Abstract Notions

Editor Christian Williams shares his thoughts on arts, culture, and the nature of consciousness.

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1/9/2015

chris kilham palo santo

Chris Kilham, author of The Ayahuasca Test Pilots Handbook. Photo by Jeff Skeirik.  

Reviewing The Ayahuasca Test Pilots Handbook, Chris Kilham’s backpack guide to the healing powers of the sacred Amazonian plant brew.

My first encounter with ayahuasca was through William S. Burroughs. That is to say, several years ago I read The Yage Letters, which was Burroughs’ collected correspondence with poet Allen Ginsberg as he traveled to the Amazon in search of the elusive “final fix.”

Since then, I’ve learned a great deal more about the powerful and mysterious plant-derived brew that goes by many different names. And while all accounts verify that you will, indeed, find the high that Burroughs was looking for through ayahuasca, others suggest there’s much more to glean from the experience; that the plant offers one enhanced self-awareness and even spiritual enlightenment.  

Chris Kilham is a medical plant expert, author, and educator who has participated in more than 80 ayahuasca ceremonies over the past eight years. Over that span, he has become one of the foremost advocates for the healing benefits of the ayahuasca space, and has recently compiled a comprehensive introduction to the experience in The Ayahuasca Test Pilots Handbook. Kilham approaches ayahuasca from a perspective of ultimate respect, and often refers to the plant brew by its most reverential and descriptive name, La Medicina. For Kilham and many others, ayahuasca has been so positively life-changing, that he felt compelled to write the backpack guide so that others may also safely and effectively wade into the healing waters of the ayahuasca experience.

Kilham’s book couldn’t have come at a better time. Though knowledge of ayahuasca and its use as part of the South American shamanic tradition has been well-known in select circles for many years, it’s been a relatively recent development that the Sacred Vine has found a much wider and receptive audience. As public awareness grows, so has the ayahuasca tourism industry in places like Iquitos, Peru, and experienced ayahuasca journeyers like Kilham feel a responsibility to make sure that people know what they’re getting into. In the event that this is the first time you’ve read about ayahuasca, a recent Newsweek Q&A with Kilham is a good primer to what goes into the brew and what you might encounter—both physically and otherwise—when you enter the ayahuasca space.

Christian Williams discusses ayahuasca with Chris Kilham in the first episode of the Abstract Notions podcast. 

Known as The Medicine Hunter, Kilham has made a career out of traveling the world investigating the medicinal qualities of plants. As he describes in the Handbook, Kilham has been familiar with ayahuasca since reading about it in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until 2007 that he drank his first cup after realizing that he was having a difficult time overcoming the grief related to the passing of his mother. The first set of ceremonies helped him not only overcome that grief, but replenished his emotional energy and allowed him to reconnect with himself and loved ones. More than 80 ceremonies later, Kilham approaches ayahuasca as a way to stay balanced, and now incorporates meditation into the ceremony, which he says has helped him navigate the unpredictable psychedelic waters of the ayahuasca space as well as gain him even deeper access to the consciousness-expanding qualities of the plant.

Kilham’s extensive first-hand experience and his affable nature make him the ideal spokesperson for ayahuasca. As he describes it, the topic compels people to talk and ask a lot of questions, and his many conversations over the years revealed some common questions that weren’t being answered by the literature on ayahuasca up to that point. While there have been plenty of great books written on the topic, Kilham couldn’t find any that presented the information people were looking for in an accessible format, and he recognized a need for the Handbook.

Taking readers step-by-step through the process of ceremony, from the botanical basics of the brew to an orientation of the ceremonial space to sharing some of his most memorable journeys, Kilham’s book offers everything short of the experience itself. He also offers invaluable advice on how to differentiate between good shamans and bad shamans, and—most importantly—the medical risks one should be aware of before embarking on a journey. As he notes, the negative stories surrounding ayahuasca often involve either shady shamans or journeyers who don’t fully disclose what medications they might already be taking. In this regard, Kilham demystifies the less understood aspects of ayahuasca, and his book serves as an antidote to some of the ignorance associated with the plant and its purpose. Kilham is also quick to point out that while he fully endorses the safe and reverent use of ayahuasca, anyone considering drinking it in the United States should be aware that the brew is currently classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. In addition to being illegal, Kilham emphasizes in the book that setting (specifically, in the Amazon under the guidance of a trained shaman) is a major factor in determining whether or not one has a beneficial experience. While he acknowledges that it is possible to reap the emotionally-cleansing benefits of ayahuasca without being in the Amazon, the brew seems to be its most effective when paired with the natural setting and traditional rituals of the shamanic ayahuasca ceremony.

