Russell Brand's 'Revelation' About the Universal Longing for Union
The comedian, activist, and writer examines the meaning of the sacred and how we can connect spirituality to our everyday lives.
March 26, 2021
Note: Text has been edited and does not match audio exactly.
Scott Jacobi: Hi, listeners. I'm Audible Editor Scott Jacobi, and today I'm here with the comedian Russell Brand, known for his books Revolution, Recovery, and Mentors, as well as for his roles in films like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek, and the Despicable Me franchise. He's here today as the creator and performer of the Audible Original, Revelation. Welcome, Russell. Thanks for joining us.
Russell Brand: Scott, thanks for having me, mate.
SJ: It's a pleasure to have you here. So, to start off, can you tell our listeners what Revelation is all about?
RB: Revelation, as opposed to Revolution, a book that I previously wrote, is about the idea that without access to the personal sacred, the social sacred, and the global sacred we don't have much hope, although I'd rather frame it more positively: that there is hope if we can access the sacred. There's hope if we can access the sacred. And by the sacred I mean a kind of deeper, timeless world that I suppose we've always been alluding to and reaching for in various ways. And it's, I suppose, about an ordinary, everyday account of relating to sacredness.
"Within all of us there is a longing for union, and the reason this longing for union is present is because union is possible and real, and in fact, it is separateness that is temporary and illusory."
SJ: What is the sacred, right? It's a theme that runs throughout the book. What is the sacred? What does that mean to you?
RB: For me it means this presence of divinity and a power that we can't understand. For a lot of people, if you wouldn't burn a flag, why is that, you know? If you wouldn't overtake a funeral cortege, why is that? It's a sort of sense that there are certain principles. And I suppose we live in, it's notoriously said, a post-truth world where everyone's living in their own echo chamber, bubble of reality, and I suppose the idea of sacredness is that within all of us there is a longing for union, and the reason this longing for union is present is because union is possible and real, and in fact, it is separateness that is temporary and illusory.
And obviously, this is not my bloody idea. That's an idea that comes up in basically every sort of theological ideology out there.
SJ: Yeah, and I love the idea of people getting together and finding a connection through, like you said, the self, the connection between others, and then, the global. It sort of covers everything. When we talk about being isolated, being separated from each other, it's actually interesting that we're talking about that now because of the situation the world is in.
And it sort of makes me think about how the project came about. I know that you originally had a certain idea for this project and how you were going to carry it out and, just as happened to everything everywhere in 2020, your plans changed. What happened there?
RB: What I thought, Scott, is that I would be writing a book about a spiritual odyssey, where I've spent time with teachers and seekers and neurologists, and tried to understand from a scientific and religious perspective the nature of divinity. That's what I thought.
For example, I hung out with the famous breath work yogi Wim Hof, and we got into the river, did some breath work, and work with the cold and all that kind of stuff. And really what he suggests that that does, and what clinical trials have proven that does, is it engages a kind of an element of our autoimmune system that might otherwise be dormant, that you can cure yourself from, I think it was E. coli infection he self-healed himself from, you know, using his breath work technique. And for me, all the point of meditation and prayer and all of these disciplines and practices is to access an aspect of our consciousness that we may not actualize if we live primarily a sensorially driven life.
So, I planned to do that and meet people that were experts in it, people like, of course, spiritual teachers, but also people that understand consciousness from a scientific perspective, from an atheistic perspective. I know a lot of people that are atheists that still talk about sacredness, spirit, and divinity even though they don't believe that spirit preceded matter, or the consciousness preceded matter. They believe the reverse.
But, nonetheless, they acknowledge the importance of spirit, the sort of essential life, the inner life. So, obviously none of that was possible, Scott, because of the global lockdown…. And I think it's beneficial, really, to recognize that if you don't have access to the sacred now, right now in this moment, in this conversation between you and I, then it's just theoretical anyway, and it doesn't mean anything.
So, I looked at how sacredness came into my life on a daily basis. I looked at where the sacredness was when we were suddenly thrust into a world that just going to the shops suddenly became a weird experience. I looked at sacredness, like in a few experiences I had in Australia, me and a woman who lived in the woods, three people I knew died, and how death impacted sacredness.
It became instead a book about how we're continually in dialogue with sacredness in our life, and we can sort of tune into it or we can ignore it.
