Infrastructures of mystery — scaffolding the wonder of existence

By Joost Vervoort — Anticiplay project lead

11 min readJan 17, 2024

Dr. Joost Vervoort is an Associate Professor of Transformative Imagination at Utrecht University. His work focuses on connecting games and creative practices, politics and action to create better futures. Email: Twitter: @Vervoort_Joost

I was playing arcane tarot-based game The Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood on a Sunday evening when a Buddha statue suddenly fell from my bookcase and smashed into my laptop screen. This gave birth to a new genre of art that could be called ‘jumping Buddha vaporwave’. Quite pretty. The image on my desktop background is by Japanese artist Hirō Isono, as part of a beautiful series of images for the game Secret of Mana (see more below).

It is easy to forget how profoundly strange it is to be alive. To be a consciousness. To be in connection with others and the world.

And it’s so easy to slip back into the sleepwalking, the role playing game.

In a time of profound and multidimensional crisis, the need for action coming from a deep appreciation of the mystery of life is more urgent than ever. But it seems like so much of the world is set against us engaging with that deep reality. Elaborate systems are designed to draw away our attention, to capture it and frame it in specific contexts. So many people are under tremendous, absurd pressures from many directions. At the same time, more knowledge, more approaches and opportunities are available than ever.

Many factors can be expected to limit or enable people’s access to a sense of mystery. Health, physical and political safety, time, career opportunities, loving connections and relationships and more play a big role. So does access to ideas, practices, spaces, specific resources.

What would happen if we see opportunities for experiencing life as a deep mystery as a common good? If we see the structural conditions for such experiences as something to cultivate, fight for, and to protect, just like public health care or educational systems?

Many people have some personal relationship with the mystery and the wonder of life. I think it’s crucially important that this relationship can mean many things — but that it can include a deeply felt sense of being connected to life; a sense of the sacredness of life, a sense of wonder about how strange it is to be alive and how mysterious consciousness itself is. People access the mystery through love and relationships, connections to the natural world, some kind of spiritual or embodied practice, music and other arts, experiences with psychedelics, and so on.

Whether it’s an occasional glimpse or a deeply lived reality, it seems that these experiences are often central to people’s individual and collective senses of meaning — no matter how few opportunities we may find to talk about it with others at work and other ‘normal’ settings.

New approaches to mental health like internal family systems therapy see a sense of life’s mystery as core to healing and growing processes, both individually and relationally, as it provides space for a compassionate engagement with challenges in ourselves and in our contexts. The ability to engage with your circumstances with hope, autonomy and a sense of possibilities are tied to a sense of being at home in the world, of being connected to life, an experience of wonder and openness about the experience of being alive. This is reflected in what are called the ‘8 Cs of Self’ in IFS: compassion, creativity, curiosity, confidence, courage, calm, connectedness, and clarity.

This means that being able to touch the mystery of life in whatever way works for you not only benefits societal mental health — it can benefit broader social flourishing and opening up other possibilities for better futures.

In the last year or two I have, along with many colleagues, explored the notion of imagination infrastructures — a term developed by UK systems innovator Cassie Robinson. Since many of us work on societal imagination and ideas about the future, this has been a powerful concept that has helped us ask questions about the structural conditions that make the collective imagining of better futures possible.

While I am excited about the possibilities opened up by investigating imagination infrastructures, I have also felt the desire to take on another lens that helps us ask questions about the structural conditions that allow for access to the mysterious and nurturing depth of life.

Let’s call them infrastructures of mystery. Such infrastructures are, of course, closely connected to the question of imagination and futures. But they also connect directly to what makes life worth living now, in the present moment. So what happens when we turn this infrastructural lens on people’s access to mystery instead of on imaginative capacities only?

I think it’s important to note that the recognition of experiences of mystery as an important common societal force for good is a potentially powerful frame in itself. Mystery entails not knowing. It can help inoculate against dogmatic and restrictive truth claims about reality by religions or by specific philosophies. It keeps things open.

