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I am a retired academic, comfortable and content. I live with my wife (Shirley) and our "Chowbador" dog (Loki) in a semi-rural area about 50 miles northwest of Atlanta. I have two adult sons and two grandsons. I took up exploration of the spiritual side of life as my retirement activity because of some experiences that I had earlier in my life. I have been meditating for about ten years. My wife and I facilitate a course on mindfulness in a local Unitarian, Universalist Fellowship. I've done retreats based in Theravada Buddhism, Tantrik Yoga and Kriya Yoga. I have read a good bit of spiritual literature written, for the most part, by current practitioners and teachers.

On Buber and Bohm

Note: Buber uses all caps for his relational words, which can at times be confusing. I have, for clarity, used lower case when the meaning of the relational words have different implications from the words when upper case is used.

In his book I and Thou, Martin Buber discusses two core relational words, one or the other of which dominates our way of being in the world. These relational words are “i”-“it”and I-Thou (You). As I understand him, the former separates and fragments while the latter relates and unifies. The creation of an “it” requires making the person, event, process, etc., isolated, abstracted and conceptualized. Buber suggests that You is the spiritual or authentic Self that precedes any development of a self (me) or ego (“i”). Thus, when one has an I-You relationship, it is a dynamic, living and authentic relationship. The authentic Self that lies behind ego enters into a relationship with another Self. Thus, an I-You relationship is at root a spiritual or authentic relationship that unifies rather than divides. On the other hand, an “i” cannot have an I-You relationship with an academic or scientific subject, a social institution or organization or technological devices — only with people and probably some other living organisms. You can, however, also have an “i”-“it” relationship with people, animals and things where the “i” represents the egoic self (me) and “it” represents an objectified thing. An “i”-“it” (me-thing) relationship renders people as objects and therefore is suitable to use as a means to an end. Buber argues that the foundations of modernity are found in “i”-“it” relationships. He advocates that we must learn to live and grow as authentic human beings by living through I-You or I-Thou relationships.

The physicist and philosopher David Bohm reached similar conclusions and offered in his book On Dialogue a method to facilitate relationships grounded in understanding others, which I think Buber would recognize as I-You relationships. Bohm’s method, as I understand it, is normally done with a limited but diverse group but can also be done between two individuals or even as a method for self examination. A brief description of his group method involves several basic components. First, as diverse a group as possible should be assembled. Second, the group members should commit to meet on a regular schedule and to see the process through. Third, members of the group are asked to share with the group anything about their beliefs, attitudes, thoughts or other subjective attributes that they wish. I was reminded of the Quaker practice in which members of their leaderless congregations sit in silence until someone feels moved to speak, stands and says their piece and then sits down. Here is the crux of the process. Fourth, other members may ask clarifying questions or restate in their own words what they understood to have been said, for confirmation or elaboration. Fifth, under no circumstances is anyone allowed to deny, challenge, argue, judge or in any way, including tone of voice, rebut what someone says. If one holds a different view relative to something said, he or she can simply state that view but in no way frame it as an argument against what the other person said. All comments are offered as simple declarative statements, e.g., I am uncomfortable around LGBTQ people. I believe in a personal God. I believe in socialism. I prefer to associate with people from my own ethnic background, and so on.

What Bohm found happens in such groups is that over time they come to develop a group pattern of thought. This pattern is grounded in an understanding of what sorts of beliefs, attitudes and thinking are held by the group as a whole. The members come to understand one another and form a cohesive group. Once there is cohesion, it becomes possible to have non-conflictual, meaningful relationships and authentic dialogue between members of the group. In short, You-You relationships.

On Nonduality

To be clear about this topic, understand that nonduality is a concept represented by a word. The concept is not the experience. No matter how much effort you put into thinking about and analyzing the concept, you will never touch its essence. It is like trying to tell someone who has never eaten an orange what the experience of eating an orange is like. Description can never replace experience. What I will try to do here is use a metaphor to perhaps paint a somewhat more communicative word picture of nonduality. In the end, though, if one really wants to know nonduality directly, one must eat the orange, so to speak. I’ll end this with a quote from a Zen Master when asked about nonduality, who said, “Not two, not one.” I would suggest that his intent was to convey that both are numerical concepts.

The metaphor I will use is that of an orchestra, which will represent the entirety of all physically manifest reality. As the orchestra begins playing, the harmony of all the instruments creates music. The members of the orchestra are individuals and their instruments are separate objects. The relative relationships between these musicians, their instruments and their output represent duality or the world of separate things. The music, which is the single harmonious integration of all the separate contributions into a singular whole, represents nonduality. However, this is an idealized metaphor, so let’s back it up.

