This is a guest post by Dan Suett
Read Time: 11 minutes
Until last year, I’d been very much “in the Matrix” and happy about it. Two years into my U.S. adventure (as a native Brit) working in Los Angeles as a composer for film and TV, things were going swimmingly. But after my first big solo projects I suddenly became aware that I was now very proficient at doing my job, but my ability to write good music was dissolving. Sounds contradictory, but I discovered the difference between them lies in finding a daily reason to get out of bed / eat / breathe / live. Many big players working in entertainment crave artistic replication, not artistic expression, because it’s been proven to make money. Thus our list of clients ensured I was no longer learning, discovering, exploring – the craft has been reduced to factory-like replication that’s been tweaked just enough to avoid a lawsuit by the people you’re ripping off. I succumbed to a common millennial progression in the workplace. Simon Sinek summarizes this quite nicely in a few sentences:
Impatience, after only two years, seemed ridiculous. Why was I not happy? I’d been given an incredible head start, career doors had opened, a great salary. I had my health, comfort, friends and family. I had no right to complain while so many in the world have it worse… unthinkably worse in some cases. My own lack of gratitude was bothering me.
In an effort to rekindle my motivation, I started meditating (not the proper stuff, just the minimal effort / 15-minute stress relief ritual that new age social media promises can cure pretty much everything). I bought loads of expensive new tech for my studio, started listening to productivity and lifestyle podcasts. Life hacks… mind hacks… bulletproof coffee recipes… the art of the hustle… “crushing it”… how to work eighteen hour days and still get up at 5am the next morning for yoga and a run on the beach…
These shows were aimed at new age business types, professional creatives, entrepreneurs and those who were still trying to catch their break. They preached that there’s always someone willing to work harder than you, and not doing all these things all the time meant you “don’t want it enough”. Basically, unless you’re Hollywood elite, everyone thinks everybody else is working harder than they are so we all make ourselves sick trying to out-career each other.
COSMOS AND FUTURE THINKERS
Around this time I stumbled across the Future Thinkers podcast. What started out as nothing more than interesting conversation quickly turned into intellectual addiction (If you’re new to this podcast I highly recommend starting from the beginning and listening to the episodes in order. It’s a great way of experiencing the natural growth of the show’s ideas). All the big questions that I’d pondered on at some point were being discussed at length and in depth. It was, perhaps, a happy coincidence that I also started watching a rerun of the 2014 TV series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey simultaneously. The show reawakened my childhood curiosity and interest in science, evolution and cosmology – all the stuff I had learned as a child was suddenly thrust back in to my immediate awareness, this time with expensive and impressively animated visualizations that school textbooks could never hope to compete with.
I remembered learning about almost everything Cosmos discussed, but something about the Sagan-esque blend of hard science and mysticism and the way it interlocked the big questions of space with evolution and life itself (while still making it accessible to families with young children) really made me connect with this knowledge in a way that was never attempted in the classroom. Processing the content of Cosmos and Future Thinkers simultaneously really seemed to accelerate my own ideas and theories surrounding what was going on in the world. The clear evolutionary patterns that were presented in Cosmos invited my brain to start seeing societal patterns everywhere around me.
First it was ways in which I could get ahead of the game in my career by predicting the developments in my own industry. Then things expanded – entertainment; advertising; education; politics; economics; climate change; culture; language. I started seeing connections and patterns everywhere in a “web of knowledge” type of form. It’s hard to describe, but it felt like I was viewing everyone and everything from a higher level of understanding – with more clarity, if you will. People were suddenly emotionally obvious, even if I’d never met them. If you’ve ever seen the movie Limitless with Bradley Cooper, it kind of felt like a very modest version of that. Then things shifted.
Why are we worrying about sports and news and the Oscars when there are people that don’t have food, water or homes? Each day that started in a certain direction was then interrupted with new realizations about something higher up the knowledge tree, and higher up the urgency list of humanities existential threats. As thoughts intensified, focus at work became impossible so I took time off. Days confined to the safety of my apartment were spent having a number of spiritual light-bulb moments about consciousness, life, death, the universe, the absolute, and everything in between. The web of knowledge and life that I was visualizing (and almost feeling) was growing too quickly for me to make sense. I consulted some friends at work about my notions of being lifted out of a reality that I’d previously clung to. One of them drew similarities in my descriptions to accounts of psychedelic drug use, another compared it to her ayahuasca trips. At that point, I made a note to research DMT and other psychedelics. Conveniently, these ideas would be addressed weeks later in the Future Thinkers episodes I hadn’t yet reached.
