On God, or something, or anything

How Ayahuasca has changed my perspective on life

In the summer of 2019 I traveled to the Peruvian Amazon and tried something called Ayahuasca. It led me to face some deeper questions about myself and the world around me that I’d like to share more broadly.

I’ve wanted to share these ideas for a while, and now seems like a good time: I’ve quit my job at Waymo and I’ve started to work full-time on an idea, Junto Community, that was inspired by these experiences.

This is an excerpt from a larger book that I’ll be publishing (a travel journal from my time in Peru, and how I’m trying to make sense of the world afterwards).

Pachamama, a goddess revered by the indigenous peoples of the Andes (credit)

Have you ever had that strange feeling where you momentarily tune out of your usual, everyday perspective, and wonder: why am I inside of a monkey that I can control with my thoughts?

It’s an unsettling thought, and it almost feels funny saying out loud, but so much of life is totally, hilariously inexplicable. Even the most simple questions sound bizarre when said out loud, like: why do I hallucinate stories of parallel realities when I go unconscious every night? What’s up with that?

As we’re mindlessly scrolling applications, watching TV, or doing the dishes these pesky thoughts can kind of pop though the veil of the everyday. Most of the time there’s not much to do with these questions other than put them on the shelf to deal with later, and we let the fundamental strangeness of our existence take a backseat.

In the summer of 2019 I found a window of opportunity to tackle these questions a little more directly: I had the chance to go to the Amazon to try Ayahuasca. For those that don’t know, Ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic brew that people in the Amazon have been taking for thousands of years.

They call it “the vine of the dead,” people who take ayahuasca consistently report leaving their bodies, going to a geometric fractal plane, and meeting spirits and entities that communicate with them. It seemed strange, but the reports were pretty consistent. At the very least it seemed like a productive way to face some of these existential questions I had head on.

My experiences in Peru changed me a lot, and it actually did offer some new perspectives on answering some of life’s bigger questions. In particular, though, it changed my perspective on how I view what “God” could be.

Ok… is everything ok?

Hold on, “God” is a very loaded term. I’m not saying I have suddenly become intensely religious or one of those seemingly off-kilter “weird” people that are a little too into God. No, I’m not trying to persuade you to join my cult. No. Nothing like this. However, it made me think quite deeply about what I think God is, and it is motivating my next journey (chapter?) in life so I think it would be useful to share with others.

The word “God” is steeped in many connotations and feelings, so it makes it hard to talk about. Let me try and be more specific with what I’m saying when I mean God…

I mean the something “else” in our heads that seems to guide us. That little voice of intuition in our heart, that instinct in our gut, or the conscience in our head. The feeling that there’s something greater than me guiding my life in ways I don’t fully comprehend. Something like that. It’s hard to say exactly.

It might be easy for a more materialist minded person to ascribe those feelings of “something else-ness” to simply our subconscious thought or random neurological coincidences that we give meaning to, and this is how I felt for most of my life too.

Yet after my experience in Peru it’s not so easy for me to say that what I felt and came in contact with was simply just a projection of my unconscious, or random firings of neurons in my brain that I’m piecing together into a story. What I saw and what I felt were literally beyond my imagination, it was so exotic and specific in a way that I could never have anticipated.

So do I believe that I encountered a spirit or entity? I definitely had the experience of communicating with something, but whether they actually were “spirits” or just my imagination, I can’t make any definite claims.

I think it’s totally possible that it’s both. Whatever I encountered in Peru — spirits, entities, God, or whatever you might call them — could potentially be both me and the thing I’m interacting with. It could be both external and internal.

Buying into the idea that I actually interacted with something outside of myself is a big leap. It’s not an easy one to make, and it’s something I’ve been grappling with for a long time afterwards. Maybe you’re interested in trying Ayahuasca yourself, or maybe you’re willing to hear me out, either way, I’m hoping to take you along for the ride and explain exactly what I saw, and why I think it’s important to share my story.

Jumping down the rabbit hole

Picture yourself, if you can, in my shoes: You’ve traveled to the jungle alone, you’ve had to do a special diet for a few weeks (no oils, no red meat, no alcohol, or sex), you met the Shaman two days ago, did a purging ceremony yesterday (yes, this means throwing up), and finally today is the day you take Ayahuasca.

It’s night time, you’re sitting in a circle with a group of people you just met, and the shaman has laid out in front of him various musical instruments and religious iconography. He hands you the brew, you set your intention, drink one of the most foul tasting things ever, and sit back down and wait for the effects to come on. The shaman is singing songs, called Icaros, but everything else is silent except for the backdrop of the amazon and all the animals calling out into the night. People around you start throwing up. You hear mumbling every now and then. People seem to be in trances. You close your eyes and strange patterns start to appear. At first they’re elusive, and it takes some focus to bring your attention to them. Then they become stronger and stronger, until when you close your eyes you are totally engulfed in these fractal geometries.

