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What is Meditation and Why Meditate?
If you heard or read the piece on worldviews that preceded this you may recall that at the end, a nondual perspective was discussed. Also discussed was the necessity of an experiential understanding of the underlying unity of such a worldview to fully grok it. The principle avenue for that experiential understanding was meditation. Thus, this is an elaboration on the previous piece.
I have studied and practiced meditation for about fifteen years. On the basis of that background, I think meditation can be divided into at least three categories. First, there is what I would call natural meditation. Natural meditation is not done with intent and is a relaxed state of awareness that one may fall into for any number of reasons. One example is a state that one might enter as a result of a solitary encounter with the beauty and tranquility of nature. The second category I call traditional, because it is grounded in a meditative tradition such as Buddhism or Hindu philosophies such as Vedanta or Tantra. Traditional meditation may take many forms and is always done with intent. The third category I would call medicalized. This is a form of meditation that has been adapted from a traditional meditation and employed for health reasons. An example of this type is the Benson Relaxation Response, which is a relabeled form of basic mindfulness meditation. It was first introduced by a Harvard cardiologist, Herbert Benson, several decades ago as a technique to help reduce stress in his patients. This discussion of meditation will be based on the traditional approach.
What is Meditation?
Meditation is a technique to improve the quality of your attention, which determines what you are aware of. The root meaning of the word that “attention” is derived from means “to grasp.” Thus, attention is making sensory contact with a physical stimulus or introspective contact with a mental stimulus and holding on to it. To improve attention requires that you have the self-discipline to practice the technique of meditation consistently and persistently. Meditation can also be useful for revealing the cognitive structures of mind such as ideologies or belief systems and automatic programs (APs) that use such structures to render judgments for you.
Here is an anecdote about attention. Dean Radin, head of research for IONS, had an experiment that he wanted to conduct that required participants who could maintain their focus of attention for a minimum of thirty seconds without exception. He tested a large number of volunteers to identify those who would be suitable for his experiment. He found that the vast majority of those tested could maintain a focus of attention, on average, for six seconds. He did find the subjects he needed and it may be no surprise that they were all experienced meditators.
What is the purpose of improved attention?
While there may be several ends to which enhanced attention might be directed, in meditation it is to make a state of presence more easily attained. Presence, as the late Ram Dass is noted for saying, is, “Be here now.” This means that you are focused on the present moment, not on the past, not on the future, not on your personal narratives (or stories) and not on other narratives (or stories).
Two teachers who put an emphasis on presence are Richard Moss, a former ER physician, and Leonard Jacobson, a former attorney. Moss offers his students an exercise employing a circle. He suggests thinking of yourself standing in the middle of the circle, which represents the present, the portion behind you represents the past, the portion in front of you represents the future, the portion to your left represents your personal stories and the portion to the right of you represents other stories. He says that any time you find your attention outside of the circle, bring it back to the center of the circle and the present. Jacobson similarly suggests that you should keep your focus on what’s in front of you, that is, be present with actuality. He believes that most of us most of the time are divorced from the actual and are “lost in our minds.” Both would agree that the mind is a useful tool and has an important role to play in our lives, and both would agree that we spend a great deal of time engaged with the mind when it is unnecessary.
Why is it important to be present?
To begin with it is only through being present that you can truly experience life. Life is grounded in experience not in the labyrinth of your mind. Life is a process that unfolds through your experience of what is present. When you are lost in your mind you are missing out on life.
Presence also is important to becoming non-judgmental, an attitude discussed in the post preceding this one. You may recall that being non-judgmental requires that you approach people and situations as unique and come to a determination about them through discernment grounded in what is present, not on ideologies and beliefs that create generalized categories in your mind. When you respond to someone as if they were a representative of a mental category, you are dehumaniz- ing them and treating them as an object. You can often recognize this process because the category frequently has a demeaning label.
Presence can also reveal things to you about your conditioned mind and its biases, what was called automatic programs in the previous post. Automatic programs will often be the first thing that attempt to arise and take over your response to someone or some situation. This is an excellent opportunity to take note of this automatic program, suspend it and try to identify its source. Once you know where it is coming from you will be better able to manage it rather than be managed by it.
What is the role of the brain?
The answer to this question is influenced by the work of Iain McGilchrist and Jill Taylor, both of whom are neuroscientists.
