In this issue of Banter M:
Waking Up – Ben Cohen describes putting reality back together again after a powerful Ayahuasca experience, and discovering that much to his annoyance, he is now a ‘spiritual’ person.
America Is the Dumbest Country on the Planet – Chez Pazienza discusses the far right’s reaction to possibly the most important news this decade – the discovery of water on Mars.
How To Become Marginally Famous For Awful Things Part 2 – Tommy Christopher concludes his hilarious, terrifying story of the time he live tweeted his own heart attack, and the media melee that ensued afterwards.
by Ben Cohen
Spirituality is a tricky subject to discuss when you have grown up in a largely atheistic, materialist culture. In western intellectual circles, spirituality is regarded with great skepticism and oftentimes ridiculed as ‘New Age’ mumbo jumbo. It might be good for your yoga and morning meditation, but as far as what it tells us about the world we live in, it is about as useful as the story of Adam and Eve. In other words, it’s not serious and shouldn’t take up too much of our time.
For many years I was of this opinion. I found Buddhism to be vaguely interesting – the notion of Karma, Yin and Yang, the masculine and feminine etc seemed to apply to the world as I saw it. I would sometimes feel moments of powerful interconnectedness with nature and other people, but they were fleeting and inconsistent. The more I saw science advancing, the more convinced I became that there was nothing magical about the world we live in. It seemed to me that humans understood their environment to such a degree that we would one day comprehend everything. We could send robots to Mars, use nano technology to cure cancer, speak to anyone on the planet via a wifi connection and smash atoms together in order to understand the fabric of the universe. One day, scientists promised, we would even be able to create intelligent, self aware computers. And I believed them all.
Strangely, the more I became intellectually convinced of scientific materialism, the more powerful my dreams became. After turning 30, my dreams became increasingly vivid and increasingly relevant to my waking life. I would learn lessons from my subconscious and apply them in my every day life. It was uncomfortable at first as I had never considered dreams to be anything other than a jumble of thoughts playing out randomly while the body repaired itself physically. But with time I began to rely on them as a kind of moral guide. I’d have powerful dreams of hurting people, cheating on girlfriends and betraying friends, all lessons I took to mean ‘Don’t do this in the real world’. I would wake up sweating, fearful I’d actually done them, only to be profoundly grateful that I got a chance not to do it in reality.
I’ve written about my experiences with psychedelics in ‘Banter M’ before (see issues 1,2 and 3), but have never truly been able to figure out why I was so drawn to mind altering plant substances given my extreme tee-total stance on drugs as a teenager and young adult. In the series of pieces I wrote on Ayahuasca, I attributed my ‘calling’ to intellectual curiosity – a stance I still stand by. But with time, I believe something more powerful was at play.
If you have used psychedelic substances in a ritual setting, as I did with Ayahuasca in the Peruvian jungle, the effects are so profound that you simply cannot dismiss the reality of the spiritual realm. As the great Terence McKenna once wrote:
“In the Amazon and other places where plant hallucinogens are understood and used, you are conveyed into worlds that are appallingly different from ordinary reality. Their vividness cannot be stressed enough. They are more real than real. And that’s something that you sense intuitively. They establish an ontological priority. They are more real than real, and once you get that under your belt and let that rattle around in your mind, then the compass of your life begins to spin and you realize you are not looking in on the Other, the Other is looking in on you.”
I experienced ‘the Other’ looking in on me over four grueling Ayahuasca sessions in ten days. It did not get any less real, and I could not at any point dismiss it as a ‘hallucination’ – a term badly misused by those with little knowledge of plant medicines (the word itself comes from the Latin ‘hallucinatus’, which means roughly ‘a wandering of the mind’). To assert that the visual, auditory and sensory experience of a medicine like Ayahuasca as something generated by the brain is not only scientifically unsubstantiated, but preposterous to anyone with actual experience of using it. This isn’t to say that the visions I experienced were ‘real’ per say, but I can state without a shadow of a doubt that the vast majority were not generated by me. It was far, far to powerful and downright strange to have come from my subconscious (and if it was, I genuinely don’t know anything about myself or what it means to be a human). Trying to convey the reality of taking something like Ayahuasca would be like describing a symphony to a person born deaf. It is simply indescribable, and using words is almost an insult to the sheer beauty, terror and awesome magnitude of the experience.
Any way you look at it, the experience defies the laws of modern science. If the visions were real, then we must accept we know very little about what ‘reality’ is. If the medicine, for lack of a better word, ‘downloaded’ these visions into my mind, then we must accept that we know very little about the plant world and other forms of sentient intelligence.
