Author interview: the backstory behind Escaping Maya’s Palace
Posted on: 24th April, 2022
Karavelle Press: How did you come to tackle this project? Why don’t you start off by describing your process for decoding the Mahabharata.
Richard Sclove: My process? The short answer is standard scholarship mixed with a little assist from the gods.
As I say in Chapter 1, the inspiration for the book floated up during a silent meditation retreat. I already knew the Mahabharata’s basic plot from having read a couple of children’s versions. But I realized that to tease out the authors’ allegorical meaning, I needed to read an unabridged translation.
I’ve heard that it typically takes scholars five years to master the Mahabharata’s thousands of pages well enough to begin conducting original research about it. But that wasn’t exactly my experience. As I started reading about the Pandavas’ early years, right away I noticed that their lives oscillated between adventures out in the wilderness and then conflict with their cousins, the Kauravas.
Meanwhile, over the years I had read many translations of the Bhagavad Gita. This led me to assume, quite naturally, that the Pandavas represent the higher self—the soul—and the opposing Kauravas symbolize the ego. From that, it seemed obvious that the Mahabharata is portraying a pathway of psychospiritual growth.
But when I started to diagram that path, wham! Suddenly I was staring at a picture of the human subtle body as understood in Hinduism: ascending chakras connected by three intertwined energy channels. Whoa, I thought, does the epic’s structure reflect an esoteric understanding of human psychophysiology? Soon I was off and running, working out my decryption of Yudhishthira’s dice match.
The oddest thing about this process is that up to that point it involved no great effort. As I followed the Pandavas’ journey, I found myself slipping into an altered state of consciousness. Nothing wildly dramatic—no ethereal music or visions of angels. But I had the sense that I wasn’t so much interpreting the text as that it was disclosing itself. Somehow, although I was reading the story for the first time, simultaneously I was peeling away the hidden structure. The structure just sort of fell out into my lap. Later I came to think of this process as a kind of “alchemy of interpretation.” Reading the text was altering my mental state in a way that allowed the text to reveal itself in new ways.
As I moved on from decoding the Mahabharata to decoding modern civilization, this process shifted. I began to feel as though I was engaged in a collaborative process with some type of higher intelligence. Whether this was “the one consciousness that is everything” (that’s a Hindu notion), or Jung’s collective unconscious, or simply a deep place within my own unconscious mind, I can’t say. Although the last strikes me as the least likely.
I was also highly energized—taking lots of catnaps, while sleeping little at night. Creative insights were pouring in from “elsewhere” at a furious pace. This happened especially when I took a long run in the woods with Haley, our mini-goldendoodle, and during my dreams. I’d wake up and it might take forty-five minutes just to write down what I’d worked out in my sleep.
I call this process “collaborative” because it wasn’t like I was just sitting back and transcribing dictation. This wasn’t channeling. I had a collaborator—or at least there was a collaborating force—but I discovered that I needed to contribute my own creativity, sundry facts about the world, and plenty of sweat effort.
Does the fact that this was a collaboration mean that the other intelligence is “higher” but not omniscient? Did it need me to fill in the holes in what it knows? Or was it withholding certain knowledge, perhaps for my benefit? It didn’t say.
As the collaboration stretched out over weeks, it became exhausting. But I also “knew” that my altered state would come to an end as soon as I completed a first draft of the book. That happened after producing a seven-hundred-page manuscript in eleven weeks.
I’ve been through an experience like this several times in my life. In each case, a first draft pours out as a kind of messy intuitive gush—genuine insights mixed in with many false guesses and digressions. After that initial burst of creativity—in which I’m sure I’ve solved many mysteries of the universe—reality sets in, and then there’s a long slog to transform the initial gush into something that feels ready to share with the world.
It’s still a long leap from wondering why Yudhishthira gambles to connecting that with modern psychology, history, and political economy. How do you account for making that jump?
Well, in a way I was working out the solution to a problem that had been gnawing at me for several decades.
Back in 1978, when I was twenty-four, I landed a job as the research assistant to a national energy policy study sponsored by the Ford Foundation. I was qualified for the position because I had just finished up a master’s degree in nuclear engineering at MIT. (No, I never planned to be a nuclear engineer. Concerned about the social and environmental effects of nuclear power, I’d pursued a credential so that I could be a critic.)
