Scott Carney - landscape

Today’s guest is Investigative Journalist Scott Carney. He has written such books as What Doesn’t Kill Us and his latest book The Wedge. And with life being so stressful Scott uses the Wedge to show and teach us that there’s all these opportunities to minimize or avoid the impact of either getting stressed out or being stressed. He discusses his relationship, personal evolution and even how he gave up video games. I know Scott and I felt like I really learned a lot about him the person in this episode. Enjoy!

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Scott Carney – Minimize Stress in Your Daily Life

Welcome to the show. Our guest is author, Scott Carney. You might know some of Scott’s work with What Doesn’t Kill Us in 2017 and The Wedge, which is talking about building resilience every day and unlocking our potential and resilience. I was interested in talking to Scott about the things he’s learned and how he’s applied all of this to his real everyday life.

We can investigate things and talk about them and know about them but then it’s like, “How do we practice them?” Scott was incredibly open, he talked about some things that he and his wife shared and techniques they used to enhance their relationship even more, and he even shared how he ended up giving up video games and under what circumstances. I hope you enjoy the show. Scott was informative, fun, engaging, and honest.

First of all, I am curious, how is your staying-at-home going?

The strange thing is it’s been pretty easy for me. I work from home anyway, I’ve got a pretty nice setup here, and I’m getting a lot of work done. I miss seeing friends but it’s been a productive time and I’m adapting to the new world order. I can’t wait for it to end though. I want to start traveling again.

You’re at home with your wife and you have animals.

I have two cats, Portia and Ichabod.

Is your wife a cat person and you’re just along for the ride?

No, I’m a cat person, born and bred since childhood. Dogs are great and cool. There are 50 dogs on my street and I’m the only person with cats. My cats have the best life ever because they’re indoors and outdoors. They take over the street. All the dogs have to spend most of their day inside. I feel pretty happy with cats.

Of your four books, I’m familiar with your last two. I’m interested first in how you arrived at The Wedge. I know that What Doesn’t Kill Us lead to The Wedge. I want to get the specifics of The Wedge and some other things but how your journey as a writer and how things led you from one to the next. It’s an interesting process.

The way I usually describe how this all started for me was back in 2005 before I was even a full-time journalist, I was dropping out of my PhD program in anthropology where I was about to get my dissertation underway. I had taken a summer to lead an abroad program for American college students throughout North India. We were going to all the holy sites, we were going to Varanasi and Delhi and we ended up in Bodh Gaya for a seven-day silent meditation retreat.

This was in the Tibetan tradition, it was totally quiet. I had about twelve students under my care. For the meditation retreat, I was not the teacher of the meditation, I was just taking the classes from this Tibetan nun. On the last day of the retreat, my best student, a woman named Emily O’Connor, has a huge background in yoga and has been meditating for years.

She gets the best grades and it’s the easiest for her?

She’s driven and together in the way no one else was. She was mature and poised. She’s a person you didn’t worry about. We had people we worried about and she was not the one we worried about. That maybe was an error because after we’ve been talking about nirvana, talking about bliss, and talking about all the benefits of meditation, on the last day of the retreat, she climbs up to the roof of the retreat center and jumps to her death killing herself in this horrible moment. Her body lands about five feet from where I’m sleeping. I’m maybe 26 years old at this point. All of a sudden, I’m responsible for bringing her body back to America. I’m the only person who speaks Hindi in this group. I read her journal and it’s part of the investigation.

You said you spoke Hindi.

I speak Hindi.

When did you pick that up?

The real backstory is I lived in India for about, at this point, three years before this happened. I had been living and working in India since I was about 18 or 19, college abroad, and then I bumped around. I speak Hindi. It’s not useful these days but back then, it was useful. On the last day of the retreat, I went into her journal and it said, “I am a Bodhisattva. All I have to do is leave my body to attain enlightenment, to attain that next level.”

She had gotten this in her head that after meditating on bliss and nirvana, she wanted to stay in that place forever and it was madness. She ended up taking her own life in order to become enlightened. This was a pivotal moment in my life, it was the first time I was ever near a traumatic death. I’m trying to preserve her body in the Indian heat, it’s 120 degrees there, it’s a horrible thing, and I have to bring her body from this bandit-infested area of India all the way back to Delhi and then from Delhi back to the United States.

[bctt tweet=”Being a denizen of the modern world, this technology is part of me. Whether I like it or not, it’s part of me but being mindful of it is important.”]

This moment led me to my first book, which is called The Red Market, which is about organ trafficking. While I had her body with me, people were fighting over her body parts. The police wanted parts of it and the insurance company was going to make money off moving the body. There was all this tug of war over a corpse, which I never experienced before. I never quite realized what happens to your body after you die. Right now, it’s mine, but, at that point, it’s like, “The states, the policies, or your program directors are on this.” There are a lot of people interested and have interests in that corpse.

Because I was also living in India at that time, I moved down to Chennai, which is a southern part of India. In a village, next door to where I lived, 70 women all sold their kidneys, and I was one of the first reporters to be there. These two events bonded and that led me down to a five-year path of investigating organ markets around the world. At first, I realized that Emily’s body became a commodity and then I was like, “Look, all of these other ways of bodies became commodities.” The Red Market established me as a serious journalist. I was on NPR and National Geographic. I was wired for many years covering organ trafficking.

What was your trajectory, in your mind, if all of this hadn’t happened? In what way were you going to use this education? What did you think at least you were going to be doing?

At that point, I was in the process of dropping out of anthropology. My whole life was in a big shift. Probably the month before I led this program, I was like, “I’m done.” I was looking forward to anthropology. You spend seven years of your life writing a book. It’s a narrow topic, it’s like, “19th-century print culture in India.” It’s something super narrow and seven people are going to read your PhD and they’re going to judge you completely, they own your life.

Whereas if I’m a journalist, I can ask similar questions, hopefully, not about print capital, and hopefully, about more interesting questions. I can use the same lens to talk about bigger issues. I had already written a few minor articles for local magazines and stuff. I was already on the trajectory of changing my job but I hadn’t fully made the switch. This was in that liminal state between, “Am I an academic? Am I a writer?” When she died, I realized this was the thing that made me switch.