SJ: That's really interesting, the way the outside situation forced you to take those ideas and bring them inward, whether it's inward to yourself or inward to be more focused on, let's say, immediate community than global community initially. It makes me think about something you talk about in Revelation, the idea of self-care through the prioritization of others, right? The back and forth between caring about yourself, caring about others, genuinely connecting with other people and with the sacred to make you a more awakened person. And then a whole lot of truly awakened people can really change the world and bring about revolution, if you will.
But what you just referenced there, in addition to the challenges of connection in the book—capitalism, nationalism, competition—we're all physically separated. And so, how can we achieve some of that communal connection, even though we're physically separated?
RB: Well, I suppose the answer to that must be the sort of spiritual system that I've been educated in. It does involve acceptance. Whether that's acceptance that, "Oh, this book is gonna now be a different experience because the world is going through this sort of imposed hermitage, this sort of necessary monasticism of suddenly everyone's thrust into isolation..."
But what I think, mate, is that if you accept the situation as being one of imposed isolation, then what is suggested is that we need to go within. We need to pray and we need to meditate, and we need to reach out only in the ways that are sanctioned. And we can, no matter what restrictions we currently find ourselves under, connect with people, and we may not be able to connect with people in the way that we want to, but it's not as if immediately prior to this coronavirus outbreak people were happy.
There's an opioid crisis, there's a mental health crisis, there are ecological crises. All of these things are indications that we are living out of alignment with certain principles and values. And it's pretty clear what the problem is: it's that we live individualistic, materialistic, commodified lives in order for a section of society to achieve commodified goals. I believe the only salve for this problem is a reach towards divinity and the sacred, however you personally define it.
SJ: As we ratchet up to global revolution, to creating a new way of thinking, I wonder if that next step up the ladder of how many people you're drawing into this mission, is that the writing of this book? Was that the purpose of this, to take that mission and bring it to even more people and step up, as you will?
RB: Well, yeah, I suppose so. I mean, that's a very sort of grand ambition, but I've written books before called things like Revolution, and I suppose that's the sort of stuff that interests me. But even in the last few weeks, and I've referenced some of these conversations in the book... I spoke to Kehinde Andrews, who's this sociologist and professor of Black studies at Birmingham City University, about his perspective on radical global change, and it's in his instance primarily seen through a lens of White supremacy, racism, ongoing colonialism under various corporate guises.
Yesterday I spoke to a man called Joel Bakan, who made that movie about the corporation as psychopaths. There are some people I talked to that believe in radicalism and revolution, so from that, revolution is the only sort of way to proceed.
There are other people that think that the instruments of government contain a great deal of power, and if that influence can be harnessed there is still hope. There're people that cite the moment in 2008 when Barack Obama's government sanctioned the Quantitative easing program to save all Wall Street, and, you know, from their perspective the global financial system. That's real power, to be able to do that, to make that choice instead of alternative choices.
RB: Power exists. There is power. There is power to mold and shape the world. It could be undertaken by influencing government in its current form. It could be undertaken by setting up alternative systems immediately. It could be done by challenging the existing paradigm through the kind of radicalism that we've seen in your country there in the last year.
All of these are sort of things that I touch upon, but that my interest is in, I suppose, a personal awakening towards sacredness, which, as I said before, is the acknowledgment of an ongoing unity between us, and that if we are able to tap that resource, more options will become available to us.
SJ: It's interesting you talk about power here, because there's the famous quote, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." And, of course, there are different types of power, but when we talk about power over other people and trying to influence that power, what's the sort of push and pull there in your mind between trying to get people to use that power for good but being worried that they'll use it for bad? Or trying to ensure that they don't use it in some way that you haven't hoped for or intended or would be harmful?
RB: What I suppose is from the perspective of Revelation, what I'm saying is there is no sacredness in the way our systems are established, whether that's economically or politically. And let's face it, those worlds are almost entirely interwoven. But with the introduction of the sacred, by which I mean that underlying all things is a unity, a commonality, a unity of purpose rather than separateness and opposition, we might make different decisions.
Not that immediately overnight we'll be wandering up Lollipop Lane and the rain will be made of lemonade rather than acid rain. I mean instead that if you extract sacredness from the human experience, or from the civilizing experience, the world you get is the one that we're living in: atomized, lonely, empty, hollow, and commodified.
"It's pretty clear what the problem is: it's that we live individualistic, materialistic, commodified lives in order for a section of society to achieve commodified goals."