In the months after my Ayahuasca experience, I have had to do a lot of rethinking about the world we live in and my place in it. I can only describe the post-Ayahuasca me as being ‘awake’. Awake from a deep slumber and ignorance of the world around me that to my utter surprise is full of life, full of consciousness and full of intelligence. Nature is no longer, as Jean Paul Sartre declared ‘mute’, but a deeply interconnected web of life that functions in a state of delicate symbiosis. How do I know this? I don’t really, at least not from an intellectual point of view. I actually experience it on a moment to moment basis, and often find it quite overwhelming. I can be walking through a forest and get a powerful Ayahuasca flashback that feels something like the entire planet listening in on my thoughts. Music sounds different to me now too, particularly Buddhist chanting, Shamanic music from Native American cultures and many other spiritual tones from around the world. I now see why they are so important to indigenous cultures and religions. Certain frequencies seem to have a dramatic effect on my mind, soothing it or sending me into a deep state of meditation. And no one is more surprised about this than me.
As much as part of me hates to admit this, I am now a ‘spiritual’ person and there’s not a lot I can do about it. And I also wouldn’t take it back for all the money in the world, despite the unease I often feel knowing (or intensely feeling) the interconnectivity of all life. When I feel out of sync with my surroundings, it can be very, very uncomfortable. But it is a small price to pay and the potential for learning from it is virtually unlimited.
Atheism and materialism appear slightly ridiculous to me now – almost infantile in their understanding of reality. I don’t think they are intellectually stupid, but rather emotionally stunted and devoid of human intuition. The mechanistic view of nature demands we ignore the primary tools we use to understand the world around us: our senses.
After my Ayahuasca experience, I feel I truly understand the limitations of normal consciousness when it comes to perceiving reality. Once consciousness is perturbed and a different version of reality emerges, one cannot help but realize there is no such thing as ‘reality,’ merely interpretations of it according to the mechanism perceiving it. Our brains are essentially run on delicately balanced chemicals that translate our sensory perceptions into something practical for a bipedal, speaking ape. It is mechanical, three dimensional, quite colorful, and filled with smell and sound – all hugely useful when it comes to finding food, escaping danger and communicating with other self aware bipedal apes. Meddle with the brain chemistry a little with ancient plant medicines that have been used for spiritual purposes for thousands of years, and a completely different, syntactical world emerges full of pulsating energy, sentient, hyper- dimensional beings and benevolent spirits who seem to know exactly who you are. It is truly astonishing how rapidly our version of reality can disintegrate only to be replaced with something equally as real, and you don’t need to take my word for it. Plant medicines are widely available in the Amazon, and the communities who use them will gladly share them with you to see for yourself.
So what does all of this ‘awakening’ mean? This is a question I grapple with daily. Environmental destruction is no longer an intellectual problem to be thought about, but an actual feeling. I see what we are doing to the planet that sustains us and it genuinely hurts. But I am still locked in a modern capitalist society with a car, regular travel to other countries and a comparatively wasteful lifestyle. It is a contradiction I genuinely don’t know what to do about, and I’m not emotionally equipped to say goodbye to everyone I love and live sustainably in a hut in the rainforest. Perhaps it is an easy way out, but I can’t help feeling that the spreading of consciousness is the best I can do. I have a platform to speak about these issues, and despite the risks of coming across as a complete lunatic, I am going to speak out about it. I am not suggesting everyone goes down to the Amazon and ingests mind altering substances, but I would like to draw attention to what Shamanic cultures have been saying about who we are and our place in the world. Because they know a great deal more about it than we do, despite our demonstrably false belief that we have it right. After all, indigenous cultures in the Amazon haven’t brought humanity to the brink of environmental catastrophe – we have, and it’s about time we woke up to that fact.
America Is the Dumbest Country on the Planet
by Chez Pazienza
A few days back NASA made an announcement that has the potential to change our view of the universe. It was the kind of thing that inspired wonder and the thirst for scientific discovery, which quite frankly is something this country and planet could use more of. Chances are you’re already well aware of what this announcement was, but just in case, it comes down to this: there’s water on Mars. According to NASA researchers, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has turned up what appears to be evidence that actual liquid water flows intermittently on the red planet. “Our quest on Mars has been to ‘follow the water,’ in our search for life in the universe, and now we have convincing science that validates what we’ve long suspected,” said John Grunsfeld, who’s an astronaut as well as the associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “This is a significant development, as it appears to confirm that water — albeit briny — is flowing today on the surface of Mars.” It’s just mind-boggling when you think about it. Water on Mars. Potential life on Mars. It’s the kind of news that can move us out of this scientific epoch and into an entirely new one.
