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The mystic and the malcontent
the Samsara vs society showdown
In 2006, I enrolled in a 2-week Permaculture design course. About 15 of us moved into a farm on the edge of the Forest of Dean to learn the ecological principles of sustainable design.
During the welcoming circle, we were each asked to say our names and one thing about ourselves. Feeling bold, I led with "I'm Dan and I'm an anarchist."
There were some grins, whilst others looked more ambivalent—perhaps worried I might stir up an insurrection in the sitting room.
At that time, I spent a lot of time pondering the mess of capitalism, globalisation and eventually, civilisation. I struggled to see why people couldn't trace these symptoms back to civilisation itself. Why did they settle for superficial debates on politics or economics?
A lot of my thinking was influenced by authors like Ran Prieur, Derek Jensen and books like Final Empire by William H. Kötke, which Google tells me is now "an underground classic." My interest was heartfelt but stayed mostly intellectual—I never went that far down the activist route.
This outward-facing, dissident self shifted abruptly in 2007. Robert Anton Wilson died and a blogger I followed shared a dedication to this work. It prompted me to buy Prometheus Rising. I'd not read anything like it. It put my back up. But I persisted and in the end it probably had a bigger impact on me than any other book, propelling me down the rabbit hole of personal transformation, Crowley-flavoured yoga and contemplative practice.
Not long after, I also began a new career in Tech. This allowed more travel, money and adventure to enter my life. Being exposed to more of the world—alongside Wilson's mischievous brand of guerilla ontology—challenged my simplified, sceptical view of things.
Fast-forward to the present. I'm not an anarchist. In fact, my last job was as a middle manager in a London fintech company. I've been off of work for nearly 6 months after a torrid three years, the gory details of which were recounted when I started this Substack.
A few months ago, I still felt physically fatigued and emotionally exhausted. I wasn't sure about working in Tech at all, anymore. I felt deeper questions being asked of me. I knew some extended time off was what I needed. Mostly to recover, and then perhaps to chart out a new career. It was all neat and admirable.
The issues started in the recovery phase. Most of the standard advice for dealing with burnout was not much help. All the adjustments to ways of working were useless as I could not physically look at a screen for more than an hour without dissociating and feeling a deep ache in my chest and face. Even away from the screen, a simple shopping trip would quickly end in exhaustion.
The stories I read about other people’s burnout hit home, but the wider explanations of burnout felt too shallow. Burnout was treated as an isolated, occupational hazard, leaving behind wider questions around why burnout is so prevalent and why so many people secretly craved the occupational martyrdom it offered.
Being stuck in my head was not helping, so I went off-piste to heal, wandering in the woods, taking up Tai Chi, practising IFS, walking religiously, doubling down on esoteric meditation, experimenting with breathwork and chatting with strangers. I got moving, got outside, went deeper and went wild. I rooted my recovery in my body.
I found myself entranced by living things. Calling it a "back to nature" moment or "enjoying the outdoors" still seems entirely inadequate to the sudden gravity of it. I became fascinated by life itself: plants unfurling, birds feeding, bees pollinating; the sound, colour and community. They had always been there but now they lept into the foreground. I needed to learn the names of the birds, to be near rivers, to feel soft ground underfoot, to camp out under the stars. I felt starved without walking in the woods.
It took a while to realise that perhaps this fascination with life was mirroring a reconnection with the living self that had been lost in ever-shallower levels of virtual immersion. In seeing the magic of life anew, I was remembering it in myself. (Or perhaps, birds, bees and rivers are just inherently wonderful.)
These were not the standard practices you do to get past burnout. They opened up avenues of inquiry I didn't expect. Some part of me was aware of this and knew I was being pulled by something deeper. Whatever was happening quickly burst the banks of "burnout recovery."
As I reflected on this period, I started to reconnect with a deep sensitivity. I had given plenty of lip service to this sensitivity in the past: I happily identify as a Highly-Sensitive Person (HSP) and will rattle on about sensory-processing sensitivity to anyone unwise enough to inquire without a clear exit. Learning about sensitivity through Elaine Aron was only second in impact to learning about introversion through Jung. It was an enormous relief.
But after reviewing what had happened over these years—probably beginning as far back as 2016—I saw I had suppressed that sensitivity at turn after turn: leaning harder into work, into a monotony and intensity that utterly overwhelmed it. It is still hard to write this.
