A Story to Bind Us: The Intellectual Deep Web and a New Meta-Narrative
In uncertain times popular culture can reveal something about the dynamics we’re experiencing. Could it be that we're looking for the wrong answers in the wrong places?
We know ourselves through stories, and we know each other through the stories we share.
But for all the beauty of stories, we are drowning in them. This is, after all, the promise of postmodernism; the grand narratives that bound us together have been stripped away and instead the world is fragmented into an infinity of individual perspectives, weaving into a tapestry so thick we can no longer see through it. Wherever we look now, either online or at our institutions and ideologies, we find no single story strong enough to bind us together.
Against this backdrop, at Rebel Wisdom we have been trying to find the voices who are making sense of this chaos and finding the threads that might lead us beyond it. Many of our guests have talked about the crisis of meaning pervading culture. It is a meta-crisis that grows with every passing moment, in which our ability to make sense of reality and live meaningful lives is lost to a post-truth world.
It seemed for a while that The Intellectual Dark Web, a group of heterodox thinkers who took the step of having good-faith, long-form conversations about divisive cultural topics, might offer a way forward. While it has played an important role, I believe it never quite reached the new synthesis we need to have a firm foundation for sensemaking; the debates between Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris were an example of where we might have seen a radically new type of conversation, but didn’t quite.
We have to engage fully in the postmodern tapestry in which we’re drowning, not from an ivory tower, but from the level of popular culture.
What was missing? A year ago I coined the term ‘Intellectual Deep Web’ to try and capture how a new conversation might look. It would include several elements I believe could bridge the gap: developmental thinking, the mythopoetic, the transcendent and above all, narrative. Many of the voices we’ve sat down with recently fall into this category, including Ken Wilber, Jordan Hall, Jamie Wheal, Daniel Schmachtenberger, and John Vervaeke among others.
Can their ideas help us to find new meta-narratives that ground us and give us a way forward? Perhaps, but there’s a catch. To revive the stories that bind us, we must delve into the stories that blind us.
We have to engage fully in the postmodern tapestry in which we’re drowning, not from an ivory tower, but from the level of popular culture. It may be that the seeds of the narrative we need are already there, and what’s required is the discernment to see what’s right in front of us. And so, drawing on the wisdom within the Intellectual Deep Web, I will try to unravel some of these stories, to see if in their unspooling they reveal something deeper.
The Upside Down
Why is Stranger Things so popular? It’s a good show, but it’s also a medicine. A soothing balm, a reminder of a more certain time, before the full onset of what Ken Wilber calls the ‘aperspectival madness’ of a hyper relativistic, narcissistic culture.
The world of Stranger Things is refreshingly simple. Good vs Evil. USA vs USSR. The regular world, and the Upside Down. It is the perfect show for our times, because it combines nostalgia for a safer era with the fear of the reality we’re living in. Each season begins with the illusion of normalcy shattered by the supernatural. We think we’re in a humdrum world, when all the while the dark energy of the unconscious — quite literally underneath us in the Upside Down — threatens to end everything. This is what many progressive people experienced with the election of Trump, Brexit, and now Boris Johnson.
But we all know this already. What’s interesting about our love of Stranger Things is not the nostalgia driving it, it’s the genre we’re living in while we’re feeling that nostalgia. We are looking back on the 1980s with all the cynicism, darkness and grit of the last 30 years. We no longer live in the optimistic certainty captured in 80’s films; we’re in a gritty Noir world.
Made famous by authors like Raymond Chandler and countless hard-boiled detective films, Noir is a genre particularly suited to the times we live in. Noir detective stories are often chivalric at their heart. The lone detective plays the role of knight, moving through a dangerous world in which everyone, and everything, is corrupt to the core. The hero is led by a moral code that must withstand the corruption all around them. Sometimes, they are following a case in service of a beautiful woman — sometimes she is also a dangerous woman, a femme fatal who he’s inexorably drawn to. Both are to varying degrees a representation of the divine feminine essence, the anima, which promises hope and renewal amid the fetid corruption that pervades all things.
We are, all of us, looking for salvation in a world on the brink.