The brain is divided into two hemispheres. McGilchrist’s hypothesis about how evolutionarily the split brain came to be adopted by many life forms is related to two tasks of great importance in the past and today, especially in non-human animals. Those tasks include the need for particularized attention for seeking and obtaining food and generalized attention to monitor the larger environment for danger, such as predators. This reminds me of an illustrative story about generalized or inclusive attention. This was related by an anthropologist studying some indigenous people living in a jungle environment. The anthropologist was with a group on some sort of expedition into the jungle. When they reached a certain spot, one of the natives came and led him to a clear spot and told him they would wait here and the others would be back for them. He asked, “why do I have to wait here?” The native replied, “white men don’t know how to see.” The anthropologist asked, “see what?” The native answered, “danger.” These indigenous people clearly didn’t think much of Europeans’ right hemisphere functioning.
Briefly, the left side tends to exclusive attention. It is very good at bringing single objects of consciousness into its “grasp” and cognitively dismantling and manipulating them. This is often referred to as reductive thinking, i.e., reducing things to their apparent parts. Linear logic is then applied to understanding the relations among the parts. Understanding gained from this process has been very useful, especially in learning about many physical processes, and in the development of technology. However, this great asset provided by the left side must be overseen by the right side if good order is to be maintained in overall brain functioning.
Indeed, McGilchrist argues that from an evolutionary perspective, the right side of the brain is designed to be the master while the left side of the brain is designed to be its servant. He illustrates the importance of this relationship by discussing the effects seen in his patients with right hemisphere impairment due to strokes, trauma and disease. The effect of such impairment on the functioning of these patients, he indicates, is very similar to what he sees in his patients with schizophrenia. The effects are generally not so severe when the reverse occurs, suggesting that the right can do without the left much better than the left can do without the right hemisphere.
The right hemisphere tends to inclusive attention and processes input from the left side and its own intuitive understanding through integral thinking that creates an overall synthesis. Such a synthesis weaves a picture that renders an understanding of reality that far exceeds what the left side can accomplish on its own. The right side is also generally reckoned to be the source of imagination, which is largely responsible for using the synthesis to make creative leaps.
It is also worth noting that the most common patterns of electrical activity in the brain, the so called brain waves, seem to have some association with the hemispheres. Beta activity is likely to be more often dominant when the left hemisphere is dominant. Alpha activity is likely to be more often dominant when the right hemisphere is dominant. Alpha is associated with a more relaxed and fluid state of functioning than beta. It better supports the right hemisphere’s need for a more holistic mind set. Theta is also more likely to be dominant in the right side, especially when imagination and creativity are in process. Both alpha and theta are associated with meditative states and indicate that meditation is a useful tool for relaxation, inclusive attention, a holistic mind set and Presence.
Returning to the left hemisphere, when beta is dominant and the left hemisphere is inattentive, a network known as the default mode network (DMN) becomes active. The DMN is thought to support and maintain the ego narrative that most of us rely upon to explain our thoughts, emotions and behavior. One way it does this is to bring into awareness various memories and emotional associations to those memories that are tied to our personal narratives, causing rehearsal of and commentary on the narratives. The DMN also brings forward into awareness similar stimuli associated with other narratives important to ego. These stimuli are processed in much the same manner and for similar purposes. New meditators often find themselves less attentive and still in a beta-dominant mode, which presents them with a hurdle. The activation of the DMN while attempting to move into a meditative state often creates a significant distraction — a state sometimes described as Monkey Mind Syndrome. This syndrome has probably thwarted the intentions of more would-be meditators than anything else. If the new meditator will relax, persist and not become judgmental about his or her difficulties, they can be overcome. Success will not only improve the quality of attention and facilitate states of Presence but can also alter brain structure and improve the brain’s neuroplasticity.
Taylor and McGilchrist both take the view that the materialistic worldview common in western thought and becoming increasingly more common worldwide leads to a left-brain fixation. The processes of the left hemisphere are praised and encouraged and generally put forward as the pinnacle of human thinking while dismissing or minimizing right hemisphere processes and functions. McGilchrist, especially, appears to be of the opinion that this fixation could very well undermine civilization and lead to its collapse. Taylor, if nothing else, is an advocate for restoring whole brain functioning as a way to heal many of our personal and societal ills.
How does meditation help you become Present?
Meditation helps you become Present in several ways. First, the deep relaxation that accompanies meditation activates the right hemisphere. Second, holistic or inclusive attention activates the right hemisphere. Finally, meditation suppresses the activity of the default mode network, which reduces left-hemisphere activation. All mental stimuli, especially language, activate the left hemisphere and bring attention to bear on specific stimuli, which become objects of consciousness. Presence and dominance of the right hemisphere make consciousness without an object possible. This means that a state of awareness can be attained in which there is no attention focused on a particular stimulus. Both music and language are auditory stimuli. Music, however, can be useful for some people during meditation if it is calm and soothing music that aids relaxation and contains no lyrics. Lyrics often draw attention to themselves in the same way that speech does and become objects of consciousness in an activated left hemisphere.
