It seems, to me, that that’s better: the accomplishing of great things. Because that’s admirable, you know? It’s like, a happy person is a happy person, but a noble person is an admirable person. That’s better, man. And so maybe there are better things than happiness. And so you can’t judge Being on the basis of the ratio of suffering to pleasure—something like that. And I don’t think we do that. I don’t believe we do that. Comedians are happy, right? But everybody doesn’t aspire to be a comedian, and you don’t watch comedy all the time, even though you laugh nonstop, more or less, if the comedian is funny. You want to get your teeth into something.
It also seems, to me—and this is one of the reasons that I liked existential philosophy. The existentialists believe—it’s sort of an original sin idea. They thought we came into the world already with an ethical burden laid upon us, and that we had a felt sense that it was necessary for us to justify our Being—and that, if we didn’t do that, then we weren’t authentic to ourselves; we weren’t moving towards individuality; we weren’t sustaining the community; we weren’t living properly. That idea was deeply embedded in people, as part of their ordinary experience. That also seems, to me, to be accurate. I’ve dealt with lots of people—say, in my clinical practice. They will come and say ‘I wish I wasn’t so unhappy,’ but they don’t usually come and say ‘I wish I was happier.’ Those things aren’t the same. And then, when you talk to people who are having trouble, they want to straighten things out, and figure out how to do them right. It’s something like that. That’s their primary goal.
So, anyways, Abraham sends his eldest servant off to the place that God has granted him, to find a wife. Interestingly, the borders of the promised land are quite similar to the current borders of Israel—these are estimates—and, I mean, that’s not a fluke, obviously. But it’s interesting to see the concordance between these ancient stories and the present day world. I thought that was very interesting. And it shows, once again—you think the past is the past, but it’s not. It’s still here; it’s embedded in the present—just like the future, in some ways, is folded up inside the present, waiting to unfold. The past is all folded up inside the present, too.
So, anyways, the servant goes to the land that he’s been charged to go to. He’s trying to figure out, ‘how in the world am I going to find a good wife for Isaac? I don’t know any of these people.’ So he has this little dialog that’s presented in the form of prayer. He thinks, ‘well, I’m going to go to the place where people get water, and water the animals, because that’s the place where everyone gathers, so that’s a good place to find someone.’ It’s not a place of fun and lightness and realization and impulsivity. It’s a place for life-sustaining work. He thinks, something like, ‘well, what would a decent girl do, at a watering place?’ He thought, ‘well, maybe she would offer a stranger some water—and, also, offer to water the camels.’ That would be brave—to approach the stranger—and then generous, and then indicative of the willingness to make an effort. When you know that a camel—I think he took 10 camels. It’s quite a few camels, anyways, not just one. A camel can drink 20 gallons of water. The woman who’s drawing water from the well—who turns out to be Rebekah—which is hard, because water’s heavy, and you have to lift it up…It’s 10 camels, so that’s like 200 gallons of water. She has to put herself out a fair bit to make this stranger happy. That’s what happens. Then the servant has brought along gifts, and that sort of thing. Anyways, to make a long story short, Rebekah agrees to come back with the servant, and to marry Isaac.
Then she gets pregnant, and she has twins. This is an interesting thing: the twins fight inside her. She can tell that they’re not getting along. This is an echo of Cain and Abel. There’s a mythological motif that the Jungians have called ‘the hostile brothers.’ You see them all the time: Batman and the Joker are hostile brothers, and Thor and Loki. It’s an unbelievably common motif. The ultimate hostile brothers are Christ and Satan—that’s the archetypal representation of the hostile brothers: the ultimate good and the ultimate evil. So it’s an echo of the Cain and Abel story—although, it’s a little more complex, I would say, from a literary point of view, because it isn’t obvious which of these brothers is Cain, and which is Abel. They have parts of both in each of them. So Esau—who turns out to be one of the brothers—and Jacob—who turns out to be the other—both have their admirable qualities, and their faults.
Anyways, Esau is born first, but Jacob has his heel. So there’s a fight within the womb, to see who would emerge first. That’s relevant because the firstborn had a special status—well, has a special status in many communities, especially agricultural communities. These people were more herds-people, but if you divide your property equally among your children, then, in like three generations, everyone has like one goat, and everybody starves to death. The same thing happens with land. So one of the ways that traditional communities solve that is that they just give almost everything to the firstborn, and then everyone else knows, well, you go out and do whatever you can. It’s kind of arbitrary and unfair, but at least it’s predictably arbitrary and unfair, instead of doom over four generations. So it actually mattered to be the firstborn, and God generally favours the firstborn. You might think, ‘what is it about being born first that’s so relevant, apart from the cultural practice of a more generous inheritance?’ Well, I would say that the firstborn is the model for the leader of the family, because the firstborn child—if there’s a number of siblings—A, should take care of the siblings, at least to some degree, but also should be a role model for them. So it’s like a natural position of leadership. But there’s a psychologization of the firstborn, in these stories, because God often passes over the firstborn in favour of a later-born child. He seems to do that on the basis of moral character, essentially. So there’s an idea that there’s a natural proclivity for leadership that’s just a biological fact, that would be associated with being a firstborn. But there’s an element of characterological development that transcended that. It’s more important to be spiritually a firstborn, let’s say, than biologically a firstborn. God recognizes that, continually, in these stories, and inverts the natural order, and favours a later-born, who’s done more work in regards to characterological development.
I’ve talked to lots of business people about leadership. There’s a literature on leadership, but it’s not a good literature. It’s pretty shallow, partly because it’s not that easy to define leadership, and partly because people have different temperaments, and different temperaments can be leaders. They just do it in different ways. There’s something in common about being a leader, though. I would say one is that, if you’re an actual leader, you know where you’re going. Because what are you going to do, lead people in circles? They’ll follow you, but you’re not a leader; you’re just a charlatan. So you have to know where you’re going, then you have to be able to communicate that. And then people have to be able to trust you, because people aren’t that stupid—at least not for a long period of time. And then, where you’re going has to have some value, because, otherwise, why would anyone want to go along with you? And then you might say, ‘well, what are the attributes, then, that make you a leader?’ I would say that they’re characterological, fundamentally.
This is not naive optimism or casual moralizing. It has nothing to do with that. We know, for example, that conscientiousness, the personality trait, is a good predicator of long-term success, in most occupations—not all, but most—and that one of the things that’s associated with consciousness is that people keep their word; they’re trustworthy. That’s certainly one element of a leader—certainly across any reasonable amount of time. You have to be able to trust the person. They can even be harsh. It doesn’t matter, because you can see harsh leaders and kind leaders. But as long as they do what they say they will do, then you can follow them, and you know that the future payoff is secure. Something like that. So the idea that characterological development is more important to leadership than primogeniture is a very crucial, psychological realization—that it’s characterological development that makes you favoured by God.
I do think we’ve forgotten this, in many ways, because there isn’t a lot of emphasis in our education system on characterological development. That’s very, very surprising, to me. I think it’s partly because, in our fractured society, we can’t agree on what constitutes a reasonable characterological goal. So we just throw up our hands and don’t educate our kids, to any degree, at all—especially in schools—about what an admirable person is like, or even let them know that, maybe, you should actually try to be one, and that that’s the most important possible thing that you could learn.