At this point it’s more helpful to look at a drawing. Maybe this one from Alex Grey helps:

Image from Alex Grey

For those of you that haven’t tried a psychedelic before, think about when you close your eyes there are sometimes elusive little static-like patterns if you focus for long enough (give it maybe a minute or two with your eyes closed).

Sometimes it feels like our brain plays with the patterns on our eyelids and you can see little things. Or maybe, think about staring up into a bumpy texture on the ceiling as you’re falling asleep as a kid, sometimes little patterns and pictures would emerge. It’s kind of like that, but more colorful and geometric.

After a while of these geometries, my body began to go numb. The patterns got stronger and stronger until I felt totally engulfed by them. Then, I felt like I went somewhere else. Again, it’s hard for me to explain, and it is better shown in art.

Image from Alex Grey

In this sort of space, where everything seemed to be moving and growing in ways I cannot explain, it seemed like there were “things” there that were trying to communicate with me. It’s hard to say what they were, but you’re here on the ride with me. Let’s figure this out together. Hopefully you trust me, I’m trying my hardest to be accurate with everything I saw, but I’m only human and this is all coming from my own memory.

It seemed like they could understand me, and what I was thinking, and respond. Again, It’s hard to describe what it is. But let’s use the word “spirit” for now. Again, a very loaded term. But it’s as good of an approximation as I can make.

One thing was certain though, it seemed like each spirit was not constrained by the same laws of physics as I was. It wasn’t bound to a meat-body. Each spirit seemed like it was manifested with different intentions and seemed to have individual personifications.

There were many spirits, but there was one in particular that I came into the presence of who I can only define as Pachamama (to use someone else’s term).

Artist’s depiction of Pachamama (credit: Bill Bell)

Pachamama, or so they call her in Peru, seemed infinite, no beginning or ending to her fractal faces, constantly morphing, she was composed of every animal. She was part cat, part snake, part bird, and so on. She was clearly feminine, and it seemed that although she interacted with our world, she extended much past it. She was a healing presence.

You might be asking, where exactly did you see her? It was all just in my mind, I would close my eyes and then seemingly leave my body into another fractal realm where I was able to interact with these things. It’s beyond my ability to describe perfectly, it’s fundamentally ineffable. I can’t put you there and show you what it was like while reading this.

Imagine something like the most lucid dream you’ve ever had, where you can focus intently on specific objects inside of the dream without ever waking up. Yet, similar to when you’re in a dream, you’re a little “out of it.” Still though, everything felt as real as me talking to you in person. It’s really hard to describe.

I felt like a character in the book flatland, and these things were a higher dimensional being that was interacting with me. Pachamama, for example, extended past my imagination, I couldn’t fully “see” her but I could see a part of her, at least. Some might describe her as a spirit, or even go as far as to say it’s an “alien” consciousness. However, to describe her as alien would imply that she’s foreign, but she seemed to consist of only natural forms — other animals. They refer to her as the goddess of the earth, and for many in the Amazon she represents mother earth. So it doesn’t really make sense to refer to her as “alien,” but she wasn’t the only thing I interacted with though.

Artist depiction of flat land. The feeling was of lower dimensional beings interacting with higher dimensional ones. (Image credit: Valero Doval)

There were other spirits that might be easier to refer to as alien, that seemed to be more foreign. There was, for example, something that kept showing me visions of riches and power, that did not seem to be made of natural forms. This seemed darker, demonic even. I’d feel more comfortable referring to that as an “alien.” It came to me many times, always whispering in my ear, and asking me to follow it, offering me visions of being a king and having dominion over others.

Whatever it was, it seemed technologically advanced, and it showed me its ability to control and dominate, and how it has affected other civilizations. I would be teleported from place to place, time period to time period — Germany, India, Egypt, as it showed me its influence. Every time I refused, it would leave and then come back later.

It seemed as though there was a whole ecosystem of spirits that I could interact with and have some sort of influence over us when we enter into these altered states. It was beyond imagination.

Sounds a little crazy, what do you make of it?

If we make the leap of faith and assume that they exist at least in part outside of my head, then there are some really crazy implications. Maybe we can start with what others have experienced and see if there are any parallels to draw. Throughout history there have definitely been people who have had similar experiences, right?

It really interests me that these “spirits” seemed to have a history with humans. People have been taking ayahuasca for thousands of years. Pachamama has been a part of the cultural heritage of the indigenous Peruvian people for a very long time. The Eleusinian mysteries in Plato’s era seemed to hint at similar rituals where they would go to “meet the Gods.” The shamans talk about your “relationship” with the spirits. People seem to have had relationships with these spirits for a long time. How do they affect our world? How have they affected us throughout history? Do they meddle in the affairs of humans? Do they care?