The twenty senior members of the Ford Foundation study team were a seriously elite, establishment bunch. They included half a dozen Harvard professors (mostly economists, among them Nobel Prize–winner Ken Arrow and future Nobel Prize–winner Tom Schelling), Edward Fried (the US executive director of the World Bank), two former nuclear-weapons designers (New Yorker–profiled Ted Taylor—reborn now as a solar-energy enthusiast—and Dick Garwin, a senior scientist at IBM), and John Sawhill (the president of New York University and onetime director of the Federal Energy Administration). McGeorge Bundy (“Mac,” I soon learned)—the Ford Foundation’s president, who before that was the national security advisor to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and the dean of faculty at Harvard—had initiated the project and participated in all our monthly meetings.
It was a heady experience . . . in all ways but one: it turned out that I was not in close alignment with the group’s approach to public-policy analysis. To begin with, I was jarred to discover that the team addressed almost every policy issue by reducing it to economic considerations. From my standpoint, this filtered out all the flesh-and-blood social dimensions of policy decisions—how people’s lives would be affected beyond their pocketbooks or economic preferences. Soon I wondered why an elite club of middle-aged white guys was entitled to a vastly bigger voice in policymaking than all the people whose lives would be affected. Shouldn’t democracy have a place in this process? Finally, I found the entire exercise soul-crushing.
One year into the project, I wrote to one of my former professors, political theorist Langdon Winner:
I’m much bothered by what I can see happening to my mind during this project. I find myself—still partly as a game, but also insidiously—beginning to translate an extraordinary range of phenomena into monetary or cost-benefit terms. I find myself thinking, “If I do this for him or her, what will I get in return, how much does it cost me to do it, and how much will the return be worth to me in, say, monetary terms.” I kid not. I realize that such calculus cannot begin to encompass the complexity of reality, and yet at the same time that one begins to assimilate ultra-instrumental modes of thinking about the world, one—me, I—begin to lose the ability to comprehend my life and the world in other terms (more feeling-ful, empathetic, artistic, poetic, real, honest). Somehow when I read speeches by the President, editorials by scientists and economists, and who-knows-what-else, I get this sinking feeling that we’ve been taken in by economic rationality, so-called systematic analysis, commercial logic. No true feeling, caring, love, or even thought. No true sense of community—whether of immediate family and friends or of the whole of humanity. No remembrance of what it feels like to be skilled in providing for our own needs. No remembrance of what a stream sounds like, the smell of the earth in springtime, the taste of a moist wind—things which are not “valuable” but which to me are memorable, precious, worth fighting to preserve, still alive.
As the project wound down in May 1979, the mainstream professional world was, temporarily, my oyster. The well-connected senior participants all appreciated my efforts. Without applying, I was offered jobs in two different branches of the US Department of Energy. I applied to doctoral programs at the University of California at Berkeley, Princeton, Harvard, and MIT. I was accepted into all of them. NYU president John Sawhill asked me to come there, where I could pursue my PhD studies while sharing a research assistantship between him and Mac Bundy (who was about to retire from the Ford Foundation to become a professor of history). Mac took me aside and said that he hoped I’d join him in moving on to NYU. I understood that I was being groomed to become a junior member of the Old Boy Network.
After some tormented inner struggle, I opted to return to MIT, this time as a graduate student in political science. My reasons were complex, but central was a sense that MIT, despite some drawbacks in basic humaneness, was good about leaving you alone to find your own way. I had a goal in mind, albeit not one that I could articulate with precision. I knew that I wanted to work on alternative approaches to policy analysis, to critique the economic-grounded approaches that I found soul-deadening and the technocratic approaches that were antidemocratic, and to see if I could contribute to coming up with something better.
I was setting out on what has turned out to be a lifelong quest to save the world and, I suppose, my own soul in the process. (Or has it been vice versa?) This is one reason that I was predisposed to leap easily from pondering Yudhishthira’s addiction to the madness of modern civilization. In one guise or another that madness had been on my mind for a long time.
Does that mean it took you forty years to begin coming up with an answer to your quest?
No, there have been many steps along the way. I’ll tell you about one that has been especially influential in setting me up to write this book.
By 1982 I had finished up the mandatory course work toward my PhD degree, and I was scouting around for a dissertation topic. Thanks
to my work on the Ford Foundation study, Professor Dorothy Zinberg, down the road at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, invited me to contribute a chapter to a book she was editing about the social dimensions of energy policy. Naturally, I chose to work on finding a way to counter the predilection of mainstream economics to reduce all policymaking to economic calculus. But how could I do this convincingly, especially speaking to academic elites who’d established their careers by building up this way of thinking?
