Take a Walk on the Weird Side
By Charles Lighthouse
For this post, I asked Alembic regular and volunteer Charles Lighthouse to reflect on some events he has attended recently in the space and elsewhere. Charles is a San Francisco-based writer and organizer, and you can reach him at email@example.com. For TRANSMUTATIONS, he served up a sweet slice of Bay Area culture-making in perilous times. Going forward, we hope to hear more from Charles, but TRANSMUTATIONS looks forward to bringing in other Alembic voices as well. Stay tuned! — Erik
The world’s so weird right now, you might as well ask Philip K. Dick what he thinks about it. That’s what’s happening in Erik Davis’s Tuesday night class at the Alembic, where we’re reading The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch like an oracle. Erik says that Dick “prophesied what it feels like to be alive right now,” and there’s no better example than this 1964 novel in which transhuman, space-faring billionaires preside over an immiserated population mollified by consumer virtual realities and hallucinogenic drugs. Erik invites this prophetic reading to “allow us to see our own time under a more apocalyptic frame,” which he noted, “we don’t need to work very hard to develop.”
Starting the year with a five-week crash course in Phildickian paranoia seems like a smart way to start training for the Boomer Götterdämmerung election spectacle of 2024. Dick wrote this book while the postwar generation was just beginning to assert its cultural influence, but he envisioned a future completely devoid of the idealism the boomers expressed. But today, thinking about this stuff at a thriving bodymind center in Berkeley that’s “dedicated to experiments in transformation” tells me that the values that generation incubated here in the Bay Area aren’t dead yet. During her appearance at the Chalice last month, Maria Mangini pondered bringing a busload of Hog Farmers in to talk about their long and successful experiment in communal living. Kathleen Harrison, who will be speaking at The Alembic this weekend, spent the last fifty years developing structures for ethnobotanical fieldwork, conservation, and plant-person education with reciprocity built in as a core practice. Models are everywhere and change is always possible.
Lou Reed knew that. He said, “Change your energy; change your mind. You have more power than you know.” If a bunch of Berkeley “Dick-Heads” can consult PKD for guidance, then it’s not so weird that, across the Bay, sixty NPR addicts filled KALW’s downtown San Francisco pop-up for a panel and martial arts lesson inspired by Reed’s Tai Chi practice on January 25. Laurie Anderson and Bob Currie, editors of The Art of the Straight Line: My Tai Chi by Lou Reed appeared via Zoom. Gene Ching, publisher of Kung Fu – Tai Chi magazine and self-described “psychedelic ranger” was there in person, alongside moderators Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, hosts of The Kitchen Sisters. A dancer fully clad in denim with a hot pink baseball cap, scarf, and KN95 mask spent the entire event skanking in the window outside the former copy shop, occasionally getting honks of support from the drive-time traffic. If this is what a doom loop looks like, I’m all about it.
According to Anderson, Lou Reed saw Tai Chi as “a way to access power and grace with your friends.” He told journalist Martha Burr he found it “philosophically, aesthetically, physically, and spiritually fascinating.” While Reed cultivated a fearsome presence as a performer, the interviews we listened to during the event portrayed him as a dedicated student and generous teacher who thoroughly devoted himself to practice and community participation. He would have fit in well at the Alembic.
While the audience was excited by Anderson’s appearance, the most perceptible upward lilt in the group’s attention came when Ching talked about his psychedelic ranger work with Rock Medicine. “I specialize in bad trips,” Ching said. He described an experience during a Grateful Dead show at the Greek Theater where he helped cajole a spun naked guy out of a trash can and back to his friends. “It’s Tai Chi in action,” he said, “it’s about reading and responding to energy.” After the Q&A, we all pitched in on folding up our chairs so Gene could lead a demonstration of basic Tai Chi forms.
Feeling buzzed from the panel, I walked up to North Beach to check out the Full Moon Trip Temple at Professor Seagull’s Smart Shop. When I got there around 10 PM, their regular display of nootropics, entheogens, books, and test kits was shoved to the edges of the store, making space for floor sofas and a big communal table. While I was there, a dozen people were drawing, painting, pulling tarot cards, or grooving to the jazz manouche melodies the Levitation Quartet played. It was a classic San Francisco scene that could have shown up in just about anything published by City Lights when Lawrence Ferlinghetti was around, but this wasn’t nostalgia or cosplay. This is just what it looks like when neighbors hang out in public and make stuff together. In a neighborhood full of bars, it was a nice illustration that there’s other kinds of nightlife models too.
After years of connecting digitally while streaming information and entertainment at home, people are experimenting with new ways to be creative together that look beyond prefab culture. The Psychedelic Sangha Bardo Bath performed at the Alembic on January 27 offers another vital model to consider. I’ve been jealous of my East Coast friends who’ve attended the dose-friendly, art and music-fueled Buddhist meditations that PS has been staging since 2018. The sold-out event at the Alembic was a pared-down version of those New York happenings. Fifty seekers -- a mix of focused meditators and seasoned psychonauts, who seemed to range from their late twenties to early sixties -- showed up for the event, producing a palpably excited buzz in the lobby as we waited to enter the ceremony space.
Buddhist scholar Doc Kelley served as bardo guide, opening the sit with a death meditation while musician Chris Dingman provided a sonic portal of vibraphone tones. Kelley vividly described the process of surrendering our physical and spiritual bodies; watching our flesh liquify and seep into the earth while our chakras burst into the infinite. He led us from our incarnated forms into the bardo space, where language ceased. Here Dingman’s vibes and wordless vocals intensified, layering and expanding, hitting tones that warbled in the ear and produced geometry behind some closed eyes. Aubrey Nehring’s animations slid across the wall, zoomed into hyperspace, and expanded into tryptamine skies full of bouncing, blobby figures. Yosuh Jones’s devotional paintings seemed to vibrate from within. Throughout, our death doula, Dr. Erika Rosenberg, sat at the foot of the stage, radiating kindness and safety. She called us back from the bardo by describing the new expressions of life emerging from the forms we surrendered at the journey’s beginning. She prayed, “May we all find ease. May we all find peace.”
It's hard to imagine ease or peace flowing from the Phildickish dystopia that forms the superstructure of consensus reality these days, but I experienced both sensations as I moved between these local events. They represent new expressions of Bay Area culture that empower the public to cultivate knowledge, practice, creativity, and skill in ways that nurture community over commodity.
After the Bardo Bath, I talked about this with Kati Devaney, the Alembic’s Executive Director. While beaming with well-deserved pride about the way the organization she stewards is developing, she also sees it as a duplicable model for other knowledge-centered community spaces to learn from. And the more of those that form, the better.
“The weirder it gets,” Kati said, “the smarter we gotta be.”
Transmutations is a biweekly publication from the Berkeley Alembic, a transformational bodymind center that offers classes, workshops, retreats, and warm cups of tea.