Search Results for: Discernment
It is my pleasure to present the first and long-awaited interview with Jessie Christenson, the world-renowned author and playwright. Jessie’s work is often acclaimed for its authenticity and remarkable insight into the dynamics of human personality and culture. In this interview, I’ll try to drill down and tap into the source of knowledge that allows him to create remarkable works of art that have garnered almost every literary award worth mentioning. For brevity, I’ll simply use initials to indicate who is speaking. The following is a transcript of the live interview done with Jessie over Zoom. Subscribers can watch the video of the interview on the Night Owl web site. Let’s dive in.
NO: Jessie, can you fill us in a little on your background. I have heard that both of your parents were cultural anthropologists. Were you able to spend much time with them as you grew up?
JC: Yes, both of my parents were anthropologists. They spent a lot of time in the field studying indigenous people and especially their language and culture. I was fortunate to be able to go along on all of their expeditions.
NO: You obviously are educated, so how was this accomplished in the field?
JC: Pretty much the way education took place for most of human history. You might think of it as a community effort. I was taught formal skills such as composition, grammar, mathematics and science by my parents. Most of my formal education was through independent study materials under the supervision of my parents. However, there was a much broader informal dimension to my education that came from immersion in the culture around me and guidance from members of the indigenous community.
NO: Was there any informal component in particular that was, in your view, especially important to your development as a writer?
JC: Yes. I think the experience that was most transformative for me was an extended expedition that my parents undertook to study a group of indigenous people who were very isolated and had had very limited contact with the world outside of their village.
NO: How long did this extended expedition last?
JC: We lived among The People for six years.
NO: That is a long time for a kid. How old were you during this period?
JC: I lived with The People between the ages of 12 and 18.
NO: You refer to your hosts as The People. Do they have a name?
JC: Of course, but their name for themselves, in their language, simply means The People. Thus, I just refer to them as The People because the word in their language is difficult for English speakers to pronounce and would be a meaningless sound in any case.
NO: So, what was the nature of the transformative educational experience that you had while living with The People?
JC: It was grounded in a relationship that developed between myself and a person that I will call the village shaman, though The People used a different name. Their shaman was a very old and very wise woman who served as a combination physician and spiritual guide. Before you ask her name, I’ll just say that I came to simply call her by the word in The People’s language for grandma.
JC: Yes. Many of the young people in the tribe referred to her in that way, and I did as well. Also, she was certainly old enough to be my grandmother, and given our life style, I had little opportunity to cultivate a relationship with my actual grandmothers who were thousands of miles away for most of my life.
NO: OK. So, Grandma it is. What did you learn from Grandma that gave you such a deep insight into people and their ways?
JC: At first, I just hung around her some when I wasn’t doing schoolwork. After a year or so, I had picked up enough of the language for simple communication. She began to take an interest in me and helped me with the language. Eventually, I became adept enough with the language and the culture that I was able to question her about her activities. This is when she began to mentor me in her perspective on the world and when my true education began.
NO: What did you learn from her that was so transformative?
JC: To begin with, she began teaching me about the nature of the world as she understood it. She talked about what would translate into English as “spirits.” The basic system she taught was that all life is the manifestation of what I would describe as an energy field, though in her language it was called the spirit realm. Humans, she taught, have seven major points of connection with this field. In her terms, we are potentially under the influence of seven spirits. Each connection links to what might be described as a drive or program. Again, Grandma talked in terms of the guidance or influence that flowed from each of these spirits. How you function depends on which of these connections (spirits) is dominant.
NO: What was it about this system that she taught you that gave you such a solid grasp of human beings’ motivations and behaviors?
JC: I learned from her that virtually all of humanity is dominated by one of three programs or drives.
NO: So, pretty much everyone is driven by one of these three programs or drives?
JC: That isn’t quite right. Everyone is dominated by one of the three, but the other two serve in a supporting role. Thus, the underlying dynamic is a triad. Think of a triangle where the focus is the apex of the triangle.
NO: What are these three basic drives or programs?
JC: Each of the core drives can be associated with a function. The first is safety. The second is sex. The third is status.
NO: So, these three drives are all that one needs to understand human motivation and behavior?
