London sunset (c) Joel Biroco

Absolutely nothing

An interview with Joel Biroco

I met Joel Biroco around fifteen years ago, through our mutual friend, the occult performer Orryelle Defenestrate-Bascule, who was visiting London and noticed that we both lived near each other. I had heard of Joel’s ’80s underground magic zine KAOS (one of the earliest UK outlets for Hakim Bey’s writings). Reading around I caught wind of his work with the ‘156 current’ — a modern magical tradition rooted in the scrying experiences of John Dee and Edward Kelley in Elizabethan England, involving devotion to Babalon, the Whore of Revelation unveiled as a goddess of boundary-shattering sexuality. Around the time we met Joel had been persuaded by none other than Alan Moore to resurrect KAOS for one final issue — but since that resurgence, Joel’s interest in 156 matters has abated. He returned to studying the Chinese oracle, the Yijing (on which he has written a major scholarly work). More recently he has intensified his ‘urban seclusion’, relentlessly cleaving to the nondualist ideas of Advaita Vedanta (a book on which is in the pipeline), and producing a richly creative memoir, World of Dust.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past fifteen years or so pontificating, quibbling and chuckling over beers with Joel, and it seemed apt for the first new interview of this relaunched site to document some overspill from this long-standing conversation. The interview was conducted via email, and ranges widely over subjects such as memory, psychedelics, nonduality, nihilism, suicide, speculative realist philosophy, and surviving in interesting times. All art here is by Joel — details at the end.

Gyrus: Your writing in World of Dust suggests a fragmented, non-linear image of personal history, echoing its illusory nature, so the usual kick-off about your early experiences which led to your current views seems out of place. What formative experience has been on your mind most recently, and how has it appeared to change over the years?

Cover of World of Dust (c) Joel Biroco

Joel: World of Dust was a preserving and discarding of memory at the same time. I began to discard any interest I had in both planetary history and my own personal history as something that had actually happened. It just didn’t mean anything to me any more. Or, I should say, I suspected that that would become the case much more, to the extent that I simply wouldn’t delve into these things again with any sense of involvement. It seemed to me that if I didn’t set down something in writing about this past — as a kind of honouring of a belief in it at the time — then I would lose the opportunity when the interest completely dried up. A matter of recognising what the time is calling for. There is this concept in Yijing studies of ‘knowing the time’. It was a book I wrote over a ten-year period as I was gradually withdrawing from the world.

It was like a kind of preservation project for personal memory as narrative, something I still did value, the idea of narrative and narrative structure. I particularly wanted to write out childhood memories. Part of it was proving to myself that I could still remember things, since there is a slippery slide between not wishing to remember things and no longer being able to. And because childhood seemed sufficiently far away now to make these memories somehow glowing with something. So I gathered as much as I could that came to mind in the face of the coming time, that I could sense was coming, when I would no longer want to give any credence to the past. Exhausting an obsession, as it were, before it otherwise dies out. Already my memory of so-called personal experiences seemed like an indulgence of fiction. This relates to the title, the ‘world of dust’ being in Daoism a world that no longer exists that is shaken out of the clothes as dust at the foot of a mountain before heading for the reclusive cloud-heights.

I didn’t write anything directly about the most formative experience in World of Dust, rather only the consequences of it, or should I say the aftermath of it, namely LSD, and then Psilocybe cubensis. This is what led to such a fragmented structure of memory, that I was trying to get at in that book. Certainly everything I thought life was about changed the first time I took acid, in 1982 at the Stonehenge Festival, as if I had set down now on the true path I was supposed to be on. I quit my job and started growing Psilocybe cubensis from a spore-print. But it wasn’t until 1984 that I had the experience that completely marked me in the way that a flame scorches paper. The realisation that I was absolutely nothing clothed as it were in the appearance of everything. The fact that this took place on three tabs of ‘White Lightning’ while being abducted by aliens wasn’t actually at all relevant, it just made it … complicated. Complicated to disentangle the pure realisation from the apparent and illusory circumstances, more so, shall we say, than had I been sitting at the kitchen table or some other more familiar illusory circumstances when I happened to realise my actual nature.

