psychedelics, tarot, and enlightenment|| an interview with gabriel d. roberts

The Hermit

In late November, I had the pleasure of talking with author Gabriel D. Roberts, who recently published his fourth book “The Hermit: Enlightenment from the Gutter“. We talked about the book, religion, philosophy, and he was even nice enough to do a three card tarot spread for me.

Summer Worthington: You just came out with your fourth book, The Hermit: Enlightenment from the Gutter. Can you tell me a little bit about how you came to write this book?

Gabriel Roberts: Sure, so there’s kind of this idea that people have when they’re talking about spiritual high mindedness and things like that. They think that enlightenment must be achieved by sort of going off to some high mountain and living in a way that is completely distant from society and this idea that this is the only way to have sort of a spiritually fulfilled or enriched life. Having gone through a period of great change and duress in my own life and doing the thing where you go out and live in the wilderness for a while, you kind of have that right of passage, I realized that there were some changes that needed to be made and having the time to sit and think that for days and days and days was good for, but when I came back I had a discussion with a friend of mine, the author of a book called “Build Your Own Religion” his name is Daniele Bolelli, down in California. He asked a question of me in a conversation we had. He asked, what kind of enlightenment is it if enlightenment can’t be used in the everyday world, in the mundane, just in the hardships and the struggles, and the messiness of everyday life? It seems like it wouldn’t be very useful. So this is kind of a theme from the book. You know I came out of a six-year relationship and I had been one of those people who ended up on the bad end of the stick after the economic bubble burst. I had a long time of unemployment and a long time of when things were going really badly. So, I was in this sort of desert of success, and I realized that some of my best sort of growth, the best moments of my life, and biggest moments of strength, came out of growing through those periods when things were hard, or difficult, and things were very real. So that’s kind of the idea and the basis behind why I wrote the book.

SW: You have a long background in the Christian faith, so there are elements and references to that in your writing, but you also make reference to a lot of Eastern thought and philosophy, as well as this mixture of magic and Gnosticism. Can you speak a little on how you’ve come to incorporate this variety of thoughts in your life and your writing?

GR: So when I grew up, I grew up as evangelical Christian, in kind of the Pentecostal vein of that. I wrote another book about growing up in that and coming out of that, it’s called “Born Again to Rebirth”, and I had sort of this way of seeing the world that was through the Christian paradigm, and as I came out of that, I didn’t know where to go, exactly. There was a part of me, as a lot of people might feel, the sense that there was something eternal, something special, and something beautiful, kind of in the background that was just outside of our everyday living experience. But, when I rejected Christianity, I rejected a large part of all of that mysticism and I found myself in sort of an existential void, so to speak. But having become a theologian, having been a minister and all of that, I knew that there was something to it, but I didn’t think that it was directly from a dogma in the way that we see things presently in mainstream Christianity.

So going through that I continued my reading, continued my study and I found time after time that there were some very powerful themes that went across the board in all religions, but each religion sort of said, “well everyone else’s version of this thing that is exactly the same is evil. Only ours is the good one.” I wrote another book called “The Quest for Gnosis” where I interviewed twenty other experts in the fields of spirituality and psychedelics and in that, I really got some great information from people about all of these other traditions, and in incorporating them, I found that there are solid themes in spirituality that don’t even have to be within any organized religion at all. They’re a part of the human experience and so integrating ideas from many different religious traditions along with psychedelic traditions and occult traditions, I’ve been able to find those common themes and common elements which were very key in me growing beyond sort of taking some authoritative preacher’s word on who God was or what spirituality was meant to be. Coming through that, there was a group started called the Theosophical Society, who started in the 1800s and they were kind of the first people to integrate those ideas of Eastern and Western tradition. They didn’t always do right, but there were a lot of ideas that they had that were pretty great.

SW: So you did it all throughout the book, do you still do a lot of Tarot card readings.

GR: I do, and if you like, I can explain to you how I think it works.

SW: Definitely! I would love to hear your thoughts on that.