The organ trafficking book happened but that whole time I was also thinking about why she killed herself, not just about her body but what was going on in her mind. It was probably 3 or 4 months traveling around to different gurus, monks, and Lamas in Tibet and India asking them, “Was she enlightened?” I’m not an expert on enlightenment, I’m just a dude who has a little bit of knowledge but not that much but I wanted to ask people in the tradition what they thought and they were like, “No, she was mad. She had gotten so caught up in this idea of enlightenment, this idea of perfection, that she took a wrong turn.”

After this, I was trying to understand how this madness is intrinsic to spirituality. You probably know people like this, people who are super into yoga and maybe a healthy lifestyle, but they say some crazy stuff. You say, “I had a bad day today. I got in a fight with my husband.” They’re like, “Mercury is in retrograde,” as if that explains everything. Incidentally, it doesn’t. The next book was me looking at all of the ways that people go mad on meditation and spiritual paths.

In a way, at least from what little I know about you, it’s interesting where you’re going to explore all this stuff but then you’re also putting everything in its place. In a way, those two things are a little bit paradox and have this interesting tension where it’s like, “I’m going to dive deep into things that are unexplainable and then try to explain and put them in their place.”

I have my own versions of this but do you think that’s also something of you trying to bridge more of the analytical side of yourself and the curious side by also connecting with what are you feeling and the messiness of being a human? By nature, you’re not like, “Let’s let go and let’s dive into my feelings and all of these things.” It’s an interesting thing when I see some of your work or visit with you, simultaneously, somebody who’s also trying to pull these two worlds a little more together if you’ll. Some of it is hard to explain.

You’re right, there’s always this tension. I don’t believe in objectivity. I don’t think that it’s possible, at least not in the social sciences. Maybe in mathematics and physics, there’s objectivity. It doesn’t matter what article you read, there’s a reporter in the room affecting the situation. It’s important to realize that I have limitations as a person like the people I write about also have limitations.

Oftentimes, I’m writing about flawed people but I have to also accept that I’m a flawed person. I get things wrong, they’re even in published books. I get things wrong and I’m like, “We’re going to continue correcting the record as we go.” If we don’t accept that we are fallible and that we have our own perspective, we can’t be honest. Oftentimes, people want to be the expert and know everything and we don’t.

The anthropological training I have is important in this because there was a point in the ‘50s when anthropologists were like, “The Inuit are like this. The Italians are like that.” They had what was called functionalism, everything has an objective truth. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, anthropology went through this subjective change where they’re like, “That’s total BS.” People are hugely variable and culture is a force but there’s also the individual coming to it.

I bring that perspective into my work and at the same time and try to be like, “Let’s get the bigger context. Let’s talk about history. Let’s talk about how it all fits together.” My books are all imperfect because I’m doing my best to bring to the world what I’m seeing but knowing that there’s still always going to be more to talk about. The fun of being a writer too is that you can still delve in and chew on this stuff and it still gives material for other writers to follow up on.

Does it ever make you feel vulnerable sometimes? Eventually, you have the deadline, you got to put the book out, and you have to at least go with what’s coming out of you at that moment. Does that ever make you feel vulnerable? A lot of us aren’t comfortable putting things out there knowing there are openings, there are places people can come in and be like, “You’re wrong.”

Aren’t we all scared of that, at some point, being told that we’re an idiot? Let me give you an example that’s personal and that’s rolling around the internet with me. I put out What Doesn’t Kill Us, which you and Laird are in it, and Wim Hof. We know that there’s this athletic boost that comes with the Wim Hof breathing where you hyperventilate, you hold your breath, and then you can do more pushups than you can normally do. I did 80 on a bunch of breaths and then exhaled and did it. I’ve done that multiple times.

At some point, Wim Hof was talking to Joe Rogan and Wim was like, “Scott did 80 pushups.” I don’t think this was a big controversy. Joe Rogan was like, “I want to see him do a video of that.” I’m thinking, “I’ve done this myself multiple times but if I do a video about it, it’s not suddenly about the experience of me doing the pushups, it’s about, ‘I wonder if his pushups were good enough. Would these stand up to the special forces?’” No, they wouldn’t. I promise you, my pushups are not the most amazing pushups in the world but they’re mine.

The point was that I tripled the amount that I could do normally and that was the highlight. I realized that if I put this out there in that way, what’s going to happen is Reddit’s r/fitness team is going to get involved. I’m sure that you’ve probably had some element of this at some point in your life and Lair has had some element of this.

People will try to undercut you for things that are not what you set out to do and that’s what the problem is in the world. If you go out saying, “I might be wrong on some things but I’m going to put my best effort forward and I’m going to give you my honest best,” people should be able to accept that without coming in and be like, “You don’t understand something that you didn’t even consider or even want to do.”

It’s not like your book was about something else. I agree. I’m always interested in why people will say, “This is scary and I’m going to fail a little within the delivery of the success. I’m willing to do it.” What people’s mentality is in that they know this going in. It’s one thing when you don’t know going in but when you write a book and if you’re honest with yourself, pretty much, this is the way it goes. You’re willing to do it anyway is important because most people are afraid.

Scott Carney Caption 1

Scott Carney – I feel pretty comfortable taking risks and I’ve always been comfortable with taking risks to some degree but I feel like it’s more comfortable understanding the consequences of risk.

There’s a lot of fear, especially in a world where there’s such overt criticism. Before, you were criticized in the newspaper or on TV. Now, you can get criticized while you’re sleeping. It makes it scary. You have to understand how you feel about it so you’ll do it anyway. That’s what it is. You can’t move with how you feel on a Wednesday versus a Thursday. You have to pre-decide, “How do I feel about this? This is part of the deal. I’m still going to do it.”

In the experience of What Doesn’t Kill Us, you do the pushups, you go up in the mountain with no clothes on or in your shorts, and you lose seven pounds of body fat or brown fat. Correct me if I’m wrong but when you talked about The Wedge, you were saying, “This is the space in between the tension, the discomfort, or however we define it.” What is that? I’m not going to speak for you, it’s like blissful surrender. What are you saying? The Wedge is in between what two spaces?