In the illusion of time and space it seemed to take several decades to see it all more clearly, by which I mean the unchanging absolute reality over which endless changes flow. And in terms of formative experiences the most formative was then DMT in 2011, since not even DMT could change this unchanging absolute reality for all it utterly changed everything that could change, superimposing onto or more properly replacing ‘the world’ with a hyperdimensional paradise that was, for all it was totally alien, also completely familiar, since this too was what I was as much as the disappeared world was. This finally made me realise, for all I already ‘knew it’, that there really was no world or universe at all. It seemed like the culmination of the journey I had begun in 1982, but really I hadn’t even been born, none of it had ever happened. There was no time and space, and yet I was this ancient ‘being’, non-human, alien to the human but to ‘itself’ nothing that could even be quantified as anything.

Stop me if I’m rambling…. It’s too long an answer but you asked! I don’t believe a word of it myself. I didn’t expect to get onto aliens so readily, I thought I would be more circumspect but what the hell, it’s all fiction as I have said and I don’t have any other personal story to talk about, apart from drinking tea and staring at the wall day in day out for years and years and years. None of it’s real to me.

'Deja vu' (c) Joel Biroco

Gyrus: Aliens already, great! Terence McKenna famously foregrounded the aliens, arguing (sometimes) that they indicated an autonomous dimension which can’t be psychologised. He loaded his ayahuasca brew with DMT-bearing leaves to intensify the visions, because to him this was what it was about. But of course he’s been criticised for this, for mistaking some highly mutated ego projections for mythic revelation. Do the aliens have any role to play? Are they just a ‘scenic route’, or a too-tricky distraction, or the bearers of something we’re not ready to make use of yet?

Joel: If you regard yourself as an entity, then you’re likely to see DMT’s famous entities. If you have already passed beyond objectification then the only ‘alien’ there is yourself. Extraterrestrials (or interdimensionals, if that’s a word) are as distinguishable as humans or cats and dogs, but if you really ask me I’d have to say there aren’t any humans. I have often joked that I stopped believing in humans way before I stopped believing in aliens, but the whole thing is a difficult area to talk about. I’ve certainly had a number of experiences of extraterrestrial contact, and not on psychedelics too, and that’s not to mention demonic entities in the occult, and these experiences have driven a great deal of my supposed life, which was fine because living in a science fiction movie is better than going to work, but these days I tend to downplay this.

Because if I don’t believe any objects exist, from the most mundane like cups and shoes to the most spectacular living and breathing objects, then what business have I retaining nostalgic notions about aliens? On the other hand, they could arrive at this non-existent Earth and show themselves to this non-existent population any day. Now that might perk my interest up again. I expect the implant would be triggered and I would realise I had been a sleeper all this time and all my fine talk about self-realisation and enlightenment would go out the window as I ditched the Buddha realising that it was my destiny all along to be a pathfinder for the Intergalactic Alliance.

Or I may just lose interest three days in and hope for the better extraterrestrials. I think ET is really a God replacement, and I’ve already replaced him with me, so what can happen on this front is mainly a really good advancement of the plot on a fairly dull planet. Now I’m not saying I’m not in favour of that, and I ticked along for years believing I had been contacted for a reason, y’know something important, but none of this is getting to grips with the nature of the actual singularity, the existential question of that, this mystery of being.

I find it faintly ridiculous that the best that the UFO crowd can come up with is an alien-human breeding programme, a secret triangular craft in Area 51, and ‘the greys’. That’s not to say the huge obsidian eyes looking down at you on the operating table isn’t for real, well as real as any operation is in this dream, but that the question of what ‘the alien’ actually is really comes down to what makes you think you’re ‘human’ in the first place.

It’s all a bit basic at the moment. A bunch of people who believe they are humans and this is Earth believe or don’t believe that there are some other entities called aliens from some other planet or dimension, notwithstanding the queer creatures discovered every day in the Mariana Trench, or just the average insect that lands on your lamp of an evening. I remember some bloke up north telling me that if you haven’t seen the ‘Mantis people’ on DMT that was because you weren’t invited, and McKenna had his giant tomato machine elves. What about the hyperdimensional maze that is so bloody alien you don’t even need aliens? The alien is the singularity that’s already happened, the rest is just the appearance of different species.

