Intro via ancient astronauts
As a teenager I watched a BBC documentary on Erich von Däniken (The Case of the Ancient Astronauts, 19771) which stuck in my memory because it seemed such a ruthless, albeit polite (British-style), “demolition job”. I hadn’t read anything by the prolific Swiss author of Chariots of the Gods, but I was quite interested, as a 15-yr-old, in UFOs, “strange phenomena”, etc…
That was years before I read The New Inquisition by Robert Anton Wilson, and who knows if the BBC programme really “was” overly harsh or dogmatic – it just seemed that way at the time, as if not just highlighting errors in von Däniken’s thesis, but crushing the whole suggestion of extraterrestrial visitation as synonymous with gullibility and con-artistry. (RAW once commented that for a while he suffered the “indignity” of having his books next to von Däniken’s in the New Age sections of book shops).
Vagina of Nuit?
Bob W. himself seemed no slouch at calling out what he saw as credulous claims in this field. Take chapter 32 of Cosmic Trigger III, which scrutinises a Rennes-le-Chateau related claim, from David Wood’s book, Genisis. Wood argues that lines connecting some churches and ancient megaliths in southern France make a pattern that he labels “the vagina of Nuit” (and which extends to a bigger thesis involving extraterrestrial origins). Bob comments:
‘I have looked at this diagram with great care and it doesn’t look like Nuit’s vagina, or anybody’s vagina, to me. It looks like some overlapping circles and triangles and an off-kilter pentagram. Maybe Mr. Wood, or Picasso, once saw a woman with a vagina like that, but I never did.’RAW, Cosmic Trigger III
He goes on to say that the author “has either discovered a truly great secret or misused a talent that should have gone into abstract painting.” This amused me more than it might otherwise have done, as I’d read David Wood’s book shortly after it was published in 1985, not long after I read The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.
A confession here: I was in my early twenties, discovering RAW’s books was still a year or two in the future, and The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail made a big impression on me – like the best detective story you ever read combined with religious/occult intrigue and a real momentous secret. It wasn’t yet common knowledge (pop-culture-wise), and it was in this intoxicating “set/setting” that I read Genisis (an impressive tome in its own right – an expensively produced hardback with “Over 150 photographs, maps, engravings and diagrams with over 100 in colour”). I recall that while working in Chatham, Kent, I traveled into London one weekend to check out something that Wood had referenced…
So, I can sort of see how people “fall down the rabbit hole” with this material – I can see the attraction. Even RAW wrote (in the same chapter in CT3):
‘I begin to suspect that somebody has seeded the mask with some real clues, for those shrewd enough to find them. But I also suspect that the joke, or disinformation, component will hide the real clues from most of us for a while yet […]RAW, Cosmic Trigger III
When the Priory of Sion does surface, will it reveal some wonderful secret we all needed to know, without even knowing we needed it, or will it unleash the greatest hoax of this century?’
The Guru Game
One of the devices that Wood uses in Genisis is to allude to secrets that are apparent only to “those who have the ‘understanding'”, as if some special enlightened knowledge is a prerequisite to further progress. Here one sees a fine line between the broad territory of occult/secret history/ancient-astronauts beliefs and some of the more commercial “spiritual” gurus offering “illumination” via exclusive (and expensive) retreats, etc. Not to strain the point too much, but the “enlightenment” of the latter resembles, framing-wise, the privileged knowledge claimed by the former – as a kind of special object to be pursued by seekers and bestowed or transmitted by masters/gurus.
I note that Robert Anton Wilson didn’t play this guru game – except in the form of the occasional Zen riddle or Surrealist joke – and I think this might be worth looking into. He commented on a time when Timothy Leary seemed to adopt a ‘Maharishi’ stance (during his “Death of the Mind” road-show): “It seemed to me that a brilliant scientist had turned himself into a second-rate messiah”2 – but a day or so later when he had lunch with Tim, he says Leary “had even more sense of humor than previously and kept poking fun at his own Guru act”.3
Much later (1996), when writing in The Realist about Timothy Leary’s uniquely positive approach in the face of death, RAW wrote:
‘Don’t assume that Tim has achieved Total Transcendence in the usual mystic sense. He leaves that kind of routine to the charlatans who can play it with a straight face. Tim can’t keep a straight face about anything…‘Tim Leary is tripping again – RAW in The Realist #133, Summer, 1996
And to make the point even clearer, RAW remarks on Leary’s ability to shorten the duration of negative states (“bum trips” – despair, self-pity, etc) to a minimum, but without permanently erasing them:
‘I don’t believe those who claim to have stopped bum trips entirely. I think “gurus” who make such claims just want disciples, and for a long time I have regarded disciples as assholes seeking human beings to attach themselves to.’Tim Leary is tripping again’ – RAW in The Realist #133, Summer, 1996
It seems an interesting point when you consider that in ‘Spiritual Enlightenment Culture’, these days, it’s almost commonplace to hear the claim that “enlightenment” implies the end of suffering (although not of physical pain/discomfort). And that certainly looks like a big “selling point” for some well-known “spiritual teachers”. Even within RAW’s writings you can see seemingly contradictory statements on this issue. I say “seemingly”, because of the global ontological “shift” relating to “higher circuits” (Leary/Wilson model) – suffering appears to require a separate suffering entity (eg a person) enduring space-time, after all. Otherwise who is there to suffer?