I also think—and I think this is laid out very thoroughly in the Biblical stories, as well—if there are enough people who are admirable, then things work, and if there aren’t, then things are terrible. You get wiped out. Remember when Abraham is bargaining with God, with regards to Sodom and Gomorrah? He asks God to save the city, if there’s like 40 admirable people, right? I don’t want to say ‘good,’ because ‘good’ has been corrupted, in some sense, by casual usage. I mean admirable, noble people. I think Abraham bargains God down to like 10—if there’s 10 of them in the city, the city won’t be destroyed. That’s not very many in the city. There’s an interesting idea there: there doesn’t have to be that many people in a group, who have their act together. But zero is the wrong number. And if it’s zero, then we’re seriously in trouble. I think that goes along with the idea of the Pareto principle, in economics, too—that it’s a small minority of people who do most of the productive work, in any given domain. So, a small number of properly behaving people might have enough of an impact to keep everything moving. That might actually be true, but it can’t fall below some crucial level. I do think that we’re in some danger of allowing it to fall below some crucial level. Our society seems to be at war, in some ways, against the idea of the individual, and individual character per se. I think that’s absolutely catastrophic.
That’s part of the reason that I’m doing these Biblical lectures. I’ve known for a long time that the moral presuppositions of a culture are instantiated in its stories. They’re not instantiated in its explicit philosophy. There might be a layer of explicit philosophy—and, of course, there is in the West—and a layer of explicit Law. But, underneath that, there are stories. There isn’t anything under the stories, except behaviour. But that’s so implicit that it doesn’t even actually count. It’s not a cognitive operation. And so these are the stories that are underneath our culture. So there better be something to them. That’s what we hope. But, more importantly, maybe we shouldn’t toss them away, without knowing what they mean. If we toss them away, we’re throwing away everything we depend on, as far as I can tell. We will pay for it. We’ll pay for it individually, because we’ll be weak. If you’re not firm in your convictions, then someone else, who’s firm in their convictions—you’re their puppet, instantly. And then you’re a puppet of your own doubts, because, unless you have conviction, you’re going to generate doubts like mad—because everyone does—and then the doubts will win. You’ll be paralyzed, because there’ll be fifty percent of you moving forward, with fifty percent of you frozen stiff. That’ll be enough just to lodge you in place.
Ok, so there’s a psychologization of the idea of leadership—which is very important—and then it’s associated with the idea of characterological development. It’s associated with the idea of struggle, not happiness. It’s also associated with this Abrahamic idea, which I really liked, which is something that’s been very useful, to me, as a consequence of doing these lectures. Remember, at the beginning of the Abrahamic stories, Abraham is like in his mother’s basement, and God says, ‘get the hell out of there; get out in the world, where you belong. Go do something difficult, because what you’re doing isn’t acceptable.’ The first thing he does is go somewhere where there’s a famine. Then he goes to a tyranny. It’s pretty funny. He follows God’s call, and it’s not like sweetness and light and paradise, immediately. It’s nothing like that. It’s instantaneous combat, of the most difficult kind. But Abraham does, in fact, follow that impulse. Here’s another thing that made me an advocate of psychoanalytic thinking. It was the sort of thing that started to terrify me about what the human psyche was actually like. I started to understand that not only were we like an amalgam of relatively automatous subpersonalities—each of which had the possibility of gaining control—but that we’re also victim, you might say—or beneficiary—of impulses that are beyond our conscious formulation, understanding, or capacity to resist.
Here’s a funny story. I was talking to one of my Patreon people, online, this week. He was a committed atheist. That’s fine. Lots of atheists are very honest people, and they’re atheists because they don’t know how to reconcile what they know with traditional claims, let’s say—they’re not willing to mangle them together. There might be cynicism and all that associated with it, as well. He said he was entranced by these Biblical lectures, which is pretty weird. He said that, if someone would’ve told him a year ago that he would be obsessed with a sequence of Biblical lectures, he would’ve told them that they were mad. So we had a bit of a discussion about that. This is an interesting thing, you know—and he mentioned this—he said, something like, ‘you don’t choose your interests. They choose you.’ That’s really worth thinking about, too. It’s really hard to get interested in something you’re not interested in, even if you know there’s a good reason for it. You’re studying for an exam; you find the material boring. Anything will be more interesting than the study—even though you know that’s what you need to do, you can’t voluntarily grab yourself by the scruff of the neck, and shake yourself, and say, ‘sit down and concentrate.’ Your mind’ll just go everywhere. But then, if you’re interested in something—and even if it’s something that you shouldn’t be interested in, because that happens all the time—then it’s like you’re laser-focused, man. You can pay attention forever. You can work until you’re exhausted. You won’t even notice it, and you remember everything.
If you can’t control your interests, what does? Man, I tell you, you can think about that for a very long time. Jung talked about the spirit Mercurius. Mercury is the winged messenger of the gods. Here’s how he conceptualized it psychologically. He thought this is what the ancient people—who thought about Mercury as the winged messenger of the gods—were trying to state psychologically. Your interest flits around. There’s something that captures it, and moves your interest from place to place. Like, if you walk into a bookstore, you’ll get interested in a particular book. It’s as if the book grips you, because you don’t know why you’re interested in that—you might, but often you don’t know why you’re interested in that book. Your interest is flitting around. So that’s Mercury; the thing that makes your interest flicker around; the winged messenger of the gods. Mercury is the messenger of the gods because it’s the things behind the scenes, psychologically, that are manipulating your attention. For Jung, those were equivalent, in some sense, to the lost gods.
For Jung, your interest was being manipulated, behind the scenes, by unseen forces that were associated with your characterological development across time. That was the manifestation of the Self. So the Self is the potential you, let’s say. The way it operates in the present is by gripping your interest and directing it somewhere. That’s part of the instinct of self-realization. It’s a mind boggling idea. I think it’s correct; I can’t see how it can’t be correct. It doesn’t mean I understand it completely, but it certainly seems to be phenomenologically correct. I mean, the potential that you are has to manifest itself somehow, in the here and now. It has to. What better way than by directing your attention? Maybe you get attracted to this person. Maybe you admire this person. That happens with kids a lot—they’ll admire someone, and copy them. You can see that that’s, obviously, part of their developmental progression. It’s a form of hero-worship. Kids are very imitative, and they hero-worship at the drop of a hat. They’re entranced by the next stage of development. If they see someone who embodies the next stage of development—especially if it’s in the zone of proximal development, it’s something they could achieve, stretching a bit—then they start to imitate them, and act like them. Well, adults are no different. We do it at a, perhaps, more abstract and sophisticated level.