Imagine that this orchestra consists of 1000 people, of which you are one, each with a musical instrument. The level of musical competence of the players ranges from novice to expert. Some can read music and some can’t. Now imagine that his group sets out to play a symphony. Also, add into this image the lack of a musical director. In this scenario all of the players begin playing their instruments. A few know the symphony, some can read music and have sheet music for guidance, and most of the group neither know the symphony nor can read music. The effort begins, but the output is not nearly as pleasing as in the initial description above. Nevertheless, the relative relationships between these musicians and their instruments’ output represent duality or the world of separate, relative things. The sound output is still the product of all the separate pieces representing a singular whole or nonduality. This is probably somewhat more like the way of the world. A somewhat chaotic state that is slowly organizing itself into greater and greater coherence, albeit with both forward and backward steps.

Now as a participant in this process, ask yourself what you should do to facilitate the evolution of coherence and the production of a recognizable symphony, allowing that a perfect rendition of the symphony is unlikely. You have at least two options: 1) You could listen carefully and identify the players who are contributing the greatest amount of disorder into the effort and go take away their instruments and eject them from the orchestra. Considering that there likely would be resistance to this, you might find other members who see the situation the same way that you do and organize them into a cadre of music police. 2) You could ignore the disharmony and attempt to narrow your focus down on the members who are producing the best musical output and follow their lead. In this case, you are both attempting to contribute to coherence by coming into harmony with the output of the better players and contributing to coherence by serving as an example to the players in need of guidance. Perhaps you can think of other options but you get the general idea.

The point is you can either become absorbed in the inharmonious output of some of the individual players and contribute little or nothing, or you can focus on a strand of harmony running like a smooth eddy in a turbulent stream and strengthen it. In short, come into harmony with the dynamic process that is the evolving whole or focus on the separate pieces.

This brings up the issue of “evil,” which is a relative concept. What you think is evil may not be viewed as evil by someone else. Perhaps there is a definition of “evil” that could be universally agreed to, but I’m not sure what it is. The closest that I can come up with is “actions arising from ignorance brought about by a highly egocentric view of one’s life circumstance.” However, one can still recognize that ignorance is also masking the divinity that lies within the “evil” doer. This does not mean that you can’t act in self-defense or defend others. The advantage that arises from recognizing ignorance as merely a mask for dormant divinity is that if one is compelled to respond, the response will be no more than is necessary and will not be fueled by strong emotions such as anger, hate, revulsion, etc. I have an entire essay devoted to this view on my website, so I won’t expand on it any further here.

Let’s look at the idea of evil relative to the orchestra metaphor. Think of the incoherent players as “ignorant” and their disharmonious output as “evil.” You can get angry with these players and decide they need to be stopped and ejected from the orchestra, which will no doubt be resisted and could lead to actions on your part that might be viewed as “evil” by some of the other players. You could also recognize these players as simply ignorant of the musical ability that they have dormant within themselves and try to be a model for them or even offer them guidance. What the experience of nonduality brings is a perspective that sees all the players connected through the divinity that resides within them whether they are aware of it or not. Each and every one of the players is an implicit strand within the holistic, dynamic process that emerges as the symphony.

I hope that this was useful but do keep in mind that it is just an imperfect pointer for nonduality, which is only truly known through a transcendent experience, never through concepts and ideas. Peel the orange and eat.

 

Salvation Will Not Be Found in Politics — Updated 03/14/21

There is an apparent “war” of cultures in American politics. The so-called Red/Blue divide that seems unbridgeable. Red struggles to overcome Blue. Blue struggles to overcome Red. Each side believes fervently that it is the defender of “Truth.” Each side attempts to eke out a victory so that it might impose its view of truth on the nation as a whole. Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Garrett, in their recent book The Upswing, describe this struggle in a way that suggests a cycle. They describe one turn of the apparent cycle. The first leg of the current cycle began in the late 19th century when Blue began an ascendance and imposed its views on society. The cycle peaked around 1971 and began its second leg, which is where we are currently positioned. During the past 50 years, Red has been in ascendance and has been reversing Blue’s accomplishments and has been imposing its views on society. In discussing what needs to be done, the authors propose that the answer is to restore Blue’s programs to a dominant position. I think this is a mistake made by not taking into account the significant portion of the population that sides with Red. In my view, the only thing suppression will accomplish is to initiate a new cycle, which is not a solution at all. Both viewpoints need to be transcended.

On a longer-term basis, Iain McGilchrist, in his book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, discusses a back and forth tug-a-war between the left and right brain functions. He thinks the tug-a-war has its origins in the ancient Greeks and has been operating throughout history. He spends a considerable amount of effort to document this process. McGilchrist, a neuro-psychiatrist, discusses the underlying reason for our split brain. He says that the right brain is responsible for relating and integrating our understanding of the world. Because of its relational nature, the right brain provides a dynamic and holistic view of the world and is the source of meaning in our lives. The left brain on the other hand is responsible for separating out of our perception of the world isolated pieces, which are rendered static and then divided further into pieces for examination.

According to McGilchrist, there should be cooperation between these functions. The left brain should inform the right brain about its understanding of examined pieces of the world and then the right brain should integrate this understanding into a dynamic and holistic view of the world. In short, the left brain evolved to be a tool of the right brain, which should have the overall responsibility for our understanding of the world. McGilchrist argues that currently the left brain has gained dominance over the right brain, which evolved to be the dominant partner.