I think you start to tune into the alien when you get bored by terrestrial politics, but even musing about fast radio bursts such as FRB 121102 is unexciting compared with the potential of hyperdimensionality, even the far reaches of the universe become rather pedestrian compared with hyperspace in which ‘this universe’ is a speck. Not that I’m saying hyperspace is ‘real’ (although I would say it is hyper-real, realer than real if by ‘real’ you mean the waking state), but it’s certainly something that is virgin territory for most who still think they’re in a third-rate movie in which they are born, live for seventy years or so, and then die.

Gyrus: So let’s back up a bit. I know there’s a lot packed in there when you use the term ‘objectification’, and the leap to non-existence or identification with God might be a steep curve for some. You’re coming from a nondualist perspective here, which would be good to clarify a bit. Could you talk about nondualistic traditions, or philosophers or writers, and how they’ve influenced your practices and thinking — magic, art, meditation? Maybe some snapshots of how those influences have shaped particular milestones between early intimations of your ideas about reality, and now?

Joel: Objectification is where we separate out patterns from the singular continuous seamless field and say this is the object ‘cup’ and this is the object ‘house’ and this is ‘a man’ and this ‘a woman’. We assume these ‘things’ exist, that they are separate ‘things’, when actually reality is a whole in which distinctions can certainly be made but in which divisions do not exist.

Even to say that reality is ‘a whole’ is to objectify it, to make it ‘one’, the object ‘one’, whereas nonduality or Advaita means ‘not two’. The term nonduality is just a smoothing out of the more literal ‘not two’, or nondual. This is a subtle distinction in itself, because ‘one’ implies ‘two’ and more, but ‘not two’ stops right there, addresses the illusion of duality or subject-object bifurcation where there is supposed to be, say, a ‘me’ seeing ‘the tree’, when this is only a mental overlay of what is nothing of the sort, although if you say you can see the tree I obviously know what you mean and in normal circumstances I am not going to say ‘You fool! That’s not a tree!’ But if you want to talk about ‘reality’ we’re going to have to be a bit stricter. The entire world is humouring the notion that it exists, and most believe it does, clearly. They even imagine the world was already here before they were born, which surely a moment’s reflection would demolish.

And how do ‘I’ see it? Well, as a nothingness that, and this is important, is not an object (no thing). This may seem obvious, but in Western philosophy the only nothing that gets talked about is a relative or objective nothing (Sartre’s néant and Heidegger’s Nichts, for example), nothing relative to everything (everything being all objects and the object that comprises the entirety of them), whereas in Eastern philosophy, and in particular more recently the Japanese Kyoto School, the nothing there is an absolute or non-objective nothing, really not a thing. This is the nothing of Zen and Advaita Vedanta. When philosophy restricts itself to thought it cannot get out of objectification. Though language is inherently objective, it can to some degree be used to point beyond thought to the non-objective, as with the distinction I’ve just made.

And because nothingness is non-objective, in other words has no things in it yet perhaps can be loosely said to have a colourful pattern (I don’t know what is at the root of visualising nothingness as a kind of empty blackness, certainly that’s an objective mistake), without here objectifying the notion of ‘pattern’ or ‘colour’ just talking freely, it is easy to project as it were upon this nothingness a vast array of seeming objects that are nothing but mental formations. The trouble is that, via societal conditioning (at least so far as the illusion persists), we come to accept that the ‘cup’, the ‘tree’, and the ‘person’ etc. etc. are actualities and ‘real’, all separate objects, rather than just appearances in flux, and we inevitably fall into a world of our own creation. This illusion is so strong that unless we come across such notions as ‘self-realisation’ and ‘enlightenment’, usually through disappointment with the going-nowhereness of our lives at some point, then we never realise that even time and space, let alone ourselves, are projections upon absolute nothingness. Nothing but concepts that have been reified by mental process. This is what I mean by living in a world or universe that doesn’t actually exist.

You asked a bit more, but I don’t want to expand into an essay, you may want to back-up a little more or ask specific questions about what I’ve just said.

Gyrus: We have a specific idealist inheritance in the West, from Plato, who Whitehead said Western philosophy was just a series of footnotes to. That inheritance, which sees this world as a flickering illusion smothering the eternal realm of ideal forms, must make for tricky baggage when it comes to understanding the nondualist vision of reality as mental projection on nothing. Can you see that as having led you astray at any point? Is there anything apart from LSD in the Western toolkit that helps rather than hinders this path?