Ok, so Jacob and Esau are hostile brothers; they’re like Cain and Abel, except a mixture of Cain and Abel. They’re very different. "Esau was red and covered with hair; he was a hunter, a man of the field." So he’s like your basic jock; he’s extroverted; he’s outgoing; he’s really tough; he’s extraordinarily masculine; he hunts, and he’s a real favourite of his father. Jacob isn’t. He’s a dweller in tents. It says, "Isaac loved Esau, but Rebecca loved Jacob." That’s a big problem. There’s a Freudian element to this: this family is now divided, because one child is the favourite of the mother—that’s Jacob—and one child is the favourite of the father. Jacob is kind of a mother’s boy, to use a rather archaic phrase—and certainly not as admirable, from his father’s perspective, as Esau, who’s a tough guy, who goes out with a bow and arrow, and wanders around in the plains and brings animals home. He’s a tough guy. But there’s this discord in the family, because one parent prefers one child, and the other parent prefers the other. It’s obvious, from the story, that the parents do not communicate about this, because they really take sides. So there’s a split in the family. That’s, I think, very realistic. One of the things that you do learn, if you have a family—and, of course, most of you do—is that there’s deep divisions within families, very, very frequently, that no one will ever talk about—or even think about, often, because it’s too painful to think about.
Freud was clearly his mother’s favourite. The family sacrificed a lot, including some of the potential ambitions of the other children, in order to put Sigmund Freud up on a pedestal, and advance his education. It worked. I mean, he turned into a great man, but there was a cost, to his siblings. Freud himself said that there was something about being the favourite of the mother that gave a person additional confidence throughout their life. There’s something to be said about that. Even someone like Erik Erikson noted that the first bonding with the mother was the place where trust—maybe even trust in the goodness of existence—was established.
Anyways, Jacob is Rachel’s favourite, and Esau is Isaac’s favourite. Now, Esau—being extroverted, let’s say—is also a bit impulsive. He’s a man of action. He’s not a forward-thinker. But he’s also doing hard work. He goes out, and he’s hunting, and he’s worn out. He comes home, and he’s faint with hunger. Jacob is at home, cooking. He’s boiling up red lentils. Esau comes in, from the hunt, and he’s like half starving to death. He’s sitting there, and the aroma of these red lentils reaches him. He’s exhausted, and he tells Jacob that he wants some of this stew. Jacob, who’s being a pain in the neck, fundamentally, basically says, no—there’s a teasing thing going on, here—and won’t give him any. You have to imagine this, because it’s not laid out explicitly in the story, but there’s some dispute about whether Esau gets to have lunch. Jacob finally says, ‘I’ll give you some, but you have to give me your birthright.’ You think Esau must say something like, ‘well, to hell with it. Take it, you son of a bitch. Take it—just give me some damn stew.’ It’s something like that. So that’s what happens. But, you know, with these archaic people, once you made a statement like that, you were done. That was it. And so Esau sells his birthright. This turns out to be incredibly significant.
There’s a bit of a twist to it. Esau eats the red lentils, and from then on his name is ‘red.’ You gotta use your imagination, a bit. People are making fun of him, right? That’s why they’re calling him ‘red.’ I mean, he’s already red—we established that—but no one was calling him ‘red’ before this. So, for the rest of his life, every time he goes out amongst his friends and family, they call him ‘red,’ and kind of snicker, because he’s the half-famished idiot who sold his birthright for a bowl of lentils. It’s not that funny, actually. Esau’s not happy about this. So what does it mean? It means, ‘don’t sell the future for the desires of the present, and don’t be casual about what you have.’ And then there’s an archetypal element to this, too.
Benson says, "various have been the opinions what this birthright was which Esau sold, but the most probable is, that, together with the right of sacrificing"—so determining what should be sacrificed, and when—"and being the priest of the family, it included the peculiar blessing promised to the seed of Abraham, that of being a progenitor of the Messiah, and the heir of the special promises of God, respecting Christ’s kingdom. It was at least typical of spiritual privileges, those of the firstborn that are written in heaven."
Well, that’s a lot harsher than meets the eye, to begin with. There’s a very interesting, deep moral story, there. Esau does the opposite of a sacrifice. It’s the reverse, right? He sacrifices the future for the present. And so the story basically says—the way it’s laid out across stories—is that, if you’re the sort of person that sacrifices the future to the present, then that eradicates the possibility that you will bring the most noble being into existence. That’s what it means. Again, this is the psychological significance of the Biblical stories. So that’s a bad thing to do, if you want to realize your potential, let’s say.
You don’t do reverse sacrifices. That’s a very bad idea. And so Esau really did himself in by being too attached to the present, without a vision of the future. So he’s too in the moment. And he pays a heavy price for it. First of all, he loses his birthright, and his double inheritance—so there’s a practical consequence—and then there’s a spiritual consequence. And then, well, he’s been made a fool of by his brother. Jacob means ‘supplanter,’ by the way. That’s what the name means, and Jacob is always trying to usurp Esau, as we will see. And so Jacob gets one over on him, and that doesn’t make an older brother happy, when a younger brother gets something over on him. That’s for sure. And then he loses the opportunity to be the progenitor of the messiah. He probably didn’t realize that, precisely, but it’s kind of rough, that.
There’s a statement in Matthew 16:26: "for what has a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?" It’s an echo of the same idea. You think, ‘well, what does this idea of ‘soul’ mean?" It’s not intellect. It’s something like consciousness allied with character, I think. I think the reason that it’s valued so much—you gotta ask yourself, what do you really have, when it comes down to it? So life is suffering, let’s say. You can pile up worldly goods. The God in the Old Testament doesn’t seem to have anything against that really, right? The people who he favours seem to prosper quite nicely in the world. But they also have to make a choice between whether they’re going to fundamentally sustain their character, or whether they’re going prosper in the world, when push comes to shove. The idea, constantly, is that what you have in the world that allows you the best possible defense against the suffering that’s intrinsic to Being is your character. That’s what you have. Period.
I don’t think there is anything that’s more psychologically true than that. First of all, your relationships with others depend on your character, and, certainly, this is part of the story of Noah’s ark. His generations were perfect, so he had a tight familial arrangement. Everyone trusted each other. That’s a big deal, if you hit a rocky patch in your life, right? And it’s character that determines that. If you’re generous and honest and all of those things, and people know they can rely on you—assuming they’re not resentful, because that’s a whole different story—they’re going to come to your aid, when it’s necessary. They’re going to pull together with you. When people are really after you, for one reason or another, and they’re accusing you of all sorts of things—and you’re guilty, because you have a past that’s laden with characterological errors—then it’s very easy for people to take you down. They’ll poke until they hit a place where you’re guilty, and then you’re done, because you’ll do yourself in, with your own judgement. So, Esau makes a very big mistake
There’s a sacrificial idea, here, too. Now and then you’re going to be faced with a situation where it’s something you really want, or it’s your character. Maybe you’ll have to lie about something. You’ll think, ‘ah, what difference does it make? I’ll lie about it.’ Jacob does this. But there’s a bunch of problems with that. One is that, well, now you know that you’re the sort of person that will, in fact, deceive yourself about the nature of reality, if something shiny is dangled in front of you. That’s not good, because it undermines your faith in yourself, and when you’re really in trouble—they call that the dark night of the soul—that’s what you’ve got: you’ve got whether or not you can trust yourself, and that’s it. And so, if you’ve betrayed yourself, in that manner, then you weaken yourself under the worst possible circumstances. That’s really not a good thing. This is practical advice. It’s not casual moralizing. There’s very little casual moralizing, in these stories.