Human beings can skew the intent of evolution through their ability to form concepts and abstractions that model the world. Concepts, abstractions and models are left brain functions grounded in language. The left brain has in effect “hijacked” the functions of the right brain through the use of concepts and abstractions. Unfortunately, the left brain approach leads to fragmentation rather than the needed holistic view. Ken Wilber, discussed below, would probably agree with the essence of McGilchrist’s analysis. I think this is because Wilber argues that most of our current problems are due to an extreme emphasis on quadrant three of his model (see Table in the section about Wilber), which he thinks is dominated by scientific materialism with its emphasis on the senses of perception and an objectifying and externalizing of everything to the exclusion of humanity’s inner life and resources.

The political cycle described by Putnam and Garrett and possibly the tug-a-war described by McGilchrist seems likely to be linked to how we form identities and worldviews. Before proceeding, it is necessary to provide some background. I will attempt to describe identity formation through the lens of psychological development. I will begin by mentioning the French developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, who sequenced cognitive development into a four-tiered structure. The first tier was sensorimotor, then preoperational, then concrete operational and finally the formal operational tier. While there have been criticisms of the model and suggestions for one or more additional stages the original model, in practice, has held up robustly.

For example, the Harvard psychologist, Lawarence Kohlberg, adapted Piaget’s scheme to his study of moral reasoning. He structured moral reasoning into a three-tiered sequence. The first tier was pre-conventional, then conventional and finally post-conventional. Each tier was divided into two stages for a total of six stages. The sixth stage is often omitted from the developmental sequence. This omission occurs because its achievement is so rare that there are not enough examples of it available to study and give it a firm empirical basis (see Addendum I at the end).

Kohlberg’s developmental model for moral reasoning has been widely studied and validated in cultures around the world, including both developed and emerging societies. The structure and stages have held up across cultures. The primary differences found between cultures has been the rate of development through the stages and the stage that emerges as the dominant typical stage in any given culture.

Further, studies have confirmed a relationship between moral reasoning and behavior, though it is a complex relationship. Studies have found deficits in moral reasoning in psychopaths as compared to neurotics. Research also shows a significant difference in moral reasoning between delinquents and non-delinquent adolescents. A common finding in these studies was an association of preconventional reasoning with antisocial behavior. Development of moral reasoning has also been found to be slower and more variable in troubled children relative to typical children.

Research has also supported structured, developmental discussions of moral issues as a method for stimulating development of moral reasoning. This has been shown to be supported in programs with public school students, emotionally disturbed adolescents, college students, delinquents and prisoners. In a study to see if public school teachers could implement a moral education program, teachers successfully conducted the program and produced significant changes, which upon a two-year follow-up were either maintained or continued to progress. One caveat is that research found that moral reasoning in a natural context with real life content was lower than moral reasoning in an educational setting with hypothetical content.

The primary criticism levied against Kohlberg’s model was from a former student of Kohlberg’s, Carol Gilligan. Her criticism was not about the model structure but of the assessment content used to place individuals in the scheme. Her criticism was that the assessment material was male-centric. Her argument, which was shown to have merit, was that moral reasoning in men tends to be best assessed through issues related to rights and justice, while moral reasoning in women tends to be best assessed through issues related to care and responsibility. She would rename some of the stages in Kohlberg’s model when applied to women using names related to care and responsibility.

Here it is worth mentioning another example. A student of Kohlberg’s, Robert Selman, developed a model of social reasoning. At the end of this essay, Addendum I provides an outline of Kohlberg and Selman’s models based on material in a textbook that I wrote in 1989.

The psychologist/philosopher, Ken Wilber, suggests that about 40% of the U.S. population is at stage four and has an ethnocentric personal identity. This stage marks the transition from preoperational to concrete operational thinking. Ethnocentrists identify with others from similar backgrounds and with similar attributes. People at this stage can take a second person perspective. This stage is often described as being populated by “true believers” and conformist. They are literal thinkers that view the world through narratives (a.k.a. myths). Moral behavior is governed by internalized rules, which are rigidly held and enforced.

Wilber indicates that about 50% of the U.S. population is at stage five, which is based in thinking at the formal operations level and is associated with a worldcentric personal identity. Persons at this stage can take a third person perspective. One identifies with an integrated and unified view rooted in a concern for the wellbeing of the whole. Whereas stage four might be called an “us” stage, stage five could be called an “all of us” stage. It is an orientation that views the world as rational. Moral behavior is governed by strongly held principles or ideals. This stage did not start to take root in the west until about 300 years ago.

The third relevant stage to this discussion is stage six. This stage did not begin taking root until the middle of the twentieth century. It was first evident in the revolutionary youth movement and counterculture of the 1960s. The ability to take a fourth person perspective at this stage led to criticism of and deconstruction of third person perspectives that arose out of stage five. This stage led to an emphasis on egalitarianism, cultural relativism and multiculturalism. Wilber suggests that this group represents about 25% of the U.S. population. While the percentages for the stages discussed add up to more than 100%, it must be taken into account that due to transitions some people are double counted. The above configuration sets up a perfect situation for a clash between traditional, rational and multicultural values.