I think a very pluralistic understanding of what the mystery of life means for people is needed. This could be a starting point to understand what they need to encounter, experience, and embody the mystery their own way. What if we had extensive insights on this, and what if this understanding was informing our policies around wellbeing, health care, social cohesion, and so on?

More amazing art by Hirō Isono for Secret of Mana

So let’s take an advance on what the infrastructures of mystery might be like. These might be resources, rules, physical and digital locations, information systems, knowledge repositories, protective measures and more. They would allow for the time, space, knowledge, financial means, accessibility for connections to mystery. Safe containers where people can really and truly let their guard down are considered very important in many mystery-focused practices. Let’s take this further and not just provide safety in the moment, during the retreat, in the building and so on — but actually create the deep structural safety people need to make encounters with mystery a key part of their lives. Health, financial and social stability, time, protection, appreciation and respect. Many societal features that have been degraded in recent years.

Let’s talk about some more concrete examples in different spaces and domains and how these might be transformed by infrastructuring for mystery:

Religious institutions: The first thing that comes to mind is that of course religions and religious institutions can be understood as infrastructures of mystery. I think this is true in an important sense — but religious institutions serve many other functions of social power and organization, and they can be used to stifle or make exclusive our access to mystery. Recognizing the infrastructural function of organized religion as a space to encounter mystery helps highlight the societal value of religious practices, while also encouraging an openness and accessibility to the mystery and ‘not-knowing’ aspects of religions — perhaps by religious organizations themselves.

Westernized spiritual practices: Ironically, it appears that many of the most powerful practices originating in religious and spiritual contexts run the risk of being stripped of their potential for encountering mystery. Meditation/mindfulness and yoga are often framed in very dry rationalist contexts to help fit them in, and make them respectable as ways to ‘reduce stress’ or ‘improve mental health’. A societal recognition of the deep value of meeting mystery and the unknown would help unlock resources and possibilities for the mystery aspects of these practices.

Psychedelics: interest in psychedelics has seen a massive upswing in recent years. The mental health benefits of psychedelics-assisted treatments are being researched widely. Many people report profound mystical experiences in such treatments and as a result of their own use. These mystical experiences are understood to be of key importance to the beneficial effects of psychedelics. What would happen if we would recognize that these encounters with mystery are, as my friend philosopher Aidan Lyon writes, valuable to society in ways that should not be limited to any one domain? Psychedelics are at risk of becoming hyper-commercialized. What would public policies look like that would secure broad and responsible access and the time and space for psychedelic practice? How might such policies facilitate spaces, train expertise, support taking time off from work to trip, and so on?

The arts: artistic fields have long struggled with justifying their societal value in more limited terms. The question of evaluating artistic work for societal impact and the limitations of this impact view were the focus of a multi-year research project, CreaTures, that I was involved in. We argued in CreaTures that a core benefit of artistic practice is that it engages with the unknown and can lead to unexpected outcomes. Many people understand, I think, that encounter with mystery is an important part of artistic practice in some way. But sometimes art that enables a deep sense of mystery is harder to ‘sell’ to funders. What if this was recognized more explicitly? I’m very interested in this question, in particular in terms of the two types of art I engage with the most actively: music and game design. As part of the black metal band Terzij de Horde I’ve had a lot of moments of deep connection with our music and our audiences — it’s a style that pretty much formed to fuse metal with a sense of the mystical. Certain games have a real power to elicit mystery experiences — see for instance this article about Dark Souls: no mastery without mystery. My friend and collaborator Meghna Jayanth and I share a fascination with games as mystical experiences and using it to infuse our game design discussions. With my friend Rosa Lewis we engage with films as if they were dreams or psychedelic experiences. I also think of future-oriented fiction — a genre like Lunarpunk comes to mind as a type of setting that explicitly engages with the mystical.

Care work and communities: I have been reading Erika Summers-Effler’s wonderful book ‘Laughing Saints and Righteous Heroes’ which dives deep into two cases of struggling organizations around social action and care. One of the two groups, a Catholic care organization, has an explicitly spiritual background, and people describe mystical experiences that they have in their connecting with and caring for others. What would it look like if there were better infrastructures for experiencing care as mystery? Moreover, what if this was an explicit part of mainstream care systems such as hospitals? Or what if there was more societal encouragement for people to make time to go help in health care a way to touch the deep mystery of interdependence?

