In the summer of 1997, I stumbled upon a scraggly 19-year-old Australian singer/songwriter in a thrift-store-looking-blue suit deliver what I still consider one of the most formidable shows of my life. For the paltry 50 of us at Boulder, Colorado's Fox Theater that evening, there was just something so vulnerable, so magically joyful in the youthful voice and simple guitar chords that we found ourselves hopelessly looking around for more elated witnesses. Nearly two decades later, that musician -- Ben Lee -- has become a musical force in the international pop circuit, releasing 8 albums, landing himself in the top 10 charts in Spain, The Netherlands, Australia, and American college radio. He somewhat famously dated actress Claire Danes, only to later marry "Say Anything" romantic lead Ione Sky.
Recently, Lee's career has floated into the mystic. He studied the Eastern energy practice of chi gong in NYC, learned from Indian master Sakthi Narayani Amma -- an association that inspired Lee to develop the transcendental material on his hit album "Awake Is the New Sleep." With his new release, "Ayahuasca: Welcome to the Work," Lee treks into more challenging terrain as he explores healing journeys with the psychedelically powerful South American shamanic drink ayahuasca, which is becoming increasing popular in the industrialized North. In this interview, Lee candidly discusses how chi gong affected his live performances, why he decided to "come out of the ayahuasca closet," and how this strange brew is "the perfect medicine for this time."
Can you share how your spiritual journey began?
I was brought up Jewish and went to a Jewish day school. There was a very big mode of my questioning and my examination within that school, debating with the rabbis and asking questions about prayer. I was not a religious child, but it was what was in front of me and I always got engaged with it. It was when I was 18 and moved to New York and began to study with a chi gong master, Nan Lu at the American Taoist Healing Center, that this sort of profound odyssey of truly getting some hands on experience with consciousness began, and understanding what a slippery area it was to explore.
It's taken me to a lot of different scenarios. I guess for me it's intimately connected with creativity, because any reading of any spiritual or mystical text, we always see God or a governing force as a creator -- like Freemasonry, it's the great architect. We are essentially talking about the quest to understand the creative mind, the creative spirit, and how to be creative with integrity, and to be most effective within the world.
Have you incorporated this study of energy into your performances?
Beginning to understand energy really changed my relationship to performing because, firstly, I was aware of how much energy I was spending, and I was also aware of how much energy the audience was giving in their experience. Transcendent experience as a performer is kind of rare. They are a lot rarer than we'd like to believe and that we lead the audience to believe. The audience can be having a transcendent experience, even if the performer isn't. You know, sometimes the performer can sort of be going through the motions, but the container mythologically is so profoundly constructed, that the audience can project all kinds of unconscious material on to it and can have a cathartic experience -- like the guy playing Othello doesn't really need to be racked with jealousy for the audience to be having an awakening in that psychological realm.
How did you come upon ayahuasca and what were some of your first experiences like?
Well, I had heard of ayahuasca when I was younger by reading [William S.] Burrough's "The Yage Letters," written to [Allen] Ginsberg, but I didn't come across ayahuasca until 2008. A friend who'd been working with it had gone through a lot of really big changes. He'd stopped drinking and stopped womanizing. Things either change you or they don't, and when something clearly changes people, that's when I get interested in it.
I'm cautious of putting the medicine on a pedestal, because I think the medicine is used in a lot of different ways. I don't think the answer is that everybody is to take ayahuasca. I don't think drinking ayahuasca is going to immediately solve all your problems, but within the context I was exposed to it -- with a teacher/shaman who I've continued to work with -- it's taking me into a study of the systematic hunting down of our egos and our fantasies and almost like a samurai practice of trying to maintain awareness under incredibly adverse situations and noticing when we are asleep -- in those moments, sensing the urgency and attempting to wake ourselves up again.
In my early experiences of spirituality there was a lot of romanticism. There was a lot of inflation and feeling like I'm being guided and an everything-is-great kind of fantasy. The ayahuasca really allowed me to understand this concept of the work -- that the experience of doing the work of awareness, of waking up, is what gives life true meaning.
In one way or another -- whether it's with ayahuasca or meditation or with service, working with the homeless, working with the disadvantaged, and supporting each other in our communities, the hard work -- that's where we actually find our value. All of this really has been a tremendously inspiring experience and as always, with my music, what you saw at my show in 1997, it was somebody who was being honest on a stage about what they were going through. This is just the next chapter of that -- me having no other option than to be transparent in my process.