GR: The way it essentially works, well, there are different ways of belief in the way our brain works and we think that the way that we think is the natural way and the more we do research, the more we find out that our brains are like paths in the wilderness. You have neural pathways, meaning our brains begin to go in a specific way, and every time we approach a particular style of situation, there’s a path that’s already set for us that is wired in our brain, so we can either change that path, or we can continue to go down that path. It’s like water can go down a stream, because going down the stream is like the path of least resistance. With tarot, you can look at it like there are images, which represent what the anthropologist Campbell calls archetypes, so a great example of an archetype would be if I told you to imagine a granny or a grandma, right now in your head, without me doing anything, you have an image of, I don’t know, your own version of a grandma, but it’s probably an old woman with blue hair who is talking about Werther’s Original, gardening or things like that. Everybody has a particular image that they have, and that’s exactly what an archetype is. Well we have those things for everything. We have an archetype for goodness, for god, the devil, and all these different things. And the tarot uses those images as visual cues for us to focus on primary aspects of our being that all of us are going through our own process of trying to be better people hopefully. In that, you can kind of look at tarot from the initial stage as a daily reminder. For instance if you get a card, the hanged man, which is this image of a man who is hanging upside down, and the message of the hanged man is to be patient and to give up things about yourself for the betterment of others. So, even if you don’t believe in anything “woo-woo” about tarot, you can still say that’s a really good thing to remember, to be patient and to not be a jerk.

Another level of discussion about it, I could say that if we think about ourselves as timeless, meaning that space and time are dimensions, units of measure, they’re not actually an accurate representation of what’s going on with time and us. If we look at ourselves outside of space and time that every moment that we have is an intersection, and every person that we interact with in the intersection in time immediately all comes together right that. For instance, our conversation right here and now, might seem trivial to many, might seem completely unuseful, however, the fact that we are doing this at this moment, no matter what happens in our life from here on out, you and I will have this discussion and this moment, and because of that parts that normally don’t have any meaning at all suddenly take on power of a message. Not because of them themselves, but because of the people interacting with it. But I pulled up your tarot and if you want I can read you what I got.

SW: That would be great!

GR: So, the first one that I got of a three card spread that I did, and I pulled up the page of swords, which sort of represents the kind of heroic and valiant idea kind of mixed with a newness and naivety that comes with trying something new and being bold and excited about it. The next card is the six of cups, and it’s an image of like an old woman at a market selling her things, and it represents sort of that ability to get through all of these obstacles to sort of have your prowess and your skills and your trade perfected, that one is inverted, but I’ll explain that to you in a minute. The last card that I drew is the moon, which represents sort of the culmination of dreams. There’s this vision of you, yourself and where you want to be exactly that you have. It’s an image you have in your head. That’s kind of like the moon, like it hovers over you every night and you can see it, you can see slivers of it or you can see it fully.

So bringing all of these together, I would say that for you, there are aspects of what your are trying to do that are new and scary to you, and your fear, is failure of course. And yet, at the end of all of it, you almost have this deep seeded sense that, of course it’s going to work out, but there’s all this scariness in between, and actually that this reading that I’m doing, again I’ll tell you the page of swords, the six of cups, and the moon, this is really a great example of the story of the Hermit. Because the hermit, in tarot is a person who is either dissatisfied, or unable to work with the way that society operates. Society that they live in is not working for them. So they go off to essentially shed all the constraints that have been placed on them, all the expectations that other people have thought, and they go to a place where they find their own illumination, and they return with that illumination in order to bring somewhat of an insight to others. So, in this sense, you have kind of your own journey that you are embarking on, maybe something that you’re not telling everybody, that you’re working on that you’re a little bit afraid of, you’re about to pick yourself up by your bootstraps and pull this off. So anyways, that’s my reading for you.

SW: That’s pretty accurate.

Whenever you set out on your journey, you were fortunate to have people around you, such as Baby Jesus, that helped and supported you just because they could and they wanted to. Do you ever feel as though you needed to repay that kindness to others as a sort of karmic fulfillment or is that something you actively work towards?