The detective is drawn to her as Arthur’s knights were drawn to the Grail. Why? Because without her regenerative energy, the world is unbearable. It is a story that repeats again and again, from Sin City to The Expanse, aching to tell us something crucial. We see it as well in Amazon’s most popular recent series, The Boys, set in a world where superheroes are real and have a god-like status in society, but are revealed to be hilariously and terrifyingly corrupt — a reality the protagonist must navigate in service of a woman without losing himself to the same corruption.
We are, all of us, looking for salvation in a world on the brink. As Erik Davis recently said on the channel, we are living through a banal apocalypse. We are standing frozen on a precipice in which we feel both the presence of a striking novelty on one side, and a terrifying plunge into destruction on the other. Of course we want a way out. Of course we want a return to normalcy. But we might be questing for the wrong thing, and in the wrong way. To find out if this is so, we must descend into older, deeper stories.
The Story of Sophia
In the 1950s, two Egyptian brothers discovered an earthenware pot filled with ancient manuscripts while digging for fertiliser. It would prove to be a monumental discovery — a trove of early Christian writings. For the first time, the world had access to the Gnostic gospels — a group of early Christians and pagans who were persecuted for putting forth a radically different cosmology than orthodox Christianity. Among the scrolls was a codex called ‘The Apocryphon of the Archons’; a strange creation that speaks to the depths of the dynamics we’re experiencing now.
To cut a deep story short, in the beginning before time, the feminine essence of the divine, Sophia, becomes trapped in the world of matter. In doing so, she accidentally creates a false God — Yahweh, the god of the old testament. Yahweh does not understand that he is not the ultimate creator of the universe, but merely the god of matter — the broken reflection of a deeper divine reality. The scroll tells us that this false god and his army of lifeless, replicating entities, the Archons, have no divine spirit. They are not truly alive — but they believe themselves to be. As fascinated as they are by the divine Sophia, they can only replicate and create paltry imitations of the underlying reality she represents. The Gnostics believed that humans are trapped by this false god — that he infects our minds and deludes into believing the world of matter, of endlessly repeating and mimicking in an attempt to reach true reality until we create a kind of Disneyland falseness around ourselves. To be free, the Gnostics believed we needed to tap into the spark of divinity each of us holds, reached by divine knowledge — Gnosis — and see through the illusion.
Carl Jung was fascinated by the Gnostics, because he saw in their teachings the story of the human psyche writ large.
What is going on in this bizarre sci-fi tale told 2000 years ago? Carl Jung was fascinated by the Gnostics, because he saw in their teachings the story of the human psyche writ large. The false god is our egos — continuously trying to control that which cannot be controlled, blindly replicating essential, divine truths but unable to grasp their meaning. It is the story of how our egos take us into delusion and pain by drawing us away from our essential selves and reality itself. For the Gnostics, the way out of this was Gnosis — a deep, spiritual knowledge. A Jungian reading might see it as the ego coming into its rightful place within the Self — the deepest, most authentic part of us.
This is a wisdom we see over and over again, if we look closely. The spiritual teacher and writer A.H Almaas drew wisdom from Depth Psychology and Sufism to create a powerful approach to self-understanding which sees each of us as having an essence which is covered by our personality structure, which develops to meet the demands of our environment by mimicking those essential qualities.
We see it in Plato’s allegory of the cave, echoed in one of the most successful and influential films of the last 30 years: The Matrix (which, it was recently announced, will have a fourth instalment). In it, humanity is trapped in delusion, held down by an artificial intelligence it doesn’t understand. The Matrix was heavily influenced by French philosopher Jean Boudrillard, who suggested that society has replaced all reality and meaning with symbols and signs, and that human experience is a mere simulation of reality. Crucially, these signs do not point to an underlying reality — they are a downward spiral to a point where all meaning is rendered meaninglessness. Which is where we find ourselves now.
The Story in Our Bones
What binds all of these stories? They tell us we’re living under a spell. A spell of forgetfulness, blindness, normalcy or certainty. A spell of falseness and mimicry and endless questing without satisfaction — one in which the vitality is stripped of all things. Institutions, people, ideologies — everything is laid bare and revealed to be fundamentally lifeless and empty. Original art, true thought, and real heroism is harder and harder to come by in 2019.