If these beings truly exist as autonomous agents outside of our imagination then they seem to inhabit a different world that is extended from our three spatial and one temporal dimension universe. Who is their “God?” Do they have something even more powerful or all-knowing that they interact with? Is it turtles all the way down?

It’s hard to reconcile the individual personifications of each spirit with the feeling of unity and oneness that is experienced on Ayahuasca. At one point I went into a white light where “I” as a concept did not even exist anymore. This is a commonly reported experience of “entering a white light.” When I was there it seemed like a singularity. It felt like my entire phenomenological experience had been condensed down into one point. There was no experience of time or space. At that point it seemed almost obvious that everything in this universe was connected, and it was all manifestations of a thing that we are all a part of. Why then does there seem to exist multiple distinct extra-dimensional entities? Shouldn’t it be just the one God that represents a unification at the top of the inter-dimensional hierarchy?

Maybe these beings are themselves just manifestations of the same universal God. Or instead it could be that these beings are just a different manifestation of life that exists in such a different way than ours that it is hard for us to fully wrap our minds around. Either way, there seemed to be a common language that existed between these entities and me. Not language in terms of words or symbols, but something that seemed post-symbolic, the pure expression of thought and feeling. We could communicate love, fear, curiosity, understanding and phenomenological experience to each other. It seemed like we shared a common mental, rather than physical, substrate on which both I and these things existed within.

The question then becomes why would “bad” things manifest themselves if they’re an extension of a supposedly benevolent higher power? Where are these evil tempting spirits coming from?

In part, they must come from my own projection. Every experience that I had was filtered through me. In other words, imagine an alien trying to communicate with a human: it can only use ideas that the human understands, so it must analogize everything into these concepts so that we could have a chance at understanding them. So despite seeing all these things, I had to analogize them into things I understood, and my own limited interpretation could affect it. So, really, I have a hand in creating both the good and the evil.

It’s interesting that I could play a part in the creation of these ideas of spirits and of God. It seems like there is a bootstrapping mechanism at play where I can only experience transcendence if I believe in its possibility. If I close myself off to the possibility that I can interact with spirits or with God then I reject any of the potential signs of supernatural phenomena existing. If I’m not open to the experience my belief that there is no world outside of what we can typically perceive is self-reinforcing. If I make the jump to accepting that it could be a possibility, then I can auto-manifest these phenomena into occurring simply by my interpretation of the same experience. I guess this is commonly referred to as “faith” where you have to make a leap of faith to experience some level of spirituality. Ayahuasca, maybe, accelerates that leap.

Leap of faith

Joscha Bach has an interesting perspective of religion, he says that God is a software program that is implemented in the minds of the believers. Because the believers believe in God, God is real. These programs are implemented onto people to create the super-organism of societies where their incentives become aligned to work together towards a common goal. In this way, society is the real life manifestation of God. For example, if we all believe in heaven and hell, then doing selfish things that hurt others becomes dis-incentivized, therefore it becomes easier to work together. Or, in more secular terms, if we all believe in the power of a currency, then we can align ourselves with it to get people to work together productively.

In this way God is a distributed software super-organism that lives in the heads of people. The important thing here is that although these Gods are programmed in by culture and society, they are in fact real because the people who have faith actually do interpret their daily phenomena through the lens of a world in which a God exists. On the other side of the coin one could argue that God is not real because we are fabricating it in our minds. However all phenomena are fabricated and interpreted by our mind — to quote Dumbledore: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

Then, who defines these Gods? Do we as humans define them, and manifest them into existence? It’s interesting to contrast how different cultures define their Gods. I noted after one of the Ayahuasca sessions that the visions I see are all things that are filtered through my own understanding and language. When we have a feeling that is non-verbal and are asked to articulate it we have to make analogies to things that we can communicate verbally. I think this is similar to what happens when we experience something that feels transcendent. It is ineffable. So to bring it into our world and communicate it to ourselves and to others we need to filter it through ourselves and through our culture. Therefore each God is constructed by the society and culture that experiences it, and they may group some experiences and personify them into different spirits, but they’re all trying to make sense of similar experiences of transcendence and interacting with something greater than ourselves.

Are there any commonalities in how people have defined their Gods among different cultures? A common theme between each religion is accepting how little control we have over the complexity of the world around us, and surrendering to something larger than ourselves that can help guide us and give us structure. In other words sacrificing our short-term desires for something greater. It’s a sacrifice between the selfish interests of the individual, and the greater good of the community. Religion acts like a glue to hold the society together and give it values that align themselves together to create a greater being.

Can we create our own Gods? If cultures can create their own religions and Gods why can’t we do it ourselves? How do you get yourself to believe something you create though? There’s a missing piece, you can’t force yourself to believe in something you created. So how did anyone create a God in the first place? Did they do it as a trick to get others to believe it? I thought this might be the case for a while, but that would mean that all the priests, prophets, and shamans would be liars. I find that hard to believe now, especially having some first hand experiences with what I can only describe as transcendent phenomena.