The Wedge is that place between the stress, the thing coming in from the outside, whatever that is, that hard fact of reality and your body’s response. You guys are big about ice baths, you guys are ice bath champions over at XPT, and you know that when you jump into that ice bath, it’s better to relax. The Wedge is that decision to relax. I’ve been doing ice baths for over ten years now. I look at an ice bath and I’m like, “Hell no, I’m not going to do that.” Even now, I’m like, “I do not want to go into that.” The first wedge is, “I’m going to do it. I have some experience here and it’s not so bad.”

The first wedge comes after you say, “I’m not doing that,” and the impulse. Is that what you’re saying? It’s the fact that you’re there to do it.

There are wedges everywhere. Anytime we’re up against stress, there is a wedge. It doesn’t matter what the stress is, it could be emotional stress or physical stress. With an ice bath, even the concept of an ice bath brings up this shivering, tensing, and horror story in your mind. The first wedge with an ice bath is the belief that it exists. For you, you have won. There is one about 80 feet from where you’re sitting right now.

I have an ongoing joke that everyone’s like, “Laird is amazing. How many years he can output him.” He’s amazing. I have to live with him. I’m going to survive this.

On a related note, in the wedge, most of the time, I’m with my wife and I’m bringing her through all of the stuff that I’m doing. I do the ice bath stuff with her, I do kettlebell throwing, and I do all this stuff with her and she’s with me the whole time. in truth, the hero of the book is not me. The hero of the book is Laura for coming along. It’s also interesting to see that we have different experiences with different stresses. For instance, we did The Potato Hack where we eat potatoes for a week and we’re trying to understand how our senses respond to a boring diet. I’m okay with it. I can handle this and it’s interesting and I meditate through it.

You’re like, “I’m going to check this out and write about it. I’m a curious guy. Guess what? You’re along for the ride. Were you guys doing resistance starch? What were you doing? Is that what you were researching?

The Potato Hack is pretty interesting. You just eat potatoes, nothing but potatoes, so help you. God. No oil, no french fries, and just potatoes. You can put a little salt, a pinch, and that’s okay.

In the time that you’re doing that, don’t underestimate the power of a little salt.

The reason I did it is that it’s this wedge concept. I’m trying to put myself and give myself sensations. I put myself in a difficult environment. Also, I didn’t want to do a pure fast because, one, I didn’t want to train people to be better anorexics, which I could have done. I also wanted to see a fast without hunger. What is it that sensation of taste that’s out there, how taste frames the world, not necessarily that deep desire to eat that we have?

Potatoes are interesting because they’re the most satiating food on the planet. There’s an index out there showing that of any one thing you can eat, the potato fills you up more than anything else. It also does this resistant starch stuff, which helps reset your gut and all that stuff. I wasn’t too interested in that. I write about that. The reason I did it was to understand how my palate changes eating just potatoes. We get through this, it’s only 3 or 4 days of eating potatoes, and I’m like, “Fine, I could probably do another couple of weeks of this.” Laura is on edge, climbing up walls, and being like, “Hell no.”

What is it in you? I’m curious. Laird and I have this too where he can say, “We’re fasting and that’s the decision and we’re doing it.” Weirdly, I never think I’m an emotional person and somehow I’m more emotional during these. What is it that you go, “I’m going to observe this and notice and take notes.” Somehow it’s not driven by your personal feelings or response. Is that natural or do you click years? What is that?

For my whole life, I’ve been someone who can deal with a routine. For a three-year period of my life, I ate the same breakfast every day, it was an egg with an English muffin and some cheese. That was 3 or 4 years of doing that and I was fine. Other people are out there being like, “That’s insanity. I need to change every single day.” That could be the way I’m wired, which is why this book is interesting because then we have Laura’s perspective and she goes into the same thing and she has a different response. We still get something out of it but the thing is we get something different.

The way I look at the wedge, not the book, is it’s not like, “Do these ten things and come out super awesome.” It’s not a recipe book. What it is it’s a way to think about the stress of the world and then chart your own path. I can only show you my path and here are the ten things I did and they may work for you. A lot of other things will work for you too. You may find that you like one thing and it fulfills you and it engages your emotions and your physique in a way that, for me, I would be biting my nails.

For instance, I’ve been to your house, I’ve seen your gym downstairs, and It’s a state-of-the-art gym, and all of these super awesome devices with weights and whatever. For me, that’s cringeworthy. The thought of being in a gym for more than a glance is terrifying to me. It’s like, “Why would I do that?” However, I can go on a bike ride that will last 4 or 5 hours and be engaged and super happy. It’s about finding the thing that speaks to you. It’s not that gyms are bad, gyms are great for somebody, but for me, they don’t speak. It’s finding that thing that works.

What keeps coming up from the book? Forgive me if I get this wrong but did you guys go on a journey together prior to starting this book? I remember I read something about ayahuasca, mushrooms, or something. I grew up where I was surrounded by people, especially when I moved to the Caribbean, where there was a looseness.

I then got on a track because I feel like sometimes when the adults around us are too stiff on a track, we get loose. I joke with Laird all the time, we needed to drink and drive and stuff so our kids would be buttoned up and straight ahead. In my adult life, I learned more about mushrooms, certain things, and journeys.

For me, this notion of a framework or a purpose, the idea of doing something to do it for me is unnerving to me versus maybe you can heal certain childhood traumas or certain obstacles that you can’t seem to talk out. It still has bumpers. As I’ve gotten older, I’m like, “I can look at that.” Also, understanding that certain psychedelics were misused in the ‘60s versus a little bit with maybe somebody talking to you. I was fascinated by that if you wouldn’t mind.

The first question was whether I had done a psychedelic journey with Laura before.

Why did you do it?

We’ve been married for over five years. When we first got together, we did recreationally bonding MDMA, which is ecstasy, and we had a great experience with it. We were talking. When you’re on MDMA, you’re chemically almost unable to have a negative experience while you’re on the upswing of MDMA. It releases oxytocin and all those love chemicals. You could say anything to the other person and they’ll accept it. There’s then the comedown, which can be bad. It’s the inverse of that.

[bctt tweet=”People will try to undercut you for things that are not what you’re set out to do and that’s what the problem is in the world.”]