JC: Yes, or at least almost. There are other connections that can activate and come into play, but the vast majority of human beings and their cultures are entangled in these three core programs.
NO: Okay, let’s take one of them and unpack it. Why not the first one — safety.
JC: Fine. Safety is a biological imperative. If one isn’t safe then there is little if any hope for success at sexual reproduction or of achieving social status. The drive for safety leads to fear of anything that can be imagined to pose a threat. Most individuals and most cultures are strongly influenced by fear. From fear comes suspicion of others and their motives. This in turn leads to defensiveness, which can be no more than a psychological attitude or can progress to more overt forms. Fear- driven defensiveness leads to prejudgments about people, usually grounded in superficial characteristics such as race, ethnicity or class. The result is an “us” against “them” mentality.
NO: I think I see how fear unfolds from a drive for safety in individuals. How does this translate into culture?
JC: Fear at the cultural level is usually exhibited as aggressiveness, which can range from violent behavior to “friendly” competition. You know the old saying that the best defense is a good offense. Culturally, this aggressiveness will show up in some sports, movies, television and video games, to name a few. On another level, one can see it clearly in institutions such as police forces, Homeland Security and in military organizations. All of these institutions need an “enemy” to employ their protective mandates against. These can range from criminals, individuals from a cultural outgroup, terrorists who are acting out of their own safety drive and fear and finally, state actors who can be cast as a large scale evil that threatens the nation and are targets for major military campaigns, or at least preparation for one.
NO: This drive appears to be almost fractal in the way that it grows and expands into evermore complex patterns that acquire all kinds of rationales as it evolves. But, if we understand this, isn’t that the key to deconstructing it?
JC: You and I might be able to deconstruct it, but most people are totally oblivious to the underlying dynamics. They see only the surface manifestations without ever drilling down to the roots from which these surface manifestations spring. One might say they act as if they are blind or asleep.
NO: I think I’m beginning to understand what some people mean by “waking up.” Let’s delve into another drive. What about the second drive? What about sex?
JC: This one is much easier to observe because it has become ubiquitous, in Western life, through mass media. Evolution has given humans a strong sex drive that is largely motivated by pleasure, but there are some other factors such as a commonly experienced biological impetus in women for children. The underlying purpose of sex is reproduction, but pleasure is a potent reinforcing motivation for engaging in sex, which frequently results in conception whether intended or not.
NO: Modern contraceptives seem to have undermined this drive to a large extent, as evidenced by falling birth rates around the globe.
JC: That is true, and it may be a good thing given the pressures of over population. However, a decline in reproduction will have no impact on pleasure-driven sex as a major motivating drive. While reproduction was the primary evolutionary goal, the method used to achieve it continues to apply with or without reproduction.
NO: So, with reproduction declining, what other role does the sex drive play in motivation and culture?
JC: A very big role. Think about all the permutations that sexuality has undergone. If you examine the stories that surround biologically based sex-related behavior, what you see is an explanation generated by culture with individual adaptation to the cultural story about that behavior.
NO: Could you give an example of what you mean by cultural explanations or cultural stories?
JC: Sure. Take for example sexual attraction. The biology of sexual attraction is designed to direct one toward sexual partners that are likely to produce viable and successful offspring. This is a biological program that the individual and culture needs to explain. You have this set of preferences and behaviors that seem to mysteriously arise from outside of awareness. The individual experiencing them didn’t arrive at these preferences and related behaviors by any rational or thoughtful process. They just asserted themselves. The human ego evolved to mediate between our internal programs and the environment. The ego likes to feel it is in control of what is going on. A spontaneous arising of preferences and behaviors demands an explanation that rationalizes them. Early on in our species history, individual egos set out to generate a plausible explanation or story governing how these preferences and behaviors are actually “chosen” by an individual. Over time these individual stories aggregate into a cultural explanation and individuals acquire the story through enculturation.
Once the explanation or story is in place, it is dynamic. This means that it evolves and adapts over time and may become, to some degree, divorced from the biological program, which was its initial reason for being. Thus, we see different cultures employ somewhat different stories and different expectations based on those stories but almost never a variation that is contrary to the biological imperative for reproduction. The dynamic nature of these stories also results in all sorts of effects. Explanations for sexual attraction lead to effects on social behaviors, mannerisms, notions of attractiveness, clothing styles, hair styles, cosmetics and grooming in general, which in turn impacts businesses, entertainment and the economy. Thus, the fractal nature of the permutations referred to earlier.