Wilber’s model is more complex than the simple and brief description above. Wilber’s full analysis is detailed and quite complex. If you’re interested in the detailed analysis, I suggest that you read it for yourself. Probably the most comprehensive presentation is his book Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. If you are put off by the word spiritual, I don’t think Wilber would mind if you simply substitute the term “consciousness,” where the term has a much broader meaning than merely being the opposite of unconscious. I have included a brief description of all eight stages in Wilber’s model below as Addendum Two.

Back to the “war” of political cultures. The bad news is that the research indicates that in American society, the majority of adults function at either stage four or stage five. This means that most Americans will have either a conformist attitude toward life or an individualist attitude. These two groups are supported by value systems that clash — traditional versus rational. The conformists depend upon mythologies or stories about the nature of the world, how it operates, what is necessary and so on. These narratives provide their blueprint for understanding the world, which can be a fairly simplistic such as “my country right or wrong.” The individualist depend on logic and rational analysis, which can be fairly complex such as scientific materialism, which assumes that everything arises from matter and that everything can be understood by objectifying it, isolating it, reducing it to its constituent parts and examining the relationship of the parts to one another. The important point here is that these beliefs or assumptions, if you prefer, are a product of an attained pattern of thinking. One does not change such patterns of thinking by persuasion or by coercion. One must develop or evolve beyond them.

If one thinks that they can be changed otherwise, I would ask you to consider the ethnic conflicts that erupted in eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The USSR had largely suppressed ethnic conflicts for many decades through its coercive domination of eastern Europe. However, as soon as the external inhibition was removed, the conflicts soon bubbled to the surface because the patterns of thinking of the involved populations had not evolved but had only been suppressed. They may have even regressed under authoritarian domination. On the other hand, let’s look at scientific materialism as an example of the failure of persuasion. For over a century evidence has been accumulating that scientific materialism cannot account for all the phenomena being documented. I have two large volumes in my personal library cataloging evidence that can’t be explained by scientific materialism, persuasive evidence developed through the methods advocated by science and meeting and exceeding the criteria established for judging such data. The response has largely been to ignore the data, discount the data, attack the researchers producing the data and so on. It is no wonder that it has been said that science progresses one funeral at a time. It almost seems that death is the only way to overcome the resistance to different ways of thinking.

Which brings us back to the American culture war. What we have here is a conflict grounded in various conflicting identities. The difficulty of ending this conflict is evident in the observation of the French philosopher Francis Jacques, who noted that participants in such identity-based conflicts usually see only two options. Either they can assimilate the worldview of the opponent or they can impose their world-view on the opponent. We see very little if any migration of members of the Red tribe to the Blue tribe or the converse. So, the exercise of the first option doesn’t seem very likely. What we do see are attempts to implement option two. Both tribes strive to attain the political power necessary to impose their worldview upon the other tribe. Even if one of them succeeds it will be a temporary victory. There will not have been a fundamental change in the pattern of thinking in the “suppressed,” nor will they cease seeking a way to regain the upper hand.

So, is there a way out of this dilemma? There may be but it isn’t a quick and easy fix. The way out is to evolve out of current patterns of conventional thinking. I mentioned research that suggested that evolution of thinking can be stimulated by educational programs. Broad-based education efforts with children is one strategy. Targeted educational programs for adolescents and adults is another strategy. The late and renowned physicist and philosopher David Bohm attempted to address this problem in his book On Dialogue. This book discusses a format for large group dialogue intended to alter patterns of thinking. His is not an educational or a persuasive approach but rather an exposure and assimilation approach. The main thing that he thinks must be overcome is thinking that one’s opinions or assumptions are necessary and therefore justify anything in their defense. He finds that sitting in a large diverse group and listening to but not challenging the freely expressed assumptions of group members will in time bring the members of the group to a level of understanding of one another and a softening of the certainty of their assumptions. Once one becomes less dogmatic about and less identified with one’s assumptions then the path toward evolution in one’s pattern of thinking becomes a possibility. It is mentioned that this careful examination of one’s assumptions can be done individually but lacks the breadth and diversity of a group process. As Bohm says, “[a] problem is insoluble as long as you keep producing it all the time by your thought.”

Ken Wilber has also suggested that on an individual level an effective strategy for changing one’s pattern of thinking is meditation. He says this because meditation is an introspective observation of the arising and dissolving of one’s thoughts. Such observation leads to a clearer understanding of the nature of thought and its influence over you. One of the principle experiential insights that meditation can produce is the recognition that at root you are not your thoughts. Another is that your core identity is non-conceptual. The operative word is experiential. This recognition is not an idea, concept or belief but an experience. You might think that skydiving would be exhilarating but until you actually have the experience it is just an idea. The meditation strategy is associated with quadrant one in Wilber’s map of human knowledge and experience shown below in a simplified format.