Schmachtenberger and Hall have discussed the dynamics of the world we live in as Game A — one that is doomed to extinction. They suggest we need to move to Game B — a completely different, anti-rivalrous and co-creative society. The dualism has echoes of Gnosticism, and like Gnosticism, I believe the trap of Game A can only be escaped through radical inner transformation that leads to collective co-operation. Unless this is our grail, we are on the wrong quest.
What almost every culture agrees on across time and place is that wisdom is not wisdom unless it’s based in compassion.
We must find what Jordan Hall has called ‘The Story in Our Bones’. That place within us where we are channelling a liminal wisdom– beyond the mimicry, beyond the falseness. Jamie Wheal has talked on the channel about anchoring ourselves in a deep, transcendent knowing; in undergoing a gnostic initiation together and living with the paradox of having our eyes open to the collapse around us, while holding onto a deep faith in the future. And that is not done with words and the intellect alone — it is done with the heart and above all, through the telling of wise and beautiful stories.
The Holy Grail
Psychiatrist Roger Walsh has studied wisdom traditions from around the world. In a recent interview with him, he told us that what almost every culture agrees on across time and place is that wisdom is not wisdom unless it’s based in compassion. And so to truly dance with wisdom, we must come into contact with one another — to learn to understand and love one another. John Vervaeke has described love as ‘mutually accelerating disclosure’. I share something true about me with you, and you reciprocate. And back and forth we go until I know you, until I see and love your essence. Not the personality you have constructed around it — though in this process I will learn to love that too. Your essence, the deep down real you. This is what happens when we come together to do group work — but the fire of this is sometimes missing in the way both Hall and Schmachtenberger discuss their ideas, and in particular the move from ‘Game A’ to ‘Game B’. While it’s there, it needs to be more explicit, because without it, we’re only dealing with more simulacra.
Fierce love and understanding will be the basis of a new story that binds us across culture and political leaning. It will not be the knowledge of the meta-modern intellectual who masturbates over their own ideas in public.
Fierce love and understanding will be the basis of a new story that binds us across culture and political leaning. It will not be the knowledge of the meta-modern intellectual who masturbates over their own ideas in public. It will not come from linguistic one-upmanship, or the cleverness of knowing how patterns now might lead to patterns in the future. We don’t need more knowledge, we need Wisdom — a deep, embodied, living thing.
That is why the term ‘Intellectual Deep Web’ is deeply flawed; the emergent future cannot be focused on the intellect. Brent Cooper has called this same group of people the Emergentsia — a name that refers to their role as a new Intelligentsia and also misses the point. What is interesting about figures like Hall, Schmachtenberger, Jamie Wheal, John Vervaeke and others is not their intellectualism or systems change expertise — it is that they are drawing this from a substrate of the liminal and embodied. But that is just the start. Nobody can describe what is emerging into consciousness — that is the nature of emergence. Talking about emergence intellectually is like talking in mechanical detail about sex; it’s boring, convoluted, and turns (most) people off. We must live the emergent, and allow it to speak through us and to inspire new narratives. Unless this stays present in our awareness, we risk creating yet another simulacrum of wisdom instead of a real, embodied thread toward it.
A Love Affair
In Alcoholics Anonymous, they say ‘your best thinking is what got you here’. That is true for us in Western culture too. The intellect is a vital tool, but we will not think our way out of our problems. As John Vervaeke has pointed out, we are drowning in bullshit and meaninglessness — more bullshit will not help us, and our best intellectual intentions may lead to exactly that.
Our relationship with wisdom needs a crisis — a moment in which we look at one another anew and feel the pain of the years we’ve wasted and hope for a moment that we might again rekindle the passion we had when we first met. That feeling that shivers beneath our skin until we arrive at something truly new — a sublime awareness to shatter our tapestry of illusions.
We need a philosophy we can smell, a pheromonal philosophy that draws us into the liminal and gives us the tools to navigate it. And it will not be the intellectuals who get us there. It will not be the autistic machinations of Silicon Valley, or the frothy mouthed proclamations of activists. It will be the artists, the shamans, those who go deeply within through embodied practices, the makers and doers and dancers. It will be those who are not talking about entering the liminal, but those who live there and know it like a second skin.
We must all go on an adventure into ourselves and each other and be absolutely willing to come back unrecognisable.