NO: Well, that is fascinating. I had never thought about how so much of what permeates everyday life is actually generated by a basic biological program. Can you give a couple of more examples?
JC: OK. Another permutation with its origins in the basic biological program that motivates reproduction also impacts what culturally we often label “mother love.” There is a biological program that kicks in when the sex drive achieves reproduction. Hormonal changes are elicited in both sexes, but especially in the female, that has a bonding effect between the mother and the child. Along with this bonding effect comes a “halo effect” so that the child is viewed as “perfect or precious.” The hormonal changes also produce a strong positive affect toward the child. These feelings motivate nurturance and protection of the child so that it can develop into an adult and repeat the process. This whole process has been explained through the cultural stories concerning the “joys” of motherhood, the “gift” of children, the importance of family, and so on. However, to keep things brief, I’ll bring this example to a close. Based on the discussion above, I think you and your audience can work out any further details for yourself.
Briefly, I’ll mention one more cultural theme tied to the basic sex program embedded in our biology. This one relates to the cultural stories or rules that have evolved to manage marriage and family. The rules relating to marriage generally are tied to the story about sexual attraction. Under the best of conditions, the cultural story about who one should be attracted to and why are interfaced with who one should marry. For example, in some cultures, the story employs the notion of “romantic love” to tie together the rules of attraction and marriage. In other cultures, the story employs the notion that this is a matter for the family to decide based on the “better judgment” of the parents. In such cases, the role of economics and social status have become the dominant themes in the story. This can create conflict when the cultural story doesn’t interface very well with the “laws of attraction” grounded in the basic biological program. You can no doubt think of other stories.
NO: Your mention of social status reminds me that status is the third program or drive that you mentioned as forming the basic motivational triangle. Let’s talk a little about this program.
JC: OK. The next step in the base motivational triangle is social status. The drive for status within the social group has obvious ties to the other two programs, that is, safety and sex. Status is one way of enhancing one’s importance to the social group and thereby gain better control of resources needed for safety. Status also generally plays a role in determining one’s attractiveness as a sexual partner.
NO: So, social status is basically a way to enhance one’s position relative to safety and sex?
JC: Yes. You can see the importance of status by looking at almost any social organization, whether it is social class, professional, religious, business, political, military or some other type of social organization. All of these organizations have hierarchies based on the relative prestige of the levels in the hierarchy, usually based on the associated decision-making power, economic power or a combination of both.
NO: Can you give us a couple of examples?
JC: Sure. Take one of the most obvious such as a military organization. Almost everyone is already generally familiar with the ranking structure in a military organization. Clearly, as one’s rank rises, decision-making power increases as well as income. The relationship of military organizations to national safety or defense issues is obvious.
NO: Yes, that one is pretty obvious. How about one less obvious?
JC: How about a social institution such as academia. This is an institutional structure about which a lot of people have only a vague knowledge but is as complex or more complex than a military organization. I won’t bore you with a lot of detail, but there is hierarchy between institutions and specialty areas within institutions. This is further stratified by ranks within the teaching faculty and research faculty. Institutional administration is largely independent of faculty and has a hierarchy of its own. This could be explicated further, but I think you get the idea. You can drill down for the complete details easily enough, if motivated to do so. Decision-making power exists within these institutions, but the institutions as represented by individuals within them also can exercise power in the society at large. One example would be consultants whose expertise and opinions are widely sought and respected by people in government, business and even the military.
NO: Let’s see if I can summarize this for our viewers. Almost everyone is controlled by three basic biological drives or programs. These are safety, sex and status. The first ensures that one reaches sexual maturity and at least has a chance to become sexually active, which increases the probability of the second (reproduction). The third provides a method for improving one’s chances for safety and of becoming sexually active. All of this is to a large degree opaque due to the degree of cultural elaboration built up on these three basic programs. The cultural customs, taboos and formal rules are secondary to the basic programs but help explain, structure and justify the behavior motivated by the basic programs. Most of us are totally absorbed in playing out our lives within the cultural narrative that we live in and using that narrative to derive contextual meaning for our lives. Most people are “blinded” for their entire lives by their identification with cultural and personal narratives.