Personally, reading Kilham’s book made me even more interested in experiencing ayahuasca first-hand. While the Handbook answered pretty much every question I had about the experience, I still realized I was trying to answer the question, “Is ayahuasca right for me?” To help me figure that out, I spoke with Chris at length about his spiritual approach to the plant as well as the logistics of traveling to the Amazon and making sure you’re in safe hands. I found Chris’ responses to my questions so helpful that I thought they might help others, too, so I decided to turn the transcript of our conversation into the first episode of the Abstract Notions podcast, which you can listen to and download above.



12/24/2014

Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey
Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey near Barcelona, Spain. 

The beauty and benefit of ritual and ceremony when separated from dogma.

I have a new favorite perk that was recently installed in our breakroom: an ice cream vending machine. It doesn’t get much better than $1 for a Klondike bar whenever I feel like one.

Partly for the sake of my waistline, I’ve been reintroducing myself to ritual and ceremony. In this case, I’ve decided to reserve the Klondike bar for my personal celebration when we wrap up production of an issue. As I write this, I’m looking forward to the moment when this issue is sent to the printer and I’m able to sit quietly in my office for 10 minutes and enjoy the Klondike.

Going forward, I’m sure I’ll find it tempting to have an ice cream bar between deadlines, but I know that I’ll appreciate my ice cream bar a lot more if I maintain its special place in my life. It sounds silly, but it’s a simple way to make something I enjoy more meaningful.

I became reacquainted with ritual and ceremony this past October when my wife and I spent a week in Spain. One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey outside of Barcelona. We went in the evening specifically for Vespers, which features Gregorian chant by the Benedictine monks who live there. It’d been a while since I’d spent time in a church, and watching the evening prayer service unfold reminded me of what I missed most about the faith of my youth: the familiarity and comfort of the liturgy, the feeling of singing in unison, and the opportunity for contemplation that being in a church provided. Above all, I remembered how those aspects of ritual and ceremony were essential in preparing my mind and body for the spiritual experience I was there to have. They served to establish my intent, clear my mind of distraction, and help me remain in the moment.

Feeling goosebumps as the monks chanted, I realized that while I’ve discarded the rigid dogmatism of my childhood faith, there’s still value to glean from applying certain aspects of ritual and ceremony to my life again. Though my definition of “God” couldn’t be much more different than the one I used growing up, my desire for a spiritual encounter with the divine is stronger than ever. When I take a walk in the woods, play music, paint a picture, dream, meditate, or float in a sensory deprivation tank, I know I’m seeking a connection with the divine. Each of those activities involves a specific, yet routine preparation that I’ve chosen to redefine as ritual. Some are as simple as changing into painting clothes or taking a shower, but no matter how banal they might be, I still find them to be effective invocations when I choose to see them that way.

For me, that’s part of the beauty of ritual and ceremony when separated from dogma; the only rules are my own.

Photo by Keith Roper, licensed under Creative Commons.



11/19/2014

facebook evolution
 

Ensuring that a technology designed to bring us closer together doesn't make us strangers to each other.

Several months ago, I shared my dismay at no longer being able to sit and do nothing due to an unhealthy dependency on my smartphone. It’s been four months since that realization, and I’m happy to report that I’m finding it much easier to disconnect from the phone and plug in to the real world around me.

This recently became apparent when my wife and I spent a week in Spain. Unable to use the dataplans on our iPhones seemed at first to be an inconvenience, but quickly revealed itself to be a blessing. Our idle time waiting for the Metro or relaxing on a park bench was spent daydreaming and people-watching rather than Facebook surfing. It’s entirely possible that some of our best memories from the trip wouldn’t exist had we been able to distract ourselves with the digital universe.

For my wife, the experience really hit home. In the month since we’ve been back she’s had little desire to log into Facebook. While I’ve noticed that she still pops in occasionally, she barely scrolls through her feed before quickly losing interest. A week away not only helped her realize how much of a daily distraction it had become, but also how unfulfilling a connection it is for keeping in touch with people.