A lot of us responded to NASA’s bombshell with requisite awe, but there was at least one asshole who dismissed this discovery not only as no-big-deal but as some kind of “fraud” designed to further a political agenda. Specifically, the dreaded liberal agenda. On Monday, Rush Limbaugh took to his show and told his 13 million weekly listeners that the discovery of water on Mars was cause for skepticism, not wonder. “Flowing water on Mars, why does that excite you? What, are you going there next week? What’s the big deal about flowing water on Mars?” he said. Now if you’re wondering why Limbaugh would be inclined to cold-shoulder this whole thing, he gets to that in the very next sentence. NASA believes the water its probe uncovered may be the result of some kind of climate shift on the planet. This of course immediately set bells off inside Limbaugh’s cavernous head. Referring to our own planet, he said, “What do you think they’re gonna do with this news? Look at the temperature data that has been reported by NASA, has been made up. It’s fraudulent… There isn’t any warming. There hasn’t been for 18-and-a-half years and yet they’re lying about it… So what’s to stop them from making up something that happened on Mars?” So there you have it: Rush Limbaugh, who runs the most successful talk radio show in the United States, says the discovery of water on Mars is nothing more than a liberal conspiracy.
Now it’s important that you consider for a moment all those degrees in climate science and astrophysics that Rush Limbaugh has earned throughout his lifetime. It’s vital that you understand just how valuable, as a learned man, his opinion is in this matter. And what are Limbaugh’s credentials that would make important his views about a discovery on another planet by some of the smartest people on this planet? Why should we listen to what he has to say about anything involving NASA? Well, he dropped out of Southeast Missouri State because, as his mother said, “he flunked everything.” Clearly, someone whose opinion we should be taking seriously here.
For some years now, America has been sliding further and further down into a very dark pit where really, really stupid people control the political and cultural discourse. Oftentimes this is, at first glance anyway, simply offensive, as it is when a brainless buffoon like Rush Limbaugh dares to think he has the intellectual status to dismiss the science and the motives of NASA. But Limbaugh’s ignorance can spread like a virus and his kind of arrogance isn’t his alone: one of the two major political parties in this country has positioned itself as true believers in the same anti-intellectual, conspiratorial horseshit Limbaugh professes, writ large. And that’s dangerous, because they actually create public policy. We’re talking about people who insist either that global warming is a hoax engineered by 97% of the world’s climate researchers or that “the jury’s still out” on it, despite rising sea levels and, again, the views of those pesky researchers. Like Limbaugh, these are people who know nothing about science — in fact, they’ll even be happy to tell you that they’re “not a scientist” if you ask them whether they accept the consensus of climate researchers — and yet they figure their views on climate change somehow matter.
For years now, Republican senator from Oklahoma James Inhofe has, in a cosmic joke that would be hilarious if it weren’t so depressing, chaired the Senate Environment Committee. This is a man who once brought a snowball onto the senate floor, claiming that it disproved climate change. Inhofe wrote a book called “The Greatest Hoax” in which he attempted to prove that global warming was a myth and nothing more. He told a talk radio show host once that the Bible says, “‘As long as the earth remains there will be seed time and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night,’ my point is, God’s still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.” See? We don’t have to worry about what all those egghead scientists are thinking. We’ve got God protecting us. And we’ve got his faithful servants in Congress deferring to him rather than listening to science. Faithful servants like James Inhofe, who, it should be noted, also isn’t exactly a Rhodes Scholar. Inhofe got a B.A. from the University of Tulsa — when he was 40 years old.
The GOP will always stand against taking action on climate change and against the science itself, even up to the point where they’re waist-deep in water, for the simple reason that — as Limbaugh ranted about — climate change is a “liberal” issue. These people are happy to believe the world was created in six days 6,000 years ago by a magical being whose son was born of a virgin, died, and was resurrected three days later and now listens to everyone’s thoughts, but they simply cannot accept the science which asserts that we’re changing the climate of our planet to the detriment of humanity. And here’s the best part: Republicans are the only conservatives in the democratic world who deny the reality of global warming. Jonathan Chait wrote a piece in New York earlier this week that detailed the facts about the way the GOP thinks on this topic versus the rest of the planet. “From a global standpoint, the entire Republican Party has lost its collective mind,” Chait writes. “Opposition to any mitigation of greenhouse-gas emissions… ‘is only the case with the U.S. Republican Party, and hence not representative of conservative parties as a party family.’” The reason for this, of course: American exceptionalism. Republicans tend to believe that this term denotes how much better the U.S. is than every other country on earth, but the truth is that we’re exceptional only insofar as we’re different than everybody else. In this case, different means worse, dumber, more willfully ignorant and even thrilled with our own anti-intellectualism. We believe in 2,000-year-old superstition and we’re destroying the planet and we don’t even give a shit.
Rush Limbaugh is one of the primary voices of the Republican party and the conservative movement in this country and he dismissed out of hand a scientific discovery that just a few decades ago the entire nation would’ve unanimously rallied around and not looked upon with skepticism. And there are plenty of dumb-ass “dittoheads” who almost surely back Limbaugh 100% in his stupidity. They know Jesus exists and that he’s going to take them off this planet at some point and that until then the world’s going to be just fine for the faithful. They make policy in Congress and they decry climate science because those elitists can’t be trusted and what’s always needed from people in authority is an everyman quality that makes you want to have a beer with them. They’re fucking our country from every end and, astonishingly, they have the support of millions of deluded yokels from sea to shining sea who think just like them — the Limbaugh Nation. They’re living proof that somewhere along the line, the once great country of America — the shining city on the hill for most of the free world — became a global embarrassment. We became the dumbest country on the planet.