In the next part of the story, there’s some parallels with Abraham. That’s built into the narrative, I think, because Isaac is Abraham’s descendant, so we have to keep the narrative echoing forward, otherwise it loses its continuity. There’s a famine in the land that Isaac’s in. God tells him to stay the course, anyways, repeating the promise he gave to Abraham—although, Isaac goes to Abimelech, also telling the King and people that Rebekah was his sister. That’s exactly what Abraham did, when he went to Egypt. There’s another echo, there. It’s as if the story’s being told for a second time, essentially. That’s supposed to remind you of the previous story. But they’re careless; the king sees that Rebecca and Isaac are intimate together, and, luckily, he doesn’t have them put to death. He just tells everybody in the kingdom that they’re to be left the hell alone. Isaac prospers in that land—just like Abraham did, in Egypt—until the Philistines ask him to leave. He’s just getting too rich and powerful; things are going too well for him, so he’s asked to leave.
In the meantime, Esau gets married. This is a funny little story. "He marries two women who give grief to Isaac and Rebekah." Whoever Esau marries, they’re not popular with their in-laws. Not in the least. That actually becomes relevant, a little later, because they drive Rebecca quite mad. So I get a kick out of that, because that’s very common. It’s not easy to integrate new people into your family, and to hope that will go smoothly. It’s actually one of the real catastrophes of life: you have a kid, and maybe you get along with them—and maybe you don’t, but let’s assume you do—but then they marry someone that you just don’t like—or maybe that you think is wrong for them. That’s really rough. What are you going to do about that? You’re basically screwed both ways: if you have the person you love around, you have to put up with this horrendous creature that they allied themselves with—if you get rid of them completely, you don’t have your child anymore. It’s a very, very difficult position. That’s another example of the realism, I think, of the stories.
Now Isaac, who’s hypothetically on his deathbed, asks Esau to hunt for venison, because he likes venison, and he’s happy that his son is a hunter. Rebecca overhears this, so she conspires with Jacob to slaughter two small goats and make his father some stew, because he wants Esau to make him stew out of venison. But Rebecca, who’s being, let’s say, slightly deceitful—or horribly lying, to be more accurate—conspires with Jacob. So Jacob kills two little goats—kids—and boils up a stew. Then he puts on some goat skins—because Esau is a hairy character—and Rebecca dresses Jacob in Esau’s clothing, because Isaac can’t see very well, at this point. Then Jacob goes into his father’s room, with the stew.
He tries to disguise his voice, but it doesn’t work very well. Isaac asks him to come closer. Jacob puts out his arm with the goat’s skin on it, and Isaac smells him, too. He smells like Esau—which, maybe, wasn’t the best thing—and feels like him. And so, because Isaac thinks he’s on his deathbed, he decides to deliver a blessing to—hypothetically—Esau, but it’s Jacob. That’s a big deal, too. As I said before, with these ancient people, it appeared that, once you said something, you didn’t get to take it back. You couldn’t say, ‘well, look, you deceived me, so it doesn’t count.’ They weren’t, maybe, as—well, ‘weak’ is one way of thinking about it. Another way is that they weren’t as attentive to context. If I make you a deal, and then it turns out that you betrayed me, I may feel that the deal is no longer valid, because the assumption was that you were being honest, and that violates the whole spirit. But that isn’t how these people thought. They said, ‘once you promised, man, you promised.’ And that was that.
So Isaac blesses Jacob. He says, "let God give you the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine: let people serve you, and nations bow down to you: be lord over thy brethren"—that’s going to be rough on Esau—"and let thy mother’s sons bow down to thee: cursed be every one that curseth thee, and blessed be he that blesseth thee."
So there’s quite a remarkable painting of that. There’s Rebecca. She’s looking pretty old, and Isaac’s looking pretty blind. Jacob’s taking directions from his mother, and we might say that he’s, perhaps, a little old to be taking moral lessons from his mother, especially given how she’s acting. It’s a pretty ugly scene, altogether, especially that we also know that Jacob already tricked Esau out of his birthright. Now, he’s taken the birthright, and he’s taken the blessing. As I said, Jacob, he turns out to be the father of Israel. He’s a reprehensible character. These are major league betrayals, that he’s engaging in. It’s not trivial. He really, really pulls the rug out from under his brother. You could say, ‘well, Esau is not as awake as he might be. He’s kind of a wild man,’ and fair enough. But it certainly seems, to me, that the predominant moral error falls on Jacob’s shoulders. It’s very treacherous behaviour, what he’s doing.
Esau shows up, and he’s got a nice stag for his dad, but it’s a little late for that. He states that his brother was rightly named Jacob, which means ‘supplanter,’ because he’s been deceived, twice. Esau’s asking, fundamentally, if there’s anything, at all, left over for him. Isaac can’t give him the same blessing, because that’s already been given. So he has to think of something else. Isaac says, "behold, I have made him thy lord, and all his brethren I have given to him for servants; and with corn and wine have I sustained him: and what shall I do now unto thee, my son? And Esau said unto his father, Have you even one blessing for me, my father? bless me, also. And Esau lifted up his voice, and wept."
We already know that Esau’s a pretty tough guy, by all appearances. He’s out there, hunting on his own, camping. He’s no pushover. The fact that this reduces him to tears is an indication of the magnitude of the betrayal. And Isaac says, "behold, thy dwelling shall be the fatness of the earth, and of the dew of heaven from above; and by thy sword shalt thou live, and shalt serve thy brother; and it shall come to pass when thou shalt have the dominion, that thou shalt break his yoke from off thy neck. And Esau hated Jacob because of his blessing wherewith his father blessed him: and Esau said in his heart, The days of mourning for my father are at hand; then will I slay my brother Jacob." So, fundamentally, if Isaac dies, or when he dies, then we’ll mourn for him. Then, Jacob better look the hell out, because it’s serious death coming his way.
He’s got a point. In Dante’s Inferno—I think I mentioned this, at one point. Dante’s Inferno is a very interesting story. It’s a descent into hell. The popular conception of hell was partly based on Dante’s imagination—on his work. What Dante was trying to do was to discover the hierarchical structure of evil. You might think there’s a hierarchical structure of good—some things are better than other things—but there’s also a hierarchical structure of evil—some evils are greater than other evils. He put betrayal in the lowest part of hell. So, if you were betraying people, you were right beside Satan himself. I think that’s good; that’s very smart. Well, Dante was a genius, after all. I think the reason for that is that—you see, if someone trusts you, they’re laying their vulnerability open to you. Now, they might just be naive. We won’t think about that. You’re just a child, if you’re naive. You can still be betrayed. But if you’re an adult, and you trust, it’s often because—if you’re actually an adult—you willingly open yourself up, knowing that you could be hurt, because you’re not naive, anymore. You decided to trust, and you say, ‘I’ll open myself up. I know that I’m laying myself open to you, if you choose to use that power.’ If you’ve been hurt as a child, or as a naive person, you might say, ‘why should I ever trust again?’ That’s a really good question. The reason you trust again, once you’re an adult, is because you’re courageous. It’s an act of courage, to trust. The reason it’s useful is because, if you trust someone, you open the door to reciprocity and negotiation and cooperation, and you entice the best part of the person forward. And so it’s a courageous act. But then, if you betray someone, you’ve taken the best part of them—which is the part that will courageously trust, with open eyes—and you’ve stuck a dagger in that. You purposefully damaged the best part of them. And so that’s why it’s such an egregious fault.
