Up From The Deep and Back From the Dead

The History of

An Interview With John Mini, Creator of



I: What’s the history of

JM: I’d heard about the elephant seals at Ano Nuevo just North of Santa Cruz, California for a long time before I ever went to visit them. It was something that I’d heard about for years, decades actually, and I always wanted to go but never felt the timing was right. I didn’t even know why I wanted to go. It was like a lot of things in life, I just felt it. Then a while back I just knew it was time. I went not knowing what to expect, and it turned out to be a really powerful experience for me.


I: What made it so powerful?

JM: The elephant seals embody and emanate tremendous joy and power at the same time. That really blew me away. I could feel it for weeks and couldn’t stop thinking about them.


I: Isn’t it true that all those things are just projections of where you’re at onto those big animals?

JM: Sure, that may be true, but I appreciate the opportunity to have that experience of projection with the elephant seals in a way that I don’t have with any other creatures.


I: Point well taken. What else did you like about the elephant seals?

JM: They were so primal, so essential. Watching the bulls fight and vocalize and create all that steam around their heads like they’re breathing fire was like beholding mythical creatures of yore. Maybe that’s what it is. The elephant seals are mythical. And they’re here with us right now, not in some story.


I: How did you end up creating

JM: Ever since my first experience with the elephant seals at Ano Nuevo I’ve made a pilgrimage there each year to visit with them and study them. I went to Ano Nuevo in February of 2013 on one of those pilgrimages. During that experience I could sense for the first time that the elephant seals were communicating with each other in ways that are intangible to human beings. Maybe they use some kind of extra-low frequency vibrations along with all the other stuff they do. I don’t know what it is, but it affected me very strongly.


I: You mean the elephant seals spoke to you?

JM: No, not like that at all. Not in a psycho or a schizo or a woo woo way. They weren’t communicating anything to me personally, as far as I know. They were communicating with each other and I became aware of that process on some level. Becoming aware of what they were doing broke me through into some kind of deep biological understanding of the existence of another species and its way of being and getting along in the world.


I: And where did that take you?

JM: I think this kind of awakening is a very important part of the healing of humanity as we turn away from our domination of the earth and return to a more co-creative role that acknowledges and embraces the existence and the importance of other creatures as being just as essential as we are to the unfolding of life.


I: And how did you get from your experience at Ano Nuevo to creating

JM: After that time with the elephant seals, I played hard in the ocean for a couple of days boogie boarding and skin diving.


I: In February?

JM: Yes.


I: Wasn’t it cold?

JM: Yes. (Silence) If you want to have a life you need to get over certain things.


I: Like comforts?

JM: No, like limitations that keep you from having adventures.


I: So what happened then?

JM: When I returned home, I got very ill.


I: From the cold? (Laughter)

JM: The cold was a part of it, but not in a pathological way. The cold actually helped me to purge something out of myself that had been lingering inside me for a long time. The process was very intense. That sickness took me to the bottom of my being, hovering on a paper-thin edge between survival and death.


As I slowly came out of that illness, many of the things I cared about before had been stripped of their meaning. The image of the elephant seal rose up out of that void.


I: Would you say the image of the elephant seal is a message of healing and survival?

JM: Maybe. I’m not trying to define it. I’m observing where it takes me.


I: What does the elephant seal image mean to you?

JM: I don’t know. I’m still trying to work that out. Maybe that’s why I’m doing this.


I: What do you mean?

JM: Sometimes a thing is so deep for you that you can’t really understand or define what it is. There’s no way to describe it. That’s the space the elephant seal image is holding for me. There are also times when a thing is so profound there’s no way you can express it as an individual.


I: What’s that look like?

JM: Sometimes a group of people shares something. That thing, whatever it is, whatever you want to call it, they don’t know exactly what it is, maybe because it’s alive and evolving so there’s no ‘it’ to define because it’s on the edge of becoming. No one person in the group can language it or express it fully even though the entire group is experiencing it as it’s coming into being. Those people who are involved with it know, or come to know through a process over time, that they all share it. There’s something about being aware of holding that space together that allows the thing to be known in a non-verbal way. Our inability to express the ‘it’ of it makes it even more precious, even sacred. The elephant seal image is like that for me. It has a power that is bigger than me. I’m doing my part to bring it forward, and I’m curious to discover what others are going to add to and/or take away from it over time.


I: What was the critical moment that the elephant seal image came into being for you?

JM: At one point in the illness I spoke about, it was actually for several weeks, I was sure that I was going to die. With my medical background, this isn’t a small thing or something that I thought out of innocence or ignorance. The moment the elephant seal image rose up to meet me, my situation began to turn around from death to life.


