June 12, 2023
7 min

Escapism and Optimization

Why did the consciousness revolution fail us?

Right after the 2016 U.S. election, I got a call from my father. The raw emotion in his voice was palpable over the phone, which was unusual. He expressed deep remorse that his Generation had “let us down.” Hearing him choke up startled me, and at first, I quickly reassured him. After all, my parents were far from elitist. They had set good personal examples for me and my siblings growing up. But politics aside, I had mixed feelings. I couldn’t help but wonder..

Had the escapism of the 60s counterculture come back to haunt us?

On the cusp of social digitization and drug legalization, were we properly equipped to optimize them? To successfully leverage alchemical tools that the previous generation let slip away?

I had anticipated the results of 2016. In a way, I must admit that I was glad to see the US get shocked into some level of awareness. A call to action, many years overdue. We had been sleepwalking in complacency about too many systemic issues in this country, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was a high level of truth in my dad’s words.

As I reflected on the Baby Boomers and the forces of history that moved through the 1960s, it became impossible to deny that amnesia had occurred.

How did the biggest countercultural movement of a lifetime generate new heights of elitism, privilege, and affluence? How did a failed consciousness revolution set the stage for the streamlining of consumer excess? And how did the pandemic of political paradoxes that followed the ‘60s erode our political parties, polarizing voter bases for decades?

Photo by Polina DéWarrior

The boiling pot of ingredients that were poised to affect change in the West had been reduced to a mere simmer. After reaching high levels of solidarity across race and borders, the tailwinds of change shifted into a comfortable lull.

The unifying leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. and JFK were abruptly removed, having grown too powerful in scope. The mind-expanding drugs that broke down myriad social barriers were misused and abused, traded out for mind-numbing opiates and crippling addictions. The War on Drugs further broke up the remaining solidarity of race and class, creating fertile ground for a booming private prison industry that still persists.

Harshly-imposed reality set in for those whose minds and hearts had been cracked open during the cultural revolution. Empty holes tend to fill back up over time. Counterculture idealism no longer seemed practical. The war in Vietnam started to fade from view. The call to action was left behind.

Depending on how you were raised, the image of bedraggled hippies writhing hypnotically in the mud to the freeform heraldry of Hendrix’s guitar will either tug at your childlike sense of abandon or repel you (personally, I love playing in the mud). That level of “letting your hair down” became associated with a lack of ambition, career failure, a distasteful abandonment of the American Dream. To some degree, that makes sense.

We look back and see a generation of wannabe psychonauts, rebels, and youths in pain who were not prepared to integrate the wisdom and discipline demanded by psychedelics, unable to face the daunting social responsibilities that they revealed. The resounding truths within the music, art, and poetry of the time were scattered into obscurity.

The culture was one of escapism, especially for the young white middle class. Ironically, their acts of rebellion often reduced available resources for the communities that needed them the most.

There was no indigenous guidance from the long-standing stewards of consciousness exploration. No invocation of tradition or ritual. The Beatles went meta and the American youth wanted in! We were a country at war, and increased exposure through television had the unintended side effect of making youth feel humanely connected to their perceived enemies.

The movement had no game plan — people were trying to cut straight to the movie end-credits with no clue about the Hero’s Journey. And without the journey, how can a story reveal itself?

Photo by Polina DéWarrior

The youth and the young working class in 2019 feel…different. Or maybe it’s just the uniqueness of our surroundings. They seek escapisms like anyone else but have  grown up in an age where information is instantaneously accessible from their pockets. We have programmers, developers, sharp young minds that think in terms of systems. Triangulating sources, weighing options and leveraging decision-making in (nearly) unstoppable ways!

The San Fran of ’67 was full of drug-addicted rebels losing a fight for consciousness. Today, well, that still exists. But Silicon Valley is also full of tech-addicted innovators who micro dose drugs to optimize their focus and productivity. They curate music playlists to entrain their brains in hypnotic flow states for extended periods of time. The latter is a movement driven by the head, while the former was a movement of the heart. For lasting equilibrium and evolution, both intelligence systems have to work in tandem.

Honestly, it’s not just the tech companies. We’re all being forced to find ways to optimize. To pry open those flow-state gates and frack our creativity reservoirs in order to produce more, faster. Optimize your health, wealth, creativity, your legacy. We’re trying so hard to optimize our efficiency that we are racing to outsource optimization altogether via automation and AI.

Thinking about how our autonomic nervous system works, this aim for efficiency strikes me as a natural evolution. Carving out dynamic shortcuts to complex end-goals is a feature function of nature. Striving to conserve energy at every level. But how fast should we be fast-tracking some of these shortcuts? The nervous systems that we rely on took half a billion years to evolve. Our digital data systems have only had a few decades. Are we actually laying the groundwork for more long-tail inefficiency and systemic failure?

Marijuana is quickly achieving national legalization across the US. Psychedelic mushrooms were recently legalized in Colorado. This opens up a whole world of possibilities, with institutions like MAPS (the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies) becoming able to validate much more legal scientific research. We’re on the precipice of having very powerful access to these psycho-spiritual tools, and it’s time to ask ourselves…

I. What blindspots will the age of information present in our counterculture revolution 2.0?

II. How can we be smarter, better connected and more aligned with psychedelics, consumerism and each other this time around?

III. How is industrialization and big business affecting the tools designed to alter our consciousness?

With bigger and better tools come bigger problems. The race to dominate THC market share is on its way to predictable power accumulation with a bottom-line mentality. The same drug that we use to cope with societal pressures is becoming directly beholden to the predatory practices that helped fuel those pressures in the first place.

We need to be more than consumers, more than advocates.

We need to be accountable. We need to be honest with ourselves.

As for the growing trend of micro dosing, this is an even murkier area. In theory it makes sense, in practice it seems to do the trick - I’ve found it mildly beneficial myself. But are we all healthcare professionals now that we have the internet? Are we really optimizing ourselves, or are we attempting to bypass some level of internal distress that we’d be better off confronting head-on?

The dueling line between escapism and optimization is only a matter of interpretation. An apt analogue to demonstrate the struggle between immaterial and material needs. Without the requisite knowledge and wisdom however, the physical and the spiritual will continue to miss their opportunities for synchronization. And synchrony is exactly what we need.

As our future races to meet us, we need to ground ourselves in the past. The higher the energetic charge of a signal, the more important it is to ground that signal. Cultures that have long-standing traditions of psychedelic stewardship need a prominent voice in bridging this Techno-delic divide. With their wisdom and a growing body of scientific knowledge, we will be far better equipped as a society to make sustainable use of the countercultural tools available to us now.

The music is here. The art and storytelling are here. The wisdom of our elders is still here. The entheogens are ready to help. Technology is ripe enough to tear the whole game up.

So in 30 years, wouldn’t you like to be able to tell your children on the Communicator

“I’m so glad we didn’t let your generation down”?

Photo by Polina DéWarrior