The introduction of the sacred can revivify these dead systems, these dead ideas, these zombie ideologies that are sort of currently, I would say, staggering towards expiration, with or without a kind of uprising, and that, for me, I'm not interested in conflict. I'm interested in what's being suggested to us by the failure of economic and political systems, the failure of the human experience, the kind of despair, mental illness, and addiction that so many people are currently experiencing.
And what I believe to be in common, what the "revelation" of the title is, is that within us all there is a deep, deep and powerful, beautiful resource that's been alluded to through mythology and religion throughout history and that we can unlock it within ourselves. And if we unlock it individually, a great power will be unleashed that can alter the dynamic of, well, it's limitlessly powerful. I think that's the point of it.
I'm trying to put it in terms of just ordinary experience of what it's like to experience death, what you're constantly reminded of the presence of this thing, even though we all sort of pretend it's not happening. We pretend our life is about, like, we have social media online lives, our ability to acquire products, whether or not we have, our family lives, our sexual lives. But beneath all of this, the energy behind it, the psychic force behind all of this, I believe is sort of limitlessly potent and something akin to divine.
RB: Thanks, Scott. Sometimes I have to do a very, very long sentence to say the simple thing I'm trying to say.
SJ: I do that all the time. I am an over-explainer, so by no means don't feel bad about it. But it's interesting what you're talking about, with all of this reflection and understanding of the sacred. Something that struck me when listening to the audio of Revelation, especially in comparison to your previous audio programs like Revolution or Mentors, it feels calmer, quieter, a little more lived in. The way it's written, is that a product of this ongoing spiritual journey, the narrowing of maybe that physical journey, because of what we've talked about? Lockdowns, quarantine? Is it a combination?
RB: Thank you for saying that, Scott. I really am glad that you felt that. It wasn't deliberate, but it is, I hope and would assume, that it was inevitable that I've, because of, I suppose, crisis and failure in my own life, whether that's sort of, like, perceived.... I'm talking from my own perspective, perceived professional failure, or romantic failure, just a sense of things not working. The path of spirituality has been kind of the only option, and I've staggered down it rather than marched.
And it's meant that my life has really, really radically altered. To think I spend my time doing totally different things. I'm a father now. I live an entirely different life, and in a sense, doesn't that kind of show you that it's not so much a static and objective self? There is in quantum physical terms a superstate of potentialities that could be realized, contingent on the relationship with consciousness and awareness. Different decisions have been made, different aspects of self actualized.
By spiritual, I simply mean recurring perennial principles—honor, integrity, service—which as I say continually, in my case, are at odds with selfish drives that I still continue to have, but try to cede and seek help in overcoming. And as a result of living that I way, I have been granted a different type of life. A domestic life, a family life, a life as a father. It's difficult to envision something like consciousness. It's impossible, in fact. But there must be a territorial component to it. It must be a territory. There must be new rooms in the mansion that are opened, new worlds explored.
And when you go into these new neurological domains, then new selves are realized, and it impacts everything. I know that you're a father, and so I know that you have that experience that I had of just a new opening occurring in you, a new channel appearing, that is sort of impossible to envisage prior to experience, even though you really try to, and suddenly now you're flooded with a kind of love that ultimately took bloody other complex and difficult emotions, but ultimately changes you forever.
And then again, without our relationship to sacredness, God, the spiritual life, whatever you call it, I find it quite difficult to survive in those territories.
SJ: So, I'd like to take that as an opportunity to play a clip from Revelation, and then talk to you about it a little bit. Or, if this was a late night talk show, I guess I'd say, "Let's take a listen to a clip."
In this audio, I will explore how, in my ongoing and error-strewn attempt to make meaning from the world, I have been shown the truth, the way an incontinent dog is shown the carpet, that only by engaging with personal sacredness, a personal connection with God, can we ever hope to address this wound, this emptiness that we all bear.
I was struck by this bit for the way it deftly displays your open-mindedness, your nimbleness with language, and your ability to mix in the humorous with the profound, all within a few short sentences. And, much like what I alluded to earlier, it's delivered vocally in a fairly relaxed, subtle way. What are your thoughts about the way the intersection of text and voice, the way text lays a suggested route for the voice, and the way voice layers the interpretation on top of the text?
RB: That's cool. That is a cool question. Well, I started to think about it when I knew it was going to be an Audible book, that the famous Socratic discourse between the different values of a lapidary written text frozen in time, dead language and the living, spoken voice.