It’s often that people don’t recover from that sort of thing. If you betray someone badly enough, you can damage them—you can give them post-traumatic stress disorder, if you really put your mind to it. That’s just not a psychological disorder. If you have post-traumatic stress disorder, it produces permanent neurological alterations, that make you more neurotic—more sensitive to negative emotions—for the rest of your life. You can recover from it, to some degree, but stress will tend to reinstantiate the PTSD. So you hurt someone, and it’s not merely psychological—not that psychological is ‘merely’—but it’s not merely psychological. It’s fundamental physiological damage.
Anyways, Jacob’s smart enough to get out of there—which, also, is not really a testament to his integrity, right? I mean, he’s done these terrible things—at the behest of his mother—because he wants power, and he wants to get it, without deserving it. He finally goes too far, and he hightails it out of there, to another family member—to his mother’s brother. It’s not exactly the world’s most heroic story. That’s for sure. Now, there’s an interlude, here. This is a really interesting interlude. It’s the story of Jacob’s Ladder.
He’s off to visit Laban, who’s his mother’s brother, and, on the way, he has a sleep. "And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillow"—which seems to indicate very bad planning, on his part—"and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed."
The story of Jacob’s Ladder has really possessed the imagination of the West. There’s a reason for that. It’s because it’s an archetypal story. The idea of a ladder that reaches to heaven is one of the oldest ideas of mankind. You find it widely distributed among the shamanic cultures, for example, and it’s a hallmark of psychedelic experience—that’s another way of thinking about it—which is a very peculiar thing. So there’s one representation of the ladder—you see God up at the top, there, peeking out from the clouds. That’s sort of where we get the idea that God is in heaven, and that heaven’s up in the sky. That’s an easy story to make fun of, because we’ve gone up to the moon, and there’s no God there. But this is not a reasonable way of conceptualizing what these experiences are about. These experiences—what this is, the opening up there, is more like an opening into an alternate dimension. That’s a better way of thinking about it.
From the Judeo-Christian perspective, one of the things you have to understand is that God is beyond space and time. He’s not in the universe. He’s outside the universe, in some manner. The idea that you have an experience of God, and it’s up—the up is the best that the human imagination can do with what’s, essentially, a form of extradimensional experience. That’s the way to conceptualize it. And these experiences aren’t rare. They make up the core of the shamanic tradition. There’s an intrusion of the ancient shamanic tradition, which is tens of thousands of years old, into the Biblical stories, at this point. Now, why Jacob had an, essentially, shamanic experience is very hard to tell, because we don’t know what these old people were up to. We don’t know how much of the archaic religious tradition was still extant at that point in time. But we certainly do know that our ancient forebears were using psychedelic substances, constantly—like the amanita muscaria mushrooms, which were widely used in India, before they became extinct. That’s the theory, anyways. That seems to be the basis of the chemical soma, of which much has been written about.
So we hear of this as a dream, or as a vision, and, perhaps, that’s what it was. But perhaps that wasn’t what it was, either. Perhaps it was an experience that was induced by the same processes that shamanic people have always induced these experiences. So we’re going to go through this, a little bit. That’s the visions, and there’s messengers going up and down. One way you can conceptualize that is psychologically—as we already discussed—that there are forces within you that are active and alive. You can think of them, in some sense, as messengers of the higher self. You can think about this as an image of a psychological reality. And so we can stick with that.
Here’s some of the representations that have been made. I really like the one on the right. That’s William Blake. I like the helix idea, and I don’t think that that’s a fluke. There are helixes and double helixes in all sorts of imagery—very ancient, and very modern. They’re associated with healing, and with this kind of vision. You see it in the Blake representation. God is associated with—well, really, with the sun, and with light. You see that on the left, as well—that, wherever God is, is where light is. That’s a very interesting idea, as far as I’m concerned.
There’s some other representations—one by Chagall. There’s this idea that there’s the possibility of opening up a line of communication between the human psyche and the transcendent divine. There’s a great image of Christ as pantocrator, so creator of the world. It was one of the first mosaics—if I remember correctly, and I wish I remembered where it was, but I don’t. It’s a very interesting image. I’m having a carving made of it, at the moment, by a friend of mine. You see Christ’s face portrayed in a medieval manner. He’s holding a book. It symbolizes the importance of the book, as a means of transmitting wisdom. His face is very asymmetrical. The eyes are different—one side and the other. One half of the face represents the human part, and the other side of the face represents the divine part. I also think about that psychologically, because I do think that that’s the right way to conceptualize human beings. There’s an aspect of us that’s mortal, human, and limited. But there’s an aspect of us that’s transcendent and divine, as well. It’s latent, in some sense, but there are times when it manifests itself.
This is not speculation. This is like the oldest experience of human beings. Now, it’s not necessarily an easy experience to have, but it’s reported everywhere, and it can be reliably induced—as we discussed before—by chemical means. I don’t know what that means, exactly. We talked a little bit about psilocybin mushrooms, for example. You could say that the mystical experiences that have been invoked in the newest experiments down at John Hopkins are derangements or forms of psychosis because they have some similarity to psychotic experiences. Although, psychotic people were given LSD in the ‘60s, and they always said that was something different than what they were having. If they give psychotic people amphetamines, it can make them worse. So they’re biochemically separate, and we know that.
The thing that’s so interesting about the psilocybin experiences is that they reliably produced mystical experiences that the people ranked as among the most important experiences of their life—and, among those who have the psychedelic experience, positive things happen to them. And so that kind of messes with the whole psychosis theory, right? Because, well, what are you going to do? Are you going to claim that you give someone a pill, they have a psychotic break, and then they’re healthier? It’s like, no. That isn’t how psychotic breaks work. You’re not healthier after having one. You’re like a broken egg, and it’s not easy to put you back together. And we know that people all over the world have discovered every manner of psychedelic substance that you could possibly—well, you can imagine that there were lots of hungry people, wandering the earth, for a long time, and they ate every damn thing they could get their hands on. Now and then, something very peculiar happened, as a consequence.
So I’m going to tell you a little bit about the shamanic tradition, because it’s associated with Jacob’s Ladder. According to Mircea Eliade, who was a great historian of religion—a compatriot of Jung’s, and they influenced each other, quite substantially. Eliade believed that shamanism that used psychedelics was a degeneration of the original, more pure shamanism. But I think later scholarship has demonstrated that that’s incorrect—that the shamanic ritual per se was a direct consequence of the discovery and ritual use of psychedelic substances. Anyways, Eliade identified three pathways to shamanism. The shaman in a tribe was more educated than the typical person, with a larger vocabulary, and was the repository of the oral tradition—and so learned all the stories that had been passed down by word of mouth. People, by the way, can very, very accurately tell the same story across generations. That’s been quite well documented. And people who can’t read really can remember, because what else are they going to do? Their memories are far greater than modern people’s memories. We can forget everything, because we can just look it up. But they remembered things, because they had no choice.