When you drink, there’s a euphoria and then there’s a hangover, which is the depression that lasts a couple of days sometimes. Ecstasy is the same way. You have the up, which is great, and then the down, which can be bad. If you’re on an SSRI, this is important, if you’re on an antidepressant that’s modulating serotonin, you’d never do MDMA because that can put you into something called serotonin syndrome. You can have a bad hangover that in some cases can be fatal. Don’t do this stuff if you’re on Prozac, Zoloft, or something similar like that. We had a good experience but then she had a bad comedown and so she started this negative relationship with MDMA after that, which was fine.

Where did you get the idea to bring her along? To have a different perspective simultaneously so you represented a larger group than yourself?

Yeah. What Doesn’t Kill Us is a great book but the failing is it’s mostly my perspective and the awesome person I’m talking to perspective. There are almost no women in it. You might be the only woman in that book, Gabby, and you don’t even get a ton of page face in What Doesn’t Kill Us.

Bringing a female person is not enough, you’re also bringing in Laura as every person.


Here’s a representation of somebody who’s giving it a go.

She’s predisposed to trust me because we’re married. Even so, she has the option not to do things. There are some things that we didn’t do in the book. Some things are I’m on my own and some things that we mixed entirely and something that she came along with me for. For instance, we didn’t want to do a chapter on sex. You could do wedges with sex if you wanted to because there’s sensation, stress, and physical response.

What does that scenario look like?

What are you trying to do, Gabby?

What’s interesting to me is you could do a podcast with Neil Strauss. He’s interested in talking about various dimensions of sex. I always felt he was like a simpleton. That was normal. I was the one who was so strange for being like, “I don’t want to make it complicated. I want to enjoy it. I want to have it on a regular basis. I don’t need to bring in other people and fly from high above or put shower curtains down or whatever.” You went through it.

Shower curtains, what is that?

I was called the householder. I’m always fascinated. I know everybody has different inclinations and things like that so I was curious. Where would you even start to have the idea to go with that with your wife?

Here’s the thing, we didn’t go with it. One is did we want to expose that to the public? The answer was no. That’s private. Maybe Neil Strauss maybe he already has written it. He’s welcome to. It’s just that that’s not a route that we wanted to go. You could go to tantra or there are all sorts of different things out there and feel free to explore it. If you read the book, you can be like, “I can see how this would fit in,” and then, “I can find a wedge in anything.” You can find a wedge in riding your bicycle. You can find a wedge in skydiving. You can find a wedge in driving your car or sitting in the DMVs line. There are all sorts of wedges out there and that’s one that we chose not to do.

Did you go on a journey before?

Yeah. MDMA has become an interesting chemical in America. We’re talking about how it can be used to treat PTSD and depression. What I was interested in is how can we use this as a wedge in a relationship. Usually, what you’re doing in the wedge is you’re putting yourself up in a stressful situation and then you’re controlling yourself. That’s inserting the wedge in the environment. I talk about three places you can insert the wedge, it’s the environment, your chemical pathways, and your mindset.

If the mindset is like, “I’m going to jump into an ice path but I’m going to say this is going to be a great ice bath.” You psych yourself into it. The environmental side is jumping into the ice bath, there’s the wedge there, and you’re changing your environment. The chemical pathways are interesting because what we’re doing is we’re making it pretty much chemically impossible to have a negative reaction at the high point. Not to say it is impossible but pretty much impossible.

We then go into a couple’s therapy session where the wedge is we’re going to talk about difficult stuff in our relationship. I’ll bet you we did talk about whether or not we should put the sex chapter in the book in this MDMA session. I remember that being one of the things we talked about. We also brought in two clinical couples counselors.

They’re sitting there and they have done ecstasy in the past but they’ve never seen it clinically. They’re talking about couples who are dealing with infidelity, couples who are dealing with divorce, couples with all sorts of sex problems, and couples in various places. They wanted to see how we would respond and they’re going to guide us through the journey. We started this with the intention of working on our relationship. At that moment when we are on MDMA, which makes it easy to talk about difficult things, we started talking about difficult things.

I didn’t go into all of the things in the book but let’s pause it for instance that one of them was, “I hate your mother.” Something that should make the other person angry. The usual response to, “I hate your mother,” is, “I hate your mother.” That’s usually how that conversation goes. Instead, when you’re on MDMA, you can be like, “I hate your mother,” and the person will be like, “I understand. Why? Tell me more about that. How can we fix it?” You go into automatic problem-solving. We did that. You could address difficult and stressful things with a chemically definite positive response.

It’s like the game is rigged in a good way.

Yeah, we’ve rigged it. In the end, the psychiatrists are like, “This was watching 6 or 8 months of couples therapy happen in three hours.” It’s because all of your defenses are down and you’re working on things. I’m not going to say that this was a game-changer for our relationship. We already have a strong relationship. It made things like 10% better. The lessons that we had in those therapy sessions we then continue forward. It’s like having a productive conversation with your spouse.

The clinical setting was useful even if they didn’t guide every question. At some point, you’re high on the drug and you’re like, “I don’t want to look at those strange people watching me roll on ecstasy.” Their presence keeps you honest. It was a good and interesting experience. Laura does not like doing psychedelics or doing drugs and that’s fine but she came with me for this part of the journey.

That is appealing. In my own ways, I freely admit my linear approach because maybe it’s part of my natural personality but it was also a response to the way I grew up where there was not a lot of safety net so it was like, “This is going to work better to survive.” You said it’s 10% different or you heard things. When you come out of that and you’re back to whatever version of yourself without any stimulants or chemicals, can you still recall that information in a non-defensive and non-egotistical way?

Yeah. The amazing thing about it is that when you initially have an experience, it doesn’t matter what experience it is, and this is a whole thing about neurology in the book where I talk about neural symbols. We won’t get into the whole back and forth about how it wires. Whenever you first experience something, you wire that into your current emotional state. It doesn’t matter what you experience, it’s the sensation of that event plus your current emotional state. That gets wired into your brain and it stays there in a library in your brain.

Scott Carney Caption 2

Scott Carney – There are wedges everywhere. Anytime we’re up against stress, there is a wedge. It doesn’t matter what the stress is, it could be emotional stress or physical stress.