Socrates believed that there are present in the spoken word a vivacity and a truth that is impossible to convey through the written word. Now, you know, that's, I suppose, an ongoing conversation, but I personally... My background is in performance and in stand-up comedy, and when I was writing it, I knew I was speaking it, and when I spoke it, I got the opportunity to sort of say, "Oh, no, yeah, that's not even what I really meant. This is what I mean."
Although it was very well produced by a person named Chelsea, she sometimes was like, "Yeah, you need to speak a little slower." So I can't take all the credit for the delivery and the production of the audio, but I certainly think there is a power and a value in spoken word that may be absent from written text.
SJ: That's so true, and it's funny, that's sort of the first piece of advice for all people that get involved in audio programs like this, is slow it down. And maybe that ties in with some of the spirituality stuff we're talking about: slow it down. You're always going faster than you think you are. Take it more slowly than you think you need to.
I'm curious, you mentioned being a comedian. I know you've also got a podcast, internet show, etcetera. How does the vocal performance specifically for an audio original differ from the vocal performance in something like a stand-up set or a podcast episode, where narration requires a fairly strict adherence to what's been written, but stand-up or podcast has a beginning, middle, and end but probably takes a slightly different route each time you're on mic?
RB: There ain't so much reliance on profanity. I don't even mean just in terms of the vocabulary of profanity. I mean in terms of the kind of spontaneous disposability, which is part of stand-up as a medium. Although I know there are stand-ups that are very refined, I've always embraced spontaneity in my work. This is something that is written.
I noticed when Matthew McConaughey did his book that he was very in his performance of his own writing; he afforded himself the space to laugh and that kind of thing, and I really enjoyed that he did that.
"Develop something in your life which is about the cultivation of an as-yet-unaccessed aspect of yourself, to recognize that primarily the resources that we require are inner rather than outer."
So, no, I thought, "Okay, like, I've written this and I've refined it, so it's there on the page and you don't do jokes in the same way that you would." Because even when I'm doing stand-up I like it to feel very organic even in the times when it is sort of scripted, and I noticed that I'm reluctant to fall into the cadence of rhythmic humor, a humorous delivery.
What I try and do is, and I heard this advice maybe from Greta Gerwig…in something I read, she didn't pass it on to me directly, that you should stay true to the person that wrote the work. I like that bit of advice. If you try to stay true to the sentiment or the intention of the work. And for me, there were things where I felt very, very satisfied…. Obviously, you're a writer, and I think all of us, when we're creating something, the feeling we're looking for is, "That's it. That is what I meant. I meant that."
Obviously, you can't always achieve that. There's too much complexity, and the bandwidth of language has its limitations, but I think that the point of creativity is to achieve to a reliable degree that threshold of, "This is what I mean. This is what I mean." And reading your own work can only enhance that. So, it differs from stand-up in that the intention is different.
SJ: Out of curiosity, how much adherence to the text was there when reading Revelation? Did you have any of those moments when something came up that you felt either this was a better way to express it than what was written, or you just had to express it in that moment?
RB: Mostly. But there were things that I read that I thought, "I don't like that no more, I've changed, I don't agree with that anymore." There were things I thought, "The world has changed since then." Particularly when talking about…obviously, I was writing it when the initial awe of the pandemic and the consequences of it, when, speaking personally at least, it was much more terrifying. It was much more uncertain.
Not that it's not still very serious and terrifying. It's like we now have data on how it's going down. There was a moment where it's like, "Oh my god, people are going to be dropping dead in the street." And so, I could sort of sense there was that energy to it.
There's obviously been cycles to that pandemic, and the book is not a book about the pandemic, but it's framed by that pandemic and it takes place during it. It's about normal, ordinary life. And so sometimes there were bits I encountered where I thought my perception on what the pandemic meant and how it's being handled had altered. Sometimes when I write things, I don't know about how you write, Scott, but I think, and I've always been told, write what you mean as best you can.
And then sometimes when you come back to that, you think, "Oh, god. That's a bit too aggressive." You're sort of condemnatory or too, you know.... I feel that there is great, deep, deep complexity to truth at the moment, perhaps there always has been, and there's a requirement for nuance. And we are experiencing, I would argue from all over various spectra, the removal of nuance to a sort of ardent and novel puritanism in addition to the more commonly described fascism.