Nature: What if encounters with nature would be more explicitly valued as an important mode of encountering the mystery? How would this shift of framing from a rather bland understanding that green spaces are good for mental health or for the value of property impact the management of nature? Imagine natural sites as sites of mystery. How would they be maintained, financed, treated? There is already an increase of rivers, forests and so on gaining protection because of their sacred status. What would happen when a more open understanding of the possibility to encounter life’s mystery would inform environmental and spatial policies?

Education: What would happen if educational systems, spaces and organizations would create more active support for encounters with life’s mystery? Mystery is, in a way, at the heart of science and of many disciplines. What would happen if the deep curiosity, wonderment, not-knowing associated with encountering mystery would be allowed and supported to play a more prominent role in education, from elementary schools to graduate programs?

I think this perspective on infrastructures of mystery raises many exciting and interesting questions and possibilities for action. One that I am interested in, as a researcher, is mapping the diversity and plurality of how people encounter or even embody mystery, and what infrastructures they think would support them in these encounters and expressions. MSc student Shreeya Patangay is doing a research project with me on how climate activists draw on their encounters with life’s depth and mystery to motivate them. So watch this space for her future insights. I would love to also just create more spaces for people to talk about their experiences of mystery. I was at a wonderful workshop on the science and practice of psychedelics and mystical experience recently by researchers Aidan Lyon, Michiel van Elk and Anya Farennikova that brought together researchers and practitioners. Here therapist and yoga teacher Ida Stuij and philosopher and theoretical physicist Erik Curiel guided a session where people shared their encounters with mystery, from the beautiful to the sometimes terrifying or disconcerting. It was a real joy to hear all that diversity and richness.

Untitled, by Hirō Isono

What would it be like to have an appreciation of life’s mystery inform governance processes themselves? I’ve been thinking about what I would call ‘psychedelic governance’, the idea that collective governance processes might be informed by insights derived through the use of psychedelics. MSc student Alexis Beaudoin is working on an MSc project with me on the link between psychedelic experiences and relationships to sustainability and ecology, both at individual and collective levels. This includes sometimes long existing processes from different cultural contexts around the world. I also want to mention the work by colleague Timothy Stacey who looks at how the tools and rituals of religious practice might support sustainability efforts — and how many seemingly secural activities can be understood as religious repertoires.

Finally, just a personal note on what it has been like to engage with this concept. I have a long history with practices that engage mystery — in Zen Buddhism and imaginal practice, all mixed together in my meditation group the Dharmagarage, with psychedelics, music with Terzij de Horde, painting, and other contexts. But at the same time, a lot of my work has focused on generating, imagining, planning, strategy, the future. I’ve noticed an increased resistance in myself to only engaging with the world through this sense of generative forward momentum.

Working on the idea of infrastructuring for mystery — and the focus on openness, peace, curiosity and the richness of the present and relationality that this entails — has created more direct engagement with the mystery in my moment to moment experience, and has led to an increased sense of peace and care. I wonder if that is going to resonate with others when we work on this subject matter.

Untitled, by Hirō Isono

Some of my previous writings that touch on themes in this blog include games as psychedelics, the need to connect a sense of wonder with difficult, challenging emotions, the role of transformative imagination, and the importance of deep seriousness and playfulness as ways into mystery. Take a look!

Anticiplay is an NWO Vidi-funded research project that aims to establish a new design paradigm for the gaming sector in collaboration with CreaTures EU. You can find our mission statement here! In short: we’re all about Games For Better Futures and Futures for Better Games. Follow us @anticiplay on Twitter, and feel free to engage us with any questions, games that you think are inspiring, and anything else!




An NWO Vidi research project • Exploring how games can help imagine & realize sustainable futures • Games For Better Futures & Futures For Better Games 🎮