The next time you try to reaccess that information, you’re not only reacting to the sensation, in this case, it would be the discussion with Laura, but you’re also re-accessing the emotional state at the time that you encoded that. When I look back at those conversations, it’s not like I get high, it’s not like, “I’m on ecstasy again.” You remember it in the context in which you received the information at that time. It’s chemically induced but it also carries forward into the future because you’ve completely processed that experience while on ecstasy.

It’s also why it’s important to be in a guided situation because should you be on a psychedelic where you’re not sure where it can go? with mushrooms or ayahuasca, which I also do in the book, you can have a negative experience. You can have the worst experience of your life on a psychedelic. I have had that. I went to the hospital on psychedelics in college.

You’re in college, you don’t know what you’re doing.

True. Maybe that was the advantage.

The ayahuasca journey in the book versus the MDMA, was one more positive or beneficial for you personally?

The ayahuasca trip for me was more beneficial than the MDMA trip only because I’m working on a relationship issue with my wife. We were not on the verge of divorce or anything. Whereas the ayahuasca one showed me something that I didn’t expect. I knew it was a problem but it put into exact focus and then it sorted it out for me instantaneously.

I can give you the description. I went to Peru and how I found the shaman was crazy, it involves a dream where she comes to me in the dream after I’ve been searching for a shaman for six months and being like, “I guess I’m never going to find anyone.” I dreamed her into my life. It’s super strange. I get to Peru and we’re in the jungle, we are outside of Iquitos, in the middle of the Amazon. Picture this big leafy foliage, big trees, and jaguars everywhere.

I get off the plane and the guy who’s running it is a guy named Tony, he was the teacher of the person I dreamed about. It’s a long story. Read the book. He says, “Come into the jungle, we’re going to do the retreat right now.” We’re going to do ayahuasca within four hours of landing in Peru, which is intense. My intention here is I want to get blasted out into the universe, I want to be connecting with God, I want to be the big thing, and I want to be one with everything. That’s my stated intention.

We go into the hut where this is going to happen and this is way deep in the jungle. It probably starts at 11:00 PM, pitch dark. I get into the room and there were probably ten people in the room. The shaman comes in and he starts singing his song and it’s nursery, rhyming, and weird. I’m realizing that the wedge here is not just the ayahuasca that we’re going to take, it’s the entire situation, the entire remoteness, the entire strangeness of this place. Everyone drinks it and I drink it. Ayahuasca tastes bad. Have you tried it?

I’m moving into this other chapter of my life and maybe it’s waiting for my kids to be bigger or something. I’d probably be a better parent if I did some of this stuff sooner than later. I’ve been holding onto a version of the structure or control. Loosening the reins, I’ve gotten it beaten out of me a little through parenting if you think that doesn’t work but not yet.

I drink it and it is the worst taste in the world. It is like rotten fruit, plus coffee, plus the consistency of motor oil. It’s horrendous and it slicks down my throat and I’m like, “This is terrible.” I go sit back and I wait for it to come on and all the while the shaman is drumming and singing his songs. With ayahuasca, often, you experience it as something external talking to you. It’s in your brain and maybe it’s your subconscious but if you talk to the shamans, they’re like, “This is the spirit. This is God talking to you.” Ayahuasca comes over and starts telling me how lame I am. It’s like, “Scott, you do all these cool things and there are some cool things but you have this serious addiction and you are lame.” Gabby, this is incredibly embarrassing for me to even talk to you and tell you about my thing.

Don’t you think, in a way, that is what the whole thing is about?


Is it the real strength in, “Let me tell you the worst thing I’ve been thinking or feeling or gone through.”

It is. It’s good to have this conversation with an ayahuasca therapist who’s in your brain. It talks to me and is like, “Scott, you do these cool things, you do these books, you have these adventures, and you have an interesting life.” It starts with a compliment, which is nice of it, and then it’s like, “But you have been playing video games your whole life. You have spent way too many hours, several books worth of hours playing video games.” It told me why I played it and it was like, “You play it because it gives you a sense of accomplishment and it fills this gap in your life.”

While I do cool stuff, I also have a lot of free time. There’s this tension between high intensity and low intensity and that gets filled with video games and it tells me how lame I am for playing too many video games. Honestly, to tell you this, you and Laird’s life, to me, it’s the way your life appears. This is maybe not how it is but your life appears put together, fulfilled, and always getting to the next thing. Video games for me are super lame. After it tells me all of this, I have this experience where I have to vomit. You vomit on Ayahuasca as most people do and it tastes even worse coming up.

At the end of it, after eight hours of this tripping on video games and ayahuasca, I come out and I’m like, “That was lame. I didn’t get to talk to the universe. All it did was lecture me about my stupid addiction and told me about how this worked.” I’m here for ten days, I was like, “Next time I’m going to go deep and maybe I won’t have to deal with video games.” I brew ayahuasca. Brewing Ayahuasca is hard to do, you have to go cut the vines, you have to bash them apart with hammers, and you have to go find these leaves called chacruna leaves in the jungle. I spend eighteen hours brewing this potion. The pictures are cool. You can look at my Instagram and you can see the pictures of me brewing it.

You weren’t satisfied with your experience so you’re going to redo it.

I’m redoing it and this time, I’m going to blow my best intentions into the universe. You smoke tobacco and you blow the tobacco into the ayahuasca brew. They’re singing and there are all sorts of stuff going into it. I’m going to go big because this time, I’m going to go to the universe. The day comes, three days later, and this time I’ve written down my thoughts about ayahuasca. I write all this long screen about my video game addiction and whatever else.

The next time, I’m like, “Now we’re going to go big.” Tony, the shaman, says, “Scott, this one is a bomb. It’s going to be big.” I’m like, “Cool, I’m going to get a bomb.” We’re sitting in the same shamanic place three days later, he’s beating his drum, I drink the motor oil, and I’m sitting there and I’m like, “We’re going to go big.” I sit there and nothing happens, Gabby. I’m sitting there and it’s a guy with a drum. I’ve drank this noxious brew and no visions, no blasting into the universe, I’m bored, and I’m like, “Great.”

After about two hours of sitting there thinking about nothing, like, “Why is this shaman guy singing to me?” I feel that purge coming up, it’s roiling in my stomach. Honestly, ayahuasca tastes much worse coming up than going down, you might figure. I’m like, “I have to do this.” I grab my dirty bucket and I sit over it and it’s coming up and then I vomit out video games. Video games sploosh into the bottom of this bucket and I’m like, “That’s weird.”