Does meditation give you psychic powers or other unusual experiences?
Patanjali, a venerated yoga teacher, from about 400 BCE, taught that if psychic phenomena appear during meditation, they should be considered as distractions and ignored. Note that there are several branches of yoga practice and this reference to yoga is not to the Westernized version of Hatha Yoga commonly practiced in the U.S.
More likely to occur are noetic events. Noetic events are often associated with the late Edgar Mitchell who, on his return trip from the moon, had an unusual and profound experience while gazing out a window at the vastness of the universe. After he was back on earth, he began researching the experience that he had and concluded that it was a noetic event. A noetic event is defined as an intuitive and implicit understanding or subjective knowing of something. Noetic events are also characterized by being ineffable or difficult to verbally and meaningfully describe to others, unless they have had some similar experience themselves. Edgar Mitchell went on to found an organization known today as IONS (Institute on Noetic Science) whose mission is to study noetic events. Noetic events can arise in both natural and traditional meditative states.
What is the best meditation technique?
There are many styles of meditation that have developed within various traditions. Which one is best for you depends what is most comfortable for you and can be the basis of a sustainable practice. I use what I call a sensory-field meditation technique that I’ve arrived at from my study and practice of meditation. I am happy to share my process with anyone who has a serious interest.
What is enlightenment?
In the piece that preceded this one, it was noted that some traditions view human functioning along a dimension that runs from ignorance to enlightenment. Ignorance is seen as being ignorant of one’s divine nature, and enlightenment is coming to know one’s divine nature directly, i.e. through experience. A contemporary nondual teacher, Rupert Spira, prefers to replace the word “Enlightenment” with the word “Truth,” which functionally still carries the same meaning as just given. However, Spira prefers it because it doesn’t have as much conceptual baggage as the term “Enlightenment.”
Here is what enlightenment won’t do for you. It won’t turn you into a zombie. It won’t render you unable to deal with the daily world, and it won’t solve all of your problems, though it may give you a different perspective on them. There is a Zen saying that I think is apropos when talking about enlightenment. It goes like this: “Before enlightenment chop wood and carry water, after enlightenment chop wood and carry water.” Those seeking the spectacular are usually disappointed. If you’re one of those people looking for something spectacular from enlightenment, you might want to contemplate this Zen saying on a regular basis.
There is a Western connection to the idea of enlightenment through Abraham Maslow and Carl Jung. Both considered transcendence of the ego self to be important. Such a shift they found produced a shift in perspective and a broadened worldview. Both thought this shift was a shift away from the ego or self and to a more authentic Self. Maslow say the shift is the culmination of a developmental process, and Jung says it is the result of individuation or the integration of the unconscious, subconscious and ego consciousness.
Transcendence of the self, from my understanding, puts one on the cusp of enlightenment. Some traditions use a six-phase model when talking about the process of moving from ignorance to truth (enlightenment). The first phase is the unconditioned mind (infants and pre-verbal children) with no sense of self. The second phase is the conditioned mind (most everyone else), which is the phase where one is acquiring and has acquired a hierarchy of concepts and a process for processing and judging people and circumstances through those concepts. It also is the period where a lot of automatic programs are established that lead to decisions that require little thought. The third phase is often referred to as “I AM.” It is a phase in which one throws off much of the conditioning acquired during phase two. In this phase, one has acquired Presence and learned to use discernment rather than judgment. I have written about this phase calling it the natural mind.
When one transitions from the natural mind, the cusp is crossed and one enters the fourth phase, which is the first phase of enlightenment. This phase is called Self-realization. It can be described as the direct experience of one’s true nature (a manifestation of divinity). The fifth phase is often called God-consciousness and can be described as direct experience of unconditional acceptance by Source consciousness (God, if you prefer). Unconditional acceptance and Divine Love are often considered to be interchangeable. The sixth phase can be referred to as Unity-consciousness and described as the experience of being unconditional acceptance. This can also be thought of an identity with Source. Jill Taylor thinks that the right hemisphere anterior cingulate is the gateway to experience of Source.
Note: Be careful not to conflate human love with Divine Love. The former is an emotional state and the latter is a way of being. Human love is often thought to be elicited by an external stimulus, whereas Divine Love is not elicited but emitted or, if you prefer, radiated.