‘Suffering only exists on first four circuits. After circuit five, no more suffering.’RAW, in correspondence with Greg Hill, The Starseed Signals
‘if one is trying to change a second circuit up-and-down emotional program to a fifth circuit always-up rapture program, then one has a meta-program – which is on a different order, and does not cause suffering.’
(If you have the Kindle version of The Starseed Signals, I recommend doing a document search on “suffering” – much to ponder here, especially in the correspondence section).
RAW on Rajneesh & Krishnamurti
I assume Bob W. was joking when he recalled that every time Rajneesh (aka Osho) acquired another Rolls Royce, he’d take a photo of it, write “Fuck you!” on the back, and send it to Krishnamurti. Rajneesh apparently had 93 Rolls Royces at the time, and Krishnamurti only had one.
‘I was in a lecture by [Krishnamurti] at San Francisco… and everybody was so respectful. I never saw so much respect… nobody laughed at Krishnamurti; everybody was totally sombre and serious, and taking in every syllable and hoping to get darshan. And then he said, “any questions?” – and I did the most cowardly deed of my whole life – I did not shout out the question that I wanted to: “Buggered any good bishops lately?” – that would have been a satori experience for the whole audience. I spent the rest of my life regretting that I didn’t have the courage to do that.’RAW, ‘Secrets of Power‘
Elsewhere Wilson commented on the “robotic” behaviours of many of Rajneesh’s disciples (eg in unquestioningly following the Guru – getting him those Rolls Royces, changing the colour of their robes on command, etc). But Bob W. also occasionally cited Krishnamurti and Rajneesh in a more favourable way – I guess his main objection applied to the Guru construct of master and disciple, and not necessarily to the content of their “teachings”.
Enlightenments & circuits
Timothy Leary’s 8-circuit model can be read through an ‘ancient astronauts’ lens, if you feel so inclined. The model encompasses “higher” “states” without resorting to pre-scientific metaphysical language – or at least that seems the aim: to drop the baggage of archaic religious/mystical/occult systems and adopt a more operational scientific vocabulary (although both Leary and Wilson use symbolism from Cabala, Tarot, etc to illustrate the model and provide practical applications).
So what of the traditional binary framing regarding “awakening” (awake/unawake)? How does that fit into 8 circuits? As with the point on suffering, The Starseed Signals provides some fascinating material to ponder. Here, RAW equates the imprinting of circuit 6 with Samadhi (union) and Satori (awakening) – with the “no-mind” or “no-form” of Zen Buddhism.
But the emphasis in the Leary/RAW model remains on the individual’s nervous system, hence “circuits” – an electrical/electronic metaphor (neuroscientists and cognitive scientists still fairly routinely use the term “brain circuits”). In other words, biological tissue “belonging” to a person and functioning causally in space-time in a way that’s measurable (or at least feasibly/potentially measurable) in the “meaningful” sense used by RAW in Quantum Psychology.
This might seem paradoxical from a “higher” (circuit 6, say) “state” that’s experienced as freedom from the presumption of physicality and the metaphor of containment; when the very notion of personhood and biological sentience (not to mention conventional space-time and causality) appear as “empty” conceptual objects or “belief systems”. But then any description in conventional language would probably seem paradoxical and ironic, and as long as we’re talking models rather than absolutes, it makes sense to use meaningful “operational” or “scientific” terminology if we want to communicate about these things (again, see RAW’s Quantum Psychology for the argument/rationale).
Elsewhere on this blog (eg the posts on solipsism and inherent physicality), I’ve cited RAW writing about space-time, matter and causality as metaphorical stuff. Although Bob takes care to avoid the spaced-out “transcendent” metaphysical language of some New Age gurus, his writing here seems more speculative and philosophical. But I think – and this is just my own speculation – that as a matter of philosophical style, he keeps this to a minimum (perhaps out of awareness that until there’s a more widespread sophisticated consensus on terminology, this writing could seem very opaque, almost Derrida-like, with everyone scratching their heads, and trying to agree on definitions and “intended meanings”).
So: circuits (or “systems”) and operationalism. It works, and it relates to other scientific models in a helpful way, and seems flexible enough to incorporate even pre-scientific systems, where they seem to correlate (eg aspects of Cabala, as mentioned above).
Still, the 8-circuit model has drawbacks when taken too literally, and particularly within a Guru-game structure of “levels” to achieve. The Master sits on the level 8 mountaintop, but the acolyte feels inadequate still struggling with level 1 anxieties, etc. It becomes part of a personal story of accomplishment versus failure, with the implication that you’re not complete until you experience the highest “states” and transcend the “lower” ones. Basically the opposite of “enlightenment”, in which nothing personal is seen to have ever been at stake – least of all the supposed difference between “lower” and “higher”.