Working late one night in my office at MIT’s Center for International Studies, I began struggling to see if I could use Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy to counter mainstream economic analysis. I was thinking about Kant really, really hard, including his ideas about reality (which inform his moral theory). Kant says that we can never know reality “as it truly is.” Instead, what we know is inevitably shaped by the structure of our minds, which includes hardwired concepts such as three-dimensional space, linear time, and causality. Kant believed that these concepts are innate, universal, and unchanging.
Kant’s idea that we have foundational concepts built into our minds sounded right. But I very much doubted that these concepts are the same for all cultures and that they never change. For one thing, I’d read Kant’s lectures on anthropology, and I knew that he didn’t know much about other cultures. As an example: Contrary to Kant’s theory, the Trobrianders of Malinowski’s day lived timelessly in the present; what we call past and future they knew only as aspects of “now.” As one result, they didn’t experience causality. (If there’s no past or future, then there are no “past” causes to produce “subsequent” consequences.) And modern physics has decisively overturned Kant’s belief—borrowed from Descartes and Newton—in the invariability of linear time (special relativity), space as distinct from time (relativity’s “space-time”), and mechanical or determinate causality (quantum mechanics).
But all that’s at the level of ideas. If my own mental structures are neither fixed nor universal, then why does reality appear to me specifically as it does? Could it somehow appear otherwise, and, if so, is there any reason to privilege the way that it ordinarily appears?
This wasn’t an idle academic exercise. I was chewing on these ideas with ferocious determination and passion, seeking a deep passage beyond the demoralizing soullessness of modern economics. And then, as I was thinking so very hard about Kant’s foundational concepts . . . my own foundational mental structures started to F L E x
During the next six weeks, everything became different. I had slipped into another reality. Immediately, the book-lined walls of my office seemed to freeze into hyperreality, and I had the sense that momentarily they might shatter and dissolve, or that I might even be able to walk through them. Fearing that I might die, I resisted that dissolution.
Notwithstanding that resistance, my altered state of consciousness persisted. In the coming few weeks I didn’t need to sleep much. I could absorb books rapidly on many topics and see easily how complex ideas from one domain related to those in another, ostensibly far-removed.
That first night I had a breakthrough in seeing how I could use Kant’s philosophy to work out a new approach to policymaking. (This was an earlier instance of the alchemy of interpretation working its magic.) In three weeks, I churned out a primitive 130-page essay—an intuitive gush akin to my first draft of Escaping Maya’s Palace. I then spent four years unpacking those pages into a doctoral dissertation that later became a book, Democracy and Technology, that won an award from the American Political Science Association.
Immediately after finishing that first draft, I participated in a weekend psychological and spiritual retreat at the former Spring Hill community in Ashby, Massachusetts. I’d signed up two months earlier at a girlfriend’s urging. At one point on Saturday morning the leaders divided the thirty-odd participants into pairs. You sat on the floor opposite your partner and took turns silently and nonreactively witnessing for one another. When it was your turn to speak, your assignment was to gaze into your partner’s eyes and say what you saw.
I was sitting opposite a bearded young man about my own age. It was my turn to talk. One of the retreat leaders, a psychotherapist named Kevin, came over and said, “You seem to be stuck.”
Still in my altered state of consciousness, I explained, “I don’t believe my own eyes. What I see is bullshit. I don’t want to see bullshit and I don’t want to say bullshit. I want to see what is really there.”
“Well,” Kevin suggested mildly, “what’s stopping you? Why don’t you go ahead and see what’s really there?”
Apparently, Kevin’s words gave me the permission that I’d needed. I stared into my partner’s eyes, his face faded from its previous normal coloration to hues of gray, and then his eyes didn’t waver or alter as his face was replaced by the face of a kind of monstrous goat with several extra eyes.
“I see a weird-looking goat,” I said.
For the next three weeks, whenever I slightly squinted directly into someone’s eyes, the same basic phenomenon would happen. The face would fade to gray, the eyes would stay the same, and another face, or else a succession of faces, would appear surrounding those unaltered eyes. Sometimes it helped to gently hold the other person’s hands while looking.
When I looked into Kevin’s eyes, he was staring patiently back toward me in the form of a large fish, like a grouper, floating placidly where a moment before his normal human head had been. The grouper’s mouth pursed open and closed, while its side fins fanned rhythmically. When I told him the kinds of things I was seeing, Kevin’s reaction was, “Oh, those are just past lives.” Possibly, but I wasn’t sure that was entirely right.
