Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 17 — Gnosis and Existential Inertia (Summary & Notes)

Mark Mulvey
6 min readJul 13, 2021


“As organisms become more intelligent and more in need of developmental transformations they also become more playful — they need more and more play. Play is not a frivolous thing. One of the disasters of our culture is that we think of play as only about fun.”

(In case you missed it: Summary & Notes for Ep. 16:

Ep. 17 — Awakening from the Meaning Crisis — Gnosis and Existential Inertia [54:48]

  • “The notion of how we can suffer — how we can be at war with ourselves, how our agency can be undermined, and how much cosmic forces may be aligned with our suffering — becomes a central idea amongst a group of people called by their enemies ‘the Gnostics.’”
  • There is controversy about whether or not this is a useful construct; more apt to think of gnosticism as a style or way of thinking, e.g. existentialism or fundamentalism etc.
  • “A way to understand the Gnostics is that they are the axial revolution within the Axial Revolution.”
  • Reminder, world view: when you have a deeply integrated, dynamically coupled way of seeing yourself and your inner agency + seeing the world as an arena. (A bi-directional model; a mutual conformity; a reciprocal revelation.)
  • e.g. you’re reading a book (say, Spinoza) and after enough time a shift happens when you go from reading what Spinoza is talking about to seeing things Spinozistically. (William James talks about this distinction between believing things and them actually be a live option to you.). The agency-arena relationship become conformed to what Spinoza was and what his world was to him.
  • John Wright talks about sensibility transcendence, drawn from ideas in the Iris Murdoch book The Sovereignty of the Good (“If you read ten books in your life, one of them should be The Sovereignty of the Good”). Reframing how you see the world at the same time as you are reframing how you see yourself. A participatory change between agent and arena. It’s not a reframing of things it’s a transframing.
  • This is what Christianity was offering: the metanoia of how they could go through this radical transformation in this way. Opening up the world + opening up themselves.
  • Why is this important? Well, now think of the opposite. The inability to enter into a new way of being. Harry Frankfurt (we spoke about him last as the author of the book “Bullshit: A Theory”) wrote a book Reasons for Love how much our reasoning is impacted by what we care about. And he uses this word unthinkable. e.g. something is unviable to you or unlivable to you, even though you can think about it and consider it. (Vervaeke uses the idea of kicking his son out of his house. He can talk about it and mention it but can’t bring himself to truly “live” that idea and embody the state it would take to seriously consider ever doing so.)
  • Here’s the negative side to unthinkable. What if you’re stuck in a worldview you don’t want to be in? What if you’re stuck, experiencing existential inertia. “People often enter therapy for exactly this reason.” “The therapist is affording an agapic transformation.”
  • There’s another problem people face when they need significant transformation, addressed by L. A. Paul’s book Transformative Experience: a way in which the possibility of these transformative experiences render us stupefied because they force us to confront a deep existential ignorance.
  • e.g here’s a piece of fruit you’ve never tasted before. People either say “Wow, this fruit is so new and wonderful I love it.” or “Wow, this fruit is so unlike anything else I’ve ever tasted and it tastes like vomit, I hate it.” And the thing is, you don’t know which reaction you’re going to have until you taste the fruit.
  • The fruit example points to a kind of knowing that is dependent on your state of being — your perspectival knowing. “With personal transformation, you don’t know what it’s like to be that person in that world because you have to actually be changed and the world has to be changed in order for you to have that participatory knowing.”
  • A thought experiment (still from L. A. Paul): your friends come to you and give you indubitable evidence that they can turn you into a vampire. Do you do it? In this case you can’t make any inferences since you don’t know what it’s going to be like to be a vampire and you don’t know who you are going to be. You don’t know what you are going to lose. You will have lost a way of being by going through this transformation but you don’t know what you will lose until you go through it. And if you decide it’s too risky and you don’t do it, you don’t know what you’re missing. And you can’t reason your way through it.
  • Both agent and arena are at risk, and this is the logic of the problem. So here’s a more realistic example: Should you have a child? Another: Should I enter into a romantic relationship with that person?
  • “Do you know how much people face difficulties precisely because they get transfixed by this? ‘If I grow up I might loser stuff, but if I don’t grow up I don’t know what I’m missing! Agh, what should I do?’”
  • We’re stuck and we’re stupefied. We have inertia and indecision. And then we’re existentially trapped. How do we get out? How does therapy work?
  • One thing many people do is they get a pet, usually a dog. They take pictures with it, give it a bed and some toys… What they’re doing is kind of like having a child.
  • If you go back to the vampire example, how do people deal with that? They play role-playing games. There’s a recent Norwegian variation of live action RPGs (“Jeepform”) where you act out roles in emotionally difficult situations. The people who play these games are seeking a phenomenon called bleed — so the line between my real life and this psychodrama bleed into each other, so the line is blurred and they can play with it.
  • “Play” is a liminal zone — this space between where you are and where you want to be in.
  • “As organisms become more intelligent and more in need of developmental transformations they also become more playful — they need more and more play. Play is not a frivolous thing. One of the disasters of our culture is that we think of play as only about fun.”
  • It’s an enactive analogy: An analogy you enact. You go through the actions. This takes a lot of skill. It has to be similar enough to the world and the person you’re trying to become in that world that you can feel it, but similar enough to this world that you can pull out if you need to. That’s what you do in therapy.
  • “We have to recover play.”
  • “One of the important things that religion was was play. That’s what ritual properly understood is. People are playing — serious playing — to try to put themselves in a liminal place, a place between two worlds: the normal world and the sacred world they want to dwell within.”
  • We’ve seen this before: anagoge. As I come more into contact with what’s real and get below the illusion, that affords me transforming. Sensibility transcendence is anagoge. Enactive analogy -> enacting anagoge.
  • This is all echoed in tai chi and the martial arts. These are rituals that help us bring about the knowhow of anagoge by enacting the idea of fighting. “That’s why it’s a path of wisdom and a martial art at the same time.”
  • Lots of people in the meaning crisis are attracted to martial arts. “They are hungry for ways of dealing with being existentially trapped.”
  • ASC — Altered State of Consciousness. This is what gnosis is trying to bring about. This puts you into a flow state, into a higher transformative state of consciousness, set within a ritual context where you’re doing enactive analogy and anagoge. Serious play. This can all be accelerated with psychedelics, sleep deprivation, chanting, etc.
  • Gnosis frees you from being existentially trapped.

Next up: Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 18— Plotinus and Neoplatonism (Summary & Notes):

List of Books in the Video:

  • Harry Frankfurt — The Reasons of Love
  • Iris Murdoch — The Sovereignty of Good
  • L. A. Paul — Transformative Experience



Mark Mulvey

arts •investing • games • tech • philosophy • bitcoin |