JC: That seems like a fair summary. Keep in mind that the secondary elaboration on these three basic programs is very diverse and complex, which makes the basic processes less obvious than one might suppose. This complex is often what is meant when we invoke the concept of “world.” The world in this sense is a complex of ideas, concepts, beliefs and expectations that govern a drama called “human culture and civilization” performed on a stage called earth. Whatever aspect of the world you might have a question about, you could do worse than deconstructing it with the goal of finding the underlying biological programs and how they relate to the phenomenon motivating your question.
NO: In your comments, you have hedged a bit here and there about just how pervasive is our entanglement in cultural and personal narratives. Do you wish to comment on that?
JC: All right. I have hedged about pervasiveness because there are always a few people, during any period of time, who rise above cultural and personal narratives and see beyond them.
NO: How do these people rise above narratives?
JC: These people are known in some circles as awake. What they have awakened to is their narratives and their entanglement within them. Once awakened, the individual gains a new perspective on life that helps him or her see through the filters imposed by personal and cultural narratives. One also becomes more aware of the basic drives or programs underlying the narratives and thereby less subject to their demands.
NO: So they are no longer responsive to narratives and their underlying programs?
JC: They may still respond to bio/social narratives with discernment when necessary. Just because one can see clearly that one is living in a complex drama doesn’t mean that it no longer can affect you. Thus, to live in the “world” is of necessity to play a part in the drama. However, even one who is aware of being an actor in a complex drama must be careful not to get lost in the drama. This is best avoided by acting only in situations where it is truly necessary, acting as impeccably as possible and having no expectations about the outcome. In short, not getting emotionally attached to any one possible outcome in the situation. One might described this approach as being in the world through a state of “compassionate indifference.”
NO: I see how acquiring an objective perspective on learned personal and cultural narratives can be liberating. However, can one liberate oneself from biological programs?
JC: Yes, however, I would like to point out that we are all threads of Consciousness making use of complex biological avatars that have evolved specifically to provide us a vehicle through which we can gain experience. Thus, one should not have as a goal to liberate oneself from biological programs just because such liberation is possible, at least in some cases. To be aware of biological programs and how they operate through you is desirable. To selectively choose, on a rational basis, not to be “driven” by a biological program is reasonable. Tinkering with a biological program, when such tinkering is possible, can be justified. This is clearly another case for the application of discernment.
I also would make a distinction between biological programs. There are what the researcher John Lilly called “death” programs that simply can’t be eliminated, for example, the program that lies behind thirst. Then there are all the other innate biological programs such as those related to sex and reproduction. Finally, there are acquired programs that have a biological substrate but aren’t in and of themselves innate, for example, addictions. Discernment can be applied to both biological and learned narratives. One does not have to respond to impulses arising from biological impulses, whether they are innate or acquired, as is the case with addictions. One can even choose not to respond to impulses from “death” programs but only for short periods of time.
NO: I would imagine that it is difficult to choose not to respond to biological impulses.
JC: Some impulses are, of course, more powerful than others, and this can vary across individuals. However, the first step is to inhibit an automatic reaction to the impulse. I should say here that a distinction needs to be made between impulses and reflexes. When you have an impulse to eat a piece of cake or smoke a cigarette, that is different from a reflex that pulls your hand back from something hot.
One probably should not try to inhibit a reflex unless it is clear that the reflex is dysfunctional. There are ways of “unlearning” or counterconditioning reflexes that have become associated with inappropriate eliciting antecedents. However, in the case of unwanted impulses, modification or even elimination is possible. One can sometimes inhibit emitting a response by “force of will,” which is a skill that is poorly developed in most people and may actually have the opposite result. That is, trying to will the impulse away places intense attention on it and this can actually give it strength. But, if that works for you, then go with it.