After my experiences I am convinced that people truly do have transcendental experiences and some of these people can bring some of the transcendental phenomena and teachings to our world. They are our prophets, messiahs, saints, etc…

On the other hand, I’m open to the possibility, that there is some element of a “Noble Lie” at play and that societies often hijack the transcendent experience to append values that help them construct the society that they want, and is not in the necessarily totally in the interests of the people who believe it.

The simple fact is that there are mysteries in this world that we can’t explain. Even on a daily basis our body goes numb and we hallucinate stories in our head that we just forget upon waking up. We peer into tangent realities that our brain makes every night, it’s hard to explain some of the daily experiences we have, let alone the bigger questions in life. I’ve been avoiding the biggest question I have for myself though, how do *I* define God?

How do I define God?

Big grey beard guy in the sky? (Credit: God the Father by Cima da Conegliano, c. 1515)

I grew up Catholic, and like most children I believed what my parents told me. They told me there was a God and that Jesus died for our sins. As a kid I remember going to church and I remember praying and feeling like I had a relationship with God and that he loved me. Sometimes I felt like I could speak to God and he would listen and even give me responses. I would keep track of every lie I ever told, and would confess them, and I’d try to be nice to people because that’s what God wanted.

Somewhere along the line as I matured I felt that, similar to Santa Claus, God was just another thing my parents told me about so I’d do what they tell me to. I noticed that not all of my friends and their families believed in God, or that they even believed in different Gods, and that they had a perfectly happy and wholesome life. Does this mean all my friends are going to hell? Why do they seem to have as nice lives and families as I do, despite not believing? Won’t the devil get to them? It seemed obvious to me at the time that God is just a thing people tell each other to feel at ease with the greater questions in life: where do we come from, is there a meaning to life, what happens when we die, why am I trapped inside of a monkey I can control with my thoughts etc…

Then I started to explore altered states of consciousness and I realized that there is much more to life than meets the eye. Our waking consciousness is only one wavelength of the totality of the universe and there is a lot more “out there” that I can experience through turning off the default-mode-network. I started to get into meditation, psychedelics, and lucid dreaming and other mind-bending exercises where I could play with what I thought were fundamental objects of perception in consciousness: the line between the observer and the observed could be blurred, the ego or “self” could be turned off. Part of me thinks that these could just simply be effects of my own delusion into thinking that there has to be more to life, and that life is just more interesting if I think there is “something out there.” It’s hard even to trust your own senses when it comes to experiencing these things, let alone someone else’s interpretation. Maybe I’m just writing and thinking about these things to feel like I’m interesting. That’s a real possibility. It could just be ego-derived delusion, and this is a scary thought. Something that is reassuring though is that it is a shared mystery, and other people have experienced things similar to what I have. So I don’t feel totally alone in my potential delusion.

Sometimes looking back on life all the seemingly random events at the time appear in retrospect to come in the form of lessons, tests, or totally crazy coincidences. It feels right to say that things happen for a reason, even if at the very least we are just interpreting the events and fitting them into a narrative to give them a meaning or purpose in the story we leave behind.

There’s also a feeling of things that “feel” right or wrong, small or large gut instincts that often dictate who I enjoy spending time with. For lack of a better expression, it’s just people I “vibe” with. I can’t fully know someone, but there’s still that inexplicable deeper connection that you have with certain people, certain places, certain songs or art.

I’m certain that we only perceive of a small fraction of the total phenomena that is available to see, and then only understand a small fraction of the phenomena that we can perceive. For example we can only see a narrow band of the electromagnetic spectrum, what else is happening out there that we just can’t detect? I think we just cannot access the whole picture, we’re not programmed to see it all. We can only pick up a narrow band of light with our eyes, I think that it could be the case that we are only tuned to receive a narrow band of consciousness. Rather than consciousness being an emergent property of our bodies, it feels to me that it could be something like a rhythm that is in sync with some music that we tune into. Like a radio that is picking up frequencies from elsewhere.

I’m very open to the possibility that my signal is just inhabiting my body for a period of time, and that when my body dies, that signal lives on in a different medium that is incomprehensible to me at the moment. If that’s the case then it’s possible that my signal has encountered other people’s signals before, maybe not their specific incarnation in this moment, but something about them. It’s interesting that I am the sum of certain traits of my ancestors, in a way they are all living through me. Both physically through the expression of DNA that I have received from them and behaviorally through the teachings and culture they have passed down.

