Review: ‘Chasing the Present,’ starring James Sebastino Jr., Sri Prem Baba, Gary Weber, James Sebastino Sr., Zelda Hall, Russell Brand and Graham Hancock

November 10, 2020

by Carla Hay

James Sebastino Jr. (far left) and Sri Prem Baba (far right) in “Chasing the Present” (Photo courtesy of 1091 Pictures)

“Chasing the Present

Directed by Mark Waters

Some language in Portuguese and Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, India and Peru, the documentary “Chasing the Present” interviews several people (mostly upper-middle class/wealthy and predominantly white males, with some people of color) who advocate for reaching a higher consciousness through meditation and therapy.

Culture Clash: The documentary’s subject is a successful but anxiety-plagued entrepreneur named James Sebastino Jr., who says he’s a “drug free” recovering drug addict, yet he takes the psychedelic drug ayahuasca as part of his “higher consciousness” therapy.

Culture Audience: “Chasing the Present” will appeal primarily to people who like New Age documentaries where privileged people act very self-indulgent and hypocritical while preaching about reaching outside oneself to find a “higher consciousnesses.”

James Sebastino Jr. in “Chasing the Present” (Photo courtesy of 1091 Pictures)

We’ve seen this tone-deaf hypocrisy before: A privileged person, who has the time and resources to frequently go on month-long meditation trips to exotic countries, comes back from those trips with a self-righteous and smug attitude that they’ve figured out the meaning of life because they know how to tap into their higher consciousness. Their “altered” outlook on life usually depends on how many psychedelic drugs they took during those retreats. They usually babble on about reaching outside of themselves for a deeper meaning beyond material things and finding a purpose in life beyond their own self-absorbed problems.

The irony is that they spend so much time talking about themselves and doing activities centered on themselves that they usually don’t do much to make the world a better place beyond their own self-absorbed bubbles. And they sure aren’t giving up their money and material comforts for the “greater good of humanity.” If they gave most of their money to charity and lived a humbler life, as preached by the overrated and often-questionable gurus they consult with, how else would these privileged people be able to fund their frequent over-priced therapy retreats that they love to brag about later to people who don’t go to these retreats?

This type of tiresome hypocrisy is the epitome of the documentary “Chasing the Present,” which is essentially a dull slog of a vanity project that shows a 34-year-old self-pitying, New York City-based entrepreneur going through various therapies because he says he’s not really happy with himself and all the comforts and material success that he’s achieved in his life. James Sebastino Jr. is the pretentious whiner who’s the subject of this documentary, which is basically just a film of him talking about himself in different locations around the world, with a few of his therapy sessions and some New Age talking heads included in the movie. Sebastino is one of the producers of this documentary. In other words, he’s one of the people who paid to get this movie made.

When it comes to people who preach about how to live your best life, there’s nothing worse than someone who tells everyone how altruistic and high-minded they are, but they don’t actually do anything substantial to back up those claims except talk about themselves some more. That’s exactly the awful repeat loop that “Chasing the Present” (directed by Mark Waters) is on for the entire movie. Sebastino is shown in sessions with people whom he’s no doubt over-paid to tell him self-help advice that anyone can find for free on the Internet.

At least Sebastino acknowledges in the documentary that almost all the teachings and meditations touted in the film have existed for centuries and originally came from continents such as Asia, Africa or South America, even though these enlightenment beliefs have often been co-opted and repackaged by “gurus” of white European descent. The filmmakers seem to want to fulfil their “ethnic credibility” quota but having a smattering of footage of Indian gurus and Buddhist temple monks, without actually interviewing any of them except for one: Sri Prem Baba, who is described in the documentary as a “spiritual master.”

Likewise, there’s the predictable footage of indigenous South American people preparing the psychedelics that are ingested by the entitled tourists who go on these psychedelic retreats, but only one “token” person from the indigenous South American community is interviewed in the film: Peruvian “ayahuasca healer” Jose Lopez Sanchez. The rest of the talking heads in the movie are Americans and Europeans, almost all of them men, who wouldn’t be caught dead giving up their incomes and comfortable lifestyles to lead a financially disadvantaged existence in a so-called “underprivileged” country that they use as a prop for their “higher consciousness” preaching.