Joel: There are no ‘ideal forms’. Even Nietzsche dismissed the idea of the ‘thing-in-itself’ by saying that there are no things (The Will to Power, section 558).

When I say a mental projection of everythingness onto nothingness you have to understand that I am speaking the language of analogy to put across an image that may be grasped, but all such images have to be dropped eventually. In actuality, there is no ‘everythingness’ or ‘nothingness’, they are merely ways of looking, as it were, at the same (non) thing. Even to say they are ‘the same’ is to compare two objects and so obviously a fallacy.

In reality, there is no mind to perform this projection. This is simply a way of talking in what seems to have happened, i.e. the world, but which hasn’t actually happened. Even to say ‘in reality’ is to suppose there is an illusion, but in fact there is no illusion, and so, consequently, nor is there any reality, since this is only a further comparison of objects of knowledge. Yet, of course, because it is thought that there is a veiling of the truth, when actually it is perfectly open, there is the concept of ‘reality’. But in reality there is neither reality nor illusion.

There is no entity that I am, entification or objectification applied to the conception of a separate living being, as opposed to a singular beingness ‘that I am’. I am not an entity such as a person (from persona, ‘mask’), ego, soul, atman, or lower or higher self. These are all entifications. Though there is obviously a self-like nature, it is formless. By this I am also saying that absolute nothingness is intelligent, not dead or inert. Some might say well how can it be nothing then if it’s intelligent, but they are still objectifying nothing to find a problem there; they are imagining a conceptualised absence rather than directly being non-objective intelligence. Even formlessness is in contrast with and implies form, whereas, using Nagarjuna’s double negation, there is neither formlessness nor form (neither form nor non-form). So where does that leave us? With reality exactly as it is. All these ideas are only addressing an obscuration, but in reality there are no ideas, no mental forms.

I didn’t find the Western philosophical tradition too much baggage because I gravitated towards Eastern traditions before I spent much time with Western, though I can see it certainly would get in the way otherwise. When I later looked at Western philosophy I found it predominantly thought-based and rarely ever getting outside of thought. That said, I did enjoy George Berkeley’s A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, the classic idealist text, mainly because of the engaging way it is written, something that has been lost in the more recent academic professionalisation of philosophy (Brand Blanshard’s beautifully written 1954 short book On Philosophical Style addresses well the hopeless incomprehensibility of a lot of philosophy). It’s surprising that Berkeley is usually dismissed in an off-hand way when actually he wasn’t entirely wrong, for all it only amounts to a redefinition of ‘matter’, albeit a radical one.

Psychedelics are as much a hindrance as a help in seeing actual reality, otherwise everyone who takes them would have realised their own nature. What they are useful for initially is showing you that the world you took for granted is very different from how you supposed it was, but not many seem to break through to the pure essence, and indeed, I dare say not many are that interested in doing so, or they accept this enhanced psychedelic perspective as reality without seeing that it is just as unreal as, for want of a better term, the mundane waking state.

'Sea' (c) Joel Biroco

Some say meditation is effective. But many become champion meditators for decades without self-realisation. Here again a fascination with various states of samadhi substitutes for reality and people get sucked into the illusion of ‘attainment’, rarely losing the one they imagine is attaining, save perhaps for brief moments or glimpses that are then inevitably misinterpreted by the re-emergent mind.

Reality is so close by there is no path to it. This is what is termed ‘the direct path’ in Advaita Vedanta, i.e. the immediate perception of self-nature without the illusion of progressing towards it in time, and the talks of the likes of Nisargadatta Maharaj, Siddharameshwar Maharaj, Ranjit Maharaj, and Ramana Maharshi are among the few  guides. I don’t have much time for many of the jobbing Western nonduality teachers who have sprung up in the past decade. Even Zen these days is largely moribund, though its historical record and simple aesthetic are still of great value. And inscrutability is an obvious invitation to look deeper. I don’t think anyone has expressed ‘unborn’ Zen quite as clearly as Bankei though.

I should mention my long-term interest in the Yijing, or ‘Book of Changes’. It was a great irony to me to be studying the changes for so long only to finally discover the unchanging right under my nose after dismissing it years before. In this, it was Buddhism, or, I should say, my understanding of Buddhism at the time, that led me astray there, in that it convinced me that there is nothing resembling permanence anywhere to be found. Of course, in ‘the world’ this is quite right, it is all impermanent, but ‘the unchanging’ is not in the world, the world is in it.