At that time, the sensitivity felt like what was stopping me from attaining ever higher levels of impact and effectiveness. Only later did I understand that, far from being a hindrance, this sensitivity was what had originally delivered me to the doorstep of everything I cared about. And in trying to push through it, whether through alcohol or adrenaline, I choked down the curiosity and wonder it brought to my world.
Now, this sensitivity was re-emerging. It was not thrilled about what I’d subjected myself to. Being returned to this tenderness was uncomfortable. Instead of pushing into the future, I felt plunged into a new relationship with the past.
Anger played its part too: I felt like I’d been kicked out of the garden, betrayed by what I had given so much of myself to. I had been handsomely compensated for putting up with the banality of work and the price of it had been my ability to work at all.
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Getting back to writing regularly was one major outcome from the last three years. I had plans to write more about burnout, perhaps building an audience around this topic.
I tried. But each time I felt unsatisfied by the shallowness of the inquiry. Eventually, I read The End of Burnout by, which led me to Josef Pieper and his idea of total work. After reading Pieper, it was nearly impossible to read anything else on burnout. The spiritual malaise that drives the enterprise of total work became blindingly clear.
About 2 years behind the rest of the world, I also started reading’s essays on The Machine. This was a curious loop to complete—Paul's first book was what introduced me to the anti-globalisation movement when I was a teenager, culminating in my identification as an anarchist on a Permaculture course.
All of this stoked in me the malcontent. He was still there, much to my surprise. Perhaps no longer in black anarchist garbs, but he wanted to ask more uncomfortable questions about the mess we're in and whether I'd been doing more for the planet than sorting my recycling.
The malcontent was back, but he was not alone. He needed to find space alongside the mystic who had been contoured by 15 years of contemplative practice, from Vipassana to Magia. An engagement with the process of awakening had fundamentally changed me, quietly but not subtly transforming my understanding of time, mind and life. While the malcontent had been studying economics by day, the mystic was signing blood oaths by night.
But things weren’t all rosy on that front, either. Despite the radical impact of practice, I felt fatigued with spirituality as a private pursuit; a pick and mix according to mood and proclivity. I felt uneasy with an individual awakeness that seemed divorced from social alienation. I wanted more than a vision of wisdom as something that arises when sitting still, silent, alone, inside and in darkness.
I had also been increasingly drawn to the liminal space between ultimate truth and mundane matters: the mythical, the somatic and the soulful. These were the parts of me that felt left behind by the clinical gaze of Vipassana.
I felt not so different from Herman Hesse’s Siddharta:
that Siddhartha has remained alien and unknown to me, stems from one cause, a single cause: I was afraid of myself, I was fleeing from myself! I searched Atman, I searched Brahman, I was willing to dissect my self and peel off all of its layers, to find the core of all peels in its unknown interior, the Atman, life, the divine part, the ultimate part. But I have lost myself in the process.
Making matters worse, I no longer felt like I had a political home. It seemed, as Matt Taibi wrote, that the Left was now the Right: those nosy, controlling, religious conservatives now seemed to be on the other side and—despite their compelling branding—were pushing a new intolerance and illiberalism that rapidly took root in government, business and education. It was led by what Andrew Doyle called the New Puritans or the people John McWhorter named The Elect.
An obsession with race, gender and identity swallowed up a long tradition of wider progressive concerns. A new worldview wanted to overturn all limits and boundaries—to flatten out differences, whether biological or cultural. It spread through simplification, shaming and a counter-productive fixation on “safety.” Stranger still, it was loudest in the very places where conditions were best.
I couldn't easily slip back into other strands of counter-culture either. There are good reasons I moved away from that: a nihilism and negativity that felt divorced from an appreciation of the spectacle of life; a disempowering fixation on society as the cause of all evils, and a lack of aesthetic and spiritual engagement.
Secular culture had felt bankrupt to me for some time, remaining essentially silent on the mystical, energetic and existential transformations that had punctured my life, not to mention the entirety of life beyond its visible, material foundations. Rubbing further salt in the wound, the DSM V would have diagnosed many of those mystical experiences as symptomatic of major illness.
No matter their flaws, I found value in each: whether the secular, counter-cultural or spiritual, and wandered in all three worlds. But I hungered for a holism that honoured the wild interplay of psyche, spirit, society and technology.