Another approach is becoming present with something other than the impulse that is in the moment. Think of this as a diversionary tactic. For example, becoming absorbed in the smell of a flower, the sound of a bird chirping or watching your pet play with a toy. It doesn’t matter as long as it is available now. Of course, it is easy to be present with the impulse but becoming present with the impulse is a bit like unpacking a thought and becoming entangled in it. It takes over. Keep your attention off of the impulse even though you may still be aware of it. If not given attention, it will naturally subside just as it naturally arose — independent of your volition.
One caveat, if you have developed your ability to monitor your thoughts, emotions, impulses and so forth objectively as a mere observer or witness, then you can successfully give that form of attention to an impulse as a way of letting it run its course without responding to it. Many dedicated meditators have acquired this mode of self-monitoring but most people can’t do it.
NO: Does “waking up” imply arriving at some other level of motivation?
JC: Yes, at least in a manner of speaking. There are “spiritual energies” that lie above the basic programs. One of these is compassion.
NO: Could you elaborate a bit on compassion?
JC: Yes. Compassion is a combination of empathy and a predisposition toward supportive actions. A deep feeling of compassion can lead to living a life rooted in unconditional acceptance of others and a willingness to help them, if possible. This means acting from Love, not to be confused with biological bonding or cultural notions of love, whether romantic, religious or familial.
NO: How does the transformation from living through personal and cultural narratives to living through compassion come about?
JC: The core levels are bio/social and mostly reactive. Spiritual unfolding takes one through Grace. One can, however, prepare oneself to be ready to best take advantage of Grace, if it happens. Compassion (a.k.a. the state of “I AM-ness”) is a midpoint between the core motives and true spiritual unfolding. I often refer to this state as the natural mind by which I mean one has reacquired the ability to enter unconditioned awareness.
NO: What do you mean by reacquire?
JC: Infants and very young children live in a state of unconditioned awareness. This is sometimes described as a state in which bottom-up perception dominates. This state is eroded as the core motives are activated and especially when these begin to elicit an evolving personal narrative and to engage the extant cultural narrative.
What begins to develop with narration is a large repertoire of conditioned or learned ways of seeing and responding to events within oneself and the environment. With this development there is a shift toward top-down perception. In short, perceptions are filtered through both personal and cultural constructs or, as some might say, through stories about the world and ourselves. Thus, if one learns to voluntarily shift from top-down perception into bottom-up perception, then one can be said to have reacquired a previous state of being.
NO: Since you use the term “reacquire,” I assume that this is neither a reflexive state or a state of Grace?
JC: Correct. This is something that one can directly influence.
JC: First, you need to carefully observe and consider the drama unfolding through your life and come to see and recognize when learned constructs are guiding your perceptions. When those constructs are recognized, especially as dysfunctional, you need to desensitize yourself to their control over your thoughts, emotions and behavior. Contemplative and meditative practices, among others, can be useful in initiating and working through this process.
Second, you need to work toward learning to make decisions and take actions using discernment. By this, I mean seeing situations as they actually are, not as they are construed through narrative filters, and then arriving at an appropriate response. In many cases, an appropriate response will be no response. In other cases, if your compassion arises, you take the most compassionate response available to you.
Third, your response should be performed with impeccability and followed with equanimity. The former means to the very best of your ability and the latter means without an emotional attachment to the outcome. Equanimity is especially important because it is your defense against becoming entangled in the narrative context that you have, of necessity, engaged.
NO: What are the transformations beyond compassion?
JC: There are three states beyond I Am-ness. The fifth state is Self-realization by which is meant that one experiences one’s higher Self or a state of pure being. After that comes what some might call God Consciousness or Christ Consciousness, in which one fully experiences non-duality and Divine Love. Finally, there is Unity Consciousness, in which one experiences merger with the whole and knows that ultimately there is nothing but Source, Consciousness or God, as you will. A state of Love-Bliss.
NO: Wow. That takes us a long way from where we started. Would you care to elaborate on any of these?
JC: Not really. These last three conditions, in particular, affect very, very few people and play little role in coming to see how I understand humanity and express that understanding in my work. However, if enough people were to work toward and reacquire their natural mind, civilization and humanity would be transformed for the better regardless of what transformations may lie beyond.
NO: Thank you for sharing with us.
JC: It has been my pleasure.