I was also led astray by Heraclitus, who implied that the unchanging was nothing more than ‘constant change’. Well, in a sense this is right too, in that the unchanging nothingness and the ever-changing everythingness are not different, but sometimes an erroneous understanding can cut off the true understanding because one thinks one has already found it. However, this is the great virtue of despair, since why would one still be prey to that illusion if one had already seen through it? It indicates a shortfall or gap that must be discovered and overturned (in the Nietzschean sense). So the illusion of the world continues until one is finally free of it, for all this apparent trudge of becoming and seeming progress disappears with it.

Gyrus: The idea of the ‘direct path’ makes me think of the Zen saying, ‘first a mountain is a mountain; after practice, a mountain is no longer a mountain; but finally, a mountain is a mountain again.’ The middle bit seems both necessary and redundant. Also the final phase seems to lend itself to false teachings, e.g. I recall a guy who’d spent a lot of his life taking acid, then stopped and didn’t feel like it was necessary. But he went around saying that people doing acid were missing the point — which may or may not be true, but didn’t that miss the point that he’d got to where he was by taking loads of acid? I guess even then it’s ironic that this supposed ‘shortcut’ practice turned out to be — like most things it seems — a long way round. Maybe ‘scenic route’ is a better, less dismissive expression?

Joel: The ‘direct path’ is intended to point out that whatever you may think you will discover in the future is here right now. If it’s not evident ‘to you’ (which makes it inherently an object of seeking) then this ‘you’ that you think you are will have to go through the appearance of spending years or more likely decades to ‘get there’, which is only where you already are, with no guarantee of actually ever making it. So the idea of the direct path is useful for cutting all that off, more useful than the idea of a time-bound path which can only ever be an illusion. Of course, there is the idea of a gradual path towards a sudden realisation, but this is only paying lip-service to the appearance of process and making progress, since what you imagine you are going to suddenly realise in the future is only what you can realise now. In fact, there is no other time you can realise it than now. In the future when you may or may not realise it it will also be now.

But adherence to a slow and gradual path, i.e. becoming rather than being, will have the tendency to forever throw ‘the goal’ off into the future. So even should you realise, it is likely to be confined to a mere glimpse quickly replaced by the next moment defined in the path of becoming as no longer realisation with the one seeking having lost it and now encouraged to seek it again, and again, and again, until they eventually find it such that it doesn’t go. But it will always go in a process of becoming, that is inevitable, since one is believing in time and time passing, staying firmly in change.

This is the consequence of the ‘scenic route’, which actually isn’t so scenic after years and years and years of minor successes swallowed quickly by major failures. This is the route following after the illusion of ‘attainment’. Even a relatively fixed view in that fast flowing flux is regarded as some kind of achievement of stabilisation (‘abiding’), because there has been no realisation beyond change and becoming, or, if there has, it finds no place to rest in an already accepted schema of change. This then is the appearance. Stability is simply waiting for instability (or has long since collapsed into self-deception). But if you reject this contrived impression of progress through stages or levels as mere appearance and embrace the direct path then you may indeed also spend years and years attempting to find what you are looking for but at least you are not deceived into thinking the nature of what you are looking for is something other than it is. At the heart of the direct path is the investigation into who exactly is supposedly doing anything, who or what this ‘I’ is.

Acid or some other psychedelic is not any kind of quick fix. Rather it quickly breaks the spell of conditioning one had up until then. However, for most this conditioning will return soon after. Further experiments with psychedelics may shift that conditioning again and again, but then we are in a situation where one is being re-conditioned into a psychedelic ‘reality’ and then one will have to lose that conditioning too, which may prove even harder (no bad thing if you want to be thorough). But for initially breaking the hidebound spell of the entirety of one’s life up until that point, psychedelics do the job. Psychedelics are more for exploration than realisation. There are, after all, supposedly realised teachers who know nothing of psychedelic hyper-reality who may just be fooling themselves, whose realisation is fragile in the storm. Who can say? But even exploring hyper-reality is just an appearance, as indeed is the notion of realisation itself.

