North America. United Kingdom. Netherlands. Norway. Denmark. Japan. Philippines… An insatiable info-vore with an unending passion for exploring the distant corners of the globe, Jason Silva’s passport gets more stamps in one month than many see in a lifetime. His primary address is 35,000 ft., living life to the fullest in the moments between flights to his next speaking engagement or uncharted adventure.
But give him a microphone, a stage, an iPhone– or just click one of his YouTube videos– and he can expound exponentially and wax philosophic on a seemingly limitless arsenal of cerebral subjects in impassioned, stream of consciousness soliloquies. He’s a deep-rooted, unabashed optimist in the face of today’s relentlessly bleak 24/7 news-cycle driven-existence who not only sees the infinite potential contained within the human condition, nay universe– He rhapsodically celebrates it.
And yet, despite the genuine ecstasy and bliss he exudes for both the spectacular and sublime [He’s just as grounded and sincere in real-life as he appears on his videos, btw], there’s one underlying theme that permeates almost every talk and short film… Mortality and the quest to conquer its limitations [aka Immortality].
Like a digital Descartes for the black mirror generation, Jason knew from the age of 10 that he’d never be content to assimilate into that mind-numbing day-to-day existence to which many of us get conscripted. As we discussed the finite limits of our time on this mortal coil, I asked if every ‘Shot of Awe’ and speech he gave– and subsequently every painting, poem, film and work of art through time– was ultimately an attempt at achieving some form of immortality.
The answer to that question ultimately becomes the cornerstone for the second half of our conversation [read Part I here], and offers a novel glimpse into Jason’s mind and some of what inspires him and his filmmaking.
Engendering Reality & Chasing Forever
‘He who binds himself a Joy, Does the winged life destroy; He who kisses the Joy as it flies, Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.’ – William Blake
GC: As someone who seeks and provides catharsis from the monkey-mind anxiety and fear-based mortality inevitably wedded to sentience… Where do you turn when you need to mediate your own societal malaise and depression– And what percentage of your time do you spend creating art and seeking out novel experiences versus taking time to reset, replenish and allow for the proverbial well to refill?
JS: I’ve had to militantly impose the ‘rest and replenish’ part, because when I do a corporate talk… they don’t really want a typical corporate talk. They want me to get into flow while talking about tech and innovation and transhumanism– They want to see a performance. But the amount of dopamine that you’re expending to get on stage and talk for 40 minutes without a script is intense– And it requires downtime leading up to it and afterwards. And I’ve definitely experienced what feels close to being burned out… Butting heads with your physical limitations is existentially difficult to tolerate because you’re too tired to rest– and you can’t unwind from the tiredness. You’re so drained, you can’t even relax.
GC: Is that something where you’re always striving to find that balance?
JS: Yeah. It’s definitely something I struggle with, but I’ve learned to just get over the FOMO. Which requires cultivating the art of living in the present– more of those trips to Amsterdam, more of those flow sessions– And that all happens best and organically when I just let it happen– not when I’m actively obsessing about it.
GC: Do you ever utilize the process of de-focalizing– Where you look at something intensively and then the minute that you step away or widen the lens… There’s the ‘a-ha’– There’s the ‘eureka’ moment.
JS: Totally. And I also have to remember that when I’m feeling burned out, when I’m feeling my plate is full with commitments and I get caught up with all the work– It’s important for me to step back and remember– Why I do these videos to begin with.
Why this obsession with ideas– Why the obsession with capturing ineffable experiences– reality and transience? And it comes from what I often speak about– It’s that faint disquiet– the worm at the core. It’s the fact that human beings are unique– Our existence is unique. We’re gods and worms. We have this extended capacity for consciousness… to think about our own thinking and think about the past and the future. We have the mental space to render poems and artistry. There’s so much awe and wonder that infuses our lenses of perception– there’s so much to us. We’re so divine in so many ways and yet we’re a thinking, metabolic process. We eat, we shit, we pump blood… We’re creaturely.
JS: Right? It’s like when Ernest Becker says ‘That’s the curse that threatens madness, because it reminds man of his abject finitude, the seeming unreality of his dreams– To fashion the sublime miracle of a human face, and the sheer mysterium tremendum of the face of a beautiful woman– and then to couple it with a being that has to defecate’– It’s too much. Nature mocks us and the poets live in torture. Our animality juxtaposed against our godliness is the central tension of our situation.
We exist at the interplay between the finite and the infinite– and meditating on that interplay is the source of all our malaise, all our anxiety… but also the source of the fire in our belly that pushes us into action and forces us, compels us to render beauty, to chase wonder, to seek out awe and to crave encounters with the divine. And that’s what I’m about. And if any of my media– or videos can awaken a little bit of that sensibility in others– That’s my thing. I want to do that.
GC: I think that’s precisely what ‘Shots of Awe’ accomplishes– Technological immortality for you and your ideas; an eternal, creative, electronic legacy that can live on infinitely, theoretically speaking. It reminds me of Becker’s notion of ‘individual, symbolic Immortality Projects’ and the three solutions to the death problem; i.e. how to deal with the cognitive realization of our own mortality.
And yet– It seems like even the ‘creative solution’ [versus the ‘religious’ and ‘romantic solution’] is still inherently finite.
JS: It is, for now [chuckles]… You know, we have this horrific existential dread connected to the understanding of what mortality means. Like the black nothingness on both ends of our lives, before and after we exist… So the compulsion to come up with some opiate for that makes sense— whether it’s religion, romance or creativity.
Religion makes a lot of sense if that works for you… There’s the romantic solution, which often overwhelms and overpowers my world because I love falling in love– because it hurls me into the infinite now with somebody… And then there’s the creative solution, which Becker says is the healthiest option. You make poetry, you make art, you make the world a little bit better than you found it… and everyone still dies. But I know of only other person who picked up where he left off… Alan Harrington— Have you read ‘The Immortalist’?
GC: Alas, I have not.
JS: The book starts out with the line, ‘Any philosophy that accepts death must itself be considered dead… Its questions meaningless, its consolations worn out. We must never forget we are cosmic revolutionaries, not stooges conscripted to advance a natural order that kills everyone…’ So, the whole thing behind Becker is ‘Immortalism as a ‘Manhattan project’, a moon-shot. Just like we got our best minds together to go to the moon– Let’s all work together and hunt down death like an outlaw, employing advances in biotechnology and genetics and A.I. to cure aging. This is the next trillion-dollar industry in Silicon Valley– There’s people with billions of dollars putting all their money into research on longevity… We’re not too far from potentially quadrupling the human lifespan. And I’m all in.
GC: Who doesn’t want to live forever at some point and time?
JS: Of course.
GC: With that in mind, is every piece of art and act of creation– [tangible, literary, cinematic, etc.] some attempt at legacy and immortality; an effort to freeze or frame a moment in time– to keep that ever-present ontological panic in check and provide some evidence that they existed and mattered– even if only for that moment?
JS: 100%. Let’s come out of the closet already and just say it– Like Robert C.W. Ettinger, who wrote ‘The Prospect of the Immortality’ put it so romantically- We shall ‘drink the wine of centuries unborn’. And that’s what it is… I want to sit at the cosmological front seat of the greatest show of all time. I want to witness galaxies being born.
GC: Has immortality– and all the subsequent facets that’ve enabled it to evolve into a tangible possibility– become a new philosophy unto itself?
JS: There’s something tragic and romantic about our situation. Miguel de Unamuno wrote in ‘Tragic Sense of Life’, “Eternity, eternity, that is the supreme desire. Nothing is real that is not eternal”. So, rendering ourselves eternal is a way of rendering ourselves real because as long as we’re transitory and finite and we turn into dust, it’s like we never existed… except maybe in the minds of others.
That reminds me of this wonderful ‘Day of the Dead’ quote from Mexico about the three kinds of death. The first death is when you learn that you’re going to die– That’s death awareness– mortality; when you first get kicked out of the Garden of Eden as a child and you contemplate death for the first time. That’s actually your first death– that moment of self-consciousness. The second death is when you actually kick the bucket, when you actually die and they bury you. And the third is the last time that someone says your name.
GC: How poetic… and powerful.
JS: Totally… I get so overwhelmed by the amount of beauty in the world, the number of things I’m curious about… by the amount of knowledge I have yet to acquire, by the amount of questions I have yet to answer, the symphonies and songs I’ve yet to discover, not to mention the ones that I’ve already discovered and want to listen to forever… There’s so much to dance two, to celebrate, to fix, upgrade and modify– so many songs to sing… I want forever and nothing else will do… and my videos are a reflection of that mania.
GC: It’s that interplay between the finite and the infinite that you’re capturing on film.
JS: What matters to me… is for people to understand just how maddeningly intense is my unquenchable thirst for life, awe and beauty. It’s why I like that Gustave Flaubert quote, because if I can be a stand-in for the human tragedy, but also the human spirit– I’ll be a stand-in in that moment. It’s that line, “Even speech, even our poetry and our instruments are a cracked-kettle on which we tap crude rhythms”. As amazing as Darren Aronofsky’s last scene in The Fountain— as amazing as Beethoven’s melodies— These are still cracked kettles on which we tap crude rhythms… What we really want is to make music that will melt the stars… Whether it’s aliens or our descendants– Just understand how badly we wanted to create music that will melt the stars… This is how alive we were. I want people to know how alive we are.
GC: And your talks capture that– the magic, the lightning… Isaiah Berlin famously said, ‘To understand is to perceive patterns’… And one pattern or theme that’s resurfaced in your talks and videos from the very beginning to the present day [and even this conversation] is the haunting, ineffable notion of entropic finitude and impermanence woven into all things material and ethereal– people, relationships, awe, youth… and taming that ontological fire.
JS: That’s the thing– As someone who’s seen my content from the beginning, you recognize the patterns… People talk about how we all change over time, and granted there are people who don’t know who they are, so they’re constantly discovering new parts of themselves– but I would argue that I’ve known who I am since I was 10. And what you see in these videos are echoes of the same kid… Maybe my language wasn’t as evocative, maybe I didn’t have as many quotes to draw from at 17, but it’s the same patterns of thought– The same obsession with transience and ephemerality, the same aching intensity for awe and wonder… I’m the same guy. There’s a persistence inside of me.
GC: As well as an evolutionary type of knowledge that comes along with it… It’s not the same thing you were saying, but the evolved personification of that concept. It reminds me of that parable about the 99-year-old violin player who practices every day without fail, and when someone asks, ‘Why do still practice every day?’, he answers, ‘…Because I might get better.’
JS: Thank you. Totally spot on. Artists should be obsessive– Obsessive, persistent and gloriously alive… It’s why I continue to push the boundaries– To see how many of these intensely ‘out there’ ideas I can push into the mainstream.
GC: In the book ‘Life Between Life’, author J. Whitton asserts that ‘There is no experience of existence without thought’. In that respect… Have we thought ourselves into being?
JS: Yes… We think ourselves into being all the time. As Kurzweil famously said, ‘Our ability to create virtual models in our heads combined with our modest looking thumbs was sufficient to usher in this secondary force of evolution called technology that will continue until the entire universe is at our fingertips’.
I think we think ourselves into existence every day. In ‘Beginning of Infinity’, David Deutsch frames this notion that still resonates today… If you could step out of yourself and see the whole thing from the outside, the aerial view– and time lapse it… You could see beyond your perceptions of time and scale and see the micro and the macro, when thoughts become things. And the topography of any modern metropolis is shaped more by my mind, intentionality, economics and ideas than geology. So by all accounts, we’ve thought ourselves into a geological force of nature.
JS: [Laughs]. There you go. An accurate statement… And a perfect place to hit ‘pause’.
GC: Agreed. I think that brings us full circle… I hope you had as much fun as I did.
JS: Totally. This was great… These timeless moments are really nice– Because forgetting yourself for a while is blissful.
‘And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; Where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; Where we had thought to travel outward, we will come to the center of our own existence; Where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.’ – Joseph Campbell
Eternal thanks to Jason Silva for his words and time and for the usage of ‘Shots of Awe’ and to J. Elon Goodman for his epic images.