And while each of us needs to cultivate those skills, we cannot do it alone. As Vervaeke pointed out in a recent lecture, we need a self-reflective community, a Sangha. Jordan Hall puts it somewhat more mechanistically; we have to learn how to come together in a decentralised collective intelligence. The first step of that is to come into sovereignty and developing our discernment. This is not a new idea — as Peter Kingsley has argued, the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides, known as the father of logic, was gifted logic by a goddess in a dream. In it, she told him that to see through the illusion of the world, we must have the mêtis –presence and wherewithal — which will lead us to see reality as it is, allowing us to transcend life itself. We must be aware that we’re aware, and to be aware of what’s happening between us.
Sovereignty and discernment are the starting point to seeing through the tapestry of bullshit. To embody either, we have to train ourselves how to be very human with one another. This is why at Rebel Wisdom we have focused on creating spaces for embodied practices and combining these with cultural conversations. This is an ongoing experiment and one into which we are putting a lot of effort, exploring the ways in which meditative practices, inquiry, circling, breath work, dance, group work, and perhaps the careful and ceremonial use of psychedelics can bring us into true connection and community.
A collective shift in this direction may well be the next page on the story of Western culture as a whole, explored beautifully by another of our guests, Richard Tarnas. In his book ‘Passion of the Western Mind’, he lays out the history of western thought to show that we are moving from the emptiness of materialism to a synergy between the rational and the transcendent.
To take that step, we must all go on an adventure into ourselves and each other and be absolutely willing to come back unrecognisable. But we must remember it isn’t safe to go on this adventure. When we go searching for the Grail, we might not find what we’re expecting. This is a dangerous liaison with a femme fatal and it will take us straight into the home of our own mortality. Into our bodies, into not knowing, into a liminal space. We must enter the realm of the shaman; a realm where it’s all too easy to get lost.
We’ll need an anchor — something to keep us aimed — to give a teleology to this process so that we don’t fall into the tapestry of someone else’s stories along the way.
The Third Thing
And so we come to the end by returning to the beginning. Can we find in the threads of postmodernity the essence of a story that can bind us together? Andrew Sweeny has suggested in a recent article that we need to bring back the meta-narrative, and there is much truth to this. But it now feels incomplete. Perhaps I set out with the wrong quest; perhaps the quest should not be to find that meta-narrative, but to learn how to channel into our problem solving that which lies beyond all concepts, narratives, and binds them together — the very substrate of reality.
In one of our most popular films, Wheal, Hall and Schmachtenberger talk about something that happens when we come together in this way; the emergence of ‘a 3rd thing.’ A knowing, beyond normal awareness, that arises between you and me when we’re in true contact.
But ‘The Third Thing’ is a euphemism. And that won’t do — for the thing we’re talking about is absolute. The only meta-narrative strong enough to bind us may well be the divine; destiny itself, a higher order purpose, a strange attractor, God, the Tao, the Sublime. Without it, the tapestry of postmodern stories will drive us insane. Each of us, in our own way, needs to feel presence of the divine in our bodies and come into communion with one another through it. No half-truths, no ideological capture, no wishy-washy religious relativism, no new age platitudes that tell us ‘everyone has a piece of the puzzle’. Just the thing itself. Felt right now in this moment.
In the liminal and the transcendent we will find the stories to bind us. And we know this, because all the stories we love are stories of transformation. Joseph Campbell showed it to us in his mono-myth that every story we tell is the story of an individual’s transformation from less to more, from selfishness to selflessness, from unaware to awake. And once they awaken and are transformed by their very wakefulness, they return to the community with gold. With new stories to help everyone make sense of ourselves and the world. This tale has been told over and over again in the heart of every person who’s ever lived. It is with us in every moment; we just need to remember it.
Rebel Wisdom is launching a new Collective Intelligence Series this week: an Introduction Film on Tuesday 3 September and ‘Making Sense of Sensemaking', a trialogue between Jordan Hall, Daniel Schmachtenberger and Jamie Wheal on the 4th, both at 8pm BST / 3pm EST / 12pm PST
Words by Alexander Beiner
Alexander Beiner is co-Founder of Rebel Wisdom and a writer, facilitator and cultural commentator. He leads on Rebel Wisdom's live experiences, which are focused around finding new ways of having in-person conversations around the most essential and challenging ideas of our time.