She’s aware, though, that her decision to cut Facebook out of her life may come with a cost: knowing what’s going in the lives of friends and family. While most Facebook posts simply document everyday details or massage someone’s ego, the ease with which one can share exciting news, wedding engagements, birth announcements, or any other milestone through a quick post makes it plain to see that Facebook has become the most efficient way to communicate with all of our loved ones at once. And when distance keeps people from spending real time together, there’s no denying that Facebook is often the next best thing. I’m even aware of real-life friendships that have started as a result of being introduced through Facebook.

But I also sense that for many, Facebook is becoming a substitute for keeping in “real” touch with one another. A good friend of ours recently relayed a surreal experience in which someone they were having a live conversation with referred them to their Facebook page to read the details they didn’t feel like repeating at the time. In this instance, a technology designed to bring us all closer together is actually more effective at making us strangers to each other.

While this cultural disconnect due to social media isn't a new development, I appreciate the reminder that it's happening; my wife’s decision to significantly cut back has led me to be more conscious of the real-life relationships I want to have and the real-life effort that’s required to do so. I think Facebook is great for sharing funny pictures, interesting articles, and inspiring information, but when “liking” someone becomes the prerequisite for knowing what to talk about with that person in real life, we’ve lost the rudder.

For those of us who remember what life was like before the digital age, achieving balance with Facebook is just the tip of the iceberg. As our society becomes even more connected (and dependent) on technology, regular reality checks like the one my wife made will become even more important if we hope to maintain real connections to ourselves, each other, and the natural world we’re apart of. It’s the only way we’ll ensure that technology serves us and not the other way around.

Christian Williams is editor in chief of Utne Reader. Contact him at cwilliams@utne.com or follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams. He also paints and makes music; check out his work at www.christianwwilliams.com

Photo courtesy Khalid Albaih, licensed under Creative Commons.



6/9/2014

texting

What are we missing out on when we use our smart phones to pass idle time?

Recently, while eating lunch by myself at a local diner, I realized something that genuinely bothered me: I’m losing the ability to sit and do nothing. Where I used to be able to sit contently and simply daydream or observe my surroundings, I now feel anxious, restless, and awkward if I’m sitting alone with nothing specific for my hands or brain to do.

It didn’t take me long to figure out why. Looking around at the other solo diners that day, I noticed a common denominator: the smart phone. With sandwiches in one hand and thumbs scrolling through Facebook in the other, we all seemed incapable of disconnecting from our phones, even for a 15-minute lunch. That’s when it dawned on me that it’s entirely possible the most damaging effect of technology’s integration into our daily lives is that it’s replacing something many people have never thought was worth doing—sitting still and simply letting your mind wander.

As soon as I figured out what was going on, I put my phone away. But that’s when the awkwardness set in. If you want to feel out of place in a public setting these days, just start staring off into space or watching people as they walk by. Do it long enough and someone is liable to walk up and ask you if you’re feeling OK. That’s because we’re so accustomed to seeing people tethered to their smart phones—it’s the new normal. If you’re not killing time with your face fused to a screen, then you’re the weird one in the room.

Of course, I’m not the first person to notice how technological connectivity is making it easier to disconnect from ourselves and each other in myriad ways. Late last year, comedian Louis C.K. shared his hatred for cell phones on Conan, and observed how we use technology these days to distract us from thinking about the depressing aspects of life. As he points out, taking on those thoughts head on is the only way to defuse them of their explosive potential.

My concern is similar to his, but with a twist. I worry that the more dependent we become on technology to help us pass idle time, the less likely we’ll be to allow our minds to wander in positive ways. It’s already become commonplace for parents to hand their kids an iPhone when they’re restless in the backseat or complaining of boredom. While I recognize the logic-enhancing and hand/eye coordination benefits of video games in young people, I can’t help but wonder how that constant stimulation is taking away opportunities for them to expand their imaginations, creativity, and overall mindfulness.

I’m noticing it in older generations, too. Just the other day, I witnessed a woman walking outside on a beautiful morning with her head down, reading a Kindle. Meanwhile, the natural beauty of her surroundings was going by unnoticed. While it’s true that she was engaging her imagination through the book, her brain was missing out on a different kind of stimulation—the kind you can only get when you allow yourself to truly appreciate the natural world we’re all apart of. And lest you think stopping to smell the roses or listening to the birds sing isn’t all that important, consider that establishing a true and lasting connection to nature may be only way we’ll be able to shake society’s general apathy toward climate change and make the real changes necessary to curb its impacts.