GR: One of the keystones of an enlightened person, I think, is generosity and kindness and humility. If those things are not present in someone who claims to be brilliant, smart, enlightened, any of those words, that’s really the marker. Anyone who’s gone through a great trial, or a lot of study in a particular avenue, they’ve found how much they don’t know. They found how much they need other people; they found how much they are not an island unto themselves. That’s the same story for me as well and I’ve tried my best to embody that same attitude of generosity and kindness towards others because I am not like some golden Buddha on the high mountain. I’m a dude. I’m just a fella that living like everyone else. So the generosity of other people, like Baby Jesus in the book, is definitely something that I want to repay, but I don’t think of karma in terms of debt. I think of karma in terms of, there’s something natural that ought to happen. You think about the way the world works, and you think about the way you would like to ideally live, and those are sometimes two different things. For some people they’re luck that that those are interwoven. But initially at least, it’s really hard for people to behave in a way that’s generous like that. I guess I can say that I do what I can to be generous, whenever I can, but as my heart leads me, I could say. Anytime, especially coming from a Christian background, I really don’t like the notion that I’m doing anything to try and score points one way or another. I think that I should be doing good things for people because I’m a good person, because I want to do good things for them, because I’m expressing love and generosity, the same exact thing that I would of course want for myself. I don’t always do that, but that is the goal.

SW: I think that kind of goes back to when you wrote that your brother told you that you should be a love philanthropist, not giving away all of your love so that there’s none left for you, but giving it to the people who show they need it and can reciprocate, which I really enjoy that sentiment and idea. It seems as though that kind of embodies what you just said.

GR: For sure. When we gamble, we don’t just gamble with love, we gamble with everything. We gamble with our careers, and every single thing in the world has become commoditized, so everything can be reduced to a dollar amount. When you get into a car accident, and somebody dies, someone pays out a certain amount of money because of that. In WWII when soldiers died, there was a payout and it was something like $2000 per dead soldier. So this isn’t a new idea, but we have this that everything can be reduced in that sense, and really, we have to have know ourselves well enough to have dignity, and to be compassionate, and to balance those things. It is one thing to be a nice person, it’s another thing to be a pushover and to be taken advantage of. Really that’s the thing. A lot of people are so deficient in love that when we get it, we will clamor for it. We will do anything that we can for it. Obviously there’s a lot of work in the west, and all over the world, where we need to work and to have self-love. We also have to not be selfish, and it’s such a hard balance because we feel like our world is falling apart at the seams because everyone is like this. We need more people to take the time to become self-aware, to love the unlovable, to extend peace when no one wants to, and things like that. That’s a really hard thing to do, to decide if and when that is an appropriate thing to do. Love philanthropy is definitely one of the most powerful and most difficult things to master, I think.

SW: At the beginning of The Hermit, you wonder, “if I’m a spoiled fucking brat who fancies him- self as some kind of deep philosopher who muses about the loftier considerations of consciousness while the world burns”. Other people think that anyone can be a philosopher. How can one balance the two, of being a philosopher, but still paying attention to the outside world?

GR: I think back to Athens and Greek society where everyone was a philosopher. The thing that’s required of being a philosopher is to love wisdom. Philosophy comes from –sophia and philo meaning “love of wisdom’. If you are a lover of wisdom, a seeker of wisdom, you a philosopher. It doesn’t mean you are a good philosopher, but it means that you are at least there, and if someone is trying to understand the world around them with an open heart and an open mind, and they understand that even with a lifetime of study, that we know just a tiny, tiny sliver of all knowledge, if they are in that process that they can lead as well as follow with diligence, then anyone is a philosopher. It’s the challenge of self-aggrandizement. When I said that in the book, it was exactly how I felt, because I knew about my own pride, and about the fact that people were starving and suffering, and woe is me, I’m a middle class guy who lost his work and couldn’t find it for a long time, and had a relationship end, well you know there are child soldiers right now.

So on one hand, we can do this thing where we discount our own experiences and what we’re going through because someone else has it worse, but really, that’s kind of a self-policing idea. We have what we have and we are supposed to use the tools that we have, even if this isn’t in a spiritual connotation, even if it’s just for our own personal growth and betterment exclusively, we can’t be doing this comparison and contrast all the time. We need to focus on our own heart, because we can’t help other people if we’re broken. We have to be at a certain level, healed and well adjusted, and content on our own before we can bring healing to the rest of the world, otherwise, we’re going to end up screwing up more often than not. We’re going to end up having our own negative intentions getting in the way of our good intentions. So, it’s important to recognize our own selfishness and address it and to point it out. It’s not always easy, especially in a book like this where I expose everything wrong that I did, but I think it’s important to be honest about the process, because if we cant be honest with ourselves, then we really have no business telling other people anything at all.

