The Sworn Book of Professor Peterson
Peterson: I’m an odd sort of Christian, I suppose, for a variety of reasons.... There is an idea of the Eternal Soul, and it tends in Christianity to remain somewhat gendered, although there is an idea that it’s the Logos that is redemptive for males and females...and Logos is symbolically represented as masculine. I think that’s because the masculine spirit, so to speak, is freer in some sense than the female spirit, because it’s more tightly tied to the necessity of procreation and so forth. It’s something like that.... Societies have posited for a very long period of time that there’s something about human consciousness that transcends the limitations of the finite self. And you also mentioned the use of psychedelics, and obviously that was part of your experience of discovery. There’s a reasonable amount of evidence, and most of it was compiled by a man whose name, if I remember, was Wasson, who was an amateur mycologist, a student of mushrooms... R. Gordon Wasson. And he claimed that the Bhagavad Gita was produced as a consequence of ancient India’s experimentation with Amanita muscaria mushrooms... Yes, soma. Exactly. Those strange little mushrooms that are red with the white caps, which people regard as poisonous.... and which have extraordinarily powerful psychoactive properties. As far as I’ve been able to determine, not being an expert in that area, Wasson’s hypothesis is at least reasonably well-regarded. And one of the things that we don’t understand in the least is the relationship between the psychedelic experience and the spiritual traditions of mankind. I mean, one of the documenters of the shamanic tradition, early documenters, was a man named Mircea Eliade, who was a historian of religions, and a very profound one. He documented the shamanic transformations. Basically the sequence goes that the shaman is reduced to a skeletal form, and then climbs a vine or a tree that connects him to the realm of the gods. And during that journey he communicates with his ancestors and then with the gods. And then his body is purified and replaced with new flesh, and he returns as a renewed human being. Eliade believed that that was often a spontaneous occurrence, but Wasson and other observers—and I actually think they’re correct—believed that those experiences were induced by drugs like...Amanita muscaria mushrooms or often by mushrooms like psilocybin...and those substances are—to call them strange is barely to scrape the surface.
Trussell: Have you taken psychedelics?
Peterson: Yes, I have.
Trussell: It sounds like it. Yes, you’re right... It’s the strangest of things. And when it comes to identity and the psychedelics’ effect on human identity...it does create an experience that is transcendent to the very temporary human form that we are currently within.
Peterson: Yes, well, there’s a psychiatrist named Rick Strassman, who was at the University of Texas, and he had been giving his experimental subjects—he is one of two groups that had got permission to start experimenting with psychedelics again, the other one was a group at Johns Hopkins, who’ve been reporting the consequences of giving experimental subjects psilocybin...in its chemical form. They report...permanent personality transformations on the part of...the people who took the psilocybin mushrooms who had a mystical experience. And so what’s happened to them, apart from the fact that they regarded the experience as one of the top two or three experiences of their life in terms of transformation, is that when you give them personality tests a year later—these are five-factor personality tests; they test extroversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness—and openness is a creativity dimension, an aesthetic experience-creativity dimension—and their scores on openness increase substantially, approximately from the equivalent of the 50th percentile to the 85th percentile, which is one standard deviation. They increase and stay that way up to one year later. So these chemicals, these strange chemicals, produce very long-lasting effects on people’s perception, and they do produce intimations of mystical experience. Now, Strassman actually got scared away from his DMT research. He was a pretty, I would say, conservative scientist and was administering DMT intravenously, because it has a very short half-life. If you take it any other way, it only lasts about ten minutes. And his people, who were very carefully screened to begin with for sanity and so forth—although they have some experience with psychedelic drugs, because they didn’t want to introduce naive people to anything like that—they all reported being shot out of their body and encountering alien beings. All of them. And when Strassman attempted to explain that away as, well, let’s call it a hallucination, although technically, if you’re hallucinating, you know that you’re hallucinating, and you know what’s real, so these were far deeper than hallucinations, or that they were something like Jungian archetypes, but his subjects insisted that—including people who knew quite a bit about archetypal psychology—insisted that that was not correct, that they were in fact shot out of their bodies into other spaces and dimensions, and that they encountered beings of all sorts of different types, some of whom were surprised to see them, some of whom were happy they were there, some of whom engaged them in conversation. I mean, it makes very strange reading. And there’s no straightforward way of making sense of it. There’s no straightforward way of making sense of the shamanic experiences, too. Eliade thought that those rituals...if they were induced by drugs, that that was a corrupt form of the original ritual. But I think that later scholarship has indicated that that’s profoundly wrong, and that the basis of these experiences is in fact hallucinogenic experience of the sort, say, that the Aztecs induced with psilocybin mushrooms or mescaline.