Which brings me to my favorite argument for why we need to spend more time staring into space rather than into a screen: how else can we encourage the cutting-edge ideas, innovations, and solutions that only seem to pop into one’s mind when it’s disengaged from a specific task and allowed to wander? I recently read Mason Currey’s book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, which is a fascinating rundown of the work habits of 161 of history’s greatest creative thinkers from Matisse and Mahler to Freud and Einstein. What stood out to me by the end was how many of them took time out of their busy days to take a walk or just sit and seemingly do nothing. Who knows how many world-changing ideas first made themselves apparent during those daily moments of stillness and contemplation? It suggested to me that what we consider “downtime” may actually be the access point to a higher plane of thinking—one that I’m hoping to find my way back into now that I’ve opened my eyes again to the world that exists outside of the phone in my pocket.      

Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader; contact him at cwilliams@utne.com or follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams. He also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com



6/6/2014

Calder Flamingo

"American Masters" documentary captures the playfulness and whimsy of one of the 20th Century's greatest artists. 

In the pantheon of great 20th Century artists, perhaps no one continues to captivate audiences more than Alexander Calder. One look at the latest auction prices for his pieces certainly supports this notion, but there’s even more convincing evidence to be found in a place that most people may not automatically associate with Calder: the baby’s room. For hanging above most of the world’s cribs is Calder’s most popular and lasting artistic contribution, the mobile.

As the outstanding new-to-DVD documentary Alexander Calder demonstrates, it’s only fitting that a man who lived and loved life with the carefree attitude of a child should forever be connected with the wonderful distraction represented by the ubiquitous moving sculpture he invented. Calder was a man who used his endless supply of creative ambition to make the world a better place, whether it was through his moving toys, his mesmerizing circus, or his monumental outdoor sculptures, and this short film does an excellent job of illustrating Calder’s optimism and deep desire to give the world something magical to witness.

Growing up in a family of artists near the turn of the century and demonstrating a natural ability to make art at an early age, Calder seemed destined to become an artist, even if it didn’t figure into his ideal career plan. But false starts in several odd jobs soon forced him into realizing his destiny, and he learned to apply the engineering education pursued for non-artistic means to his creative craft. Considering the technical complexity underlying many of Calder’s estimated 16,000 pieces, it’s obvious that what appeared to be a time-wasting detour to a career in art ended up providing him with the know-how to make his sculptures seemingly come alive. The film also does an excellent job of showing how Calder was both a visionary and an adaptable artist; he was open to the work of others and was always looking for ways to apply what he liked about others work while still maintaining his own immediately recognizable style. 

Originally filmed in the mid-1990s and aired on PBS in 1998 as part of the “American Masters” series, the film is essential viewing not just because of the rare archival footage of Calder working in his studio but because of the priceless personal stories shared by the people who knew him personally, including family, artist Ellsworth Kelly, and playwright Arthur Miller. Their reminiscences paint the picture of man who not only matched the playfulness and whimsy of his creations, but was also as generous as he was talented.

Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader; contact him at cwilliams@utne.com or follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams. He also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com

Photo at top: Flamingo (1974)Alexander Calder; located in front of the Kluczynski Federal Building in Chicago; courtesy Vincent Desjardins, licensed under Creative Commons




4/28/2014

end of time mettler

Fascinating associations abound in Peter Mettler’s documentary about how we perceive time.

Ever since it's become aware of it, humanity has been trying to figure out how to understand the concept of time. But for what purpose? Consider these three complaints related to time: 1) There’s not enough of it; 2) It moves too slowly; 3) We’ve yet to figure out how to repeat it or fast-forward our lives through it. The common denominator to these complaints reveals an ever-present and unfortunate characteristic of humanity—the desire to control.

This thought and many others came to mind as I recently watched The End of Time by Canadian filmmaker Peter Mettler. In this visually-stunning and remarkably thought-provoking documentary, Mettler digs deep into the ancient question “what is time?” and makes some surprising observations and associations along the way.