Recently, my grandmother died, and last night I had a dream where I saw her. We spoke. She told me some very reassuring things. Again, this could simply be a projection that my mind is creating and I experience, just another “meaningless” dream, but I’m open to the possibility that she lives as a concept in my head and even though she has died she still lives in my head, and the relationship that I have with the image of her that I’ve created is no less real than the relationship I had with her in waking life. You could say that my grandmother lives through me, the image of her that I have in my head is real. In a way, all of my friends and people that I come across live through my perception of them. We are all distributed concepts, where each individual that perceives someone is creating a portion of the person they see. We live in their heads, and potentially nowhere else.

So what happens when we’ve been forgotten? When we have no living ancestors? I think this comes down to the same fundamental question I had about the spirits I saw on ayahuasca. Do they exist outside of the experience someone creates of them in their head? Does anything exist if it’s not being experienced by anything? Is there a fundamental thing outside of the perceptual hallucination and story that the brain is telling itself, what is the fundamental reality of the thing I’m interpreting? Maybe we’ll never know what something truly “is” outside of our interpretation of it. It’s impossible really. The fundamental layer of “base” reality doesn’t really exist. Reality only exists as a perceptual projection into a conscious being that creates a model of the universe that helps them orient themselves and make sense of it at least enough to survive and reproduce.

So where do we go when no one experiences us? What does it mean to experience someone? To see them with our eyes, to interact with them in our thoughts? What about seeing a piece of art that they made, or reading something they wrote? What if the thing someone created impacted how a second person thinks, and then you interact with that second person, but not the first? Are you experiencing the first person through the second? Through a chain of influence it becomes a butterfly effect of all the interactions and things you’ve said to the people around you, that move out like a wave into the collective experience of humans, animals, plants, even the nature around us. The things we do have a huge effect on the world around us. In a very real sense no one really ever dies, their specific identity might fade, but their impact will reverberate in a chain of events that will be felt as long as the light of consciousness doesn’t fade.

If you were to take a group of humans and put them on mars and separate them entirely from the rest of the group, you could say that the collective they create, the spirit of their community, their cohabitation with the natural world around them, and their future aspirations and goals they have would become their God (or Gods). Their collective imagination, aspirations, conscious, unconscious (to invoke Jung), all become their God. They may personify them and give the God attributes and even experience the God just like we experience each other in dreams. I think that Gods are not exactly an emergent property of the collective, I think that similar to a group of cells that work together to become a tissue, and than organizes to become organs, and so on until they form an arm or a leg and organize into an animal, the spirit of the collective working together is another level of cohesion and cooperation to create a new whole, and the God that they create is the contract that they have with the society.

In this sense we are God and God is not real. It’s a contradiction, like the answer to all the great questions. God exists through us in our imagination, but it is like a collective dream that we all share. In a way even reality is a collective dream that we reach consensus on. I’d say God is as real as our everyday waking world is real. Both primarily exist through the distributed perception and consensus of billions of conscious beings that work together to create a cohesive picture of where we are and where we’re going.

A curious question is that if this is the case, why have we decided on this reality? Do we get to choose? How much control do we really have? Do we have any control at all? Are we mostly NPCs (non-playable characters in a video game), or is there a player behind me that can control my life as if I were being simulated in a video game? In a way I think we’re all avatars for something else, something that can connect the external world we perceive into the internal world inside of us. We’re all the heroes in our journey. We can become NPCs if we let ourselves slip from an active seat into a passive seat, but we can also play life and see where it goes. So if life is like a massive multiplayer RPG (role-play game), who made the levels?

Who made the dream? Did we make it? The collective “we,” the collective God. Are there more levels? What are we playing for? Why does anything exist at all? Is it possible for nothing to exist?

I’m not convinced that there is a creator that is separated from the created. I think it’s a bootstrapping mechanism at play. It’s like an Escher painting of the hand drawing itself, where we create the thing and are the thing that is created at the same time. To ask who created the universe is to ask who created my last thought. This is a good question too, where do my thoughts really come from?

(Credit: M.C. ESCHER’S “DRAWING HANDS”)

Is it the other player on the other side that’s playing my character? Does he create my thoughts? Is it just one player, or multiple players? Oftentimes it seems like I’m being tugged in multiple directions, different motivations that conflict inside of me. This seems to imply that we are receiving influence from multiple places at once. Again I think the answer here is a contradiction, I think our thoughts come from the collective imagination and from ourselves. I think the fundamental perception shift is that thinking of the world in a “me” vs “it” is fundamentally wrong. We are all manifestations of a collective consciousness. To think we are separate from the world is just delusion. My thoughts are everyone’s thoughts.

So how do these beliefs really affect how I live my day-to-day life? Benjamin Franklin says that it doesn’t really matter what you believe, as long as the outcomes of what you believe are positive in the world. All of this mumbo jumbo doesn’t really matter if I don’t apply it to my life in a positive way. Fundamentally I think it’s simply: treat others like you want to be treated. That phrase sounds deceptively simple at first, but there are deeper ways to look at it if we make the perspective shift from “me (ego)” vs “it (other)” to simply “us.”