Sebastino says in the beginning of the documentary that he spent much of his teens and 20s abusing drugs, including LSD, alcohol and cocaine. He says he became so addicted to drugs that he would spend hours holed up in his home, doing cocaine and having paranoid and suicidal thoughts. Sebastino also mentions several times throughout the movie that he’s had lifelong problems with anxiety. It’s not mentioned if he ever went to rehab for his drug addiction, or how many times he might have been in rehab, but Sebastino says the turning point in his life was when he became a vegetarian.

“I felt like it was the first time in my life where I started to be more aware of what I put in my body,” Sebastino says of becoming a vegetarian. “It didn’t make sense to do a juice cleanse and then the next day go to the bar and get hammered.” Sebastino turned his life around and opened up vegetarian/vegan restaurants and a vegan hotel, which thankfully aren’t promoted in this movie, because “Chasing the Present” is already just one big self-promotion for Sebastino. He says in the documentary that he’s been “drug-free” for years, and yet he takes the psychedelic drug ayahuasca as part of his “therapy” that’s documented in this movie. More on that self-deluded hypocrisy in a moment.

One of the most ridiculous “therapy” sessions that Sebastino has in “Chasing the Present” is with Gary Weber, who is described in the documentary as a “non-duality author and speaker.” Most of these so-called “experts,” who make money off of vulnerable people who are looking for life’s answers, don’t actually have any legitimate psychotherapy credentials or university training as psychotherapists. In “Chasing the Present,” Weber rambles to Sebastino by insisting that Sebastino isn’t one person but are actually different people who exist in the world.

“Which [James] do you believe is real?” Weber asks Sebastino with an intense crazy-eyed stare. “You can look at your brain. James is just an ad hoc entity created as waves of energy sweep across the cortex. Scientifically, we can show there is no James there. You are only now. There is no past.”

So which is it? There’s no James, several Jameses, or only one James who lives in the present? Any sane adult would catch on right away that some of these platitude-spouting “gurus” contradict themselves in their preachings. Sebastino doesn’t ask questions about these contradictions, because he sits in these therapy sessions like a gullible kid who believes everything that he’s told, even if they sound like lies that make no sense.

Although Weber says in the documentary he’s never taken psychedelics in his life, you have to wonder what else is going on in his mind or what other drug experiences he might have had to sit there and preach these things with a straight face, because it all sounds like a bad parody of real meditative philosophy. You almost expect Weber to tell Sebastino that the mothership from outer space is coming soon and they better get ready because their Earthly bodies don’t really exist as they know it, or some other such nonsense.

Another “guru” that Sebastino meets with is Baba, an Indian Brazilian “guru” who counsels Sebastino in India. Baba’s schtick is to basically tell people that they shouldn’t worry about their problems. Problems are a state of mind, says Baba. “So, suffering isn’t real?” asks Sebastino like a child who’s been told that there’s no Santa Claus.

Baba says yes and replies, “Darkness doesn’t have a real existence. It’s just the absence of light.” According to what Baba preaches to Sebastino, suffering isn’t real and you’re weak-minded if you worry about your problems. Tell that to people who are homeless, starving or dying from a terminal illness. Oh, the privileged entitlement of it all.

Other pundits who regurgitate second-rate and unoriginal “life advice” in the movie are comedian/actor Russell Brand, meditation teacher/author Joseph Goldstein, non-duality teacher Robert Spira, author Graham Hancock and artist Alex Grey. It’s not exactly a diverse group preaching about “world views” in this documentary. Avant-garde performance artist Marina Abramović was announced in this documentary’s press materials as being part of “Chasing the Present,” but the footage that she filmed didn’t make the final cut of this documentary. She’s better off not being part of this pretentious bore of a movie.

British comedian/actor Brand (also known as the ex-husband of pop singer Katy Perry) is a recovering drug addict who’s trying to reinvent himself as a spiritual/meditation expert, now that his career isn’t as hot as it used to be. He has this to say in the documentary: “There’s an aspect of spirit that’s being neglected. If you ignore it, then fear will happen.” Again, it’s very easy for people in comfortable, privileged lifestyles to be this self-righteous when they have luxuries that most other people in the world do not have.

Sebastino is also seen getting counseling from Zelda Hall, who’s described in the movie as a “psychologist and integrative therapist,” but she acts more like a hack psychic reader. She asks Sebastino a lot of leading questions about what he’s thinking, so she can figure out what trite advice she can give, based on his responses. And she spouts vague “touchy feely” comments such as, “It’s okay to feel your heart.” She eventually makes Sebastino do some primal scream therapy. Viewers watching this dreck might feel like screaming themselves because almost everything in this documentary looks staged.