Trussell:...The point I’m trying to make is that I can empathize with a person who does not feel like they’re the gender of their body or whatever...that their body is who they are, after having had enough of these experiences. And one of my teachers, Ram Dass, talks about how we’re kind of simultaneously existing on these two platforms. One of them is the human world—he calls it the marketplace; this is where all the transactions happen that you’re talking about, the negotiations—“Well, I’m a zir or a zie or a man or a woman or a comedian or a doctor or whatever”—that’s what’s happening on that level. While simultaneously, there’s this other level, this other platform that we exist in that has nothing to do with the human body at all. This is the... I think you were talking about the book of John: “In the beginning was the Word.” That...that thing.... So sometimes I think that as we accelerate into whatever is going to happen... In your Self-Authoring Program, you talk about how it is good to write about the potential futures. And please stop me if I am butchering this. So if I keep acting like a lazy stoner, don’t do anything for the next six years, except the very minimal amount of effort that I have to keep food in my body and pay rent, what’s my life going to look like in six years? In ten years? In fifteen years? So you sort of come up with that version of potential hell-realm that you write for yourself. And then...what would happen if I actually started taking risks, became stronger, more focused, set goals and moved in that direction? What would that life look like? So you get these two different, one beautiful timeline and one absolutely horrifying timeline. So it seems to me that in the same way as a species we are witnessing these two potential timelines opening up, one of them being....
Peterson: Well, that’s exactly why heaven and hell are archetypal realities, and that cultures always have an intimation of them.... It seems that Being is structured such that our choices determine the pathway that Being will take as it unfolds.... And consciousness seems to play...a determining role in that. Obviously it’s not omnipotent. There are limitations to what any of us can do. We have a somewhat constrained sphere of immediate influence, although that can be expanded dramatically under certain conditions. And it’s certainly occurred to me—and I think this is a fundamental...presupposition of Christianity at its deepest strata—is that people are always making a choice between transforming reality into something more closely approximating heaven or something more closely approximating hell. We do the latter when we are motivated by resentment for the suffering that Being entails, which is perfectly understandable. And we do the former when we attempt to manifest, let’s say, that second part of us that you describe ever more truthfully and genuinely in the world and thereby transcend our marketplace identities or elevate those marketplace identities to something other than the mundane...and let’s say, shortsighted and impulsive and selfish in an unsophisticated way. And, you see, I’ve come to believe that meaning—which is something that everyone absolutely needs and certainly experiences, at least the meaning of pain and suffering—you need a positive meaning to counterbalance that so that you don’t fall into the grip of resentment and hatred and all the things that can go along with that. The Gulag Archipelago is a very good indication of that. And to do that you need to put your best foot forward and manifest your higher consciousness, so to speak, in the actual world. And if you do that, then you find that your life becomes imbued with a sense of positive meaning. And I think that that’s actually an evolved function that our nervous system isn’t evolved to the world that we see with our senses precisely. It’s evolved to the world as it’s existed over massive spans of time. And the structures that exist over massive spans of time aren’t the same ones that you see as they flit before you in your life. So, one of those is explored territory, and another is unexplored territory, or Order versus Chaos, which is the way the Taoists conceptualize reality. And Order is where you are when the things that you are doing are working the way you want them to. And there’s a social element to that. And a conceptual element. And then Chaos is all those places and times where what you do produces something other than what you were predicting and desiring. And our nervous systems, as far as
I’ve been able to tell, are specialized for that world. We treat the world as if it’s explored versus unexplored territory or Order versus Chaos. We try to maintain order.... But it’s more than that, because you can’t just live in Order. Because Order disintegrates. It disintegrates into Chaos, as the yin-yang symbol indicates. And so, in order to live in Order properly, you have to live on the boundary between Order and Chaos. And continually to transform Order on a constant basis so that it stays up-to-date and alive.