If you allow yourself entertain that perspective shift, you are in a sense the other, so mistreating others around you is inflicting a wound on yourself, and your life will suffer as a result. I believe in karma, not in the sense that there is an ethereal bean counter in the sky tallying all the good and bad things you’ve done, but I do think that often in life we are tested and our soul’s intentions in this world reverberate into the collective, doing negative things to the others will come back to you. Maybe not in this life necessarily, but maybe in a way that we don’t have knowledge of yet as the negative action resounds through time. Maybe if we do well in this level we go to a better level, who knows. I think it’s not about the levels though, or thinking you’ll get something in return for being a good person.

It’s easy to say “be a good person” but to define what “good” is can be very difficult. Plato himself was not able to define what “good” is, he likened it to staring directly into the sun. In Plato’s metaphysical worldview the “good” is the form that gives rise to all the other forms. It is what enlightens justice, virtue, beauty, etc.

Plato conceptualized “Good” as a universal force that gives rise to the rest of the world. It is like a fundamental substrate on which all other things derive their from. I think many in the more “new-age” community would have a similar conceptualization when talking about love.

(Image Credit Alex Grey)

What Plato is really talking about when he is trying to define “Good” is he’s trying to define “God.” He equates God and Good. In the Republic he says society should be led by those who have the best understanding of the form of the Good, and that they should align society based on this concept. Then the individuals should align themselves with the society. In this way the definition of “Good” is a way of forming social cohesion and a way so that a mutual sacrifice can be made by all the constituents of the society to create a greater whole. I think a lot about emergent properties, they’re everywhere among us. Down to the individual cells forming a greater whole that emerge into tissues, organs, animals, humans, and then they form groups and tribes that have their own emergent properties. Each level of emergent identity has its own spirit and individuals work together to achieve common goals.

We’ve ended up in another loop, to define God we must define Good and then also define the collective being that we want to create, only then can we align ourselves with that collective being and serve God, the community, and be a good person.

So how should we define a “Good” society?

There have been people that tried to walk through and describe how they’d build their own society, like Plato, but it’s… tough. Fundamentally I believe that people should be given access to tools and information so that they can improve themselves and then the community. If we want to change the world we must first change ourselves. This is a process of mastering ourselves and our negative patterns of behavior over time to give us the internal peace, happiness, and self-love to progress the world.

We need to heal from the collective trauma that individuals experience, and that is passed down from our ancestors. We need to heal individually so that we can evolve collectively. If we do not focus on ourselves first and heal our own problems, how can we expect to make an impact on the greater community on society? I often think that we can start with ourselves, searching inside ourselves until we achieve a level of self-mastery that can then be expanded to help others achieve their own self-actualization. If we lived in a society that helped everyone achieve self-actualization and then allow them to pursue their highest aspirations, then I think this would be a very productive and happy society.

An issue that can be raised is that maybe if everyone is self-actualized and works on their own independent trajectory how will we create a collective and unified structure? I think the structure cannot be imposed top-down, structure is an emergent property that always occurs bottom-up. Once the structure is built bottom-up then there are ways to make it more efficient top-down and to make sure consensus is built. I think that consensus in general is oftentimes better built in a distributed way, with direct access from the individuals to the collective decisions. Not everyone will necessarily be happy with the orientation, but they should be allowed to leave and make their own structures.

If multiple structures exist how will we handle potentially terrible consequences if there are disagreements between two super-organisms competing for the same resources? If we are all unified under the umbrella of one super-organism then there wouldn’t be as much violence, but there might something else that kills us. A disillusionment in quiet with the system, a nihilism that lurks in and causes widespread depression until the society kills itself. Sometimes things need to die to make way for new ideas. Like a phoenix. I am not advocating for violence, but I do believe in competition and evolution over time. The better, more resilient ideas will rise to the top depending on how well their society improves the lives of the people involved. Societies live and die by the people. If the people don’t believe in the values, then the culture will die out.

So there is a useful thought: the societies that have more longevity have Gods that best serve its people. The “software protocol” and collective imagination that is shared by those people is helping them. The old religions have lasted for a long time, so there is likely something to be said about the values of the people that believe them and how they contribute to each individual’s self-actualization. The closer they come to an ideal “God” the more likely it is that their civilization and collective spirit will last.

Characteristics of good civilizations

For a civilization to have longevity it must give us tools and values to be able to live in harmony with nature. If their God teaches them to exploit the land, animals, and live in a non-sustainable way, then no matter the rest of the civilization’s values, it is destined to be doomed.

The religion or society also needs to provide tools and values to forgive themselves and others for the inevitable terrible things that happen. I think forgiveness is at the heart of good societies. As humans we cannot always do the right thing. We should always try to do the right thing, but sometimes we fail, and sometimes we fail in grave ways. The religion should teach self-love to be able to overcome our faults. Tools to be able to listen to our mental state, and to get peace from things that have been on our mind.