SW: I think you capture that really well in your writing, especially in your use of metaphors. Most of your metaphors are extremely visceral, sometimes almost hard to stomach, such as “I drove away with the relief one fells when they have finally vomited after a day long ramp up”. Is there any particular reason why your writing style has evolved this way or why you choose to use metaphors that are that way?

GR: What can you say to people to make them feel the way you feel? I guess I can say that I write the way that I do is that I don’t want them to hear a story. I want them to feel the way I feel. Not to say the way that I feel is perfect or ideal, it’s to say, if you’re going to read about what someone is doing, you need to be there to. You need to feel shitty; you need to feel ecstatic when the person feels ecstatic. I think that’s kind of the directive of good writing. It’s nice to have flowery words, it’s nice to use great metaphor and things like that, but if people aren’t feeling you, you can say the most grandiose and eloquent things, and no one would ever identify with it. I want people to feel how what I’m doing relates to what they’re doing and how in many ways, between myself and every person that reads it, that we are companions in the pain, suffering, and joy that life brings. That requires a certain level of reality and honestly that a lot of people aren’t comfortable with.

SW: Many have compared The Hermit to a psychedelic On The Road. Do you agree with that comparison?

GR: I would say that this is a very high complement and I’m more than happy to let people say what they like, whether it’s good or bad about the book. I’m obviously flattered by things like that. I have an admiration for Kerouac and for Hunter S. Thompson and people like that give entire generations a similar kind of feeling, the sense of allowing ourselves to stand up for ourselves. I think that’s one of Kerouac’s best things. He says it’s okay for you to be you, you know generally speaking. But we can also bring so many other things in like he was a drunk, he was this, he was that, but the reality is, is that we are getting the slivers and slices of people’s lives, and I think the moment in On the Road in that entire book, talking about a very similar process, you know the hero’s journey for a generation or two prior to the current generation and I think that the realities that I put out in The Hermit are realities that people are facing now. They didn’t have methamphetamines, they didn’t have a lot of other crazy things we have going on here. DMT wasn’t popular back during those times. There’s a lot of stuff going on and just like the sheer wall of information that crashes upon us that prior generations didn’t have, but that being said, it’s very nice to have people compare me to other writers that are classic.

SW: Surviving everything that happened in The Hermit, you are currently working on your PhD at the University of Washington, can you tell me a little bit about your research?

GR: I’m looking at psychedelic rhetoric, which is the language of psychedelics. But the issue that we have with the psychedelic experience is that it is completely subjective, meaning only the person experiencing it is the person that can really feel exactly as it happens. So, we can take CT scans of people while they are under the influence of psychedelics and see which portions of their brains are stimulated, but that’s not really any different than looking at the circuits of a television while it is on. Language is the primary driver for how we convey these experiences to other people.

So I look at the work of a philosopher Michel Foucault, who has a long history of going back to the roots of why we think the way that we do, and often times it comes down to language and the terms that we use, and the feelings that they generate. We use words and we don’t even understand where they came from and how they may not even embody perfectly the core concepts that the word is trying to represent. In fact, all language is just a poor representation of a reality that is ineffable, intangible. So, then when we look that the writings of people like Terrence McKenna, a fantastic psychedelic writer, he uses words that bring you to life, and they give you a feeling where you’re like “Oh! I know that feeling, I know that sensation!” and because of that, looking at the rhetoric that Terrence McKenna uses and kind of looking over it in Foucault’s linguistic eyes to see what emerges and what is left after all of the frilly stuff of the language is gone to give us an idea of the psychedelic perspective as a lens through which we can see the world, just like a Marxist can look at opening up an HOV lane, and the Marxist would say, people with money can go in the HOV lanes, and people without money have to be in the slow lane, this is class warfare. So in the psychedelic perspective you have that same thing, but the only way to get to it is through understanding the way that the rhetoric is working.

If you enjoyed this interview and want to know more about Gabriel, check him out at his website for more information, and read his newest book, “The Hermit: Enlightenment from the Gutter”.

Summer Worthingtonpsychedelics, tarot, and enlightenment|| an interview with gabriel d. roberts