By this point, a lot of intense thinking lead me to the conclusion that biological evolution is the only true “bible” we should be paying attention to simply because it has done the best job of explaining the nature of life on this planet so far. So when I got to the first Future Thinkers episode(s) with Vinay Gupta and heard him elaborate on this exact notion, the glass truly shattered. This interview perfectly articulated what I had tried to make sense of in my head.
Following this, the speed at which those spiritual light-bulb moments were presenting themselves was unnerving. One evening with my girlfriend, I went to splash water on my face after these realizations wouldn’t give me a peaceful moment – almost as if my minds hard drive was running calculations on everything I had ever experienced and deconstructing it immediately after.
While in the bathroom, I started contemplating death. I suddenly felt an overwhelming weight in my heart: this was all leading to a crescendo. Click. The hard drive had run through the last line of code and concluded that if I die, then the sadness, pain and suffering would disappear too. The only way to overcome the fear of losing family, friends and the people I love is to detach myself from all of them completely. And the only way to overcome the fear of death is to accept it. But part of me was still saddened that I was apparently about to accept my own end, despite knowing that this was the conclusion that now made the most sense.
When I returned, I asked my girlfriend to lay down on the floor with me. I didn’t tell her, but I could feel it coming. There was such an impending feeling of The End approaching that words could not do it justice. If I was about to give in to death, I wanted it to be in the arms of someone I cared about. I put her hand on my heart and the conversation went something like:
“Pay attention to what my heart is doing.”
“I’m understanding everything. I think I’ll be gone soon. I can feel it coming. Keep note of my heartbeat.”
“Because when the paramedics get here, they will find a minute-by-minute account of my heart activity helpful.”
“What are you talking about? Your heart is going crazy. Are you saying I need to call 911?”
“Yes, tell them I’m going in to cardiac arrest.”
I have never ever spoken in this way before, she later told me that I sounded different. But somewhere in my mental archive was a forgotten memory of a documentary on a British paramedic stating that minute-by-minute heart stats are surprisingly useful to them when they arrive.
People have spoken about their entire life flashing before their eyes. I definitely thought that was happening, although it was more the important bits getting the most screen time. Every event, person, conversation and experience that shaped my personality in some way told me why I am who I am, why it is now my time to go, and why I should be brave and accept it. The dialogue following this is blurry, but it consisted of emotional cries while attempting to shake me awake, a muffled voice on the other end of the phone and a recital of our current location.
During this moment, I was feeling my body dissolve, being embraced by a light behind my closed eyes. As it got brighter, it felt like the entire process was speeding up and shifting perspective (imagine the Millennium Falcon approaching light-speed). For a short moment, I strugglingly pulled myself back in to the present to make a final request: “Don’t let them use the defibrillator, it will hurt…” I clearly wanted to pass as painlessly and as peacefully as possible, without people back in reality trying to make me cling to life.
But that moment was enough to snap me back to my senses. I was now viewing the room for what it was: a young woman crying and panicking to a 911 respondent as she crouched over a young man laying on the floor. In her movements, I could see my own mother crying and panicking. I realized that losing her own son would cause her so much pain. Right there was the moment I knew I was coming back. It was illogical and selfish to just up and leave this reality by choice when it would cause pain and sadness for people I was close to. Something made me feel like I was choosing to return to this reality.
It turned out that all of this happened across the span of a minute. Given that, up until this point, I was a solid atheist, I was surprised at the emotionally charged and spiritual nature of the experience. A “willingness to accept death” was most likely a result of engaging with content about consciousness merged with my own egotistical artistic temperament and sense of drama, story and life meaning. But at the time, the sense of wholeness and peace that I felt is indescribable.
Because of the nature of this absolute, blissful, undeniable truth (or what I thought was undeniable), I could almost visualize the mental process in which people attach themselves to religious context, even the way in which some become radicalized. And for me, that was my first big mistake. After coming out of whatever state I was in, it felt as though my brain had flown up an exponential curve, hit light speed and was now on its way back down again. I went through every possible explanation with such conviction that I was dangerously impressionable and staying indoors for a few days most likely ended up being the safest choice.