As an MIT student, I approached all this partly with a scientist’s mind. First, formulate a testable hypothesis: Am I going crazy? Are these conventional hallucinations?
I tested those hypotheses and quickly rejected them as not fitting the facts. The strongest confounding evidence was that when I shared what I was seeing, too often my partner was amazed, reporting that there was some substantial truth being revealed that I couldn’t possibly have known beforehand.
For instance, I was living in a group house on Ash Street, near Harvard Square and the Charles River in Cambridge. A few nights after returning from Spring Hill, I squinted into the eyes of a new housemate while sitting on the gray carpet in her room up on the third floor. I had hardly spoken with this woman before, so I basically knew nothing about her. Her face faded out: “I see a Siamese cat,” I reported.
“I don’t believe it!” she cried. She walked behind me to her bookcase and pulled out a couple of illustrated volumes about cats: “Cats are my thing!”
We tried again and this time I saw the Mona Lisa. “Oh my god,” she blurted. “I was an art-history major and that’s my painting!”
“Crazy hallucinations” don’t usually elicit that kind of reaction, and I was getting lots of such reactions.
And there were other unusual experiences. For instance, a week after returning from Spring Hill, I wanted to talk with Dorothy Zinberg about transforming my 130-page gush into a chapter for her book. For some reason, I didn’t try to call her. Instead, even though it was the weekend, I pedaled my twelve-year-old Peugeot ten-speed bike three miles along the Charles River to her office at the Kennedy School. I took the elevator to the fourth floor and—damn!—the magic wasn’t working. She wasn’t there; her door was locked.
And then I heard her distinctive voice, laughing just around the corner. I called out; she didn’t answer. I walked toward her. She seemed to be walking away, always just out of sight. She kept laughing, and I followed her laugh. I walked down five flights of stairs into the Kennedy School’s basement-level library, where I’d never been before, always following the laugh, straight to where . . . I ran into Dorothy. “Were you laughing just now?” I asked.
“No,” she said, her face scanning mine quizzically. I imagine she was thinking, “Why would I have been laughing in a library, an enforced-silence zone?” We went back to her office and discussed my chapter.
In 1982, when all this was happening, I was twenty-eight years old. I’d been interested in spirituality since I was nineteen, and I had read a certain number of spiritual books, including the Bible, Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan, Chuang Tzu, the Bhagavad Gita, and Idries Shah’s Tales of the Dervishes. But at that time, I understood spirituality mostly in intellectual terms. I’d taken a tai chi course in college and occasionally done a guided group meditation. But I had never had a spiritual teacher, taken a meditation course, or adopted a spiritual practice.
The upshot is that I didn’t have much guidance for interpreting or integrating what I was experiencing. I was sure that I was having a spiritual experience and I found it exhilarating. I felt blissful, deeply at peace, and that I was navigating the world with a new, finely attuned moral compass. But other than that, I wasn’t sure what was happening.
And then after six weeks, I returned to my normal state of consciousness.
Twenty years later I met Sally Kempton, a Hindu spiritual teacher. When I told her my story, she explained that I was describing a spontaneous kundalini awakening. The shifting faces that I had seen? Third-eye activation. It turns out that seeing altered faces during a kundalini awakening is a rare phenomenon but not a unique one. For instance, at about the same time that I was seeing altered faces, so was a midwestern college professor named Dorothy Walters, right down to a weird goat (in her case, a satyr).
Soon I was meditating regularly and reading books about kundalini awakening and Hinduism generally. This later fed into my involvement with the Mahabharata, including knowing when I was looking at a tantric map of the human body. My MIT spiritual experience also helped me know how to navigate the altered states I slipped into while writing this book.
Meanwhile, I’d known since I wrote it that there was a gap in Democracy and Technology. One thrust of the book is that economic and technological decisions combine to become social structures. This phenomenon stands out among many that economic theory overlooks. I also intuited that among the follow-on consequences, there must be effects on psychological and spiritual development—and I suspected they weren’t all good. But I didn’t know how to discover what they were.
That hole in Democracy and Technology was still nagging at the back of my mind when I began pondering Yudhishthira’s anomalous behavior during the dice match and connecting it with modern circumstances.
Escaping Maya’s Palace spans an unusually wide range of disciplines. How has your scholarship become so broadly interdisciplinary?