My father knew someone who was illiterate—and who couldn’t use numbers, either—when he grew up in Saskatchewan, 60 years ago. He had sheep, if I remember correctly. And, although he couldn’t count, he knew if one of his sheep was missing, because he knew all of the sheep. He could tell just by looking if one of the sheep was missing, but he couldn’t count. So people who don’t have our particular set of skills—first of all, they’re not stupid. Second, they have other skills, that we don’t understand, and that fill in the gaps.
Eliade identified spontaneous vocation. So you had the spirit of a shaman, let’s say—so you’re probably extremely high in openness, from a modern perspective. Hereditary transmission—so your father was a shaman, and your grandfather was a shaman, and so forth, and so you got initiated into that process. Or a personal quest.
This is from Eliade: "In Siberia, the youth who is called to be a shaman attracts attention by his strange behavior; for example, he seeks solitude, becomes absent-minded, loves to roam in the woods or unfrequented places, has visions, and sings in his sleep."
You know, if you put someone in a place where you’re deprived—from a sensory perspective—normal people will hallucinate quite quickly. So it seems that what happens is that, if you dampen down the sensory input, then you start to become aware of the background processes of the mind. It’s like the signal to noise ratio: as the noise decreases, some of the background noise becomes signal. You start to become aware of your own internal psychological processes. It’s something like that.
"In some instances this period of incubation is marked by quite serious symptoms: among the Yakut, the young man sometimes has fits of fury and easily loses consciousness, hides in the forest, feeds on the bark of trees, throws himself into water and fire, cuts himself with knives."
We went to a potlatch on northern Vancouver Island, about a year ago. They had this one dance—it was the Kwakwaka’wakw natives. They had this interesting dance that was the dance of the wild man. The person who invited us was the wild man, and he was dressed up in tree branches, and so forth. He was the person who’d been in the bush too long. He came in as a cannibal. There was genuine cannibalistic rites among these people, not so long ago. He came in as a cannibal, and everybody had to wear this like cedar headdress, because, if you had a cedar headdress on, the cannibal wouldn’t take a bite out of you. They actually took this quite seriously. So you should have your cedar headdress on.
So he’s looking around the crowd, and there’s like 400 people in this place. He could really act, too. He’s doing this wild man dance, and then all the women stood up, and started to kind of dance in place and sing. They were taming him. So that was really cool. It was really interesting to see that, because those people have had an unbroken culture for about 13,000 years. That’s how long they’ve been out on the island, there. It was very interesting to see the dramatization of the domestication of man, by women, laid out in that dance, and in that way. But it was also interesting in relationship to the shamanic tradition, because he came in as a wild man. He had to be re-civilized, in some sense, and brought back down to earth.
"But, by whatever method he may have been designated, a shaman is recognized as such only after having received two methods of instruction. The first is ecstatic (e.g., dreams, trances, visions)."
The other thing that this guy told me—and I have no reason to doubt him. He’s also not a literate person, and so has a great memory. He does traditional carving, and he’s very good at it. He carved a 53-foot totem pole that’s now in front of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. So, if you ever go there, you can go see it. It won’t be there forever, but it’s there right now. He was taught to carve by his grandparents. He said that he dreamed in—you know what the Haida images look like? The Kwakwaka’wakws are kind of like the Haida. It’s the same sort of imagery. He told me that he dreamed in those images. So, when he dreams, that’s the form that the things he dreams about takes. He also said that he would talk to his grandparents in his dreams. So, if he was working on a piece of wood and trying to figure out how to carve it, and he ran into a particularly difficult problem, he’d dream, and he’d have a conversation with his grandparents, and they’d help him figure out how to solve the problem. Then he’d wake up, and he’d go carve. The thing is, he told me these things sort of matter-of-factly. It wasn’t like he was telling me these weird things that happened to him—although, he was doing that, to some degree. I asked him a lot of questions about what he carved, and what it all meant. That was just part of his explanation of how he did it.
He carved me a couple of doors, that I have in my house. One of them’s quite interesting—well, the two make a panel. There’s an underwater scene, and under the water there’s a bunch of mythical monsters. Some of them are killer whales. I think there’s an octopus down there, carved in this particular style. He said that the other thing that happens to him when he dreams is that he goes down to the bottom of the water, where these mythological creatures are, and he gets inspiration from them. So I thought that was extremely interesting, too. We don’t know what a mind that isn’t hyper-literate, like our minds are—because we’re so bombarded by external stimuli that we have no idea what the natural mind is like, really. And so it was quite interesting to listen to that, and also to see the consequences, because he’s quite a great carver.
"The first is ecstatic (e.g., dreams, trances, visions); the second is traditional (e.g., shamanic techniques, names and functions of the spirits, mythology and genealogy of the clan, secret language. This twofold teaching, imparted by the spirits and the old master shamans, constitutes initiation."
Modern people have a problem with that because we don’t really get initiated. But let’s say that we’re each on a quest, of some sort. You wouldn’t be here, I don’t think, if you weren’t, because why else would you be here? So you’re on a quest, of some sort, to figure out the struggle with the meaning of life, let’s say. You don’t want to do that alone, because you only last like 70 years, and good luck figuring it out on your own. It’s just not going to happen; it’s too complicated, and you’ll be too isolated. If it’s just you, that’s insanity. No one can stand that. So you hope that other people have things to tell you, and your culture has things to tell you. So you’re on a quest, maybe not with the same intensity as a shamanic initiate, but let’s give you some credit. And then, you’re also trying to understand the wisdom of the past. That’s the second part of this. It’s like, ok, you’re a human being, and human beings have been telling stories for a long period of time, trying to figure out what’s going on—trying to figure out how to orient themselves in the world. Partly what you’re doing, here, is exactly what the shamanic initiate does in the second part of the process, which is to expose yourself, to the degree that you can, to "the names and functions of the spirits, mythology and genealogy of the clan, and a secret language. This twofold teaching, imparted by the spirits and the old master shamans, constitutes initiation."
So that’s a rebirth, right? That’s what an initiation is: it’s being born again. That’s a birth of the spirit, rather than a birth of the body. It’s something like that. So it’s the rebirth of an integrated psyche—a psyche that’s individual, but also grounded in the wisdom of common humanity. And that makes you strong—at least, it makes you stronger. There’s a limit to your strength, but God only knows, to some degree, what that limit is. People can be unbelievably tough—unbelievably tough. I think it’s even the more admirable for human beings to be tough, because we’re so conscious of how we can be hurt, and we’re so conscious of what that hurt can lead to. You can have your family taken away from you, and you can be destroyed. The fact that you can be courageous in the face of that, at all, is something that is absolutely unbelievable. People deserve a lot more credit, I think, than people give themselves. The fact that we can be honourable under conditions of life, death, and suffering is a testament to the human spirit.