It’s not like Mario Brothers come out of my mouth but it’s the physical manifestation of video games. I’m like, “That was lame in some ways but also amazing.” I didn’t see God but this addiction thing is gone. We do another ceremony three days later, I go out, and I see the universe and it’s all great and cool. I do see the universe but the important takeaway is that, years ago, who cares about video games? It’s gone.

[bctt tweet=”Oftentimes, I’m writing about flawed people but I have to also accept that I’m a flawed person.”]

I didn’t play any video games until COVID and then I turned them on because I’m launching the book so I want to see that addiction there. I played a little bit and I’m like, “They’re okay but they’re not great. They don’t speak to the same part of whatever it is that was there before.” Somehow ayahuasca didn’t only lecture me, it also found the physical thing in me, and I vomited that out. It was amazing.

Did you have to replace it? Did you notice if you added into your life something? I don’t want to say it took the place because maybe that part of you is gone forever, which is probably okay, or the part that was addicted. Did you put something else in lieu of the game?

One thing that I did is I went back to a thing that I liked when I was a kid. I still do recreational games but I started playing Dungeons and Dragons. I don’t know if you’ve heard of this game, it’s like a tabletop role-playing game where you create your own stories. It’s a creative endeavor because if you have to write a book and I’m the Dungeon Master, the guy who does the story, you write this whole adventure, and then you play with other people.

It’s a mutually creative experience instead of living someone else’s fantasy, which is what the video game is. Dungeons and Dragons is a much better creative outlet because you’re building a skill, even if it’s not a book. In some ways, it’s cooler than a book because it doesn’t have to have the output that gets national and international recognition that I do with my books. This is just for me and I do this because it’s fun and it translates to a lot of things in my life. Now, I’m doing this other stuff, I throw kettlebells, and I do some other things that I’ve put into my life.

Who do you do kettlebells with? There are all variations of that.

I throw with a couple of XPT people here in Denver. Eric Hinman is one of my buds. You may know him. He’s taken your courses. I don’t know if he’s done it in Malibu. Also, Amy Morrison, who you know. I throw with a guy named Mike who’s out here. I’m a normal guy and I’m not super fit but I hang out with all these super fit guys with many more abs than I know how to count.

It’s a little bit dangerous, the kettlebell part. Do you like the amount of focus that it takes? There are some interesting functional byproducts and results of that but what do you go, “I’m into this.”

The danger is important. When you’re throwing kettlebells, you think you’re going to break your foot. You do this too sometimes. Hasn’t Tony Floreal hung out with you and thrown some kettlebells around?

Yeah. I’m in it for the long run. All these guys and with the stuff they do, I go, “I’ll be over here watching.”

You’re sensible. For me, a lot of the things on their surface don’t speak to me. Kettlebells, to me, didn’t speak to me until I started throwing them. I learned it from a guy named Michael Castrogiovanni, who developed this whole system of throwing kettlebells. When I first met him, he looks like a gorilla. If I’m going to describe what this man is, he’s a gorilla, his arms are as big as my thighs, he’s shorter than me and he is hunched over, and his knuckles might as well drag on the ground.

He has a kettlebell in his hand, it’s 25 pounds, and he is going to throw it at me, and that is scary. I’m worried that I’m going to get myself hurt. A part of me is also worrying about hurting him. If I manage to catch it and throw it back, it could land on his foot if I throw it badly. He throws it and the way the kettlebell passing is supposed to start is you start by looking into each other’s eyes and you say, “Are you ready?” You say, “Yeah, I’m ready.”

You do three swings and you throw it on the third swing. The first time you’re looking into each other’s eyes, you’re connecting with each other. The second time after you’ve swung it and when it’s at its highest point, you switch from eyes to the kettlebell, the thing that’s going to break my foot. I go from the person who’s going to hurt me to the thing that’s going to hurt me and then the third time he lets it go, it flips through the air my butt puckers until it can crush a diamond. I’m like, “oh Here we are.”

My hands grasped the bell and I throw it back to him. You have to focus on the threat of the kettlebell. Like an ice bath, you have to focus on the ice. You physically are compelled to. It goes from being an aggressive and potentially threatening situation to dancing where our movements are coordinated because we’re both looking at the same threat that’s between us. I then realize that this is not about getting fit but it can be.

It’s not about getting stronger and whatever else, it’s about connecting with another human in an environment where you’ve created a potential danger even though it’s not super dangerous but it’s a potential danger. What you’re both doing is, in that dangerous environment, you’re trying to find a way not to hurt the other person and not to get yourself hurt. The kettlebell passing is about bonding, trust, and all these things that have nothing to do with kettlebells, and that’s why I love it.

What’s cool is doing it with your partner, with your spouse, or someone like that. Usually, people are terrible at throwing kettlebells with their husbands or wife. You have all these places that you don’t want to go to in your relationship, like these little islands. It’s fine, everyone has these, “I don’t want to talk about your mother or whatever it is.” It’s these places that you don’t want to go to. There’s a subtle undermining of trust in every even healthier relationship.

With the kettlebells, usually, partners are terrible at first because those trust issues come out immediately, “You are going to break my foot,” or, “I’m going to break your foot.” There are these two converse things. Usually, they drop it fairly frequently at first. Over time, you learn a new way to communicate where the movements are easy enough and then you are now dancing with your partner in this environment of stress. It’s like therapy interestingly enough in a way.

Maybe you’re rebuilding these small little bridges of trust. Through this, you’re reverse engineering it in this flow way. I know you’re very into flow and flow state. That is a form, especially the way that you explain it, flow state. Now that those video games are gone, is there something in you that feels different? Is there something different?

I feel pretty comfortable taking risks and I’ve always been comfortable with taking risks to some degree but I feel like it’s more comfortable understanding the consequences of risk. When you do that, you’re able to take risks more rationally. Maybe when I was younger, I would take risks that were dumb. You have to take risks in your life. The only way you expand is by pushing up against something and then realizing that you can either go through or you have to pair back because it will hurt you. You have to come up to that limit at some point to know what you’re capable of.