What made you decide to "come out of the ayahuasca closet," as you've put it?
Something that has been clear to me is that we live in an isolated world where we're not in communities. We are not in tribes. We are sitting with our iPhones and through our computers and we are on our own in our houses and apartments. In a way, if we don't come out and say what our values are, we only have ourselves to blame for our isolation. Look what happened with Occupy. You basically saw all these people who felt disenfranchised, who came out and said, "Oh, my God, I'm not the only one." What an experience that was for people -- the courage it gives you. Even if you don't win the battle at that moment, you know that you are not alone.
I felt that I couldn't go down without a fight. If I don't wave a flag and say, "I'm here to wake up," how can I expect to be supported, surrounded by people that will support me in my awakening? So that's my motivation -- to meet your people, you have to radiate your truth. Now, I'm in a lucky position as a rock and roll musician in that there is nothing that is seen as too weird, and you can still be a successful or a semi-successful musician. For actors, doctors, and lawyers, this is a controversial subject matter and I understand why the world is not necessarily friendly to it. But I wouldn't even frame this as ayahuasca. I would say that we live in a society that is afraid of expanding consciousness. We live in a world that's afraid of poetry. You know what I mean? It's like ayahuasca doesn't have a chance. We live in a world where men are afraid to cry, so I'm not surprised that people feel, quite rightfully, that they could jeopardize their security.
A genre of ayahuasca literature and electronic music has been gaining in popularity, especially in recent counter-culture scenes. I'm curious what your album offers that's new to this growing movement?
I think there is a gulf for people like me and you who don't have an inherently new age aesthetic to find expression for our spirituality, and I consider my 20 years of training in kind of underground music to be good stock to come from in terms of interpreting these experiences without it being all synth pads and sounding like you're in a spa. I think we should be able to express spiritual truths in any aesthetic because that's just our choice. It's what we are in to. I found that some people have been grateful to have a record like this that speaks to them on an aesthetic level that essentially comes from indie rock, but is about these more transcendent truths. So that's one thing that I think is kind of important in broadening the scope of whether there is an ayahuasca sound, or if it is just the sound of you at your most authentic.
Then I think in terms of what I have to offer. I don't know. I'm still exploring that. I do think my hunger for the mystery and my essential lack of compromise in my life seems to be for people drawn to my music. I go a hundred percent into what I'm interested in. I don't hide who I am. This isn't necessarily why people are interested in the medicine, but I think the roll of the artist has always been to be as real as possible. In that way, the world can never have too many artists. You can't have too many albums and too many books because we each have our book to write. We each have an album to make about (whether it's literally or symbolically) our deepest and most profound truth.
Over the years, I've heard a number of people relate participating in an ayahuasca ceremony to taking the red pill in The Matrix. What do you think it is about this medicine that makes it so life-changing for so many?
You know what's complicated with ayahuasca is when you go into the inner realms, you meet just as many lies and fantasies as you do in your regular life. For me, it's been about the process of discernment. I can honestly say I could count on one hand the experiences of what I perceive to be truth in my ayahuasca experiences, but what I have seen is many confrontations with my own lies. That's what I've tried to focus on in this music -- that it's about confrontation with self and taking responsibility for that. I think part of the reason that ayahuasca is experiencing the resurgence and the cultural significance that it has today is we are living in a time where it's perilous. It's 50/50 right now whether we as a planet are going to be able to make it through these self-destructive archetypal experiences. I think any climate change specialist will tell you that.
This is not a time for hedonism. It's not a time for getting lost in our journeys, sort of the beauty of our own minds. It's a time for radical responsibility taking. In that, I think the ayahuasca is an incredible tool. What you see with most people who work with the medicine, what begins to be awakened in them, is a desire to give back. Whereas with a lot of psychedelics and a lot of different people's drug experiences, you can see them sort of disappearing into fairy world, but with ayahuasca, what you see is people, like you, wanting to start a community, a website [Reality Sandwich]. You see people wanting to support each other's awakening, and wanting to ask difficult questions about the way we relate to the world, the planet, and our communities. So, it's got a proactiveness to it. It asks you to be proactive. It asks you to be part of the solution, and I think that's why it is the perfect medicine for this time.
This interview has been condensed. Read the full interview here:
Talat Jonathan Phillips is the author of The Electric Jesus: The Healing Journey of a Contemporary Gnostic, co-founder of the web magazine Reality Sandwich and Talat Healing.