It started with clam chowder. I began my college career as an undergraduate physics major at Middlebury College in Vermont. In September 1973 I transferred to Hampshire College in western Massachusetts, allured by their commitment to encouraging interdisciplinary learning and research.
In my case, this was communicated most directly by my assigned academic adviser—physicist and pioneering electronic-synthesizer musician Everett Hafner. The first time I went to see him, I encountered a friendly, bearded and bespectacled middle-aged man who was busy heating up homemade New England clam chowder over a Bunsen burner in his laboratory. We waited for it to come to a simmer, and then he generously shared his bounty. Everett thanked me for coming and said we should meet again sometime.
Huh? I was confused about what to do with my life and what to start studying at Hampshire. When does the “advice” part of being an advisee happen?
I made another appointment, this time resolved that I wouldn’t let Everett pull off any more of that spacey-science-guy routine to divert us from straightening me out. I was hardly into my spiel when Everett gave me an assignment: “Go back to your room, take a blank piece of a paper, and draw a big circle. Then place each academic discipline along the edge of the circle in its proper order in relation to all the other disciplines. Great to see you!”
Cool idea. I worked on it and came back with a circle showing about thirty disciplines arranged logically around the edge. I decided that certain applied-professional fields, such as law and architecture, didn’t fit along the circle, so I drew them on a flat plane intersecting the circle at a right angle.
Everett smiled. I smiled and never looked back. Without saying anything more, he’d taught me that all the disciplines are interrelated and not to take the distinctions very seriously.
Over the years, I’ve come up with a few handy tricks for doing interdisciplinary research. I figured out the first one while I was still at Hampshire. It turns out that if you need to know something about a new discipline, you can learn a surprising amount just by skimming an introductory textbook. (I tried it first for hydrogeophysics, while I was researching the hazards of high-level nuclear waste management.) In many disciplines, even a freshman-level text will convey about 80 percent of what the discipline knows. Of course, learning the remaining 20 percent might take years. But 80 percent is often enough for the purposes of interdisciplinary research.
Another trick: physicist Ted Taylor, from the Ford Foundation project, taught me that when you start tangling with a new research question about which you’re clueless, it’s a good idea to restrain yourself from reading what other people have already concluded. Otherwise, you’ll be indoctrinated into the received wisdom, which inhibits bringing originality to a problem.
Third trick (partly contradicting the second): praise the goddesses for Google Scholar. When I’m venturing into a new topic area, I hunt around for an academic article related to the question I’m planning to investigate. Any academic article. When you find one, Google Scholar magically shows you every published scholarly article or book that cites it. Sifting through those cites, you’re moving forward in time, finding your way to the most recent research . . . and to most of what is known so far about the topic you want to understand.
Final trick: when you’re trying to learn about a new topic, you also need to know when to stop. My rough rule of thumb is that when three articles in a row don’t teach me anything new that I need to know, then I probably know enough to move on to the next question.
Unfortunately, Escaping Maya’s Palace covers too much terrain for me to have been able to fully comply with that rule of thumb. When I couldn’t, I relied as much as possible on the kindness of experts in various fields. But eventually I ran out of people I could pester to review draft chapters, so I’ll have to wait for future readers to tell me what I got wrong. I don’t like violating my own rule, but I console myself with thinking that the questions I’m addressing matter and I’ve done the best I could.
One more question: You write about “the Taboo” against integrating a post-egoic perspective into scholarship. Why were you willing to transgress that taboo?
I suppose I have a certain innate readiness, reinforced by my Hampshire education, to challenge received wisdom. It also matters that I’m an independent scholar. If I were in academia, there would be a lot of pressure to stay in line.
My resolve to challenge conventional thinking, when that seems called for, has been put to the test a time or two. For instance, back in 1982 when I met with my PhD committee to discuss expanding my Zinberg chapter into a dissertation, the committee promptly blew apart. Two members said yes, but the two policy analysts resigned. One was Carl Kaysen, the head of MIT’s Science, Technology, and Society Program (and previously deputy national security advisor under Mac Bundy and then the director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, where he succeeded J. Robert Oppenheimer). A short while later, Carl cornered me in a corridor and threatened that if I pursued this dissertation topic, he’d make sure that I never got a job anywhere.
That made my choice clear: I could have conventional success replete with an infinite supply of comfy ego strokes or I could keep my integrity intact. I decided to prioritize saving my soul. I stuck with my thesis topic.
And that’s how I got myself disinvited from the Old Boy Network. Which hasn’t worked out badly after all.