Pinocchio as the classic example of that. You see the same thing in The Lion King though, when Simba undergoes his shamanic transformation, goes deep underground. He faces his father in his own reflection and then sees him in the sky, and realizes that in order to conquer Chaos and to regenerate the kingdom, he has to identify with his father, his dead father, see that within him, and then go fight evil. And, you know, and at the end of that there’s flames and everything in that movie while he’s battling Scar, and at the end the rain comes. And that’s a very old story.
Trussell: Going into the depths to battle something...in the self. Right? That’s the idea.
Peterson: Or in the world. Like, for Jung, the battle was something that occurred in interior space, in the unconscious. But Jung was a visionary, and not everyone is like that. But you can certainly act out the same dynamic in the concrete physical world. I mean, Jung claimed as well in his most complex book, which was called Mysterium coniunctionis, he said that the highest level of psychological integration came when you ceased making a distinction between the external world of your experience and the internal psychic world. And so what that would mean, for example, you know, if you’re in a room, and it’s your room, and the room is a mess, that there’s no difference between the mess in that room and the mess in your psyche.
Peterson: And...you conceptualize that by realizing...that that room, although it has an objective existence, is also an element of your subjectivity. Like, the meaning of everything in that room is an element of your subjectivity. And so when you’re in the room, there’s no difference between that and being in you. And setting the room straight is the same as setting yourself straight. And it’s often the simplest place to start.
Trussell: Yes, that’s true. I know from personal experience that if I spend a few days organizing, cleaning, getting rid of shit I don’t need, then my internal universe feels so much better.... It just works. So, yeah, those little steps are...really important. But I want to ask you...if we look at the world that we are in right now, and we’re entering into an age where there’s going to be a massive economic upheaval from machines, self-automating cars, and artificial intelligence, and we’re entering into a new world, basically... I just wanted to ask, what do you see as the bleakest future for us, one where this, kind of like, insane, tyrannical postmodernist movement takes hold versus our heaven or our version of what could go right for us as a species as we move into this amazing time period that is being disrupted by current and emerging technologies?
Peterson: Huh. Well, you know, that’s something... Here’s how I would answer that. What did Yogi Berra say? It’s very difficult to predict anything, especially the future. I think that was his line. It’s pretty funny. Well, you know, when I was a kid, say, forty years ago, I was chronically worried about the Third World War, and like a hydrogen
Cuban Missile Crisis, they wouldn’t tell us, but you know, it was very surreal is putting it mildly. But I realized about ten years later that—or maybe longer—that I couldn’t worry any more about the future because it’s so indeterminate that I became convinced that no matter what I was worried about was likely to happen...that was unlikely the thing that was going to happen.
Peterson: Okay, to not weasel out of your question totally.... So what I felt then—and this is what I wrote about in Maps of Meaning and I’ve talked about this a lot in my YouTube videos and it’s also part of the Self-Authoring suite philosophy—is that in times of radical uncertainty, it is necessary that the Hero be born. And because the Hero is the person that doesn’t deal with something specific. The Hero is the person who deals with uncertainty itself. And that’s the great dragon of Chaos. And so I would say that what’s necessary is...that it is necessary for the individual to become prepared for everything and anything. And the way that you do that is by developing your character. I mean, that’s the oldest religious story, let’s say, is that it is incumbent upon you to take on the role of the supporter of the world, the pillar of the world. And you do that by, well, ...by trying not to lie, that’s really something fundamental. And then by conceptualizing heaven as opposed to hell, and then by devoting yourself to its production in whatever ways you can as an individual. And that might mean, well, you start by learning how to make your bed, and learning how to make meals, and learning how to take care of your family. Like shouldering the responsibility that’s immediately in front of you before you worry about the world. And as you shoulder that responsibility, you become stronger, and less nihilistic and hopeless and perhaps your life also straightens around, if you’re lucky, so you don’t get tortured quite as much. And that starts to decrease the bitterness. You know, you can get a, let’s call it a virtuous process underway if you’re willing to humble yourself enough to take the first trivial steps, steps for which no one will congratulate you. Or which you might even be ashamed to notice that you need to do because you haven’t been.