A lot of our suffering comes from a sense of isolation and separation. This is in part due to us feeling like we have an “ego” and “us” that is different from “them.” It’s this ego that makes us feel separated. It’s much easier to heal damage as a community. Nothing heals more than talking to a loved one. At one point during my ayahuasca experience I asked Pachamama “how do I get rid of the ego that I have” her answer was simply: “love heals all.”

The religion should inspire hope for a better future, for themselves and for the collective. It should give people a reason to wake up in the morning with an excitement about the things to come. It should create a positive outlook on life. If we don’t have a vision for the future that we want to move towards, then we stagnate and die. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a goal, but at least some reassurance that better days are ahead, or that if you follow your values you’ll see the fruit of your labor.

One of the most important fruits of our labor are our children, and ensuring the health and safety of children and setting up rules to make sure they grow up to be someone we’re proud to pass down the torch to. We are multi-generational agents passing down culture and values to the next generation to help them thrive and do the same with their own children. Through our children we are immortal in a sense, and a great part of our legacy can live through them. Families are important and give us a tremendous sense of purpose.

I mostly meant real children, but I also mean children in a broad sense — things that you create during your lifetime that live on after you die. That can be pieces of art, ideas, projects, companies, that have life after you’re gone. A good religion should also promote people to create these projects that will outlive them. These are the things that have a lasting impact on the future of our species. This creation brings us closer to the eternal, and closer to God, since the work goes into the broader collective and shapes its future.

Image credit (Alex Grey)

At one point during the peak of an Ayahuasca experience I felt my ancestors around me, and I was able to speak to them. They told me to do them justice, and to get strong to fight for good in the world. It was an interesting message to receive. It’s one that I’ve reflected a lot on. Strength is good. Not to be used to attack others or inflict pain, but to be able to fight for the values you believe in. I think a good religion would also empower its citizens to be strong mentally and physically so they can defend the values they believe in and protect the people they love.

I don’t want to make it seem like I’m trying to create my own religion, I’m really, really not. I’m just trying to take distill some fundamental features of the positives of religion and some ideas of where to start in terms of my own self-actualization: caring for nature, increasing a capacity to forgive and heal from mistakes, having a less ego-centric worldview, creating a vision of the future that is positive, aligning my life for the possibility of one day having children and being able to raise them properly, creating things that will live past me when I die, and having the strength to fight for these values.

The dark side of religion

Although I’ve listed the positive features of religion, I feel as though I also need to keep in mind the dangers also found in religion. Some religions impose a sort of hierarchical structure, where only a certain class of people have access to the transcendental and only they have access to the authority of God. This creates a bottleneck and huge concentration of power. Like most concentrations of power, it is easily corrupted. Therefore I think it is important to have access to the transcendental experience for anyone willing to venture deep into that world. No one should be allowed to play as God, you should be able to directly experience it.

Religion has often been used as a way to dominate and control populations of people. To get them to buy into structures that increase the welfare of the high class, and keep the lower classes in line with it. Nietzche had a very dim view of Christianity, and said that the “two great European narcotics are alcohol, and Christianity.” I think he’s on to something, but he’s not giving full credit to the positives in religion (and alcohol sometimes!), we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are huge positives with religion that can help us a lot. We just need to protect from the institution of religion hijacking the transcendental to create a hierarchical and dominating structure on society in order to keep things predictable and protect the “haves” from the uprising of the “have-nots.”

Having a monopoly on spirituality is similar to a monopoly in the free-market. We should be able to decide what we believe, and not be forced to have any values for the sake of anyone. Spirituality should be a free-market endeavor, and we should be allowed to worship and create our Gods however they seem fit to us. If people choose “bad” Gods that hurt them and the community, they will be weeded out from the marketplace eventually. It’s only a matter of time.

It’s interesting to think about why people would create these “bad” Gods. Some people claim to worship the devil. They may have a very different definition of what the devil is, but I have a hard time believing that someone can live a fruitful and civilization-preserving life with the values of the devil. I think it’s mostly just a joke, immaturity, or a big middle finger to a society that seems to have left them behind.

When I did Ayahuasca I really did come in contact with something dark. It kept trying to tempt me, and would show me visions of myself ruling as a king. It would tell me I would be rich if I followed it. It was paranoid. It showed me visions of how it had used its power throughout history, and put people in positions of influence and power in the world. I had visions of swarming bugs in hierarchical organization, almost like slaves working in a stimulated frenzy for a technologically advanced alien civilization. The goal was to enslave and addict. It was very eerie. I’m not saying anything like this is necessarily real, but I did experience it, and it does seem to have some unfortunate parallels to our real life. I had to make a real decision as to which path I would follow. It felt like a real decision. I was shown two paths. I chose a humble path illuminated meekly and went that direction.