There is, in my opinion, a critical attitude that is important in the application of Ethical and Moral Principles, which includes the UUA’s seven Principles. Principles such as, treat everyone with respect and recognize their inherent worth and dignity. That critical attitude is being non-judgmental, which promotes acceptance of others. Less than full acceptance leads to rejection or mere tolerance, and results in less than optimal application of principles. Granted, tolerance is better than rejection and may be a step on the path to full acceptance, but one should be cautious about becoming too self-satisfied about having achieved mere tolerance. Below is a quote from a book written by a former journalist who spent several years living on the streets as a homeless woman, for reason I won’t go into. Of the help she received that allowed her to resume a productive life she said:
“To those who helped me, I will always be eternally grateful…However, while you stand in your place in the accepted social hierarchy of giving and receiving, looking down on those you deem worthy of helping, would you please stop to notice how you are slapping us in the face with the very hand that you have extended in your goodwill?”
I would suggest that what is implicit in this quote is the recognition by her that some of her benefactors were merely tolerant of her and tolerated her as much to enhance their own self-esteem by being seen helping her as to compassionately respond to her and her circumstances.
So, what do I mean by judgment? Judgment is based on categorical thinking. A way of thinking that classifies people and treats them as categories. I am reminded of a comment by the late David Bohm, a quantum physicist and philosopher, who said that all genuine knowledge will only be found between categories. Others, such as Martin Buber in his book, I and Thou (see also my post On Buber and Bohm), make the point that only through a relationship of acceptance of the other can you respond fully to the humanity of another person. Likewise, the philosopher Ken Wilbur, in his book Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution, points out that our culture has a history of objectifying people and classifying them as objects characterized by the status of its.
Judgment employs a system of filters or beliefs, represented as cognitive constructs, that are arranged into a hierarchy or decision tree. These beliefs are acquired through Social learning. You acquire them, one might say absorb them, from your parents, siblings, extended family, peers, community and social institutions such as schools and churches. These filters or algorithms are subconscious and automatic (hereafter, APs). Practically, everyone has such APs running outside of their conscious awareness that affect their perceptions of people and situations. What you are most likely to be aware of is a mental label, emotion or impulse to act in a certain way arising into awareness. Often this is the end product of an AP with an implicit bias. What most frequently happens when a judgment or impulse arises into awareness is that you generate a rationale, to incorporate into your personal narrative, to explain the judgment or impulse. The rationale then becomes part of your idea of yourself. There is seldom any connection between the AP and the rationale for its output. The rationale is more likely to be self-deception.
Some subconscious biases or APs can be revealed through Harvard University’s Implicit Attitude Tests that are available on Harvard’s website and are free to the public. You might find it interesting and possibly useful to take some of these tests that cover such topics as sexual orientation, race and gender identity, among others.
You can also personally pursue locating your APs , first, through carefully monitoring your responses to people and situation and then, second, employing introspection to drill down and find the underlying source of your reaction. This is not always easy and will often be confounded by the camouflage that your rationale justifying their output creates. In such cases, there are other more sophisticated techniques that might be employed or you may need professional help with the task.
Not all APs are dysfunctional. For example, you have APs that are instrumental to you being able to drive an automobile safely and with hardly any conscious effort. You are more likely to find APs that support biased perceptions in those related to people, organizations and situations than among those helping with the routine tasks of getting through the day. If you find any dysfunctional APs, you should modify, replace or eliminate them. Doing this will aid your spiritual evolution, which – as will be clarified shortly – is your purpose.
The flip side of judgment is discernment. Discernment is an unbiased evaluation that is free of APs. Discernment can only be practiced by treating each encounter with people and situations as unique and worthy of individual consideration rather than as a prepackaged categorical response. Systems of judgment, while not entirely dependent upon, are supported by one’s worldview. Your worldview can, therefore, aid or hinder cleaning up maladaptive APs or even being able to recognize them.
Let us now turn to a brief discussion of four western worldviews. The first is theistic dualism. This worldview has been around for several thousand years and most of us can easily associate it with such dualities as God and Satan, good and evil, heaven and hell, saved and damned. It is not a worldview designed to promote acceptance. The second I’ll call Descartes’ Compromise. This was a compromise suggested by René Descartes in the 17th century. This suggestion was an effort to moderate religious interference in the work of naturalists (today we’d call them scientists) attempting to understand the processes underlying the physical world. Some of their work attracted potentially deadly attention from religious authorities who judged some of their findings to be heretical to church dogma. What the compromise suggested was that concern with physical processes be left to the naturalists and considered secular in nature, and concern with spiritual matters be left to theologians and priests and considered religious in nature. The compromise was an improvement on the purely theistic worldview but was still not one that fully promoted acceptance of people in all their diversity. In short, judgment is implicit in a dualistic worldview.