The last third of “Chasing the Present” is essentially an infomercial to take ayahuasca, with the predictable ritual-type footage of Sebastino taking ayahuasca in a remote part of Peru. The people who are in the business of selling ayahuasca as a “therapy drug” don’t even like to use the word “drug” to describe ayahuasca. They call it “medicine.” But whether a psychedelic drug is plant-based or a manufactured chemical, it’s still a psychedelic drug with all the risks from side effects that come with it.

These damaging side effects are never mentioned in “Chasing the Present,” which fails miserably when it comes to presenting any medical/scientific evidence and medical/scientific points of view about taking this potentially dangerous drug. You don’t have to be a doctor to know that one of the worst side effects of taking any psychedelic drug (plant-based or chemical) is that it causes anxiety and paranoia, sometimes in “flashbacks,” long after the drug was ingested. Unlike alcohol, which can leave a body through urine within 24 hours, psychedelic drugs can stay in a body for days after being ingested. And yet, none of these medical facts are mentioned in “Chasing the Present,” which has anxiety-plagued Sebastino taking a psychedelic drug that causes more anxiety, with no medical supervision from any medical professionals.

In one part of the documentary, Sebastino says that the first night he took ayahuasca, he was disappointed because it didn’t really have an effect on him. (In other words, he felt like he didn’t get high enough from the drug.) And so, the next time he took even more ayahuasca than he did the night before. Sebastino says that he felt like he had a “breakthrough” on the second night, because he upped his dosage.

These “testimonials” need to be taken with a huge grain of salt because they’re not coming from medical professionals, but from people who usually have an agenda to sell or endorse these psychedelic “treatments” with no real medical supervision. The documentary interviews two such people with this agenda: Peruvian “ayahuasca healer” Sanchez and Temple of the Way of Light founder Matthew Watherston.

The documentary’s one refreshing dose of a common-sense reality check from all the self-indulgent psycho-babbling is when it shows Sebastino talking with his father James Sebastino Sr. while they have a meal together at a diner. Sebastino Sr. clearly loves his son, but the no-nonsense elder Sebastino does everything but roll his eyes when his son continues to steer the conversation back to himself and his “enlightenment.”

It’s not that Sebastino Sr. doesn’t believe that his son should pursue happiness wherever he can find it. The father just doesn’t tolerate the guilt trip that his son tries to put on him for raising him to have high standards and a work ethic in a non-abusive environment. Sebastino Jr. tries to make it sound like his father caused him “trauma” and made his anxiety worse, just because his father encouraged him to be the best person he could be and not become a lazy bum who contributes nothing worthwhile to society.

Sebastino Jr. also makes it sound like he turned to drugs to cope with all the pressure to achieve certain goals in his life. Cue the violin “sob story” music. It’s all very annoying whining from someone who probably grew up not fully understanding his privilege and advantages he had in life. Now that he’s an adult, all of his “therapy” clearly isn’t helping him if he still wants to blame his misery on his father.

Sebastino Sr. has some great offhand snide remarks to make it clear that he thinks his son sounds like a brat, but Sebastino Jr. doesn’t take the hints. For example, when Sebastino Jr. tells his father about his ayahuasca “therapy” during his trip to Peru and how he lost control of his sense of self, Sebastino Sr. quips, “You’re lucky you didn’t piss yourself in front of all those people.”

In another part of the conversation, while Sebastino Jr. talks about all the soul-searching he’s been doing in his travels around the world, Sebastino Sr. comments, “Millions of miles later…,” as if to say, “I get it. You love to brag about how many long-distance trips you’ve taken for all of this self-indulgent therapy.”

The main takeaway from “Chasing the Present” is that people like Sebastino Jr. will never truly be happy with themselves because they keep turning to drugs and questionable gurus to give them some sense of inner peace. They waste time being self-absorbed, humorless bores who don’t practice what they preach. And sometimes they make documentaries about themselves to film all of their pretentious unhappiness and show that they don’t live in their heads as much as they live in their rear ends.

1091 Pictures released “Chasing the Present” on digital on September 29, 2020, and on VOD on October 6, 2020.