I: So is it about coming back from the dead?

JM: Maybe. Yes, that’s definitely an important part of it. See? This is the kind of thing I’m talking about: some things only arise in a dialogue space.

I: Have you ever worked with this kind of a process before?

JM: Very much so. In my medical practice I’ve noticed many times that when a person has an illness, at the moment of healing, a certain symbol can rise up out of her/his deep unconscious to become a herald for a new way of being. I thought that if the elephant seal image was that for me when I was recovering from something so serious, then maybe it could spark a kind of healing in others.


I: And what are you finding?

JM: What I’m observing as the elephant seal image goes out into the world is that it’s so powerful as a symbol that it’s power is extending beyond my personal healing to become a key for a collective healing of some kind. Or maybe it’s the other way around.


I: What do you mean?

JM: Maybe the collective healing is happening and this is just the way I’m expressing it. This is a really interesting dimension of our lives. There are all of these big processes and changes going on in the outside world, but they’re also happening inside of us at the same time and we experience them personally. It goes both ways.


I: So then what does the elephant seal image really mean?

JM: It means what you make it mean, plus something more.


I: What do you mean?

JM: My experience is that the elephant seal image invokes something from the depths of our being when we view it. The expression of what it means is naturally different for each person.


I: Why elephant seals? Do they relate to us in some special way? Or do we relate to them in some special way?

JM: I think it’s both. Elephant seals are proto-mammalian. They demonstrate our mammalian behaviors in the most basic and powerful ways. Yet they’re also incredibly evolved and adapted to their environment. They do their thing submerged in the deep, in the inky hyperpressurized blackness thousands of feet below the surface at the bottom of the ocean. Elephant seals live the vast majority of their lives all by themselves, alone in absolute darkness. Yet in many ways that environment isn’t their native one, because they still need to breathe air. They have to hold their breath down there and make their way for hours at a time. They’re hydronauts, or better to call them thalassonauts.


I: What’s that mean?

JM: Thalassa means ocean in Greek. The elephant seals spend their lives exploring the depths of that world as guests or maybe even naturalized citizens of Poseidon’s kingdom. Can you imagine what marvels of adaptation they are, to be able to hang out up here with us kicking it on the beach one minute, and in a single breath be able to go a mile down into the ocean in complete darkness and enough pressure to crush solid steel? Scientists have such a difficult time learning about the elephant seals because at the depths they run at, the equipment and tracking devices the scientists use implode and are destroyed. How can elephant seals withstand all that force?


I: Good question. What else intrigues you about the elephant seals?

JM: When elephant seals come up onto land, it’s only to get together and mate. Then they split and do their own thing again. The only other time they come up onto land is to process their catastrophic molt once a year. This is an amazing process where their entire skin sheds and falls off.


I: What about this intrigues you?

JM: In many ways way I think elephant seals are proto-Californian.


I: What about this is proto-Californian?

JM: Californians do life solo. We do our thing on our own and in our own time, alone deep in the silo of our creation, whatever it is. We only come out of that state to have sex and do therapy. Then it’s back into the deep.


I: What!

JM: The elephant seals are a lot like who we’re becoming and where we came from. It makes perfect sense that California is their pied a terre on dry land. If their home were someplace else, they’d probably behave much differently.


I: What other thoughts do you have about elephant seals?

JM: I got to look at an elephant seal skull one year at Ano Nuevo. Now I’m something of a biologist because I practice medicine. So I was blown away when I examined that skull and discovered how small and thin an elephant seal’s brain is. Yet it’s very clear that other aspects of the elephant seal’s nervous system are extremely sophisticated.


I: What do you mean?

JM: I know this is absolutely taboo to suggest, but the powerful pro-human bias in the biological and behavioral sciences flies in the face of genuine scientific process and our increasingly objective understanding of the real world. We have a very strong assumption-the tragic ego myth of our species- that human beings are the most evolved and advanced creatures on earth in every way. We project our belief system onto other forms of life in order to strengthen the psychological scaffolding around our species myth. But it’s scaffolding, not a foundation. It’s not real.


I: I still don’t get it.

JM: We’ve created a model where we judge the level of evolution of all creatures relative to ourselves. The more like us a species is, the more evolved we believe it is, but of course we always remain at the top of the pile and the basis of the metric. But this is an ego lie with no basis in fact.


I: What would be more factual?

JM: To me it would make more sense to base our evaluations on something more objective, like adaptation. We have big brains in our heads, so we believe that’s the most important thing. Other creatures have varying levels of nervous system development in other areas than the head.