Descartes’ Compromise eventually morphed into secular or scientific materialism. This came about, over time, by excluding half of the compromise from the worldview, turning it into a purely materialist worldview. The materialist worldview takes as its root assumption that everything arises from matter — matter is primary. The narrative supporting this worldview posits that all matter first came into existence through what is described as the Big Bang. The late Stephen Hawking, a physicist and cosmologist, when asked by someone to explain where the Big Bang came from, replied that it was “spontaneous creation from nothing.” The Big Bang is sometimes also described as a cosmic accident. This narrative further posits that the physical universe and ultimately the life in it evolves through random processes. So, matter came into being through a cosmic accident and the stars, planets, the life planets support, solar systems, galaxies and the universe all evolved by chance or through random processes. What is denied by this worldview is that any of this had any purpose behind it. To my understanding, anything without purpose has no implicit meaning and is, in many ways, a nihilistic philosophy. Nihilism rejects all values as being baseless and offers no grounds for promoting acceptance.
The fourth western worldview that will be covered is analytic idealism, a nondual philosophy, perhaps best represented, at the current time, by scientist, technologist and philosopher Bernardo Kastrup. Recently, Kastrup has taken the position of director of a foundation, The Essentia Foundation, whose goal is to promote idealism as an alternative to materialism. An organization with a similar goal is the Academy for the Advancement of a Postmaterialist Science whose membership is comprised of scientists and academics.
Kastrup’s presentation of idealism, especially Rationalist Spirituality, takes as its root assumption that Consciousness or Universal Mind is a field of Consciousness or Source Consciousness (hereafter just Source) that is infinite, eternal, intelligent and creative. It is not, however, capable of metacognition or self-reflection. Everything arises from and returns to Source. Think of a wave arising from the ocean and returning to the ocean. It is all water whatever form it takes. Therefore, everything must be unconditionally accepted by Source because to do otherwise would be to reject itself.
Kastrup suggests that the physical universe is an experience engine that is running within Source, which means Source can’t be equated with the physical universe, being much more. In Kastrup’s model, Source needs experience to evolve and realize its potential. Further, life is a carrier of Source that experiences and evolves, while also providing input for Source’s evolution. Kastrup argues that Source is an evolving phenomenon because if Source were perfect there would be no need to create an experiential universe. He argues that even if a perfect Source had created an experiential universe it would have to reflect that perfection and it is clear from our experience that his is not a perfect universe. The bottom line of this presentation on idealism means that personal evolution contributes to Universal evolution, which gives life a source of purpose and meaning.
One explanation for how experience comes about is that experience arises from complementarity. The concept of complementarity was first proposed by the late Niels Bohr, a quantum physicist and one of the founders of quantum physics. He originally introduced this concept to help understand and talk about the wave – particle duality in quantum physics. He subsequently indicated that he thought the concept had a much broader application and could even be used in such fields as psychology. See also my post Love and Hate in Human Thought.
Here is a mundane example that should be easier to follow than a discussion of the complementary pair of wave — particle. Consider the pair hot — cold, This pair can be represented on a dimension with each member of the pair anchoring an opposite pole of the dimension. It is the gradations that are made possible by this bipolar construct that makes the experience of temperature possible. If you would like to carry this illustration further, think through other complementary pairs such as male and female.
Members of a complementary pair can be thought of as partial reflections of an undivided whole. The writer Arthur Koestler referred to such wholes as holons. Each holon is both a whole and a part. It is a part of a greater holon, which in turn is a whole and a part of a greater holon. If you extrapolate this process to its logical end point, you will arrive at a holon that encompasses the entire physical universe. Such a holon can easily be thought of as a singular representation of the physical universe or a unity of physicality. However, one might go further and imagine this holon as a whole and a part that is a part of a greater holon yet, such as Source. Perhaps Source is the ultimate Holon, which exists as a part of nothing, being both infinite and eternal. You can find a fuller discussion of the concept of holons in the Ken Wilbur book linked above. You can find a fuller discussion of the unity of physicality (in physicist speak, the entanglement of all the particles in the physical universe) in my post Reality Appears to Arise from Mysterious Foundations about the perspective of the quantum physicist Menas Kafatos.
In the East there are several nondual philosophies, such as Buddhism, Tantra, Taoism and Vedanta. If you have heard of Tibetan Buddhism, headed by the Dalai Lama, it is also known as Tantric Buddhism, which recognizes that it is a fusion of Buddhism and Tantra. I will try to present a brief, homogenized and probably unjust description of these traditions to the best of my understanding.