Since doing these things, I’m able to take risks that are rational, things that can put me in a difficult situation where I know that I can fail. I embrace catastrophe to some degree. I throw kettlebells and I know that I can break a foot. There’s no magic that will stop the kettlebell from breaking my foot so you have to embrace the fact that you might break your foot. if you can do that, you have the skills not to break your foot if you know what I mean. You need to face this.

Laird said something similar to this in What Doesn’t Kill Us when he talks about going onto big waves. I’m not a surfer, I wish I were. He comes up on some monster thing, it’s 100 feet tall. For me, four feet tall would be scary. He looks down and says, “I can envision failure. I can envision at any point in this thing, something could go catastrophically wrong but I know that there’s a process to the catastrophe. At every stage, what will I do next?” He always keeps his agency at the moment and that’s hugely important.

It doesn’t only apply to big waves or throwing kettlebells, it applies to everything in life. It applies to starting a business, it applies to putting a book out, and it applies to exactly what we were talking about before where you’re like, “What about when you put a book out and there’s something wrong in it, how do you deal with it?” I’m trying not to use the word secret because it brings up that book, which I that book is wrong. It’s an underlying pattern to life that can be fulfilling and that you can achieve the things you want to and you only do that by embracing the possibility of failure.

Scott Carney book 2

The Wedge

When you do a book like The Wedge, you’re never going to control what people take out of it. You’re going to have a general reader who’s like, “I’m going to try this and see that and try this.” You’re going to have people that when things impress upon you and then you interpret it in that internal way and you go, “It was talking about eating potatoes or trying things, float tanks. What I got from it was this internal interpretation.”

You’ll go someplace once you get out of quarantine and you’ll meet people who have read your book and you’ll sign the books and stuff like that. I know you’re not controlling it but when you write a book like The Wedge and you’ve thoroughly driven down on these experiences and then you disseminate and go, “What I hope that they get from this…”

I want people to understand that they have their own wedges. This thing underpins, to some degree, all of the human experience because you’re always going up against stress. I want to give them the tool to think about that consciously. The reason you want to be able to think about it consciously is so that you can also think about it unconsciously.

You have the choice now to think about this and that’s what I want people to have. I want them to read this book and be like, “I can decide that I want to put myself and I want to insert myself in this moment or I can decide not to insert myself into this moment.” That’s an important and useful human skill to have, to know that you have a choice and that you can exercise it if you want to.

The versus is what? People not realizing they have the opportunity? What does the other look like? How do you see it showing up in most of our lives?

It’s feeling like you’re out of control. Right now, we’re all under lockdown. We’re in a situation where we feel the world is out of control and that a lot of us will take that anxiety onto ourselves, for instance. We’ll read a news story and some politician will say something dumb, for instance. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this happen before. Some politicians say something dumb and then you get rolled up on the inside and then you write a tweet correcting the president or correcting whoever. What does that do? Nothing. There’s nothing you can do in that world.

What you’re trying to do is control the situation. You’re trying to be like, “If I write the right, either I will change the mind of another person on Twitter or I will change somehow the overall situation.” In truth, you don’t have any control over that. What you do have control over is how it makes you feel. You’ll realize that there’s a wedge, there’s the stress coming in from the outside. Even if it’s virtual stress on the internet, there’s something coming in from the outside and then your body reacts and that is where you get to insert yourself. It’s not in the Twitter sphere, it’s in your own body.

We only have one nervous system and it only has got a couple of tricks, it’s got parasympathetic, which is rest and digest, and it’s got fight or flight, which is sympathetic. There’s no third system there. You can either be in fight or flight or you can be rest and digest or some mixture of the two. All of the time, the things that make us anxious are that sympathetic fight or flight response getting released into our bodies. In our ancestors, in the paleolithic period, the stress was the lion charging at you and you wanted to get stressed so you could take your spear and ram it into the lion’s face or run away and you needed the energy.

In the present world, there’s no lion, there’s just a tweet that talks to you, you feel anxious because you’re trying to fight it as if it were a lion but then there’s no outlet and then you feel horrible. What The Wedge teaches us, this and a million other cases, is that you have the ability to control that or you can create an outlet.

Let’s say you’re in a Twitter battle right now, for instance, go throw some kettlebells, go jump in an ice bath, go take a cold shower, or go do something else that then forces you to contend with something external and now you’re going to have an outlet and that makes you healthier, happier, stronger, and better. You guys are doing all this stuff with XPT. It’s funny to talk with you because you’re doing all this stuff already. You don’t need to read the book.

I did read the book and it’s important. You have all the information when you wrote the book and you’re still having to exercise a practice. You, the author of the book, are still having to go, “Here comes something that shouldn’t but does. Be anxious or pissed off. It’s not impacting my safety or well-being. It’s not even inside my four walls. What’s the choice? What am I going to do to do with it?”

If you say to me you’re the expert, I live in this space quite a bit and it is a daily practice. It’s important. People can read the book and then they have these going like, “I have options A, B, and C.” Also, it’s to realize we don’t arrive. The guy that’s living on top of the mountain, the monk that’s meditating all day, he’s also away. There’s a part of him that understands intuitively, “Probably I’m going to remove myself from these things that I wouldn’t be able to be in this practice.”

Also, other level thoughts, like, “How do I contend with my ego and all of this? “These are luxuries. People that are going to work and trying to pay their bills and deal with their spouses and their children have stuff coming at them all the time. For me to sit here and go, “Let’s talk about fear and you being triggered.” It’s like, “I’m trying to pay my bills.” I love the idea that here’s something that at least gives you a directive resource. You can.

You, as a person who knows, are still making choices. Also, the practice gets easier. You can recognize it quicker, you can now respond sooner, or you can have your outlet or whatever you need to do. That’s important. Also, It’s not for us to feel shitty, “Why am I not a zen master?” We’re here. Also, I don’t know how much you’ve explored how much technology is kicking our ass. I see that from my kids and they’re developing mine. We talk about it all the time, it’s a slot machine, and it’s all these things. If we don’t think it’s kicking our ass in a real way and how we want to put a system in place to manage it, we’re delusional.