Throughout the film, Mettler deftly demonstrates that answering that age-old question involves much more than proving Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity; it means asking hard questions about our collective existence and the purpose we ascribe to our individual lives. Above all, Mettler challenges the viewer in myriad ways to take a step back, slow down, and ask themselves what’s more important: that we control time or learn to ignore it?

Mettler illustrates that pointed question by profiling individuals and communities dealing with specific characteristics of time. There’s Jack Thompson, who, for 30 years, lived a timeless existence in the shadow of a Hawaiian volcano, fully aware that one day lava would consume his home. His decision to stay while every one of his neighbors left was borne out of a deep desire to disconnect from the mile-a-minute lifestyle he saw in the modern world. The irony wasn’t lost on him that the Earth’s snail-like process of making new islands would eventually push him back into the fast-paced civilization he had hoped to escape. 

From Hawaii, Mettler takes us to Detroit—a city gutted by the negative side-effects of progress. Mettler points out that the technological efficiencies pioneered by Henry Ford initially reaped prosperity, but also sowed the seeds for the city’s demise. Ford’s assembly line may have saved time, but it eventually cost human jobs. The upside, as Mettler shows, is the blank slate that Detroit now represents for people interested in building grassroots communities that emphasize relationships with the Earth and each other over pursuit of profit.

A noted photographer, Mettler’s eye for finding the beautiful in the seemingly mundane is on full-display throughout the film and contributes to the film’s reception as experimental cinema more than traditional documentary. The End of Time is patient, contemplative, and artistic in its presentation, which has apparently rubbed many Netflix users the wrong way. Considering the subject matter of the film and Mettler’s not-so-subtle suggestions that humanity can offset the negative effects of progress by taking the time to reconnect with the world around us, the reviews claiming the film is “too slow” or “boring” demonstrate there’s a desperate need for our civilization to figure out how to slow down before it’s too late. Not only do the reprioritizations that Mettler suggests in this film hold the ingredients to solving many of our current global crises, they also suggest how we as individuals might be able to conquer clocks and calendars to live a more meaningful life. This poignant observation is summed up beautifully by Mettler’s mother at the end of the film. Though she doesn’t realize it, Julia Mettler offers the most sublime answer to the film’s central question. Rather than offer up a complicated definition of what time is or isn’t, she simply suggests that one should do their best to make the most of it. After all, while it may be fascinating to ask what time is, perhaps we’ll be better off when we learn to live our life as if time—or at least our perception of it— doesn’t matter.     

Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader; contact him at cwilliams@utne.com or follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams. He also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com



3/24/2014

stephen hawking

Errol Morris allows us to travel to the stars and beyond through the mind of Stephen Hawking.

Skywatchers and others fascinated with the mysteries of the universe have been experiencing exiciting times as of late. From last year’s discovery of the Higgs boson to the recent detection of gravity waves from the Big Bang, we seem to be living in a golden age of monumental breakthroughs that are helping us better understand the makeup and origin of the universe.

One of the figures responsible for making the complexities of the universe more accessible to the general public was Stephen Hawking through his best-selling 1988 book A Brief History of Time. While the theories expressed in those pages are remarkable on their own, filmmaker Errol Morris was even more interested in the man behind the theories, and brilliantly profiled the pioneering astrophysicist in a 1991 film with the same name. Now, nearly 25 years later, Morris’ A Brief History of Time has received a digital makeover and Blu-ray release by The Criterion Collection that ensures its availability to a new generation of watchers and dreamers.

As we discover through an included interview with the filmmaker, Morris was the ideal person to adapt this book for film. Most filmmakers would have agonized over how to understand and accurately illustrate Hawking’s complex theories about black holes and the expanding universe, but Morris’ previous education in the history and philosophy of science helped him make quick work of that aspect of the film and allowed him to focus on creative ways to help us better understand the man.

While the film features mesmerizing original music by Philip Glass, the focal point of the soundtrack is the clicker that Hawking uses to communicate with his computer. Though Hawking’s debilitating motor neuron disease prevents him from experiencing the physical world, Morris’ film shows how that’s only helped Hawking use his mind to explore the deepest reaches of the universe, and take us all with him for the ride. 

Photo courtesy Doug Whellen, licensed under Creative Commons.

Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader; contact him at cwilliams@utne.com or follow him on Twitter: @cwilliams. He also paints and makes and music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com





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