                        Internal                                                                 External

1. Interior-Individual-Intentional (I)

       3. Exterior-Individual-Behavioral (It)

2. Interior-Collective-Culture (We)

       4. Exterior-Collective-Social (Its)

Wilber suggests that part of the problem we face is an overemphasis on exteriorized products of thinking, especially objective knowledge. He doesn’t think objective knowledge is bad, just that it has been emphasized to the point of crowding out other equally important aspects of being human. His meditation strategy belongs in quadrant one, representing individual interiority. As the ancient Greek aphorism says, “Know thyself.”

Any attempt to implement programs like those mentioned above are certain to be met by resistance, especially large-scale educational programs imposed on the unwilling. Voluntary programs are more likely to be accepted. If such programs produce positive results, then more people are likely to be open to participation. Probably the easiest group program to implement would be a group dialogue program such as proposed by Bohm. These should be community-based to ensure that sufficient diversity of views are represented. Of course, the suggestion by Wilber to undertake a systematic observation of one’s own thought processes through a meditation program has only one person’s opposition to overcome – yours. Should you be interested in a solo exploration, I recommend his book Integral Mindfulness.

It appears to me that the only way to resolve the dilemma that we face is to evolve our way out of it. This may be a difficult solution and perhaps we lack the foresight and long-term perspective needed to succeed. All other tactics, even when they appear to be successful, will in the end prove to be temporary and we will find ourselves cycling through the same struggle again and again. How long this can be sustained without imploding our civilization is difficult to say but that is the probable price of failure.

If this post has stimulated your interest, I recommend you to read the books mentioned and draw your own conclusions. I also suggest that you take a look at the two addenda below, especially Addendum II.

 

Addendum I

Levels I,II, III.              Stages 1, 2, 3…               Models (a) Kohlberg, (b) Selman

I.              Pre-conventional

1.          a. Punishment-obedience orientation. What’s right is what avoids punitive consequences.

            b. Individuals as physical entities. One socially interacts with others who have similar superficial and      observable characteristics, such as sex, skin color, etc.

 2.          a. Instrumental-Relativist, exchange orientation. What’s right is what secures a reciprocal exchange; i.e., I’ll scratch your back, if you’ll scratch mine.

              b. Individuals as intentional agents. One socially interacts with others to temporarily secure their support or assistance.

 II.          Conventional

3.          a. Good-boy, good-girl orientation. What’s right is what is consistent with social expectations, especially with family expectations.

             b. Individuals are introspective. One employs mutual perspective taking as a strategy to further one’s self-interests in specific situations.

 4.          a. Authority-rules, law and order orientation. What’s right is what conforms to the rules set by authorities, especially social institutions such as religious authorities or legal authorities associated with the community in which one lives.               

               b. Individuals have relative stable personalities. Social interaction arises out of mutual interests and sharing with others. Relationships have duration over time based on the expectation that the other will continue to conform to one’s expectations.

 III.          Post-conventional

5.          a. Social-contract orientation. What is right is what satisfies standards examined and agreed upon by society.

             b. Individuals are complex self-systems. Social interactions are recognized as involving complex and often conflicting needs met through a variety of relationships.

6.          a. Universal Ethical Principles, personal conscience orientation. What is right is what is consistent with comprehensive, self-evolved and logically consistent ethical principles.                     

             b. No parallel.

Addendum II

Stages of Growing Up from Ken Wilber’s AQAL Model

Introduction

The following stages are based upon a large body of research by a variety of developmental researchers, such as Jean Piaget among many others. Note that developmental stages imply a progression where one must begin at the initial stage and then through developmental experience move up to the next stage in the sequence. When a move up occurs the lower stage is absorbed by the new stage rather than the previous stage being left behind. Thus, someone at a higher stage can understand where someone at a lower stage is “coming from,” so to speak. However, a person at a lower stage has little or no basis for understanding where someone at a higher stage is coming from. Further, one cannot skip stages in a developmental sequence though movement through a stage can be sped up. There is no guarantee that one will move through the entire developmental sequence. Typically, one arrives at what will be one’s final stage by late adolescence, however, there are emerging methods for stimulating development into adulthood. Keep in mind that except in transition periods, there is usually a dominant developmental stage evident in the majority of persons in a population. This does not mean that other stages aren’t present during a given period just that they are less common or in some cases even rare. Finally, note that the descriptions below are brief stage summaries and are fixed descriptions of what is a dynamic process during the developmental period.

1.              Archaic (Infared) : The most fundamental stage and the least significant. One exist in a state of fusion with the environment. At this stage, when an instinctual drive arises one becomes that drive; e.g., one isn’t hungry one is hunger. Normally only seen in infants prior to individuation. It is never seen in a typical adult. It is possible for typical adults to carry fixations from this period, which means that the person is still identified with some part of this stage.

2.              Magic Tribal (Magenta) : Very few adults will be found at this stage. It is the beginnings of a separate self. There is a fundamental distinction between self and other at an emotional level, but there continues to be some confusion around self and the exterior environment. This confusion gives rise to animistic thoughts in which human qualities are attributed to things in the exterior environment; e.g., Lightening strikes because it wants to kill me. Magical thinking also occurs in this stage; e.g., if I hold a wish intensely enough I will manifest what I wish for. If I pray hard enough I will be cured.

