A Beginner’s Guide to Crazy Wisdom

Crazy wisdom is more than a tradition–it’s something you can taste and try. A good place to begin is with The Essential Crazy Wisdom, by Wes “Scoop” Nisker (Ten Speed Press, 2001). It’s a somewhat sketchy history of the crazy wisdom tradition around the world–but its strength lies in its wonderful assemblage of life-changing quotes and stories. Tidbits like “Reality is a wave function traveling backward and forward in time” (physicist John L. Castri), “Only the shallow know themselves” (Oscar Wilde), and “God has no religion” (Mahatma Gandhi) keep your brain nicely off-balance, and Nisker’s Buddhist-tinged skepticism about ultimate issues like God is bracing, even though it gives somewhat short shrift to the devotional side of crazy wisdom.

For things you can actually do to hone your crazy-wisdom consciousness, look into Shaving the Inside of Your Skull, by Mel Ash (Tarcher/Putnam, 1996), which is jammed with offbeat exercises. Cover your own eyes, shout “Guess who!” and see what you say. Write a story in first person, switching your gender. Invent a new superstition (“Wearing red socks on Wednesday will attract wealth”). To humorously dislodge yourself from habitual routines, spend half an hour referring to yourself as “the robot.” (“The robot is a little bored. The robot has to go to the bathroom.”) Ash even shows you how to invent your own religion–quoting the advice of LSD guru Timothy Leary, who should know. Begin with Goals, Roles, Rituals, Space-time Locales, Mythic Context. Move on to rituals and costumes. “You will eventually find yourself engaged in a series of sacred moments which feel right to you,” writes Leary.

Like Nisker, Ash pushes the reader to revolt against all fixed ideas-particularly frozen self-images and deadened and deadening religious concepts. His spirit is anarchic, bohemian, and joyously insubordinate. If you’re of a more devotional, more God-hungry frame of mind, you might try Stephen Levine’s beautiful new book, Turning Toward the Mystery (Harper San Francisco, 2002). Levine, a meditation teacher and author, put in many years in the beatnik and hippie scenes in New York and the Bay Area, before finding a wider and deeper path. In a chapter entitled “Ordinary Mind” he gives the reader eloquent reasons, in typical crazy-wisdom paradoxical style, to go beyond the rational in a search for the true. “It is irrational to expect the ordinary mind to be rational enough to seek the mystery at the heart of the ordinary,” he writes. “You have to be meta-rational to keep your reason, to open your ordinary mind to the experience of your extraordinary heart.”

As for online crazy wisdom, there’s no better place to start than with Peter Michaels’ vast Web site, Tons-o-Trickster, a huge array of links to trickster and crazy wisdom sites all over the Web, from Coyote tales to Catholic Encyclopedia articles on holy fools to sites devoted to contemporary trickiness, like the Church of the Sub-Genius and Krusty the Clown from The Simpsons. And the George Coates Performance Works, a high-tech San Francisco performance-art troupe, is soliciting quotes and other bits of crazy wisdom for possible inclusion in a show. If you submit a paradox, a poem, or an aphorism to George Coates site, it may be selected for full-scale postmodern stage treatment.

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