I: Like what?

JM: A great example was the dinosaur Ankylosaurus, who had a brain in its lower back that was bigger than the one in its head. How can we imagine in any way what its life experience was like? Different varieties of experience come out of differently evolved nervous systems and vice versa. Neurology is learning more about this all the time. Nervous tissue is nervous tissue. It exists all over the body, including the brain. So animals that have developed different areas of their nervous systems have experiences that we can’t imagine, because we don’t have the hardware for it. So who’s to say what is more evolved? There are huge differences between internal terrains even among humans. People are as different on the inside as they are on the outside. These differences might not be evident at first, but they give people a certain edge in one area or another. What if an animal has developed one or more of these areas to a much higher level than we have? Who is more evolved? Shouldn’t we use a variety of scales to measure adaptation? If we did, the evolutionary pyramid that we’ve invented to prop up our species ego-myth would expand into a sphere with a bumpy surface.


I: I don’t get it.

JM: Each species is perfectly adapted to its environment until the environment changes. The world is in a dynamic state of change, and some creatures can make it through the changes and some can’t. It’s an ongoing experiment.


I: How do the elephant seals fit into this picture?

JM: The elephant seals live in a world of vibration in the deep sea.


I: How’s that?

JM: There’s no light, or very little of it at the bottom of the sea. The elephant seals feel their way around down there in ways that we don’t yet understand. It’s very possible that their direct experience of the physical and energetic reality of material existence is much more advanced than ours.


I: And what do we do with that?

JM: One of the things that I love about being around the elephant seals is that it’s clear that they’re more evolved than I am in some ways, but because of my position in that equation, I can’t understand what those ways are. Yet some part of me gets it. I love being in that experience.


I: What makes the elephant seals unique for this experience rather than any other kind of animal?

JM: One of the things that is very unusual about the elephant seals is that they’re so gentle. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never seen an animal that isn’t gentle unless it feels attacked, but the elephant seals have something unique.


I: What is it?

JM: I’ve come face to face with big bulls a number of times, and it’s been a totally different experience than what you might expect. Each time, the bull has expressed an incredible radiant joy and benevolence toward me. The level of kindness in their eyes and demeanor is really overwhelming.


When you combine that kindness with the fact that a male elephant seal could squish you in an instant, it sets up the most amazing feeling of trust in the face of terror. In some ways, elephant seals look at us in a similar way as when we look at ladybugs. What’s a human going to do to them? This is what got them into trouble with the Europeans, who took advantage of their innocence and generosity and killed them almost to the point of extinction. But what’s incredible is that they’re not extinct. They’re alive, they’re here and they’re doing well. Maybe that perfect innocence is what helped to keep them alive.


I: That’s an unusual way to view it.

JM: Maybe. One projection we throw onto the elephant seals is that their massive power is the key to their survival. We believe that because we live in a power-as-force worshiping society. But what if it wasn’t only the power, but also the benevolence, the radiant generosity of spirit that comes with true power that was the final piece that brought the elephant seals here with us today? What almost caused the extinction of the elephant seals maybe also is what guarantees their survival. This may be a part of their big lesson for human beings. They’re coming up from the deep at the point where an absence of the kindness and generosity of true power in humanity is poised to wipe us out.


I; So this part of the message is kindness?

JM: And innocence. Empowered innocence.


I: Do you have any big goals for

JM: I’ve been cured of that. I’ve accomplished what I intended to do with it already. Now it’s time for nature to take its course. isn’t a crusade with goals and objectives that will be judged according to its successes or failures on that level. That kind of thinking is a part of the problem we’re trying to solve as far as I can tell.


I: What do the elephant seals get out of

JM: Part of the money we make goes to support OCR, Ocean Conservation Research. They’re a non-profit organization that maps the acoustic landscape of the ocean and helps to protect it. I think this is a very tangible benefit for the elephant seals. I also think that getting people aware of elephant seals and how incredible they are is one of the best things that we can do for them.


I: Why is that?

JM: When you know something in a personal way, aren’t you more likely to want to care for it?


I: It depends.

JM: OK, I understand what you’re saying on a personal level, but in general I think we feel better about destroying what we don’t know. This is the formula for industrial war and so many of the devastations of modernity that we’ve perpetrated on the earth. When we know something, we’re much less likely to destroy it.


I: Can you give another example for us?

JM: Think of the movie The Cove as an example and what it did for the dolphins in Japan. Before I saw that movie, I understood the situation in some way, but I wasn’t impelled to immediate action. When I saw The Cove, I stayed up all night long writing emails to everybody I knew because I got what was happening in a personal way.