3.              Magic Mythic (Red) : A person at this stage engages in preoperational thinking and has an egocentric identity. A separate self is more fully developed in this stage and this leads to a concern with security and self-protection. At this stage a power drive emerges. An exaggerated power drive often produces an inner critic that may create feelings of inferiority. For someone at this stage what they want is what is right and this justifies simply taking it. They tend to be not only egocentric but narcissistic. They are only capable of taking a first person perspective (me/mine). They are incapable of being empathetic; i.e., seeing and feeling a situation from someone else’s perspective. Joseph Stalin is often offered as an example of this stage.

4.              Mythic Traditional (Amber) : This level can also be described as the conformist stage. Cognitive processing shifts from a preoperational mode to a concrete operational mode. Thinking is now capable of performing cognitive operations on things in the external world. A person at this level has developed some capacity taking a second person perspective. This marks the shift from an egocentric to ethnocentric identity. This means that such an individual can now find belongingness in groups; e.g., family, clan, tribe, nation, religion, political party, etc. Wilber indicates that about 40% of the American adult population is at this stage, which includes people not fully transitioned into it and those beginning to transition out of it. People at this stage are highly rule governed and believe in stringent enforcement of rules. They are concrete thinkers and hold unquestioned belief in cultural narratives, which are viewed literally and held as absolutely true. They are easily led to place all power and authority in a single person who is viewed as omnipotent. People in this group may become true believers in a fundamentalist religion, political movement or scientism (scientific dogma).

5.              Rational Modern (Orange) : Cognitive processing shifts from a concrete operations mode to a formal operations mode. Thinking is now capable of performing cognitive operations on thought. A person at this level as developed some capacity for taking a third person perspective. They can now step back from themselves and come to a relatively objective opinion about themselves. This leads to the development of self-esteem needs and true individuality. For such an individual there can now emerge a drive for excellence, achievement and progress. Wilber indicates that about 50% of the American adult population is at this stage, which includes people not fully transitioned into it and those beginning to transition out of it. There is a shift from an ethnocentric to a worldcentric identity, which means the person is capable of taking an objective, scientific and universal perspective. This stage marks a move to an ability for greater inclusiveness; i.e., from “us” “to all of us.” Stage 5 didn’t begin to emerge in any significant degree in the west until about 300 years ago. It is viewed by Wilber to be a highly significant development. Stage 4 (Conformists) and Stage 5 (Individualists) together make up a majority of the current U.S. population and should be expected to be in direct and regular conflict.

6.              Pluralistic Postmodern (Green) : With this stage there arises an ability for fourth person perspective taking, which can reflect on, analyze,, critique and deconstruct third person perspectives. People at this stage only began to show up in any numbers around the middle of the twentieth century. The emergence of the youth revolution and counterculture movement at this time marked the arrival of the first postmodern stage. The fourth person perspective of this stage led to an emphasis on relativism and multiple approaches that rejected any universals or unified views. All viewpoints are seen as local and culturally constructed. Postmodernism especially rejects any “-isms” of any type. The pluralistic view is egalitarian and sees everyone as absolutely equal and no culture is superior to any other culture. Thus the emergences of multiculturalism in the late twentieth century. Members of this stage lead with the heart and rely on feelings rather than the head and logical analysis. Another characteristic of this stage is the rejection of all hierarchies as evil. What it fails to do is differentiate between “dominator” hierarchies and “growth” hierarchies. The self-contradiction in postmodernism, of course, is that it holds and promotes its view as being superior to all others. Wilber indicates that about 25% of the U.S. population can be classified at Stage Six. While Stage 4 at 40% and Stage 5 at 50% and Stage 6 at 25% exceeds 100% bear in mind that there are people in transition and likely counted twice. Some writers on developmental stages use notation along these lines 1, 1/2, 2, 2/3, 3, etc. This sets up the perfect storm of a clash between traditional, rational and multicultural values.

7.              Integral (Turquoise) : This stage has only begun to be noticed by developmental researchers in the past few decades. It is still quiet rare and probably evident in less than 5% of the population. It is a second tier stage and the major mark of this stage is a drive for wholeness. One result of this is that the Integral stage is the only stage that sees the value of all the lower stages and their necessity for the developmental process. Bearers of this stage function at next to the last step in Maslow’s needs hierarchy — self-actualization. At this stage, thinking and feeling for the first time are brought together in a tight integration. This stage’s value for wholeness and inclusiveness leads people at the integral level to look at issues and problems in large, broad contexts, such as seeing environmental problems as a biosphere problem not purely a local issue. This broad perspective leads to little sympathy for partisan politics either nationally or globally. As an established stage it is the stage with the greatest depth of all the stages to date.