In that direction I saw families coming together, and people with love in their hearts supporting each other. The good was the many, and the wicked were the few. It was a very surreal experience.

I do think that to some extent we all need to make a decision in our lives. It is easy to shut down and think firstly about protecting ourselves in a world of scarcity and fending against others, alone in the world. There is another vision though, opening ourselves up and letting go of the scarcity mindset for one of abundance. There’s enough for everyone to thrive. Life isn’t zero sum. You can nurture things to grow until everyone has enough, and we can all make it together.

If we let the forces of dark nihilism overcome us and prevent us from seeing that life is beautiful and abundant, then our civilization will inevitably collapse. If we think nothing matters and we live for nothing, then this disconnect from meaning will be our end. It’s easy to say nothing matters, and that we shouldn’t take anything seriously. There’s something charming in the absurdist nihilism that says let’s just laugh and have a good time, and not think too hard about it. And there’s absolutely something to that, life is all about playing. There’s no destination, we should just dance to the music, and have a good time. That childlike curiosity and playfulness is a light that we should encourage. Yet it isn’t all there is to life.

It is important to realize that there is some darkness looming on the horizon, and we should actively dance away from that. We should be happy and light, but also know when to be serious and be there for each other in times of need. Accepting that we don’t know the deeper answers to the fundamental question shouldn’t lead us to “well no one knows, so it doesn’t matter,” instead it should lead us to “we should keep an open mind and try to live a good life however we define it to be.”

I think it’s important to realize that no one really knows, so we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously about it. It’s easy to get ideological about religion, and to become intolerant of others who disagree with core features of your belief system. We should fight for what we believe in when others are intolerant to us, but never try to impose beliefs or hate someone for disagreeing. There are many ways to live life, and many ways of being happy and at peace with yourself and the world.

Mostly I think we should just keep in mind the gratitude for being alive and being able to experience life and its mysteries. There’s a big responsibility on our shoulders to do good in the world with what we’re given, but I think that weight shouldn’t prevent us from enjoying the little moments in life and how beautiful life can be.

My next project

Circling back to Ben Franklin’s idea that it doesn’t really matter what you believe as long as the outcomes of what you believe are positive, I’m trying to apply the perspective laid out above to a new project, Junto.

If we were to start from a clean slate, how would we build a society? We have tons of new tools today that allow us to align people in new and exciting ways. For example, how would our founding fathers have used the internet? Smart contracts? Decentralized finance?

With Junto we’re trying to give people access to tools to build their own communities in a bottom-up fashion, and align the incentives to build new kinds of social and peer-to-peer contracts that unlock the latent value all around us.

If we boil down society into its fundamental building blocks, we’re left with a network of incentives that guide our actions. It’s game theory. At the society level we try to align people’s self-interest with the interests of the community. What if we could build our own societies from scratch? How much better could we make them?

What we’re trying to do is give people the tools to effectively organize and create their own alignment for communities. For example, we have created a peer-to-peer smart contract that allows people to hold collateral against each other in an easy way. This contract can be executed, for example, to hold collateral for lending out items to others. Or used generally as a “promise” to do something in the future.

We’re building it out as a social website to give people access to all these tools and build communities with their circles of trust, or expand even further to the community at large. I’m really excited about it, and I’m hoping to launch something soon for it.

I think that if I died with this being my life’s work, that would be a positive thing. People should be able to form communities freely with all the tools they need and as little intervention as possible.

Conclusion

I’ll probably keep thinking about these questions for as long as I live. This serves as a snapshot for my worldview at the moment. I’m curious how it will change over time, and whether these values will serve me in life going forward. We’ll see. If you’re reading I want to say thank you and I’m curious to hear your thoughts about all of this. Maybe you’ll help me clarify my thoughts more over time. If you’ve made it this far, thank you!

Please share with others who you think would find this interesting! I’m happy to meet other people who this resonates with. Especially people who also like to build things and could help with Junto Community.

Also thank you to all my friends and family that I’ve bounced these ideas off of since I was a kid. These ideas are as much theirs as they are mine. I take no ownership of the thoughts since they’re made up of all the books, podcasts, YouTube videos, and people I’ve met throughout my life. Thank you all.

This is the first essay I’ve ever published, and there are some (more popular) people I’d really love to have read it — it’s a big ask, but I might as well try — since their thoughts have influenced me quite a bit: Joscha Bach, Stewart Brand, Brian C. Muraresku, Conor White-Sullivan, Naval Ravikant, Jordan B. Peterson, Joe Rogan (lol might as well try), and Lex Fridman.

Thank you to Jon, Chris, Diego, for reviewing earlier drafts of this

Thank you for reading! If you’d like to get updates on the progress with Junto, you can follow me on Twitter @LarrotizPablo

Pablo

Ex-Waymo/Google Engineer, trying to make sense of the world. Working on Junto Community

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