In the following weeks, my realizations remained. I walked down the street in awe of everything in my surroundings. Everything was, in a word, amazing. There was poetry in the intangible life force in every molecule, every atom, all part of this ongoing tapestry of evolution and ecstatic wonder of knowing that we are all just electromagnetic energy derived from the same source, merely, a collection of particles and functioning cells with a cripplingly limited sensory spectrum that has grown intelligent enough to question its own existence. I felt like Neo viewing the Matrix in code for the first time, marveling in the unfathomable complexity of the world I was experiencing, yet saddened that so many people were clinging fiercely to all the unimportant things within it, just as I was continuing to do. I no longer feared death itself, which, for my anxious, obsessive, cowardly hypochondriac self, was something of a marvel. Over a matter of hourly cycles, my disposition seemed to oscillate between complete bliss and utterly fearful despair. These seemingly unstable swings were enough to deter me from the somewhat trippy conversation of Future Thinkers for a while. I was afraid I might “OD on my own thoughts” (as my roommate once put it), only this time, without coming back.
But as time passed, the clarity and memory of the experience faded, and I considered myself ready to handle more Hakuna Matata Space Pharaoh.
I rejoined at episode FTP021 and FTP022 [links] which discussed societal dogmas of psychedelics and the hosts’ experiences with dimethyltryptamine (DMT). Another glass-shattering moment as I saw so many parallels between the anecdotes I was hearing in my headphones and that of my own recent incidents. When I got to the next interviews with Vinay, I was excited to deduce from the episodes’ titles that I was about to hear someone drill deeper into this spirituality, life, death, consciousness and enlightenment stuff with some cold, hard, psychological reasoning. And sure enough it was revealed that I was just one of many that had fallen in to a common trap: taking spiritual experiences literally, and clinging to my own deductions about life as though having been handed this truth by a divine absolute.
This explained why I couldn’t get through to people whenever I tried to describe what I went through without earning comments like “Do you think you should see a therapist?”. I genuinely expected to go out in to the world and suddenly have an unspoken connection to everyone else who also knew this truth about life, like a secret members only club. For a brief time, I suspected everyone already knew what I knew deep down, but we were all just supposed to go on living our lives in exactly the same way as we always have – with our personalities as our make up and physical bodies as the dress code. Like some sort of localized planetary fermi paradox – everyone is aware of it, but nobody wants to make themselves known…
I still can’t explain exactly what happened to my brain over the last few months, or why. For all I know, my environment, upbringing, childhood influences, values and ongoing search for meaning has played a part in how my brain has manifested these events and concocted an appropriate life narrative or some kind of spiritual significance with which my individualist ego resonates. But for now, it’s enough to have me hooked on a path of resilience and education of consciousness.
“Don’t take anything for granted when you want to tell yourself what just happened.”
Until now, I was quite self serving and career-minded, so it makes sense that my mental break down was perhaps the dismantling of my own ego, and waking up to the capitalist-sympathizing direction I was headed. But I had always felt a sense of guilt from placing that much weight on my own ambition and self worth, after all… it’s not like I was a doctor saving lives, and L.A. is in no short supply of people trying to “make it”. Maybe this was my higher self rejecting that path and encouraging me to explore a new one that benefits more people. Did I really “choose” not to die? Perhaps my soul was assessed for passing to the other side and my higher self simply said “Nope. Not ready for this ride yet, sorry. Come back when you’ve learned something.” Perhaps I was simply taken on a journey of my own imagination as a way of dealing with everything I had learned. Perhaps my former egotistical nature had made this awakening a particularly harsh one. Or perhaps this whole thing was just an emotionally charged panic attack. Who knows? It’s a funny thing to ponder on, sure, but my ever-changing interpretations of what happened based on my limited understanding of self and human nature are not that important. All I can conclude is that it has made me more aware of my own cognitive habits and opened my eyes to how impressionable our monkey brains still are. The extent to which we lack knowledge of the universe and ourselves is, in itself, unknowable.
“Once you see some glimmer of infinity inside of you, the tendency is to pursue that knowledge until you get the entire thing out.” – Vinay Gupta
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