8.              Super Integral Stages (White) : This represents possibly as many a four additional stages that would be tier three stages. These projections are based on the assumption that the universe is inherently loving and creative otherwise evolution would never have gotten underway and produced anything new at all. These stages are thought to be driven by an increasing focus on wholeness, inclusiveness, increasing consciousness, increasing love and care and concern, which is inherently built into the universe as we know it. It is thought that persons operating at this level currently exist but are very rare and represent significantly less than 1% of the population.

On the Nature of Food

The assumptions that this essay rests upon are related to my world view or ontology. I have discussed this at some length in earlier essays, so this will be fairly brief. There are two ontological assumptions that currently contend with one another. One basic assumption is that matter is primary and all else arises from it. The other contending assumption is that consciousness is primary and all else arises from it. Briefly, I take the meaning of the word consciousness to be closely related to awareness of the subjective impressions, feelings and thoughts that arise from experiences. There are other positions that fall between the two assumptions above. They also, in my opinion, represent a pair of contradictory assumptions. I know of  no empirical way of deciding between these two positions. Therefore, to chose is to take a leap of faith. I chose to make the assumption that consciousness is primary. I chose to make this assumption because it provides a wider range of possibilities in understanding and explaining the phenomena encountered in the world. It is perfectly capable of accounting for all the material phenomena embraced by materialism while leaving room for non-material phenomena.

 In my view, living organisms are the vehicle through which consciousness is expressed. I subscribe to the hypothesis that consciousness is a fundamental and universal aspect of our reality. Thus, living organisms don’t generate consciousness; they receive it just as a TV receives a signal and then expresses it through images and sound. No one watching a program would think that the TV is generating the program. The different expressions of consciousness through organisms is in part determined by the complexity of the organism and the complexity of the consciousness that its nervous system can sustain.

This now brings us to the question of food. By implication, the above says that any living organism that you consume is, to some degree, a vehicle for universal consciousness and therefore has some capacity for subjective experience. We humans belong to Phylum Chordata and the Class Mammalia. Thus, one can consider all mammals to have a closer biological relationship to one another than to organisms falling into other classes. Generally speaking, mammals are complex organisms that one would expect to express a significant quality of consciousness though variable within the class. This isn’t to argue that there might not be a similar quality of consciousness expressed in members of some other classes. However, as mammals we have a sense of the quality of our own consciousness and therefore some basis for supposing that other members of our class possess a quality of consciousness not unlike our own, though of less complexity. This is not a precise way of thinking about comparative qualities of consciousness but provides some footing for considering comparative qualities among members of the Class Mammalia.

Thus, as a first cut, one might consider eliminating mammals (e.g., cattle, pigs, lambs, etc.) from one’s elective diet. The basis is that mammals probably have a subjective quality of experience such that using them as food animals causes an unacceptable level of suffering. The next cut would come with another member of the same Phylum (Chordata) as mammals, which is the class Aves (birds), e.g., chickens, ducks, turkeys, etc. The third cut takes us to the class Osteichthyes (fish), e.g., trout, bass, salmon, etc. There are other classes within the Phylum Chordata but these examples should be sufficient to get across the idea. It is more difficult to make a decision about classes other than that for mammals in our phylum. Whether one decides to draw the line at mammals, birds or fish is a personal decision.

Of course, regardless of where one draws the line on meat animals, the use of animal products such as eggs and milk products seems entirely acceptable, on the grounds used in this essay, as long as the animals contributing these products are treated well. There no doubt will be readers who would not exclude any class of animal from their diet. For these individuals, especially, I would offer the advice given by a North American shaman. Whenever one consumes food of any type, you should express your gratitude to the source of the food for its sacrifice. Further, that all living things should be treated with respect and spared as much suffering as possible.

Even if one continues to consume mammals, one should consider carefully the source of the food, how it was raised and how it was slaughtered. Most meat animals today are reared under poor conditions, including a diet that is not natural to them, including hormones to stimulate growth, antibiotics to ward off the risk of infections that result from the rearing conditions and brutal processes for slaughtering the animals (illustrated in this movie). All of this has a potential impact on the health of the individual who consumes the food so produced. We are all familiar with the adage, you are what you eat.

If you want to explore the range of life on this planet, I would suggest that you might find this website of interest: https://www.earthlife.net/

 

Bohm, Pribram and the Holographic Model

David Bohm was an exceptionally creative physicist who developed a radical reinterpretation (or theory) of quantum physics. His position on theories is that they are explanatory narratives, which in earlier times might have been called myths. Originally, a myth was a story that conveyed a truth that was too difficult or complex to describe in ordinary language. Today myth has taken on the connotation of a fanciful story with no implicit truth, which is not the sense in which myth is being used here. Bohm thinks that one problem prevalent in science today is the confusion of theory with reality. His one-time colleague Albert Einstein agreed and often reminded scientists that theories were only models of or approximations of reality, not descriptions of reality itself. Bohm says that theories can lead to hypotheses that can be tested and determined to have validity and are accepted tentatively. A theory can never be proven, only determined to be more or less useful in generating hypotheses and in helping one understand the phenomena they address.

Traditional science, according to Bohm, sees phenomena in the universe as either ordered or random, which is challenged by Bohm’s theory.