There’s a profound antihuman ethos, I think, that pervades our culture—that considers human beings cancers on the planet, and that there should be less of us. It’s the same spirit that motivated the guy who wrote the book about Better to Have Never Been. I don’t see it that way. I think people do pretty well, for having their leg caught in a bear trap, and their head caught in a vise. They’re actually doing pretty well, because life is really hard. The fact that we’re not absolutely brutal and murderous all the time is really something remarkable, given what we actually have to contend with—that we can go out of our way to be honest and generous and altruistic, and to care for each other under unbelievably dire circumstances, and to act nobly, sometimes, under the most trying conditions. In Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, he tells story after story of people who acted abysmally, but also people who, under the worst threats imaginable, never sacrificed their character. Reading about that is really—well, it really makes you wonder. That’s what it does.
"The future shamans among the Tungus, as they approach maturity, go through a hysterical or hysteroid crisis, but sometimes their vocation manifests itself at an earlier age—the boy runs away into the mountains and remains there for a week or more, feeding on animals, which he tears to pieces with his teeth. He returns to the village, filthy, bloodstained, and it is only after ten or more days have passed that he begins to babble incoherent words.
"The strange behavior of future shamans has not failed to attract the attention of scholars, and from the middle of the past century several attempts have been made to explain the phenomenon of shamanism as a mental disorder. But the problem was wrongly put. For on the one hand, it is not true that shamans always are or always have to be neuropathics"—mentally deranged—"on the other hand"—and this is the critical issue—"those among them who had been ill become shamans precisely because they had succeeded in becoming cured."
So it’s not the descent into this strange, subterranean psychological state that constitutes the transformation that makes the shaman, but it’s the emergence back up out of that. That’s the journey to the underworld, and a rebirth. There’s this great book by a guy named Henri Ellenberger. He was an existential psychoanalyst and philosopher. He wrote a book called The Discovery of the Unconscious, which I would highly recommend. It’s on my list of recommended readings. It is a great book. If you want to know about the psychoanalytic tradition, it’s the best introduction there is. He discusses Adler, Jung, and Freud, and does a very credible job of all three, but also takes the history of psychoanalytic thought back 300 or 400 years before Freud. It’s very engaging reading, and very interesting.
One of the things Ellenberger points out quite clearly is—and he associated this, to some degree, with the shamanic tradition—that both Freud and Jung—Jung, in particular—underwent very intense periods of psychological disturbance, let’s say. I would say what was happening was that, because they were questioning their axioms at the most fundamental level, they were deranging their cognitive and perceptual structures. Jung was also experimenting with imaginative techniques, and visionary techniques, which he did a lot. There was a period of his life where he was having a constant stream of visions, which he wrote down in a book called The Red Book. But, at the same time, he was still functioning as a psychiatrist, and operating normally in the world. People have suggested that what he had was a psychotic break, but that’s ridiculous, because that’s not how it works, man. If you’re having a psychotic break, you’re not being an effective psychiatrist. Those things do not go together, especially not for a long period of time. So there’s the possibility of extreme experience, without psychopathology.
Ellenberger says much the same thing about Freud—and about Charles Darwin, as well, who underwent a terrible period of mental confusion, I would say, as a consequence of formulating his theory of evolution, which was really hard on him, because he was a diehard Christian. He knew what the implications of his theory were, and he didn’t know what to do about that. It was very, very hard on him. It’s quite common for people of genius to go through an intense psychological crisis, but then resolve it, and the genius is in the resolution. The precondition for the genius is the dissolution, in some sense, because you have to be obsessed with a problem—it has to grip you completely—before you’re going to concentrate on it so obsessively that you might come up with a solution. But it’s the people who come up with a solution that are the prophets and the shamans, and so forth, and so on. And so this isn’t something that only characterizes archaic cultures. We just don’t recognize it in our own culture properly, and that’s a problem—well, sometimes we do.
You remember that in the Lion King, right? Rafiki shows up—he’s the shaman—he brings Simba down that dark tunnel—that’s the dark night of the soul. He has him reflect upon himself in the pool. When he reflects on himself deeply, he sees the reflection of his father, then that becomes a thing of cosmic significance. His father appears in the sky—just like God appears to Jacob—and basically tells him that it’s time for him to grow the hell up, and to return to the devastated kingdom, and to set it right. And that’s exactly right. We live in the devastated kingdom. That’s an eternal truth. It’s the responsibility of the individual to grow the hell up, and to set it right. When it’s devastated, and when things are not in place, then everyone suffers too much. And that’s not good. There’s no excuse for not doing something about that, because you don’t have anything better to do. Even children’s movies tell you this.
This is a fun one. This is from the Eadwine Psalter—9th to 10th century. That’s Adam and Eve, but there is speculation that the fruit that they’re eating, there, is psilocybin mushrooms, because they’re the only kind of mushroom that grows like that. So that’s pretty wild. And then, this is the—I think it’s called the Banisteriopsis vine, if I remember correctly. It’s what ayahuasca is made out of it. It has this double helix form, which is very, very interesting. Nobody could figure out how the natives made this ayahuasca, which transports people, spiritually, in a very intense manner. There’s a whole religion based on it, like a modern religion, as well as an archaic religion.
To make this stuff, they had to take two plants that don’t grow anywhere near each other—and there’s like a million plants in the Amazon, so how do you figure that out? Nobody knows. And then you have to cook them in this very particular way, for a particular amount of time, before you produce this stuff. One of the plants has DMT in it, which is a very intense psychedelic, but it’s very short acting. The other has an MAO inhibitor. So, if you take the DMT, and you take the MAO inhibitor, then the DMT trip lasts for much longer. So that’s what these Amazonia natives figured out. No one has any idea how they managed it. If you ask them, they tell you that the plants told them how to do it, which isn’t much of an explanation, as far as modern people are concerned. But then, when modern people take the ayahuasca, and the plant, so to speak, starts to talk to them, they're a little less leery about the whole theory that the plants had something to do with this.
I’m loathe to talk about this, because I’m not an advocate for drug use. But, by the same token, you can’t ignore empirical date. It’s not reasonable. The empirical data is that psychedelic substances can produce mystical experiences, and that those often have a transformative effect. One of the latest studies shows that, if you take people who are dying of cancer, and you give them psilocybin in a sufficient dose to produce a mystical experience, that you radically decrease their fear of death. You gotta think about that, man. That’s tough. That’s a tough experiment. You just wouldn’t expect that—you’d think, you take someone, you derange them intensely, and then, when they come back—even though they’re dying—they’re not nearly as afraid of dying. You gotta kind of wake up and smell the roses, when you see something like that. The people who are doing this research are very reliable people.
There’s this old idea—it’s quite a funny idea, about toadstools. Flies like amanita muscaria, and there’s some—this is ridiculous—evidence that they actually like getting stoned. Animals will eat these—reindeer will eat these things, too, and they get pretty tripped out by them. I have this book on psychedelic use among animals, which is a small book. There’s this is idea that toads used to sit around the amanita muscaria and wait for the stoned flies to buzz badly around them, and then snap them up. So that’s pretty funny, I think.