I was speaking with Andrew Huberman, who’s a neuroscientist over at Stanford, and he has this paper that’s about to come out. It’s in the pre-press stages but he said I can talk about it as long as I don’t give data, which is fine because I don’t understand all of the data. He studies the eyeball and the way the optic nerve sends information from the outside world into your brain. Let’s use our lion example. A lion is a mile away, you look at that lion, and your eyeballs, the lens, is at a certain focal length, and it’s a long focal length because the lion’s far away.

The movement of the lens connects to your body and triggers your parasympathetic pathway. You’re in rest and digest when your lens is long. As the lion charges close to you and it’s going to eat you, because the distance changes, your lens changes its focal point, which activates your sympathetic nervous system. It puts you more in fight-or-flight. Until the lion is right on top of you, it’s full fight or flight. This is the way we’re wired and that’s hardware.

Scott Carney Book 1

What Doesn’t Kill Us

Take this into the world where we have the technology. You have your phone in front of you and a politician says something dumb and it makes you feel anxious. One of the reasons why is because that phone is only two feet from your face. Your lens in your eye is triggered so it’s like that threat is in your house to some degree for your eyeball. These are what we call evolutionary mismatches where we came from and what we are now, our technology is interfering.

Many people are talking about how neuroscientists are saying how we’re being manipulated by our technology. There’s this social anthropologist from the 1980s named Marshall McLuhan who said, “The medium is the message.” He was talking about television and newspapers. It doesn’t matter what’s on the TV, it doesn’t matter if it’s Fox, CNN, or HBO, it’s not the fact the content that matters, it’s the fact you’re watching TV. It is the medium of the tv that is the message.

Watching TV molds you in a certain way. It’s the technology around us and the way we use technology irrespective of what that technology is saying. That’s a superpower. He said it in the ‘80s and we’re still just rehashing this now. It’s something that we have to think about because that medium, the actual environment we’ve created is altering our physiology.

Do you think this is something that you maybe will consider doing a book on? It is interesting for me to live with Laird. I always say Laird is not impacted by the white noise. In a way, technology is a bit of a car crash that we’re all like, “I can’t look away.” It’s all these things. I contend with it a lot more than he does.

I look at him as a north star to realize, like, “No, what I’m doing is not healthy.” He’s not beating me or tongue lashing me going, “Technology is bad and you’re blue light and the BS.” He doesn’t do that. He looks at us in total disdain that we’re on our devices. We have that inner compass. Sometimes you don’t have to say something, you just have to give someone the prompt to be like, “Come on.” Do you use things to control yourself with your technology?

I wish I could say yes but COVID has put me off my game because we are all stuck in our houses. I find it a bit of solace now with social media because I found a way to connect. We’re talking over Zoom right now, it wouldn’t have been possible without it. I wouldn’t want to have been born in Paleolithic time period. Do not put me on the planes of Africa fighting lions, it would not work. Being a denizen of the modern world, this technology is part of me. Whether I like it or not, it’s part of me.

Being mindful of it is important. Luckily, I have some other practices, I do breathwork every morning, I got these kettlebells, I got a sauna, and I got things that I do. I got my long bike rides. That keeps me sane. It is important to remember to go out and do that. It’s important to remember to go start doing practices because if you only get sucked into the internet, you’re going to go crazy. It’s a crazy place out there.

Your book is on audio as well, right?

Yeah, it’s on Audible, e-book, and paperback. You can get it on or any of the places you get books. I also have signed copies that I send out.

People sometimes get into certain habits. Do you know this whole idea about, “If you changed a couple of things in your life, it will be better.” They like to keep things the same. My feeling is if you can read a book like The Wedge, it’s an opportunity to jump out of the tracks a little bit. You said something important, which is to put these systems in place. It isn’t about like, “I’m going to change my mind and I want to do that.” It’s actively figuring out things that you can line up and that becomes the practice.

I appreciate it and I appreciate you sharing your personal journey with the discovery of the book and writing the book. I’m glad that people have all this information but how do they then put it into play? Sometimes it’s dangerous when you know more. You‘re like, “I know that. I know what I’m supposed to do. I’ll do what I want to do.” You think somehow having the information covers you but it’s like, “No, you’re not covered. You got to choose to do it.” I appreciate that because it’s constant.

It’s always going to be a struggle. Even if you’re an expert, it’s going to be a struggle. I have a friend, you know this person, who wrote a book about disconnecting from the internet and they are the most connected person to the internet I know. I don’t think that being an expert is enough. Unless the expert acknowledges, “They’re struggling too,” and then it’s fine.If we put ourselves on pedestals and if I said that you or Laird or Whim or whoever else is the perfect person, that’s when we are in grave danger of making huge errors, both isolating that person and then thinking from ourselves that we can achieve some ideal state that doesn’t even exist.

To bring it back to the beginning, this is why my student committed suicide. She thought there was some perfection of Bodhisattva, something perfect that you could achieve. If you could only get that, you could stop right there and you’d stop progressing. The reality is that we are all terribly flawed people who are trying our best to monkey our way through life.

It’s what I’m always interested in talking about because I feel like then that’s even the starting point of having a shot. I appreciate that.

Thank you. It’s amazing, I learned from you as well often. I hope that we’ll get a chance to do this again.

Thank you for your time.

Thanks so much for reading. If you’d like, rate, subscribe, and leave us a review. All of my music was graciously done by Frank Zummo and Tom Thacker. If you want to see some of the behind-the-scenes action, follow me, @GabbyReece. Remember, don’t miss new episodes every Monday.

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About Scott Carney

Scott Carney Headshot

Investigative journalist and anthropologist Scott Carney has worked in some of the most dangerous and unlikely corners of the world. His work blends narrative non-fiction with ethnography. What Doesn’t Kill Us was a New York Times bestseller; other works include The Vortex, The Wedge, The Red Market and The Enlightenment Trap.

Carney was a contributing editor at Wired for five years and his writing also appears in Mother Jones, Men’s Journal, Playboy, Foreign Policy, Discover, Outside and Fast Company. His work has been the subject of a variety of radio and television programs, including on NPR and National Geographic TV.

In 2010, he won the Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism for his story “Meet the Parents,” which tracked an international kidnapping-to-adoption ring. Carney has spent extensive time in South Asia and speaks Hindi. He attended Kenyon College and has a masters degree in anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He currently lives in Denver, CO where he is also the CEO of Foxtopus Ink.