Gyrus: Would you say there are any psychological implications to these realisations? Alan Watts related the double-binds of a mind in therapy to the paradoxes of self-consciousness, and related the leap of apparent self-acceptance to the realisation that there is no self to accept or do the accepting. On the one hand, you can sense all sorts of traps as one begins to psychologise and try to ‘make use of’ the realisations you’re addressing; on the other hand, isn’t the psyche the medium through which we navigate all these realisations, along with everything else we can usefully point to?

Joel: What exactly is the ‘psyche’ when there are no objects? For that matter, what is it if you regard objects as real?

Psychoanalysis, psychiatry, and psychology have always been trying to distance themselves from their own mumbo-jumbo, grafting on an immense edifice of mythological elements to make a rootstock of empty imagining and misplaced assumption seem more interesting. All psychological types are based on the implicit belief that one is the body-mind and then that body-mind’s implied relationship with a supposed external and separate world.

Perhaps the most useful aspect of self-realisation in regard to psychology and related disciplines is that not only is the ego seen to be a fiction, but also the mind itself. This is not to under-rate the helpfulness of talking to someone when in a depressed or suicidal state, simply to call into question the professionalisation of such help. As the founder of ‘The Samaritans’, Chad Varah, discovered, listening properly is far more important than keenness to advise in the therapeutic relationship. Carl Rogers made a great art of this and was on to something much more than all this colourful mythological scrapbook stuff. Naturally it is ‘person-centred’ when the person is regarded as real, but at least the counsellor steps back from providing professionalised delusions.

As for ‘navigating the realisation’, it is mainly the difficulty before and afterwards that one navigates, through thought one feels a need to get to the bottom of as opposed to just dropping it. Of course, if the idea that there is no personal self or universe is proving problematic then this is just an indication that one is back in the universe trying to see oneself and it as not existing, an obvious absurdity. Certainly in comparison with one’s fellow human beings going about their business in consensus reality the belief that there is no world usually makes one either an edgy nihilist or someone well on their way to a nervous breakdown and perhaps insanity, given that sanity is what the majority believe is the case. The vultures of trade in the psyche will soon be circling if you don’t get a grip. This is probably why those who have had any kind of contact with reality, or have dedicated themselves to it, tend to withdraw somewhat to consider it in solitude. Or, I would say, that is a better way to consider it than drifting from satsang to satsang finding new friends among the spirituality/nonduality crowd, who may profess to be interested in reality but actually are more usually interested in fixing their lives just the same as those who go to see a psychotherapist. In some ways, monetised nonduality has become the new psychotherapy.

Well of course I wrestled with demons much of my life, but rather than submit them at the altar of someone else’s dubious understanding of psychological matters I took care to investigate their nature in seclusion. Madness was always a sort of trophy on my wall.

Medusa (c) Joel Biroco

At the end of the day the ‘psychological implication’ of this realisation is that what troubles you just doesn’t exist.

Gyrus: How do you relate to nihilism? When you spoke earlier of self-realisation involving the realisation that you’d never been born, I thought of something Samuel Beckett said, maybe quoting Schopenhauer, that the best you could wish for would be never to have been born. Presumably you think he missed a trick there.

Joel: One of my favourite books is E.M. Cioran’s The Trouble With Being Born. Cioran was a friend of Beckett’s, I visited both their graves one rainy afternoon in Montparnasse Cemetery. Cioran argues that all our troubles stem from being born in the first place. Well, it is only an appearance of being born, hearsay as Nisargadatta often said. But clearly that appearance is very convincing and even after one has seen through it the question still resolves down to whether it would have been better had consciousness not arisen. Strictly, it is even an illusion that consciousness has in fact arisen, and after it has disappeared there will be no way of telling it ever was or even seemed to be.