I: Are you wanting to evoke a similar call to action for the elephant seals?

JM: The situation with the elephant seals is different. They hold a different message and a much different call to action. If the elephant seals have a message for us, it’s a message to save ourselves. The call to action is for us, not them.


I: What’s the message?

JM: The elephant seals were hunted nearly to the point of extinction, but they survived. They’re looking at us from the other side of extinction. I think that’s an important message for us to get at this point.


I: How does the fit in with your practice of Chinese medicine and your other projects?

JM: Medicine comes from nature. We get sick when we separate ourselves from life’s flow. Real medicine puts us back into that flow. The elephant seal image is medicine in a big way.


I: How so?

JM: Everything we’ve been discussing here is medicine. Healing doesn’t have to happen through surgery or needles or drugs or herbs. It all depends on where and how you adjust your relationship with the flow of life. The elephant seal image comes from an extremely primal life source. It’s filled with lessons for us on intellectual and philosophical levels, but beyond that, there’s energy in it. Maybe it relates to what I was talking about earlier with that sense that I got of how the elephant seals were communicating. Natural information, biological information is an important key to our healing and our survival. I also think it’s key to our thriving and creating an abundance of positive and healthy dimensions to human life here on earth.


I: How?

JM: Humanity’s a part of the biospshere. When we listen and pay attention to the natural information that’s all around us all the time, our world transforms. The game changes. We enter back into the global symphony of life again instead of wrecking the show like we have been. That’s a more sustainable model than the one we’re currently using. If we pay attention as co-creators rather than as self-proclaimed masters of the universe, the world can be a wonderful place. This was the basis of every sustainable indigenous culture from our past.


I: But the world is different now and the population scales are so different than anything that has been done before.

JM: There you go again buying into our cultural myth. The most successful of the ancient cultures I’m talking about sustained urban centers with populations of up to millions of people for hundreds of years. The situation now is no different at all. The principles are the same, and if anything we need to take them more seriously now than in the past.


I: Is there a feelgood moral to this story that people can take home from this?

JM: Absolutely. Living life connected with the biosphere in a positive way leads to a kind of fulfillment that is completely unknown in modern society. A part of us longs for that fulfillment. We feel the emptiness of our current lives, especially ‘successful’ ones, and it drives us mad. We do all kinds of things to help us feel better about it, but nothing works because it’s just a substitute for the real thing. We know the difference between what is real and what isn’t. The key is natural information. Reading the book of nature, listening to its symphony, finding our place in it and surrendering to the music is a pretty fail-safe roadmap to our sustainable future.


I: Has it been healing for you to work on

JM: You can’t believe how the elephant seal image has worked me and continues to. There’s something about the energy around it that has brought up so much for healing in myself. Things I never imagined. And like I said before, it looks like this healing isn’t just for me, but also for people who get exposed to the elephant seal image and enter into some kind of collective healing around it.


I: What’s the healing?

JM: I don’t know. Like I said before, this is bigger than me. Whatever it is, it’s coming up from the unconscious. What’s so amazing is to watch what’s happening as it reveals itself. I can’t predict what it is or where it’s going.


I: That seems to be an important theme for you in your work.

JM: Indeterminacy is precious to me.


I: What’s that?

JM: It means that you don’t ever really know what the outcome of something is going to be, and the process of that unfolding is interesting, valuable and even vital. Anything a person creates has a certain level of indeterminacy over the course of its life. That’s just what happens when you release something into the world. The moment you let it go, life takes off with it, or not, but you don’t know what all the downstream effects of a creation are going to be at the time you create it. This is especially true now with digital technology because things don’t need to die the way they used to. Creations, especially digital creations, have an infinite long tail now because they can hang out forever in the digital space until somebody somewhere at sometime finds it, loves it and supports it.


I: And so?

JM: To me it’s more interesting to do my part to catalyze an artistic expression and observe where it goes rather than to try to engineer an outcome. is actually a performance. What I’ve done is create the conditions for it to happen. Beyond that it isn’t up to me, but to where people take it.


I: How has this process influenced the form that and the elephant seal image have taken so far?

JM: The elephant seal image started off as such a complex thing, with all of these millions of possibilities. As I continued to work with it, I found that the possibilities collected themselves together into groups.


I: What are the groups about?

JM: They reflect principles of Chinese medicine.


I: Is that the hook in with your other work?

JM: Maybe in an oblique way. The principles of Chinese medicine are how I perceive the world because I’ve been in them so deeply for such a long time.


I: Is there anything else about elephant seals that really says Traditional Chinese Medicine for some reason?