1. The video is available online here (not great quality).
2. Quoted from The Starseed Signals.
Great post. You have a way of putting these familiar topics in a fresh light. Please keep it up, it keeps the RAW current alive and vital. And for what it’s worth I was really into the Rennes “treasure hunt”, and even went to a few talks by the THBATHG authors. But I think they made fools of themselves when they sued Dan Brown’s publishers over the Da Vinci Code.
Some interesting statements on the Wikipedia entry for the eight-circuit model:
“Contemporary neuroscience research has found no evidence to support these hypotheses and the current models exploring the development of different stages of human consciousness/awareness have provided more accurate and useful models.”
To which I would say: useful for what, and to whom? – since I imagine the uses and the criteria for judging are somewhat different in academic research settings.
It also says: “The ‘eight-circuit model’ would now be considered a combination of pseudoscience and metaphysics.”
Well, “pseudoscience” has a derogatory subjective value-judgment ring to it, and comes across to me as equivalent to saying “I simply don’t like it, so there!”. As for “metaphysics”, I tend to agree with the above blog that on the contrary its aim seems to be largely to *avoid* metaphysics.
However, as for it’s claim to be a scientific model, I find the way it’s symmetrically arranged around a numerical system (8 circuits, 4 + 4, 24 levels, 3 per circuit), and the supposed significance of this, fits too conveniently with some of those old pre-scientific systems mentioned (eg i Ching) as if that were more of a factor in its formation than observation of data as presented, as per scientific method.
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That wiki claims that “brain scan researchers Andrew Newberg MD and Mark Waldman” have provided a “more accurate and useful” model than Leary’s. Those researchers have a book out called ‘How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of Transformation’, which has apparently “found the specific neurological mechanisms responsible for an enlightenment experience – and how we can activate those circuits in our own brains.”
Not sure how the ancient astronauts theme connects with the guru theme tbh (apart from the reason you admit is strained), but the “Starseed” idea from that time when Leary produced the 8 circuit theory in all its glory definitely points to ancient astronauts. Not familiar with David Wood, and you could maybe have mentioned more about his extraterrestrial claims. but an interesting and thoughtful read neverhteless.
Good point. The two themes seemed connected, to my mind, partly because the posited early master/slave social organisation (arising in the age of the Divine Sun Kings) gets linked to the ancient astronauts idea in the theories where the divine ‘godlike’ elements have extraterrestrial origins. Admittedly that’s another strained connection, like the secret knowledge/enlightenment link. There’s also the sense that people seem more likely to fall down rabbit holes when investing in some authority figure (or guru) with “special” knowledge. And there’s the “otherworldly” appeal that applies in both themes – “spiritual” and “alien”. Maybe lots of little strained links add up to a substantial link? Maybe not, but enough for me to write about in order to fill up some space!
Great post, Brian. Really enjoyed it. I wonder if this is why RAW seemed to prefer zen? Yes, there are zen “masters”, but not really gurus, ala Osho.
I wish RAW had written more comprehensively on his experience with and views on Buddhism. There are a few really good pieces from New Libertarian (part of the solipsism series you wrote about, Brian), but they left me wondering how much he stuck with a Buddhist practice over the rest of his life. I suspect a great deal, given the flavor of his epistemologic writings and references to zen and Buddhism. Natural Law, Or Don’t Put a Rubber on Your Willy, comes to mind.
Does anyone have a sense of how much Buddhism (esp Zen) continued to play a role in RAW’s life? Was it just one philosophy amongst many that he valued over others? Or did it wind up thee philosophy for him? I got the sense it may have been when I listened to the Pratt/Spoken Word album.
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Thanks, Hugh – glad you liked it. Yes, I think you’re onto something regarding RAW and Buddhism/Zen. The lack of both the doctrinaire dogmatic element and unhealthy guru-disciple thing – as you mention – with Zen. Also the deconstructive logic in some of the Buddhist teachings on “emptiness” etc. I’m fairly new to latter, but some of it strikes me as having a modern spirit almost – certainly a long way from the archaic elements of HIndu, Christian etc scriptures that RAW specifically mentions disliking. I’m hoping to write more about this in the future – as a novice in the field! (Nagarjuna & Chandrakirti’s Sevenfold Reasoning on Selflessness, etc)
There’s also this clip, of course, (which many people have no doubt heard) in which RAW says his “favourite religion” is Shinran Buddhism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=leiCLGX2xRg
Love this clip, thx! I highly recommend DT Suzuki’s essay on satori, and the entire book Three Pillars of Zen. I wonder if RAW ever “got there.” Some of his fictional characters achieved satori and described it…
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Couple of relevant RAW quotes I just came across:
“I have a strong antipathy toward all consciousness-altering work that’s based on the guru principle and isolation from the mainstream of society. I think introverted mystical trips tend to make you paranoid.”
“I think the guru business is even more dangerous than psychiatry. Psychiatrists have the highest suicide rate of any profession, but gurus probably have a higher self-destruct rate on a more subtle level.”
Both from an interview with RAW, 1987: