Philosophical Alchemist. Architect of Awe. Freeform Existentialist. Liminal Lyricist. Epiphany-Fueled Wonder-Junkie. Curator of Novelty & Creativity. Rhapsodic Futurist. Bliss Hacker. Improvisational Innovator. Ontological Dream Chaser. Boundless Optimist. Student of the Stream [of Consciousness]. Ecstatic Immortalist. Theoretical Poet. Ethereal Artist. Viral Filmmaker. Hopeful Romantic. Emmy-Nominated TV Host. Bilingual Keynote Speaker.
Jason Silva is known by myriad monikers, but he may best be summed up by the very thing he uses to tile his world… A succinct, obscure and sublimely relevant quote.
‘Those who love wisdom must investigate many things.’
Heraclitus of Ephesus [c. 475 B.C]
Like a real-time, rapid-fire hit of Pynchon-esque lucidity, Jason’s enduring, enraptured curiosity is as unflinching as it is unquenchable. Which may shed some light on how he’s ascended from the internet fringe and a stint at the now-defunct Current TV to become one of the most sought-after minds on the planet. But many moons before he was hosting Emmy-nominated shows for The National Geographic Channel, this Venezuelan-born, word-bending monologist was known for capturing lightning in a bottle with his aptly titled ‘Shots of Philosophical Espresso’ which soon evolved into ‘Shots of Awe’: A novel brand of existential poetry that Jason publishes online; an ecstatic mix of prolific spoken word and stream of consciousness distillations on the heady themes of our time: Technology and Transhumanism, Creativity, Innovation, Mental Health, Altered States, Psychedelics and Cosmological Wonder to name just a handful. In other words… A modern-day, blissed-out, AirPod-clad Heraclitus.
And while his videos have garnered hundreds of millions of views across the globe, that’s merely a splash in the cosmic pond. He’s constantly generating new, bleeding edge content that doesn’t just push the proverbial envelope– It reconfigures the entire tapestry and examines it under a novel lens, ever in search of that ineffable truth at the heart of the human condition.
A source of longtime personal fascination as well as a steady stream of brain fodder for The Daily Grail (TDG) community from the very beginning (we’ve posted many of his ‘Shots of Awe’ to our Facebook and Twitter followers), Jason’s work touches on virtually every corner of TDG’s subconscious roadmap– Which is why I was beyond psyched to chat with him a few days after he’d wrapped up his first speaking tour of the United States [he toured Canada in 2017].
Over the course of a leisurely stroll on a sun-drenched Southern California afternoon, our wide-ranging, densely-packed conversation looped in and out of countless themes in extensive detail, which is why we decided to condense and compartmentalize this deep-dive interview into two-parts, with interconnected topics of discussion woven through each.
In addition to said interview, I’m also ecstatic to share Jason’s latest and arguably greatest [and most ambitious] ‘Shot of Awe’ yet, which he’s graciously allowed TDG to present here today. And with that said, to quote the immortal Marti Di Bergi, “Hey– Enough of my yakkin'”. ‘Tis truly an honor to present the first piece of my many-faceted conversation with Jason Silva and his epic, all new ‘Shot of Awe’… “Why You Need Awe”.
Curating Awe & Surrendering to Wonder
‘The highest point a man can obtain is not knowledge or virtue or goodness or victory, but something even greater, more heroic and more despairing: Sacred Awe!’ – Nikos Kazantzakis
GC: Like a deep-science surrealist with Sagan-like wisdom and Pynchon-esque prose and perception, you eloquently riff on the human condition while you quote and paraphrase your favorite philosophers, futurists and paradigm-shifters du jour– all with the effortless ease of exhaling– And then instantly beam it out to millions of like-minded souls. One author you regularly mention, Walker Percy, states that, ‘the Search is what anyone would undertake… To become aware of the possibility of the Search is to be on to something’.
With that in mind… What’s your deepest search as of late? Are there any subjects, searches or answers that remain elusive– And what’s the next, new ‘something’ you’re onto?
JS: I’m a person who’s interested in a lot of things, curious about a lot of things… But more than anything else– When I become obsessed with something– When I chase a novel idea down the rabbit hole… I won’t be satisfied until I feel like I’ve tiled it with language– clothed it in language. And it’s not because I’m a professor and I feel like I need to be able to lecture on this subject, you know? The fact that I lecture on these ideas around the world is incidental to the fact that really… Language allows me to know what I think… And so when I come across something, I only know that I understand it once I can tile it in language.
Also, when something inspires me, when I find myself in the exhilarating neuro-storm of intense intellectual pleasure that I often cite; these moments of cognitive ecstasy or what Carl Sagan refers to as ‘understanding as a kind of ecstasy’, when the dots connect– There is an accompanying anxiety connected to ephemerality. Knowing that this moment of grace and extraordinary understanding– This moment of acute ‘a-ha’ is transitory.
JS: Right? And so, having that intuition that recognizes this moment is temporary– I need to capture it. Similar to the artist or the writer who carries around a voice recorder for these transcriptions– For these moments of ‘ecstatic vocalization-empowered articulation’ as Terence McKenna calls it, when it feels like the universe is language-ing itself through you.
To paraphrase Khalil Gibran– If you think of ideas as your children, your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life longing for itself– They come through you but not from you. And though they are with you, they belong not to you.
So, this is passing through me, right? And I get out of my own way– I’m in the flow– I silence the inner critic. And once I’m out of my own way, there’s this capacity for intuitive understanding, for connecting the dots and also for language-ing and articulating that moment of new understanding.
And so, the desire for making these videos is directly connected to that– Otherwise I’d just be a guy that reads a lot and thinks a lot and that’s that. But the desire to keep notes– That’s what my videos are. It’s like, ‘Okay– Record this now. Record it like this– Explain it like this– Contextualize it like this’.
Why it matters, is intimately connected to the emotional experience that I’m having, as I make sense of this idea in the moment, right? And so, that’s where the, you might call it the ‘hypomania’ comes from– The anxiety and the impulse to transcribe and record and immortalize and eternalize and clothe in language these epiphanies.
So again, the compulsion to create is there, the compulsion to capture the fleeting nature of inspiration is there– and it just so happens that the things that inspire me tend to be really heady… Or maybe, maybe I only understand things when I interpret them in a heady way. That’s the kind of ecstasy addiction, you know?
GC: The way that you interpret ideas and make them accessible to so many people is equally profound and unique– reminiscent of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Why do you think it’s had such a far-reaching impact?
JS: Well, right off the bat you mention Sagan. And of course, Sagan by definition is an astronomer, he’s a scientist… but I think, you know, he’s also a poet– An artist. He’s got an arsenal of knowledge to draw inspiration from that is scientific in nature but the way that he interprets and the way that he contextualizes is more poetry than anything else– It’s a professorial and philosophical take on the Cosmos and on the universe– and I think people find it accessible because it’s so human.
What they find accessible is not the complex abstractions of astrophysics, you know– but it’s the complex abstractions of astrophysics turned into singular expressions of color and light, to quote Ross Anderson… Like when you look at images of the deep field photograph that the Hubble took– That takes the complex abstractions of astrophysics and turns it into singular expressions of color and light that do what? They vindicate Keats’ famous couplet that ‘Beauty is truth and truth is beauty’. You don’t have to be a scientist, you don’t have to be an astronomer, you don’t have to understand complex math equations to respond to this intuition. When in a moment of aesthetic arrest, that beauty is truth and truth is beauty– and you find yourself connecting to something larger than yourselves, in ourselves.
And Sagan is the kind of guy, that when contemplating out loud– This reckoning with what is, as he distilled space and time for his viewers– He was having an experience of cognitive ecstasy as he contemplated… The act of contemplating these ideas while experiencing these ideas did something to him. And it’s the reaction to those ideas as he contemplates them that we respond to. And we do that because we’re empathetic beings and we mirror one another. And so– Just like when you see a ballerina in the fucking flow or a jazz musician doing the impossible, you feel something, because you’re kind of like, beaming into their consciousness, you’re mirroring them. And so, we respond to Sagan because the guy’s drunk on awe.
GC: Totally. I couldn’t agree more.
JS: And so, I think that people find my stuff accessible precisely because of the emotional experience that I’m having when enraptured by those revelations– That’s what’s going on. It’s like I come alive in the midst of the contemplation, and the contemplation is happening out loud and it’s happening verbally and so it’s real-time– It’s a shamanic moment. I’m in an altered state– I’m in a liminal trance. And even if people don’t understand what I’m saying, they’re mirroring my state of consciousness. It’s infectious.
GC: And immersive. It also helps that there’s no one else out there doing that voodoo quite the way that you do.
JS: There’s a lot of copycats. And by the way… As a kid, we all struggle with our egos and, you know the Buddha said do not compare yourself to others or we will become vain and bitter. And I had to figure out a hack in order to not compare myself to others, because I grew up like all people, self-conscious and insecure and sensitive and curious and wanting to express myself, but not wanting to express myself in a way that felt like I was trying to be like ‘him’, because that just got me in my head more. I wasn’t interested in comparing myself to others or in doing what others were doing for that matter.
So when I crafted what became ‘Shots of Awe’, these philosophical espresso shots… I first had to cultivate a way of getting out of my own way. I had to find a way how to talk about these ideas without being self-conscious about the fact that I’m talking about these ideas and thinking about how I’m coming across on camera. Then I had to figure out how to induce a reverie.
Like the romantic poets, I had to first catalyze an altered state. And once I was in the altered state, I had to make sure that the ‘record’ button was on. To witness what was happening when I wasn’t there– And the reason I then enjoyed watching my own content so much and I still do, is precisely because I don’t completely recognize that person. I know it’s me but I aspire to be that guy more often. I see that guy in the videos and I’m like ‘Whoa… That’s me when I’m not all neurotic or anxious’.
GC: Almost out of body.
JS: I’m completely out of body. And I think people are affected by that, people are inspired by that. And of course, there’s people out there who feel like– I want to do what he does– I want to make inspirational videos like him… And more power to you.
But if you’re trying to do what I do, you’re already self-negating because it’s already an ego thing. I want to be like him? Well how about– Being like yourself. Find your frenzy. Find who you are when you’re not there and record that.
But at the end of the day, these videos are the digital breadcrumbs that I leave behind. They’re evidence of where I’ve been. They’re glimpses of realms I’ve tasted and embodied. I become the ideas. I become those explanations. I think a lot about the F. Scott Fitzgerald line from The Great Gatsby— He’s describing the Dutch sailors discovering new world… I fall in love with quotes.
GC: I’m a self-admitted quote junkie as well.
JS: Fitzgerald talks about these ‘Transitory enchanted moments when man must have held his breath, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired face-to-face with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder’… and I’m just like, ‘Yeah. I know that feeling really well’– Usually after a little bit of cannabis perhaps, like walking around some ancient European city or castle-like backdrop where I can quickly appropriate the mystical landscape into my altered state and quickly stage a cinematic situation for myself in which I can unfold, right? Because you become what you behold– And with these videos… I want them to be representative of these instances where finally I was having a subjective experience commensurate to my capacity for wonder.
Like it’s all finally happening. I’m having the moment where I’m just in a state of astonishment– This is it. Describe what it feels like. Describe what it feels like– Quickly, quickly. Describe what it feels like– Is it like a William Blake quote? Is it like the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote? Is it like the Flaubert quote about music? Yeah– Okay it’s that, and it’s that– and it’s connected to this one and this one and this one. It quickly becomes a butterfly effect in thought, and perhaps I’m practiced enough in the art of language-ing that I can find just the right phrases– and then find the through-line that connects them all, maintain coherence throughout what is a stream-of-consciousness and then land it in a place that feels like, ‘Okay, I’m done‘… And then that’s the video. There’s never a script, there’s barely an outline. Sometimes there might just be a quote or a sentence to describe what I want to talk about, but that’s it.
GC: The fact that your videos, talks and keynotes are all stream of consciousness and pure improvised flow… That’s staggering. I’m curious if that flow is something you tap into when you’re in places like Amsterdam and just grab a camera because you know you’re in the moment– Or is it something that catches you off-guard?
JS: It never catches me off-guard, because most of the time, there’s a deliberate deployment of my toolkit. My toolkit involves novelty and putting away task-based convergent thinking. So in the morning when I’m drinking coffee and doing emails I’m a very effective person. I’m very organized and extremely OCD about my organization and my responsibilities but that’s a particular kind of thinking. And when I’m in that space, I’m not gonna have the unexpected exhilarating moments at all, right?
When I want to go make content, I’ve now deployed a toolkit, so it’s like– Put aside the task-based stuff, the rest of the afternoon is airplane mode on the phone. I have a list of a couple of quotes that’ve resonated over the last couple weeks or come across an article that I keep on a little notepad. And my favorite person to shoot with is a guy named Jason Goodman whose background is photography, filmography and music. He’s a musician who plays a lot of instruments and shoots photography and videography for musicians, so he understands musical flow and jam sessions. And when he and I shoot, he shoots with vintage lenses– He’s a lover of the lens and a lover of light, so the same way I get caught up in the reverie of the moments that we’ve concocted– He’ll have the same dance that I’m having with words– but with light; the way the light is hitting me, the way the light is happening in the background. He completely goes into an altered state.
GC: It’s a synchronicity of not just one but two.
JS: Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. He’s also somebody that I just adore to be around. I’ve had great relationships with other videographers but few get to that place that Jason Goodman does. I have another dear friend who was my producer for Shots of Awe, once we scaled it up and were working with Discovery networks. It was the same– He wanted to be in the altered space with me and he just happened to be holding the camera.
But particularly with Goodman– Why Amsterdam, right? Well, it’s very important that once you’re in the liminal state or the liminoid state or what Diane Ackerman calls ‘a state of deep play’– You want uninterrupted play. Which means baseline reality, the reality of adults, the reality of rules, the reality of consensus needs to be outside the container you’ve created. Where do little kids play? In the yard. On the beach in a container set up by the parents where they can be free, in the playground… What’s the playground for adults? Vegas, if you like alcohol but that’s not really my cup of tea. So what’s my playground? Maybe I’m in a castle in Edinburgh, stoned with Jason Goodman– But if there’s too many tourists around then it’s no longer a playground. So why a place like Amsterdam? Number one: The modality of transportation for the entire city is the bicycle. So now you have a city where everywhere I go, even when I’m going to get coffee in the morning I’m riding my bicycle through magical canals. Yeah, there’s an ad agency over there and a restaurant over there, but the whole thing already feels playground-like.
And I don’t see signs anywhere that say ‘No biking allowed. Dismount!’. I don’t feel the matrix of rules being imposed, so the feeling of freedom is ever-present, the landscape is magical-mystical-fairytale-like. Cannabis is legal or tolerated, which means you can also add what they call ‘cognitive astro-glide’. Because you’re already in a liminal landscape you’re already riding your bike with your friend, you’re already absent of any rules telling you that you can’t play here, so the mood is already geared towards play.
Then you add a little ‘cognitive astro-glide’ and then you’re off to the races. You’re on your bike, you get in the zone and say ‘Let’s stop over here’. You sit at a bench in the park and start filming. And in Amsterdam, nobody’s gonna come up to you and say, ‘What are you filming?’ or ‘You can’t film here!’. That just doesn’t exist there. It’s a culture that’s known for minding their own business, so you feel like you’re in this kind of rendered video game-like virtual environment VR world and I’m inside it but not of it. And so, I can function and unfold in parallel, so the whole thing becomes the playground for my deep play- And that’s why I like to shoot in places like that with a guy like Jason Goodman for two weeks– and come back with fifteen videos.
GC: Absolutely. You can be immersed and focused… It’s like a two-week flow session, though obviously not in the flow state the whole time.
JS: Very close to it. We rent an apartment where my five favorite restaurants are within walking distance. We have brunch in the same place. Then we get on bikes and go to the forest or a park– Have a whole afternoon flow session– And then eat dinner at my favorite restaurant every night. I concoct a world that’s built around my needs for being able to output at that level.
GC: I feel like New Orleans is one of the few cities in the United States that’s different than every other city– with that unique, indefinable element. The music– the vibe– the food– the people… You step off the plane and into the culture. It’s immersive and altogether intoxicating.
JS: If that’s a particular set of cultural cues that is of your tastes, then I totally get it 100%. I like a city like San Francisco but when I witness how there’s this disparaging social inequality and the amount of homeless people, it immediately transforms my narrative into one of– This is why society is so fucked up and why don’t we have a system in place to help those in need. You go to a place like the Netherlands– They’re the most equal societies on earth. So on top of everything else, you have a social cushion, you’re totally relaxed, they’re not stressed at work, they work less hours. All of that affects– Because again, you’re appropriating the space. So the more relaxed you feel, the more at ease you feel, the more material is going to come out.
And it doesn’t just have to be to Amsterdam. It’s just that, in Amsterdam I can take care of all my required conditions while still having very little structure. Really, any intense novelty will do it. It’s just that… Not every place that’s fully novel will also have all your basic requirements met.
I remember when I went to Cape Town, South Africa, meeting up with some fans of ‘Shots of Awe’– Which by the way, that’s one of the most exhilarating things on the planet, right? Linking up with people who respond to your content when you’re in a new city and therefore more open than usual. I spent the day with these ‘Shots of Awe’ fans and went to the botanical gardens and we’re walking around this bridge built above the canopies over this rainforest and it started to storm. We were in a super frenzy at that point but I just remember feeling immediately and completely in synch and entranced with those people… and I’d just met them. You don’t get that in everyday reality. Your day-to-day baseline, the place where you spend the most amount of time, the place you might consider your home-base– There are constraints built into it simply because the home-base is also the place where you do the Quotidien. And because you do the Quotidien, you have to have these filters and boundaries where it’s like– I can’t link up with fans and go to the botanical gardens where I live, because where I live– I’ve got to do errands or make calls– I’ve got my gym and my routines… So it’s only really when you’re unhinged from all of that, that you can just have something that’s akin to these deep-play spaces for longer than just a few hours at a time.
GC: Sure. And to have that ripple effect– from the people who know you from ‘Shots of Awe’– You know there’s a kinship or like-mindedness.
JS: Immediately. But I probably wouldn’t do a meet-up here in Los Angeles with a bunch of ‘Shots of Awe’ fans. Because everybody would drive or take an Uber and then we’d meet somewhere and it’d be awkward if we decide to migrate somewhere else and we all have to get in cars again…
GC: Better if it’s more remote and more personal, with people who want to a deeper understanding of your work or to help spread the word– As opposed to that sort of hive-mind where people just want to snap and post a selfie.
JS: Sure. And I love both. But before I can meet them where they’re at, I have to be in a mental and physical place that’s aligned with me being able to meet them where they need to be met in that moment– So I need to be in a place where I feel open and spontaneous and feel unconstrained by fixed routines…
That’s honestly just scratching the surface of my head-spinning, awe-inducing, paradigm-shifting conversation with Jason Silva. But let’s hit the proverbial ‘pause’ button for a moment and take a deep, pensive breath before we hurl ourselves further into the abyss in the second and final installment. Stay tuned!
With profound and sincere thanks to Jason Silva for his time and the usage of ‘Shots of Awe: Why You Need Awe’ and to J. Elon Goodman for his unparalleled photos & images.