Hell, now that there just might be life on Mars, we get the tragic distinction of being the dumbest country in our solar system.
How To Become Marginally Famous For Awful Things Part 2
by Tommy Christopher
As quickly as I had drifted off under the anesthesia, I drifted back, like a diver floating to the surface of a dark pond. There to greet me was a darkened recovery room, and the sights and sounds of monitoring equipment. It’s all still a bit hazy to me now, because I was on so many drugs, but I recall the atmosphere was that of a bar after closing time. I was all alone at first, trying to assess. Obviously, the doctors had ruined my joke.
A red-haired nurse eventually came in to welcome me back to the land of the living, and luckily, Diana was there, too. I think she got there just as the nurse was about to explain things to me, which was handy. They had stabilized me, Diana translated, but needed to wait until my condition improved enough to be able to survive the double-bypass I needed. Then, Diana had to explain to the nurse what Twitter was, and that I was a crazy person who had given his friends a needless shock. She told me about the massive outpouring of well-wishes (including from Andrew Breitbart), which I wouldn’t see until late the next day because I didn’t have a charger for my phone.
The next day, in between visits with my family, I caught up on my Twitter, and then, I think it was on that Monday night, someone tweeted me that I’d made it into Jay Leno’s Tonight Show monologue. ” “Doctors are not worried about him losing his life, because apparently he never had one,” Leno said, then imitated tweeting motions and said “OMG, LOL, I’m DOA!”
I have to admit, I lol’ed at the DOA line.
I also learned that my story had caught the eye of CNN’s Jeanne Moos, who wanted to bring a crew to the hospital and interview me. I’d had to explain the episode to several of my doctors, who just looked confused by it all, but who were happy for the publicity. In fact, they moved me to a private room in anticipation of the interview. Jeanne and I talked about the piece, and I told her I understood that a certain amount of it would have to be the zany guy take, but I wanted to make sure that people understood my underlying motives, to satirize the narcissism of social media (as well as my own), while also making the news media satirize themselves by covering it. She was in complete agreement.
As it turned out, the camera crew was called away for some other story, so we wound up doing the whole thing via Skype. The interview was quite lengthy, and included several responses to Leno’s bit. This was right after Jay had wrested The Tonight Showback from Conan O’Brien, so I said “He’s wrong, though, I did have a life, until NBC decided to give it to Jay.”
I also told Moos that Leno had sent me a card, welcoming me to his demographic. It was a really smart, funny interview that framed my stunt in the brilliant context I had imagined for it. This is what they went with:
I should have smelled a rat when they asked me to read the tweets out loud, but I was prepared for a certain level of the zany guy. I just wanted my one-sentence elevator pitch to be in there somewhere, and in fact, had made it a condition of the interview. If my stunt had been the punchline, though, then this was the kicker. I could hardly be disappointed. At least Liam got to be on TV.
Liam on TV!
A few days later, I had that double-bypass, and survived it. It felt like someone had hollowed out a rectangle in my chest, and placed a suitcase in there. It was just numb. The rest of my stay in the hospital was memorable for two things (besides my special pre-op treatment).
The surgery site didn’t hurt at all, but the chest tube was a different story. Imagine someone slowly digging a Bowie knife into your ribs, then constantly scraping it across them. That’s what it was like, and one night, I had one of those shitty judgmental nurses who like to be stingy with the pain meds in order to build your character, or something. For four hours, I was doubled over and trying to remain as still as possible, and finally understood how a person with chronic pain could just want to end it all. When Diana got there that morning, she raised hell, and I never had to worry about that again, but it was an eye-opener.
The other was a moment that stands as a highlight of my life. One morning, my doctor brought a bunch of interns and nurses around for rounds, and as they were talking about my case, I started coughing. A pink mixture of blood and other fluids started bubbling and oozing from the giant incision in my chest, and when I looked up, I saw that I had completely horrified everyone in the room, including the doctor. That’s gangsta.
The fruits of my internet fame were meager, which was befitting of the “accomplishment,” but it did teach me something. As cynical and misanthropic as my aim had been, the people around me showed that they were much better people than I was, or that I gave them credit for being. I’m basically a jerk, so when I went back to the White House, for example, I jerkily observed to myself that everyone was watching me like I was some sort of walking performance-art installation, waiting for me to do the trick again. I think it was when I saw the relief in my friend Major Garrett’s eyes that I realized they just wanted to be sure I was okay. I’m really not.