There are mushrooms in the U.S. that are the oldest organisms on the planet. There’s one mushroom—I can’t remember where it is, but it covers something like…God, I don’t know—hundreds of square miles. It’s like this huge thing, because it’s all underground, and they have these very complex networks of mycelia, they’re called, and they think the thing is like 150,000 years old. Something like that. There’s plenty of things about the world that we don’t know. That’s for sure.
That’s the chemical makeup of the classic psychedelics. They all have the same fundamental structure. This is serotonin. That’s one of the major brain neurotransmitters. What happens with the psychedelics is that they alter the brain function by altering the neurochemical utilization of serotonin, and change the manner in which the serotonergic systems work. The serotonin system is a very basic system. When you’re an embryo, and your brain is developing, it is the serotonin projections that basically orchestrate the development of your brain. They’re very, very archaic circuits. And this is the paper, that I think I stole this from: "Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance."
Why? That’s a good question. So here’s a question for you. It is beyond dispute that human beings are capable of religious experience. Why? Why is that, exactly? You can associate psychosis, but that doesn’t work. The theory doesn’t hold water. It’s not the same thing. So why is it there, exactly? It’s not an easy thing to figure out. I’m always trying to figure out a biological explanation for everything, because if you want to find something to stand on, you want to make sure that it can resist a challenge. So, if I can find an explanation for something that’s reductionistic and materialistic and biological, then I’m going for that. That’s a tough one. Consciousness is a tough one. The moral sense is a tough one. They’re not easy things to crack. The Big Bang is a tough one. A cynic might say that, sometimes, when people are close to suicide, they’ll have a mystical experience. Maybe you say, ‘well, it’s a last-ditch attempt of your brain into deluding you into thinking that your life has some significance.’ That’s a plausible theory, but I don’t think it accounts for the generality of the phenomena. So I don’t buy it.
What happens in the shamanic experience is that the shaman has the experience of being reduced to a skeleton, first—so a very realistic death experience. Then, the next thing that happens is that he finds himself in a place where he’s communing with his ancestral spirits. After that, there’s the climbing of something like the ladder—Jacob’s Ladder, say—and an encounter with God, for all intents and purposes. It’s a very widespread phenomena. It’s the world tree. I’ve thought about this a lot, trying to figure out what this represents.
"According to a Yakut informant, the spirits carry the future shaman to Hell and shut him in a house for three years. Here he undergoes his initiation; the spirits cut off his head (which they set off to one side, for the novice must watch his own dismemberment with his own eyes)"—dissolution to the primary elements, in some sense—"and hack his body to bits, which are later distributed among the spirits of various sicknesses. It is only on this condition that the future shaman will obtain the power of healing. His bones are then covered with new flesh, and in some cases he is also given new blood." So there’s a death and resurrection experience that’s associated with the shamanic ritual.
"We are here in the presence of a very ancient religious idea, which belongs to the hunter culture. Bone symbolizes the final roots of animal life, the mold from which the flesh continually rises. It is from the bone that men and animals are reborn, for a time, they maintain themselves in an existence of the flesh; then they die, and their ‘life’ is reduced to the essence concentrated in the skeleton, from which they will be born again."
That’s a good graphic representation of the experience.
That’s an old painting by Hieronymus Bosch, if I remember correctly. I really like that because it’s reminiscent of the near death experiences that you hear people describe. They’re quite common, as well. I had a very weird experience, once. I don’t think I’ve told you this story. I was assessing someone who had gone through a car windshield, and he was very depressed—it had happened a long time before, but he was very depressed. The insurance company was basically accusing him of malingering, because he’d been depressed for so long, and he’d sort of healed up, and everything. But, if your left hemisphere is damaged—especially the front part of your left hemisphere—then you can be in a chronic state of depression, because the left hemisphere, generally speaking, is responsible for positive emotion. If it isn’t there, it’s like, ‘negative emotion, for you.’
I went and assessed him, and I was giving him this…I think it was the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, which is kind of a standard personality test, and half psychopathology test. He was filling it out. He was a very serious, middle-aged guy. Nothing about him was New-Agey, in the least. He was like an accountant—I think, in fact, he was an accountant, if I remember correctly. There was one question, and it said, ‘my spirit has left my body.’ I think that’s right; it’s very close. He stopped, and he asked me, ‘I’m not sure how to answer this.’ I said, ‘why?’ He said, ‘well, after I went through the car windshield, I was in a coma for three weeks." Something like that. I think he said he died three times.
He couldn’t remember anything during that period of time, and he couldn’t remember the car accident. That’s retrograde amnesia, and that’s quite common with head injuries. He said that, during one of those experiences—and this is all he remembered from the hospital—he came out of his body, went down the long tunnel of light—you’ve heard these near-death experiences—and then saw his family members there, saw the heavenly light, and then realized that it wasn’t his time, and came back to his body. Now, what was interesting about this guy was that—well, first of all, I didn’t ask him about this. He basically volunteered this story, and it was instigated by this question. He didn’t know that anybody else had ever had an experience like that, because I asked him if he’d ever heard of anything like that. He said ‘no,’ so that was interesting. But what really was interesting was—how the hell did he remember that? Because he had amnesia during that entire period of time. He was in a bloody comma, so he didn’t remember anything. But he remembered that.
Those experiences are more common than you think. There’s a painting of one, which is quite interesting. That’s like a tunnel to heaven. It’s the same basic idea. There’s a little bit more suffering going on in this one, I think, but that’s pretty typical of Hieronymus Bosch. I don’t know what was up with that guy, but he was one strange character.
The Scandinavians have this idea that the world is a tree. I’ve been thinking about that a lot. I think that the tree idea—a tree is something that is grounded in matter, let’s say, and that reaches up to heaven. In the Scandinavian tree, at the bottom, there’s a cool idea. See, this tree is constantly being gnawed by snakes—you can sort of see the snakes at the bottom—and, at the same time, it’s being watered. The water makes the tree grow at the same rate that the snakes gnaw on its roots, so it’s like a yin-yang idea: there’s continual chaotic destruction and replacement, at the basis of whatever this process is. But the tree seems, to me, to be a representation—it’s like a different dimensional space. That’s what’s trying to be represented.
Imagine that you’re structured—if you take powers of ten magnification, say, human beings are about in the middle of the tiniest thing and the largest thing, if you do it by powers of ten. And so you have a subatomic level, and then an atomic level, and then a molecular level, and then a level of organs, and then there’s you, and then there’s your family, and then so on—all the way up the tree, fundamentally. And so I think that this tree represents—and this is the thing that the shaman moves up and down—this different view of dimensionality. It’s something like that. I think that what happens in the psychedelic experience is that consciousness can travel up and down that structure. It’s something like that. And maybe not only up and down it, but maybe right through it. I know that’s a radical claim—it’s a really radical claim, and it might be wrong. It’s probably wrong, even, because most radical claims are wrong. But I’m not so sure it’s wrong.