Change Yourself, Change the World? I Have My Doubts

Published: May 31, 2022  |  

Musician, writer, consultant, futurist, curator, activist

On the coast of Turkey, beautiful people are lolling around on creamy bean-bags, and onstage a cool guru—dappled shirt, subtly beaded, lantern-jawed—is talking about the power of clamps. Yes, those clamps.

Properly applied the device is, we are eye-wateringly told, a “medium-level” generator of endorphins and dopamine in the brain (you should see what getting to “spicy-level” entails). Scores of camera-phones shoot up to click the presentation slide, from sinuously prone positions. 

I’m attending the Harvest Kaplankaya festival, accompanying my partner Indra Adnan (who’s a keynote speaker). And it’s hard not to be seduced by the waves of wellbeing swirling inside this balmy, open-air auditorium. 

The clamps bit is part of elite-coach Jamie Wheal’s expansive talk, “Sex, Trauma and Transcendence: the Keys to Healing, Inspiration and Connection.” Sitting in my beat-up running shoes, shrouded in a general, pudgy dysphoria, it’s only the trauma part that’s really, you know, speaking to me. 

It’s quite a brew here. Every technique of self-development is being embraced by a lissom, gender-balanced, 0.01% crowd. Digital folks and VCs mingle indistinguishably with meditators and trance-inducers. Many of them are Burning Man graduates, that bi-annual event which consecrates the Silicon Valley values of supreme self-belief and creative performance. And here they all are now, pitched up beside a glittering Aegean Sea.

It would be fair to say there are some doses of idealism and engagement at Kaplankaya. My partner Indra delivered a global civics lesson, in her presentation, “Soft Power In A Hard World.” And the closing discussion included a bracing condemnation of the body count that’s piled up behind the idea of “Western Civilisation.”

But mostly, the emphasis was around a classic conundrum I’ve long faced, in my own life of media, activism, and consultancy. That is: if you want to radically change the world, must you radically change yourself first? 

I’ve wrangled with the great axioms on this one. Bertolt Brecht’s poem “To Those Born Later” has the most cautionary line for rage-driven change-agents: “O, we who wanted to prepare the ground for friendship/Could not ourselves be friendly.” 

In 2014, as a campaigner for Scottish independence (it’s coming again), I often adapted the old Gandhi-attributed phrase: “Be the Scotland you wish to see.” Do you want a capacious, welcoming, optimistic new country, or a narrow, excluding, grumpy one? Then behave and feel in your heart accordingly, I would admonish (without success).

At this self-consciously soulful event, as these elegant people mill about, the inner revolution most certainly comes first. 

Wheal rings a lot of my research bells, as he urges us to tap into what evolution has deeply grooved into our brains. Endo-cannabinoid systems, in particular, raise many of our psychological boats at once (and explains, says Wheal, the global and ancient history of cannabis use).

But apparently the real route to addressing the poly-crises of the moment—I hardly need to repeat them here—is a world-wide, science-based movement based on a neo-tantric practice. “Hedonic engineering,” as Wheal rebrands it. As you’ve seen above, it’s a generously (and sometimes challengingly) flavoured menu. 

However, I like many of Jamie’s lines. The “Big Five” in standard psychology is a rather milquetoast list of introverts, extroverts and otherwise agreeable and conscientious types. Wheal’s Big Five, drawn from his neuro-evolutionary studies, is “respiration, embodiment, substances, music, and sexuality.” You’d have what he’s having.

Create a daily, weekly and monthly practice around these thrilling elementals, and (we are told) you will resourcefully face our remaining century of autocrats, plutocrats and eco-meltdown. What we’re looking for, suggests Wheal, is “ecstasis [peak experience] without the crave, catharsis [deep healing] without the cringe, and communitas [profound connection with others] without the cults.”

I’m split down the middle here (Wheal could prescribe me something piquant for that). On one side, as regular readers will have picked up, I’m a play advocate. More of play’s experiments and “as-if” freedoms, in both child and adult lives, will make us “wise, agreeable and well,” as J.M. Keynes once hoped. 

It was a bingo moment when Wheal finished his Harvest talk (and his book, Recapture The Rapture) with a plea for us to be “Homo ludens” as much as Homo sapiens. And as a script by which adults can play happily with themselves and each other, I can’t really object. 

But my own book was called The Play Ethic, not Go Play Crazy Games Baby! Who gets the chance to play, in the elaborate, highly-resourced, multi-disciplinary way that Wheal suggests, is the socio-economic question. 

Ecstasis and all that doesn’t have to be a privatised pursuit. I have been involved in the UK government’s Unboxed festival, helping with the R&D stages. One of the outcomes I’m proudest of is something called Dreamachine, a psychedelic music-and-light experience (based on experiments by Brian Gysin and William Burroughs). 

It’s available free to the public, appearing in three major cities, feeding its results right back into primary research. And it’s literally blowing people’s minds. The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones wrote that “this is the communal utopian psychedelic dream of the 1960s reborn without addiction, without the casualties.” 

That sounds like Wheal’s “ecstasis-catharsis-communitas,” minus their downsides. But the Dreamachine experience is gentle, dreamy, conducted in what is nearly a municipal place. It isn’t aiming at the “reset of your brain stem…with nitrous oxide or ketamine,” as Wheal starkly suggests at the end of his Kaplankaya presentation.

There’s lots of capable, highly-capitalized people at this luxurious event. They can probably afford to go barefoot in the head, given how executive their ordinary lives are. But can playful rapture objectively help you if you’re struggling with the cost of living? A climate-or-war refugee? 

Not a question I’ve heard yet, from the beanbag level. I’m sincerely seeking an answer.

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