In this worldview, life is an expression of Universal Consciousness and much that was said about Consciousness earlier is also applicable to one degree or another. Human functioning in this view ranges from Ignorant to Enlightened, which in this view means ego consciousness (self) at one pole and a more purified Consciousness at the other pole (Self or authentic Self). In nondualism, our goal should be to rise above our ignorance, and realize our inherent divinity. In other words, transcend ego consciousness. This is not unheard of in the West. In the twentieth century the psychologist Abraham Maslow placed self-transcendence at the apex of his hierarchy of development. It is not unusual to see his hierarchy taught without the final step of self-transcendence, which is probably because it doesn’t fit very well into the prevailing materialist paradigm and is therefore ignored. Carl Jung, a twentieth-century psychiatrist and proponent of depth psychology, made self-transcendence the ultimate goal of psychological integration. Jung proposed that this could be achieved, though not easily, by integrating the unconscious, subconscious and ego consciousness and thereby expressing one’s higher Self.
In nondualism, bad behavior is viewed as a product of ignorance, not of evil (a link to my post The Nature of Evil). We often classify certain forms of behavior as evil but a non-dualist would say that it is simply an expression of ignorance. This does not excuse it, but the focus here is the behavior, not the person. Consequently, bad behavior requires a non-emotional response that is non-judgmental and includes respectful, dignified and just treatment of the actor. This type of response is, to a non-dualist, one that is least likely to be an overreaction resulting in a non-productive counter response and one most likely to promote the spiritual development of the one receiving it. Finally, these traditions usually see the process of moving from ignorance to enlightenment to be one that unfolds slowly and requires a great deal of time to have and to benefit from the necessary experiences. Thus, you frequently see reincarnation as a component of these traditions, since it provides the necessary time to complete spiritual evolution.
The original Unitarian and Universalist denominations came about in the 16th century and arose for Christian denominations that disagreed with some of the prevailing theology of the Christian church of the time. The Christians that became Unitarians affirmed the unitary nature of divinity and thereby rejected the theological concept of a Trinitarian divinity. They also rejected the dogma of “original sin.” The Christians that became Universalists rejected the dogma of selective salvation or reconciliation with divinity for universal reconciliation. They viewed some theological concepts such as reconciliation as being a fundamental truth that has universal application unbound by any constraint. This position is sometimes compared to the principle from the Rig Veda ( a scripture from Vedanta) that holds that “Truth is One; sages call it by various names.”
In consideration of the above, I don’t think it is a great stretch to say that Unitarian Universalism has within it the potential to become a western representative of a nondual worldview (a panentheistic view) that has theological roots rather than purely philosophical roots. Personally, I think it would be a more productive direction than it has been following, which seems to me to be attempting to establish a humanistic option within materialism. Currently, it is in the process of revising its principles and appears to be making Love as the center piece of this revision. I would suggest that this is a step in the right direction.
A few closing comments on nonduality: In nondualism, being against others includes being against the self since both you and the other arise from the same Source and share the same core divinity. Thus, nonduality promotes acceptance of self and others. Because of complementarity, you can’t live in nonduality, but you can know and use it as a perspective.
Nonduality can be known both intellectually and experientially. To illustrate the difference, consider someone who knows nothing about music, including having never heard music played. Now imagine that this individual is given a workbook on musical notation and a book on musical instruments that explains what they are and their basic mechanisms for producing sound. After studying these materials, our imaginary character has a pretty good intellectual understanding of music. Now imagine that we take this person to a symphony hall and let him or her listen to a symphony play music. The individual will come out of the symphony hall with a very different understanding of music from the one s/he entered with. The person now has an experiential understanding of music to go along with an intellectual understanding. The experiential dimension could be deepened by learning to play an instrument as well. Nondual traditions place a preference for the experiential knowing over intellectual knowing, while recognizing that in most cases intellectual understanding precedes experiential understanding. Thus, one should be open to the experience of nonduality, Unity or Source. Most traditions that advocate experiential knowing promote the practice of contemplation and meditation as methods that can open you to the experience, though they will also tell you you can’t make it happen. In fact, trying to force it will do nothing more than push you further away from the experience. You don’t take it, it takes you (see my post Taken).
Next month: Meditation: What it is and why do it.
P.S. Limiting ourselves to western worldviews, some might ask which is True, Scientific Materialism or Analytic Idealism?