JM: Yes, there are several categories where this is true. Classical Chinese medicine places a very strong emphasis on the blood as being a vehicle for the , Shen, or spirit. 20% of an elephant seal’s body mass is blood, compared to us at 5-6%. So this difference between elephant seals and human beings is very interesting and relevant to Taoist scientists. The ways that the blood is utilized and transported to different areas of the body are also very important to Taoist science. Elephant seals have some incredibly unique circulatory adaptations that place them in very high favor among Taoist natural scientists. Elephant seals also have an incredible relationship to breath and breathing. Sometimes when an elephant seal is asleep on the beach, s/he will just stop breathing, sometimes for up to half an hour! These are all just exactly the kinds of things that we find interesting and worthy of study in Taoist research.


I: Why?

JM: Because they relate to the plasticity of life, adaptation and evolution.


I: And that’s important because?

JM: It’s important because for life to continue, it must continuously change, adapt and evolve. If we can learn about how nature has done that already, it can give us important clues and guidelines for our own adaptation.


I: Can you give us an example of what you’re talking about?

JM: Sure. We’re just beginning to understand that elephant seals have incredibly evolved and well-adapted neurological systems. This is part of what lets them dive to depths where the pressure is so enormous that it would make any mammal other than a whale go into involuntary synapse firing to create seizures. Elephant seals can dive five times deeper than a nuclear submarine. This is a truly remarkable level of adaptation. If we study how they’re able to do that, we’ll come up with knowledge in a variety of areas that will be helpful to us without a doubt. Particularly in the field of genetic engineering, which is where so much of our future probably is. The more we can learn about the hardware of life and what nature has already accomplished, the more extensive our vocabulary of adaptation and invention will be.


I: What else has come out of this process for you?

JM: The more that I worked with the elephant seal image, the more I discovered that you can say virtually anything with different color modifications of this simple design. After a while, a person’s perceptions stop tripping on the elephant seal and whatever it is or means, and the image becomes a vehicle for something else.


I: What’s that?

JM: Pure emotion.


I: This seems so different from your other work, especially your writing. What’s going on with that?

JM: Actually I see everything that I do as part of a continuum of pop art.


I: Pop art?

JM: Yes. I’ve always perceived pop art as a medium for expressing and healing culture. My acupuncture office is set among art galleries and is designed as an ongoing performance. I began with pop art by promoting the punk rock scene in the late seventies and early eighties, back when that medium held a lot of potential and power as a tool for transforming culture. From there I developed a fine art trade- silkscreening- through which I exposed the world to petroglyph art. Even though that seems like nothing special now, believe it or not, I was the first person to do it in that way.


I: Really?

JM: Yes. You wouldn’t believe the commotion it started back then. It was huge.


I: Why petroglyphs?

JM: I like petroglyphs because they’re very direct statements, but they’re ambiguous. They’re bold, but completely undefined, or at least we’ve lost the context and possibly the basis of intelligence for understanding them. So we get the emotional impact of them without the content.  Petroglyphs are not about concepts. Or they’re about your concepts, whatever they are, as an afterthought, but first they get you outside of your concepts and back into your direct perceptions. I think this is excellent medicine for our culture that has become information overloaded and bereft of meaning. In a sense I’m doing what pop culture is doing anyway, but I’m taking it to an extreme and with a very important twist.


I: What’s the twist?

JM: Pop culture is making content more trivial and less dense as it expands. What I’m doing is dropping the content out entirely, and placing a deep emotional and biological trigger on a symbol that’s non-conceptual, but contains a wealth of biological information.


I: So would you say that the elephant seal image marks a return to your artistic origins?

JM: Maybe. But the important difference is that in the early days I was a young man who stood at the brink of the collapse of my civilization looking for clues from shamans from the past about how to mitigate or survive that collapse.


I: And now?

JM: Now I’m the guy making the messages and putting them out there.


I: For who?

JM: For whoever listens, wherever they are in time.


I: Do you think this has happened before?

JM: Yes.


I: How would you recommend people participate in

JM: Observe the elephant seal image creations. If some of them speak to you in any way, get them, use them, wear them or do whatever you do with them and discover what happens. The elephant seal image is a way for your unconscious to speak with you and to the rest of the world. So let’s engage with it and with each other as fully as we can and discover where it takes us.


I: Any final words on

JM: All I can say is if you feel it, you know what it is and it’s a part of you. Here we are.


I: Here we are.

Please visit store, where you’ll discover hundreds of elephant seal products that support Ocean Conservation Research! is your resource for all things elephant seal!


Website Builder