Below is an alphabetical list of narrative titles that I have posted to this site. The titles are hot links and you can open them by double clicking on them. The most recent posts are listed in the window below the search engine on the right. Revised and updated titles are so marked: A Brief Comment on Paradigms A Libertarian Philosophy of Education A Libertarian's Perspective on Abortion A Personal Odyssey A Proposed Classification System for Sexual Variation A Quantum Metaphor for Enlightenment Aesthetic Perception and Beauty Culture An Eclectic Program of Meditation and Self-Inquiry Are We Merely Divine Puppets? Authenticity Beyond Gun Control Bioethics and Life Extension* Bohm, Pribram and the Holographic Model Brain Networks and Meditation Choice Climate Change and Global Warming (Revised) Comment on a Klan Rally David Bohm's Reformulation of Quantum Physics Discernment and Acting in the World Ego Is the Mask God Wears While Pretending To Be You Entangled in Duality Free Will and the Evolution of Consciousness Further Ruminations Gamma Waves and Advanced Meditators Goswami’s Quantum Philosophy I Goswami’s Quantum Philosophy II Goswami's Brain-Mind Model Immigration Policy Institutionalization as a Factor in Educational Under Performance Is Economic Growth a Viable Long-Term Goal? Lost in Politics My Most Challenging Unitarian Universalist Principle Night Owl Interviews Jessie Christenson on Shamanic Energy Fields #1 Night Owl Interviews Teresa Gentry on Phenomenological Psychology #2 On Buber and Bohm On Nonduality On the Nature of Food On Women as Female Impersonators Reality Appears to Arise from Mysterious Foundations (Revised, Aug 2018) Research Update on the Default Mode Network Salvation Will Not Be Found in Politics Sex, Gender and Language Sex, Sexuality and Philosophy Speculation About Transgender Conditions Spiritual Practice and the Evolution of Consciousness Spirituality and Religion Standing On the Side of Love States of Mind: An Overview for Meditators Taken The Looking Glass The Monetary Factor in the 2008-09 Economic Downturn The Natural Mind The Nature of Evil The Problem with Belief The Purpose of Meditation (Conclusion added Dec 2018) The Role of Belief in the Evolution of Consciousness The World is an Illusion? Thoughts on School Reform What Is in the National Interest? What is Science? What is the Nature of Reality? Why I Am a Philosophical Libertarian Why I Am an Agnostic Why We Believe
To begin I want to distinguish between three terms: agnostic, atheist and true believer. True believers are simply people who uncritically embrace, on faith, any belief or system of beliefs for which there is no empirical validation. For example, true believers make a categorical assertion that a being called God exists. An atheist on the other hand denies the validity of any belief or system of beliefs for which there is no empirical validation. In counterpoint to true believers, an atheist categorically asserts that a being called God does not exist. In the cases of true believers and atheists, the psychological processes underlying their apparent contradictory positions is very similar. Both make absolute assertions about something that they can’t prove. An agnostic, on the other hand, takes a middle road between these two extremes and simply pleads ignorance.
While not limited to religious beliefs, it is within such a context that one most frequently encounters the use of the terms just described. Agnostics recognize that it is unlikely that either claim can be put to an empirical test and publicly validated. Therefore, agnostics stand aside and take no position. The existence or non-existence of a being called God appears to be a question of belief rather than one of fact. The one requires blind faith and the other empirical evidence. Clearly, a very large contingent of the world’s population have historically been true believers of one sort or another.
To further elucidate the assertions above that “The existence or non-existence of a being called God is a question of belief…[that]…requires blind faith…,” I will draw on points made in other essays, specifically The Natural Mind and Discernment, both of which can be found in posts on this site. In The Natural Mind it was suggested that what drives the vast majority of individuals is a fictive-self. This fiction is a complex narrative that is created and maintained to explain to ourselves the thoughts, feelings and behaviors that arise from our automatic programs (APs) [see Chapter One, P. 21]. These APs are acquired through conditioning over the course of our lives and remain, for most of us, largely outside of conscious awareness. In short, who we think we are is a product of the mind. In Discernment a similar case was made that what we call the world (human culture), as distinct from the earth (matter and natural processes), is likewise a product of the mind and is therefore at root purely conceptual. Imagine the earth without any humans and see how much of what I’ve called the world remains. A few material artifacts of human culture may persist for a time but the earth will soon enough consume them.