I would say that neither is True. Both are philosophical systems that rest upon a core assumption. In one case, the Primacy of Matter and in the other the Primacy of Consciousness. So, the question posed is pointless. Both probably contain some truth. A better question is, which one has the greatest depth and range and which has the best chance of enhancing humanity?
My answer is idealism and I offer that for several reasons:
1. If the interpretation of the double-slit experiments in quantum physics that assert that Consciousness is responsible for the collapse of the wave function are valid, and a lot of evidence supports this interpretation, then Consciousness is Primary and matter is an epiphenomenon of Consciousness. Thus, it seems likely that matter requires Consciousness to come into existence.
2. Idealism can subsume materialism similarly to how quantum physics subsumes Newtonian physics. This provides a much broader and deeper paradigm for understanding the nature of reality. The reverse, however, doesn’t expand our paradigm because it requires that human consciousness be a separate and isolated phenomenon generated by the brain rather than the brain being its receiver and moderator. This negates all the advantage to be found from looking at Consciousness as primary and there is a significant amount of evidence backing the view that Consciousness is Primary though in some quarters it is not viewed as being conclusive.
3. Even given all other things being equal, I go with idealism because it is a narrative that gives humanity purpose and meaning. This has the potential to bring humanity together in a positive way and thus make it more likely to survive and evolve and possibly to continue to contribute to Source’s evolution. The likely alternative is to become a dead end.
I think the course of personal identity moves across four, basic developmental domains, though not everyone explicates and integrates all four domains. The four domains are sensory, physical, mental and spiritual. In keeping with the present focus, let’s refer to them as the sensory self, physical self, mental self and spiritual self. In the following I will set out a hypothetical description of how this development unfolds.
The development of selves is largely a process dependent upon differentiation. A new born infant initially identifies with its sensory field and has a sensory self. With time and experience, a process that differentiates the self from the sensory field begins. This starts with differentiating various aspects of the sensory field from one another and assigning them the status of being separate “things.” For example, think of a bird and its song. At first, the bird and its song are part of the generalized, unified sensory field. With experience, an infant begins to recognize the bird as the source of the song and to consider the two as an integrated whole that attention turns the bird into an object of consciousness. Once captured as an object of consciousness, the bird and its song become abstracted through visual and auditory representation. With that comes the ability to recall a memory that encodes the bird symbolically. This memory allows the bird to be isolated, explored and manipulated symbolically as an object in consciousness. This cognitive possession of the bird and its song differentiates it from the self and make it a separate object within awareness.
This process of differentiation goes on until a clear sense of two categories develops: self and other. By “other” is meant things that have become differentiated as separate “things.” The next step is begun with the question, who is this self that is aware of all these other things, which can be turned into objects of consciousness? At this time, the thing that garners the most attention in awareness is the physical body. The physical body not only has been differentiated from the sensory field but has also been recognized as the seat of a great many subjective experiences. It experiences emotional reactions, thoughts and feelings along with auditory, visual, olfactory and tactile sensations, among others. All this appears to be localized in the physical body. Under these conditions, it is very easy to identify oneself with the body. Hence, we have the physical self. The former sensory self has been transcended but the transition from sensory to physical self integrates the sensory self into the physical self.
The real fireworks begin with transcending the physical self and arriving at the mental self. With the beginning of the mental self a significant change in perception takes place. Up until this point, perception has been largely a bottom up process, which means that perception is relatively unhindered by filters. As language skills grow and experience is reconstructed with visual and linguistic symbols, a shift away from a focus on the physical body begins and is accompanied by a change of focus to mental activity. Not only are memories encoded but are also interpreted. Memories are assigned meanings and so begins the creation of a personal past. Perception now begins to shift toward a top down process, which means that perception comes to be a process subject to filtering. We also learn that we can describe and interpret imaginal outcomes thereby conjuring up a future. The narrative approach to life has begun in earnest. Our mental self becomes absorbed with the content of our mind.
With this mental focus, our narratives and their meanings begin to organize themselves into an hierarchy of beliefs about ourselves and our lives. Along with the mental self, ego arrives on the scene. Our identity has now transcended the physical self. The physical self, along with the sensory self integrated into it, has been incorporated into the newly developed mental self. The first stage of the mental self could be described as egocentric. We are consumed with ourselves; with our self narrative. We narrowly perceive the world through a first person perspective.