This homelessness left me in cohorts with unlikely friends: cognitive scientists tracing the grammar of our meaning crisis, tantric Buddhists clearing routes beyond the renunciate, French phenomenologists pointing out our participation, reformed environmentalists attacking the Machine, Conservative thinkers extolling of the forgotten gifts of civilisation, Existential theologians working to revive an ontological appreciation of life, Nobel laureates turning their pens to the flattening of our subjectivity, historians retelling the story of our cultural roots and Thomist philosophers writing about the religion of work.
How to put this all together, again?
The core question remained for me: how do we present a robust understanding of the mess we're in, alongside a spiritual or religious appreciation of our place here?
Here is another way of framing it. Some people, early in life, have a deep sense of something being wrong with the world. Some part of that can be addressed by understanding how society works and doesn’t work. But there is another sense of something being awry—something more fundamental and personal: a distance of from life, an ache of separation. More existential than conceptual.
These two concerns do not always sit easily together. The malcontent wields the ideas of power and production to explain the mess around us. The mystic quips: what did you expect, living in Samsara? This is an unsatisfying caricature, but it’s not easy to dismiss. What should we set out to change and what is part of the package? The answer has personal, philosophical and strategic implications.
How do we live through the horizontal hurricane of modernity whilst staying rooted in our vertical depth?
How do we live through the metacrisis without being defined by it?
It was a return to the question that I’d spent many years scribbling notes down about. The book indefinitely postponed to the future, the picture that is never quite ready. Back to the corridors and overlaps where I felt most comfortable.
This is what I will be writing about going forward. I will share more about what it might look like in the coming posts. These big questions come with personal challenges: how do I write about all of this whilst sitting in the ashes of burnout? What other parts of my life might change as a result? I have more announcements on this front, next time.
Sometimes, I think back to the Permaculture course and wonder what I would say in the welcoming circle now. These are the kinds of situations writers like to relive from the comfort of their heads, foregoing the reality of in person awkwardness and on-the-spot response. Allowing for that indulgence, this is what I might say.
“I’m Dan. I think the empirical gaze sees life under one aspect, and that it leaves far, far too much behind; that the evacuation of our interiors is the biggest casualty in modern times; that a culture of utility will always overlook the non-instrumental nature of reality; that everything useless—art, music and beauty—reminds us that we have more than practical needs; that the internal echoes of poetry are no less vital than the external measurement of worlds.
that our genes, bodies and behaviours have a home in our sciences, but that we have no home in our own story; that our compulsion to optimise, upgrade, hack and process everything is a lowering of ourselves to the level of the computers that we now idolise; that self-hatred is our most poisonous inheritance; that accepting the role of ‘consumer’ or ‘worker’ is a laughably inept apprehension of our full stature.
that we live in a culture of the daytime, an artificial glare that constantly seeks to chase away shadow, soul, dream and doubt; that every person has a need for transcendence; that our cultural stuttering on this front leads many good people to search for meaning in bizarre places; that we hunger for the depths; that our hunger leads us to devour many questionable ideas.
that rationality never exists in a vacuum, and that it marches in a carnival alongside our imagination, intuition, devotion, grit and grace; that our being and knowing stretches far beyond the propositional cleaving of modernity; that the body is the forgotten temple of the animate and the living; that minds seep far beyond skin, skull and subject.
that despite condemnation in both secular and spiritual scenes, words are not obstacles, but the only way we can speak ourselves into being, the only way of giving voice to our depths and mediating the drama of the visible and invisible that we call life; that words are more you than red blood cells.
that humans are not just another animal—that we are stewards at the heart of Creation; that our divinity is no further than our interiority; that our dignity is our depth; that mystery is a feature, not a bug.
that the astonishment of being compels us to confront theology; that all beings are necessarily in relation to Being itself; that all the big questions are announcing themselves as wildly as ever for those with ears to hear; that monism is no answer to dualism; that awe is our most potent form of participation; that we are both human and being and a miracle never before witnessed, an ebullience spilling beyond itself in each instant.
that we are limited humans, but that we participate in something without limit; that, paradoxically, we only realise this when we stop fleeing our constraints; that the sacred is only found through the secular; the timeless only known in the temporal and the eternal only glimpsed through the existential; that freedom and peace come by moving not out but through.
that the answers to all the big questions are available in the next person you meet, that despite how many bombs are falling, heaven erupts when people sit down and eat food together; that kindness is a natural result of realising that neither you nor anyone else had any say in our being here; that Beauty is a first-class citizen; that Creation is an ongoing event and we're all Big Banging.
And I’m still sceptical of authority.”
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