Trussell: Or even...here’s a sadly controversial thing to say.... Or maybe you just start off by praying. You could just start there. A nice secret prayer to the universe. You have to say “Universe,” you can’t say “God” now....
Peterson: Well, you know, in the Pinocchio story, I’ve talked about this fairly extensively.... I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing the Disney Pinocchio film—which is an animated masterpiece, obviously. So, when Geppetto makes the puppet, the marionette, Pinocchio, of course the marionette is something that is being pulled by strings by an operator behind the scenes. And people who are possessed by ideologies are possessed
Trussell: But haven’t you had an experience like of actual...? I mean, I love, I like the intellectual take on it. I’ve done it myself, but then my experience of God has been something that’s just a direct... I mean, it’s hard to talk about, it’s very personal.... But, Dr. Peterson, haven’t you had that experience where it’s like, sure, it’s, you know, it’s.... What I guess what I mean is, it’s more than wishing upon a star.... Yes.... Yes.... Where you are... you are crying out for help, because you know you’re so stuck. You that this thing is way more complicated than you’re able to intellectually figure out. And so you sort of, call out to something. And then when you talk about the mushroom experiments, the psilocybin, the synthetic psilocybin experiments, I think Dr. Charles Grove is doing at Johns Hopkins in treating addiction—these mystical experiences are contact with a transcendent consciousness that is a separate intelligence, that out of its benevolence and never-ending love for you, helps save your ass.... Do you feel like you’re tying yourself down a bit because so many people are God-phobic?
Peterson: Well, that’s a very good question. I can tell you one of the experiences that I had... When I was.... This would be in 1985 or thereabouts, when I was busily working on the first draft of my book Maps of Meaning, where I was outlining this idea that the path of the Hero who voluntarily confronts uncertainty and stands on the border between Chaos and Order is the appropriate target for human development. It’s an alternative to the chaos of nihilism and the totalitarianism of rigid belief. So, and that’s the bearing of responsibility for Being. I was working all of that out. It’s actually an answer to the postmodern conundrum as far as I can tell as well. But anyways, at the same time I was
making this sculpture, which is about a foot thick. It’s made out of layers of what’s called foam core, which is styrofoam pressed between two pieces of paper that’s about a quarter of an inch thick and so often used for backing on prints and so on if you get them framed. I made this piece that I called “The Meaning of Music,” and it’s a mandala, so it’s a circle inscribed inside of a square, although I tried to make it multidimensional in a complex way that I can’t really describe at the moment. But what I was trying to do—and I broke it into pieces—what I was trying to do was to produce a visual object that flickered and changed when you looked at it because it was too complex to process visually. You know, like a Necker cube? That’s one of those cubes that reverses when you look at it.
Peterson: Well, this is like a Necker cube on steroids. Because music, of course, it stays the same across time, but also transforms across time. And it’s full of layered patterns, you know. And the patterns interact harmoniously with one another... And I was fascinated by music because it gives people the direct intimation of meaning. Even if they’re nihilistic punk rockers, they still can’t criticize the experience of meaning that they engage in when they’re listening to their favorite band. It helps them transcend the nihilism of their irrationality.... And you can’t argue with it. It’s like arguing with dance.... It’s beyond argument. And so I was making this sculpture, and I spent like four months on it. I was thinking about it a lot. And I got it mostly assembled, and then I was in my living room in Montreal, and I was listening to Mozart’s Fourth Symphony, the Jupiter Symphony, and I was really listening to it, and it’s one of these complexly, multi-leveled, patterned pieces of auditory sculpture that I believe represents Being. Because what Being is is multiple levels of patterned transformation interacting simultaneously, and music is a representation of that, which is why I think we find it meaningful. Anyways, I was listening intently to this symphony and at the same time I was concentrating on the sculpture that I had made, and all of a sudden—and everything I am about to say is a metaphor because there’s no way of encapsulating it properly in words—it was as if the heavens opened up above me. I mean, I was still in my living room, but the experience is best represented by one of those early Renaissance paintings where you see God or Christ up in the sky with an opening in the sky against the clouds and against the sun so...it was like that, even though I didn’t really see that, it felt like that, and there were some visuals that were associated with it. And then I felt something descend upon me that had a personal nature. You know, something like you were describing as a... higher consciousness that was actually a being of a sort, and it filled me from the inside out. And...it was enrapturing, let’s say. And it was an incredible feeling.... It was a divine feeling, I suppose is the right way of thinking about it. It was certainly a religious experience.... And it transformed me. And it turned me into something far more than I normally was. And maybe you can think about that as an intimation of what you could become if you worked on it for the rest of your life, which is sometimes what I think hallucinogens provide people with—an image of who they could be if they shed all of their dead wood.