Most people mistakenly believe that their narrative about themselves represents objective reality. The basic narrative normally begins developing in early childhood and there are both personal and cultural components. Various components of the world are included that lead to belief in institutionalized paradigms representing such things as social structures, political institutions, economic systems, religion and so on. Thus, one finds that many people have a personal narrative that includes, among other conceptual paradigms, belief in a religion. Belief in a religion in turn supports belief in a God. The operative word in the case of religion and God is belief, which makes both merely an idea, a product of the mind.
There are, historically and currently, people whom many would call mystics. Mystics describe what is often referred to as Unity Consciousness, The Divine or The Absolute. The claims of such individuals are said to rest upon personal experience with a direct knowing of (as opposed to belief in) Unity Consciousness, The Divine or The Absolute. However, such assertions about personal experience cannot be objectively evaluated or publicly validated. The difference between a mystic and a religious person is that a mystic does not ask you to believe anything but instead invites you to seek personal confirmation through your own experience of what he or she reports. To put this another way, a mystic invites you to engage in a single-subject experiment that often comes with a methodology for implementing the experiment. A religious person asks you to take on faith his or her beliefs.
As an imperfect illustration, suppose I returned from a trip to a country that included a exotic fruit in its diet. I had eaten the fruit many times while visiting but you have never heard of it. I can tell you a lot of things about the fruit but you then only have some limited knowledge or information that in no way duplicates the actual experience of eating the fruit. Unless you repeat my direct experience by eating some of the fruit you will never know what I’ve tried to relate to you. The taste of the fruit is just an idea in your mind, not an actual experience. You may believe from the description that the fruit would be tasty, but you can’t know if that is true without direct experience.
Thus, if I recommend that you obtain some of the exotic fruit and try it for yourself this is analogous to the approach of a mystic. If I tell you about how tasty the fruit is and you believe what I say and begin telling everyone you know how great this fruit is that is analogous to the approach of a religious person. As is said in Zen, “Don’t confuse knowledge with knowing.” Thus, personal experience is subjective and can’t be transmitted to anyone else, except as an idea. Mere ideas are always subject to misunderstanding and distortion and often are corrupted in their transmission. One should never invest belief in the truth of an idea.
Individuals who have mystical experiences that reveal to them what they experience as “God” almost universally invite others to personally test their reports and to experientially verify them for themselves. Thus, I’m personally inclined to at least give mystics the benefit of doubt, since they do not ask anyone to believe their reports based on faith. Interestingly, many religious narratives grow up around such individuals after their death. These narratives often appear to significantly distort and elaborate what the mystic actually said or taught. These religious narratives, in my opinion, almost always serve some personal, social or political purpose. I’m reminded of my favorite religious joke that can be found on the Poetry and Personal Items page on this site.
Thus, I am an agnostic because I can see no way to give belief in the existence or non-existence of a being called God a factual basis. Related to the question of whether or not a Supreme Being exists, there is also the issue of religious belief. Because I am aware of strong human tendencies to invest faith in beliefs arising from mere ideas, which are often the product of irrational thinking, I cannot embrace any religion. Religious beliefs can have a strong emotional appeal and may moderate existential anxiety, but like all beliefs they are just ideas and have no reality outside of the mind. I recognize and accept that there are awesome mysteries about the nature and origin of the universe that I cannot fathom, but religious dogmas about these mysteries are not satisfying, and ultimately explain nothing. I am open to experimenting with methods suggested by mystics as ways one might gain a direct, intuitive and personal understanding (gnosis) of these mysteries. However, belief in institutionalized religious dogma articulated through a formal organizational structure is the antithesis of such methods. Even should I have success with methods recommended by mystics, I recognize that the experience would be personal and would not and could not extend to anyone else. The Truth known by mystics is subjective and only available on an individual basis.
In conclusion, I suggest that agnosticism should be one’s ground state. I think that taking an agnostic attitude toward any and everything that one has no experiential basis for accepting should be one’s goal.