The philosopher Philipp Mainländer felt that this life is the result of God committing suicide, which is an idea I had myself before I read his thoughts about it. He recommended that one should also commit suicide in order to aid God in his divine intention not to be, which he did. If I thought suicide was a true end then I would also think whether to do it or not was the only philosophical question worth considering. But suicide is not a true end, it is only killing the body. And what is the body but something in the mind, which doesn’t exist. The body seems so real, along with everything else that seems so real, because what it is projected upon is real. This reality is formless and was not born. It is your only real identity. Spontaneously this singularity that was unaware of itself because nothing to be aware of appears to have become conscious of itself by entering form in space-time, instantly providing its own back-story in terms of parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and so on carrying DNA from a fathomless past into a new body such that everyone believes they were born because they’ve seen babies being born for all they never witnessed their own birth and never even became aware they were until a few years later. This origin story that we’re told seems quite reasonable, and ludicrous to believe otherwise, but that is the very nature of illusion. No-one has ever said it was a flimsy illusion. And even dreams have extensive back-story for all they skip on details such as the need to pretend there is a world outside of the room one is in apart from what one can see out of the window, much like the waking state that for some inexplicable reason doesn’t easily seem like a phase-changed dream state. We have no problem seeing on waking that the 500-year-old castle in a dream wasn’t built 500 years ago, yet for some reason we believe that such a castle in the waking state was here before we were born.

Nihilism, as Nietzsche foresaw remarkably well, is the great danger of our current age and has to be overcome. Essentially the nothingness of nihilism is an objective relative nothingness, not a non-objective absolute nothingness. Nihilism is how you might interpret what I am saying if you were confined to the mind. Nihilism is in fact one of the two heresies of Buddhism.

I think nihilism is interesting in art but to adhere to it in some way as a philosophy is a bit like embracing failure as if it was what you intended all along. That said, the nihilistic mood can be quite creative and perhaps serious destructive revolution does require a reification of nihilism, but the logical conclusion of that would be nuclear war so the danger of it is clear. Though the singularity is impervious to the destruction of worlds. Nihilism inevitably becomes the fallback position when people’s lives start to seem meaningless and their efforts futile, as when everything is racing towards destruction. Nihilism is highly corrosive to the fabric of society, which may or may not be a good thing. But essentially the nihilist is sitting under a gloomy tree. I think I was very nihilistic at one time of my life, when I was exploring demonology and reading Nietzsche’s books back-to-back, but intermittent revelation in the form of grace would disperse that so it was never something I could hold onto with any conviction. It is a great effort, actually, to hold onto any fixed viewpoint. Even being bored wears you out from the effort to maintain it.

Gyrus: Has anything in contemporary philosophy excited you even though (or because) it’s at odds with your nondualism?

Joel: I read quite a few speculative realism books recently, mainly because there is such an influx of energy into this loose school of thought or genre at present and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I was mostly disappointed, but Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude I found genuinely exciting, at least while I was reading it, afterwards I was less excited as I began to consider some of the flaws of it. That said, it has at least two excellent pages where Meillassoux writes brilliantly about what he calls a ‘contradictory entity’ (pp. 69-70 in the English translation; p. 64 also has a beautifully written passage). Here I recognised a valid description of the intelligent void, absolute reality, seemingly being speculated about quite accurately, to such an extent it made me wonder whether Meillassoux knows just how right he is in those two pages or whether he was just throwing the idea out there as one of many things he was speculating about. Now I would say that this absolute reality is non-objective, i.e. not any kind of entity, but he brings in the idea of a contradictory entity that is ‘always-already whatever it is not’, which is a pleasing way of denying the nature of entity to something you’re calling an entity, at least to some degree. Obviously if you didn’t call it an entity in the first place, you wouldn’t have to deal with it contradicting itself, but nonetheless for someone thinking in an objective framework this indeed does serve to address the question in an intriguing way. Afterwards I read the extensive extracts from his Divine Inexistence that were translated by Graham Harman in his book Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making. Now this is where it all seems to go to pot, since he is a little obsessed with the idea of resurrecting the dead in the future, and doesn’t, at least in the extracts provided, explain why he thinks this is a matter for philosophy.

As for some of the rest of the speculative realists, they appear to want to make a case for bringing objects to the forefront of philosophical discussion with their ‘object-oriented ontology’. This is such a dead-end I’m surprised this movement has caught on at all. But it was of interest to me as it is a contrary direction to the non-objectivity I have been talking about. However, I didn’t find the way they write about it very engaging and mostly they are stuck in thought.

Gyrus: You’ve practiced the occult and studied the Yijing, both to a greater degree than many or most, but we’ve not gone into them much. If they’re no longer in the foreground of your take on the world, have they left worthwhile traces in your everyday life?