So, I feel like what I wanted to be present in the writing is an awareness of nuance and awareness of uncertainty, and even in that bit that you played, there was… I continually, and I have to as writer, because my flaws are so evident and obvious, continue to acknowledge I don't know what I'm talking about, I don't know what I'm talking about. This is what I reckon, this is what I feel. This bit you probably can't rely on because someone else told me this, so that this might be true. I'm trying to write from that perspective.
But, obviously as a creator, you have to have a degree of confidence in your point of view. Otherwise you wouldn't create anything.
SJ: Yeah. Absolutely agree.
So, as we finish up here to bring it all back around, if listeners were to take away one thing from Revelation, the one big takeaway, what would you want it to be?
RB: It would be to develop a simple meditative practice. It would be to develop something in your life which is about the cultivation of an as-yet-unaccessed aspect of yourself, to recognize that primarily the resources that we require are inner rather than outer.
SJ: I love it. I love it. That really does beautifully take it all back to perhaps the ultimate sacred is the self.
RB: I suppose that's the only one, isn't it? Because that's the only thing we're certain of. It was mental, for all of us. We're all the center of our own universe, that's it. And sometimes I think about that, because of the experiences I've had around fame. If you even think of genuinely great people, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Sylvia Plath, people that are incredible, well, I care more about people in my immediate life than any of those people.
Your own mythology is built around the self, but the self is constructed. I learned this thing: focus on the stimulation, not the stimulant. What is the experience that you're having, not what is causing it. That's probably nearly provoked some real, already present piece of inner code or programming.
SJ: Hmm. That's very profound. I'm gonna take that with me.
RB: Watch out for it, because you might think, "Oh no, that person's really annoyed me," and then you think, "Well, why? What is that? What is it? What is it really?" Because who cares about that person? You might never see him again, or whatever it is, but there's always, I suppose there's a positive way of regarding information, that, like with fear or anxiety or all of it, potentially has wisdom in it, that there is wisdom even in the things that we're most ashamed and afraid of. And in the places we don't want to go in ourselves, answers may lie there.
"Focus on the stimulation, not the stimulant. What is the experience that you're having, not what is causing it."
SJ: Final question for you, Russell. What's next? Is there something you're working on now that you can tell us about, that you're really excited coming up?
RB: I'm doing my podcast and my videos, and I'm writing TV shows and stuff like that. But, as is explained in this book, mostly what I'm excited about is being a father and cultivating this inner space so that I can fulfill the roles in my life, as efficiently and as joyfully as I can. There was a time, mate, where I could give you a real CV there of projects, and there are some work things I'm excited about, and work is still important to me. And there's a film that'll come out at some point, depending on the pandemic, and I'm writing some stuff that I'm excited about. But none of it's as important as this stuff, because nothing could be as important as this stuff. Nothing could be. And even if it's not my particular interpretation of these ideas, certainly these are the ideas that are the important ideas, I feel.
SJ: So then maybe the question is, what's next on your spiritual journey? Is it more of a continuation day-to-day of these little things, or is there a next big step that you're hoping to take?
RB: As I talk about in the book, from my encounter with the preacher from the Agape Church in Los Angeles, and from Michael Singer, the writer of The Untethered Soul, I met with them and I talk about some conversation I had with those men.
Both of them said, not in response to a question, really, but out of nowhere independently, "In life do not focus on the construction of a plan. Do the inner work. Make yourself ready. Free yourself from your conditioning and programming. The plan will come. The plan will come. It's taken care of."
And Sadhguru I talk about a bit in the book, as well. There is a deep biological intelligence at work in your anatomy right now, and your conscious mind, your egoic mind's only a tiny proportion of that. If you can harmonize with and access this deep biological intelligence, but whether or not you believe in God, you certainly have to believe in evolution. These powers are present now, waiting to be accessed. Don't think that this tiny aspect of yourself can or should be charged with the job of creating your future. It will be created if you actually can get out of the way.
SJ: Beautiful. Resonant, for sure.
I'd like to end our chat the same way you begin Revelation, with this quote from speaker and activist Satish Kumar: "If individuals start to walk on the path of spirit and feel a sense of the sacred connectedness, then social, economic, and political problems will also begin to get resolved."
I truly hope that there's someone, or many someones, who are taking their first step on that spiritual path by listening to our conversation, or picking up Revelation, which they can do right now on Audible. Russell, thanks so much for joining me today.
RB: Thank you, Scott.