As we gain experience, develop cognitively and become more sophisticated in our thinking, our narratives grow more complex and our perspective broadens into a second person perspective. This new stage in the mental self could be described as ethnocentric. We now include in our identities others who belong to groups in which we are embedded. Our identity now includes our family and family friends. It may include others similar to us who, for example, are members of our religion and attend services with us. It will grow to include “outsiders,” known to us, who share our beliefs and other characteristics such as ethnicity, language, dress, food habits and so on. For some of us, development becomes arrested at this stage due to a constrained range of experiences. A constraint on our range of experience results in a lack of opportunity for new cognitive growth. Often, the constraint is imposed by our narratives and the beliefs about the world that they impose on our perceptions and the meaning we attribute to them. Things such as racism are usually grounded in an ethnocentric identity.
If we do continue in our development, the next stage in the evolution of the mental self could be described as sociocentric. We now have acquired the ability to take a third person perspective. We can identify with a much larger social group than in the past. Our expanded narratives gives us a social perspective that is much broader than our previous provincial identity. We can now bring into our identity persons who differ from us in significant ways because we share a broader membership with them. For example, if we strongly identify with our nationality, we can incorporate people who may have significant differences from ourselves into our identity because they too are American or French or Chinese and so on. It is likely that the upper developmental limit for most people is a sociocentric perspective. People that we might describe as nationalists are probably operating from this level of identity.
A small number of people who continue to develop will transition to a worldcentric perspective. The final step in the development of the mental self. They now identify with a context that exceeds the boundaries of nation states. Such individuals become “citizens” of the world and identify with humanity in its many variations. All the previous self identities and narratives related to those identities have been incorporated into and subsumed by the new broader identity. These are people who advocate for just treatment of all living things, of a more holistic approach to the health of the planet and sustainable styles of living. Many of us would consider this the pinnacle of human cognitive development, which it may be in a sense.
Yet, there remains, at least, one more development related to self or identity. This transformation goes by various names but in the first paragraph it was called the spiritual self. Transcendence of the mental self to the spiritual self could be described as arriving at a Kosmocentric perspective. This is a relatively rare occurrence and you probably have never met such a person. One reason that it is so rare is because almost everyone becomes deeply entangled in their ever more complex personal narratives or more simply stated in their mental self. As one spiritual teacher put it, we are “lost in our minds.” The mental self lives through symbolic representations of the past and for imagined futures and gives little attention to the present. What goes unrecognized is that recall of narratives about the past are about things that no longer exist, if they ever did, and that narratives about the future are about things that may never come to pass. The only reality that one can truly grasp is the one that is fleetingly present in the moment. One likely distinction between the earlier selves and the spiritual self is that the former are largely governed by processes associated with the left hemisphere in the brain and the latter in the right hemisphere. It is the difference between a particularlized and a holistic grasp on our experienced reality.
I ask that you contemplate the following questions carefully. Are you really the stories (narratives) that you tell about yourself? Do these narratives feel love or anger? Can your narratives think about things? Who is it that knows your subjective experience? Who is editing and telling these stories that you live by? It is certainly not the narratives that you associate with your name; e.g., Bill Smith or Mary Jones, doing all these things. So, who is doing it? If you like, you can read a poem that I wrote that also addresses this issue here or read a more complete list of questions here.
It would appear that you have a subtle self that is the observer of all that you are. It is not your sensory field though it is aware of the sensory field. It is not your physical body though it is aware of the physical body. It is not your mental activity though it is aware of your mental activity. It is your uncluttered ever present conscious awareness. The spiritual self has always been present but your attention has been elsewhere. You’ve lived much of your life consumed by distractions. If you can identify with the spiritual self you will have a unique perspective that still has access to all the prior selves that you’ve grown through, if they will still serve you, but you will not be entangled in them.
One person, the late Franklin Merrell-Wolff, who connected with his spiritual self and became present with his pristine conscious awareness described living through the spiritual self as the “high indifference.” What he meant by this phrase was that he seldom needed to interpret his experience through narratives. He seldom found beliefs that gave meaning to those narratives useful. Thus, he found little use for judgment and was open to and accepting of life as it passed through him. He found that he was emotionally disengaged from most events taking place around him. The people involved in those events were entangled in stories that often competed with one another for the status of “truth.” This does not mean that he did not engage the world. What it means is that he engaged the world through discernment free of any narrative generated prescription about how he should engage it.
He found that being fully present in the world required little attention to the world of the mind that consumed those around him. Giving little attention to the mentally constructed world gave him a clearer view of what was important and when he acted he was more likely to have an effect on something that mattered. The late Abraham Maslow, a developmental psychologist, described the pinnacle of his developmental pyramid as self transcendence. It is a rising above the mental self and all that went before it. It is an experience and there is no formula for creating a transcendent experience. It is an internal journey following a pathless path. It is awakening to one’s true nature and being released from ignorance.
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.
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.