Joel: I once wrote that the occult is probably the only path that is gung-ho about increasing one’s delusions as a means of eventually defeating them. I still think that’s a way to go, but only if one is irretrievably drawn to the occult.

There’s no question that there’s something very profound about Enochian and Babalon, it may even be the only truly alive mystery left in the Western Magical Tradition. I can’t see myself having anything further to do with the occult but there is a kind of deep underground river of it in me, whereby I may on the surface not profess any interest but if someone asks an occult question, by which I mean one that emanates from initiated understanding, I find that there is a spontaneous upsurge of words that surprises me, since I find myself talking about matters I thought I had forgotten but which have only been hidden for some time and now as they re-emerge I notice a maturing of ideas threaded through with the potency of a magick I was once really dedicated to that was not about exerting will or gaining one’s desires so much as seeking obscure understandings. On the surface I tend to play down magick but actually it was a very vibrant period, full of illusions but also very energised. And of course I met a lot of interesting people through the occult.

The Yijing I studied daily for a good many years, and consulted it often, too often. Now I hardly consult it at all. When Steve Moore was alive we often spoke about Yijing burn-out, which he too felt from time to time. But the interest does return. Funnily enough I consulted the Yijing the other day about not being able to quite recall how I used to be, say ten or twenty years ago, with the implied sense that how I felt now may be a regression, but I couldn’t tell. Sometimes I indulge such illusions for practice out of curiosity. I found the response particularly interesting, in that it was a line I regularly used to get that describes the situation of Jizi at the court of the Shang tyrant, a line about not letting external misery deflect one from one’s convictions (hexagram 36/5). My eyes opened wide as I recalled very vividly what my life was like when I received that line back then, the sense of being in darkness and having to hold on tight to whatever light I could muster to get through the time, whereas now there is nothing but equanimity in regard to everything. This settled the question very convincingly, not a regression at all, evidenced by former feelings stored in the book through its long use.

Gyrus: What are your top tips for psychic survival in interesting times?

Joel: Great, the Cosmo question! I would say throw your smartphone away, ditch all social media, stop reading newspapers or The Guardian website because it’s free, and pull away from the internet altogether. Become a complete Luddite, but otherwise use Tor and encrypted email so you’ll be more expensive to surveil. Go and live in the wilderness if you can, but if you can’t don’t worry about it. Change your diet to vegan if it isn’t already. Bake your own bread.

Joel’s poppyseed, olive and chive bread

Chuck your job in and do something more interesting if it pisses you off. Be a Stoic. Spend time in nature. Listen to the birds rather than ‘the news’. If you don’t know what to do with your life, don’t worry, there’s plenty of fools who think they know what to do with theirs. As a rule of thumb, if you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything. It’ll work out fine. But generally, have more inner strength. Because one day the worst may happen and you’re going to have to deal with it. There may be an accidental nuclear war, an undiscovered asteroid may be heading towards Earth, artificial intelligence may prove hostile, and a virus right now may be plotting to evolve specifically to wipe out humans. If you ask me, I might be in favour of a mass extinction event for humanity. I was certainly saddened to hear that 60% of non-human primates such as monkeys, gorillas, gibbons and lemurs are threatened with extinction. I see no great loss in the extinction of humans. They’ve had their time.

Regarding ‘interesting times’, you probably know that the supposed ancient Chinese curse ‘May you live in interesting times’ can’t be found in China. But there’s a genuine Chinese saying that is relevant to the media-driven times in which we live: ‘One dog barks at a shadow. A hundred dogs bark at the noise.’

As for ‘psychic survival’ in the literal sense, sometimes seeming events in the world inspire fear and dread, and the addictiveness with which people consume ‘news’ about such events only increases it. Walk away, go and look up at the stars. I know little of the so-called ‘filter bubble’ that the billionaire technocrat Mark Zuckerberg is supplying to your plugged-in Matrix pod, but it’s not hard to see the effects even from far away.

But there is only one real answer to your question: Know who you are without any illusions.

All images copyright Joel Biroco. The header is a photo by Joel from his London garden. The paintings are all watercolour and black Indian ink, titles as follows:

  • 'Déjà-vu'
  • 'Sea'
  • 'Fiercely possessive but ultimately dead bird'
  • 'Medusa'
  • 'Dreaming bird'