Peterson: Anyways, it was as if an offer was being made to me that I could be like that from now on permanently. And I thought, well, I don’t know how to do that. I couldn’t walk down the street in this condition, in this elevated condition. I wouldn’t belong in the world anymore. I wouldn’t know how to function. I don’t know how I could do it... So, this experience, this thing, say, that was communicating with me...accepted that as an answer, although I would say, with some sorrow, and then it receded. And then I went and talked to my wife, and I told her what had happened, and I was shaking, like, a lot.... Like, a tremendous amount. And my pupils were completely dilated.
Peterson: Yeah, and that happened to me one other time in a similar manner, although it was more like an echo. It wasn’t quite as intense. But, you know, I was concentrating very much on trying to understand the central meaning of music, and of course the phenomenon of meaning itself. It seemed like the combination of that intense concentration and the visual stimulation and the music all culminated to produce this transformation of consciousness. That was its nature. [Peterson explains that he does not think there was a neurological trigger for the experience, although Dostoyevsky had similar auras right before an epileptic seizure.]
Trussell: Sure, sure, I know, I know, I know, but really what happened is.... See, I like to just condense things, purely out of convenience, and even Aleister Crowley talked about the convenience of these terms.... You can turn it into any kind of scientific breakdown that you want, but it is so much easier to say, God came to you, and you had a spiritual transformation from experiencing what people call the Holy Spirit, I think, in Christianity, the Comforter, that thing that comes to you so that you recognize, Oh, yeah, you’re definitely not alone. And then the element of it that’s personified, it definitely has a personality. It has a kind of...grace, graceful, the ultimate in gracefulness. And then also it’s polite. In the sense that when someone’s like, You know, I don’t think I’m ready to do this right now because if I go out into the streets in this state of consciousness...you want me to offer you my ego. I mean, this is the story of the rich man who comes to Jesus, right? And wants to follow Christ, and Christ says, Oh, well, just give your things to the poor and follow me. And he says, I can’t do that.
Trussell: And that’s the price of the ticket. Isn’t it? It’s like when the thing comes to you, it asks for everything. You know, in exchange for what? Who knows? I know exactly what you mean though. I can’t go shuffling through the streets starry-eyed and filled with the glory of God. What are your friends going to say?
Peterson: Haha. Yeah.
Trussell: You know...that collision that happens is such a beautiful thing. This is why I like the cyclical interpretation of time from a lot of world religions. This idea of a never-ending cycle, so at least you don’t have to feel like, Oh, I ruined everything because when it came, I didn’t go. ‘Cause the idea is like, No, you’ll get that chance again. And again, and again, and again, and again, and again. I hope I’m not keeping you too long....You tell me. What do you think happened? Did Professor Peterson experience the presence of the Holy Spirit, as Trussell suggests? He does not say so explicitly himself. Professor Peterson was working on a mandala and trying to understand the patterns of Being. And a Something came and offered him...what?
Transcript by RFB from Duncan Trussell’s interview with Jordan B. Peterson, published February 8, 2017, timestamp 0:45:45 through 1:20:40.
Kaleidescope by Duncan Trussell.