The principal components of David Bohm’s theory:

I.              Holomovement: A quantum field (QF), which is nonlocal and a unified an integrated whole imbued with consciousness, intelligence and meaning.

A.              Super Implicate Order: Super quantum potential (infinite) is the source of the field of quantum

                  potential (Q) that gives rise to the Implicate Order.

B.              Generative Order: Q serves as the carrier of information that determines the characteristics of each

                  particle, relates every particle to every other particle and imbues the QF with order.

C.              Implicate Order arises from quantum potential (Q) and is the source of creativity and material forms.

                  a.      Formative Order – a blueprint for the material order.

                  b.      Material Order – the unfolding of the blueprint as wave forms that are perceived as the physical

                            universe. The wave forms are enfolded back into the Implicate Order carrying modifications to their

                            information content that adjusts the blueprint.

D.              Explicate Order: Three-dimensional reality, which is a derivative of a multidimensional reality. The

                  particles comprising matter in the Explicate Order are energy that can be thought of as condensed or

                  “frozen” light.

 For more detail see my essay: Bohm’s Reformulation of Quantum Physics

Bohm says that everything has order but some states of order can only be seen from a higher perspective (implicate order). This is known as hidden order because it is not manifested but enfolded in the implicate order. By way of analogy, Bohm describes a vessel containing glycerine and a small glob of ink. The glycerine in the vessel can be rotated with a crank. When the glycerine is spun the glob of ink spreads out until it is no longer visible (enfolded). When the spin is reversed the glob of ink will reconstitute itself into a visible glob (unfolded). Here is an illustration using the same principle to mix and separate colors.

Bohm uses holographic photography as a metaphor for the nature of reality. He says that there is a striking similarity between a hologram and his principle of wholeness, which he talks about as the quantum field or as the holomovement. When simply inspected with the eye, a hologram looks random and disordered. However, project a laser light through the interference pattern that comprises the hologram, and you get the projection of a 3-D image or order. The order can be unfolded from any piece of the holographic image because the enfolded pattern is distributed throughout the film. Bohm describes the holomovement as being like a dynamic hologram. You can see a rough approximation of the difference by looking at a static holographic image and then watch a virtual performance by holographic projection.

The physical universe or explicate order is a partial unfolding of the whole order enfolded into the implicate order. Living entities can experience the explicate order because they have a nervous system capable of unfolding the projected energy forms or wave forms into apparent material forms or images of material manifestations. (See this book: The Case Against Reality by Donald Hoffman or see a video presentation here by clicking on An Interface Theory of Reality here.

Bohm says that because the universe is a projection of a holomovement, it is ultimately meaningless to view the universe as composed of parts. A part is just an aspect of the holomovement that we have given a name. Thus, separate “things” are just mental abstractions for our convenience. He argues that in the long run, there is a limit to the usefulness of fragmenting the world in this way and could put us on a path toward extinction, if not understood and put in its proper place.

 Viewing the universe as a holomovement doesn’t mean that aspects of the the holomovement can’t have unique properties. Consider whirlpools in a stream. Each whirlpool has unique properties such as structure, size, speed of spin, duration and so on. However, the whirlpool is still nothing more or less than water. (see this book: Why Material Reality is Baloney by Bernardo Kastrup or see a video presentation by clicking on Monistic Idealism here).

Bohm rejects the idea that particles (concentrations of energy) don’t exist until they are observed. He says this idea is another instance of fragmenting aspects of the holomovement into separate phenomena. It is saying that one separate thing (consciousness) interacts with another separate thing (particle). Bohm suggests that any relationship (formative cause) between these aspects (physical and mental) of the holomovement lies enfolded in the implicate order. He also thinks that dividing the universe into living and non-living things, when looked at from the level of the implicate order, is also meaningless.

It appears, however, that these apparent distinctions aren’t entirely meaningless at the explicate level. Differences between things appear to be necessary for experience in physical reality. Niels Bohr, one of the founders of quantum physics and the originator of the concept of complementary pairs, suggested these pairs apply beyond the field of quantum physics. At the implicate level, the pair is in a state of unity but at the explicate level the unity is represented in the form of two aspects. For example, consider the pair hot and cold. If this complementary pair didn’t exist, then the experience of temperatures would not be possible because there would be no range for its expression. The same could be said for many such pairs, including male and female, enlightenment and ignorance, etc. Apparently, diversity is necessary for experience. Absent experience, what would be the point of material reality?

Finally, Bohm says we view ourselves as physical entities moving through what we perceive as space. However, we are actually more like a blur of interference patterns enfolded throughout the universe. In a nutshell, Bohm is trying to move physics from a rigid, mechanical model to a dynamic, organic model.

Karl Pribram was a neuroscientist who studied memory and in particular was interested in where memory is stored. He had become frustrated in his attempts to understand this when he learned of holograms. He took the hologram as a possible model of how the brain stored memory. He proposed that memory was a holographic pattern distributed or enfolded across the brain rather than stored in a specific location. As he studied the holographic model, he became aware of and was influenced by Bohm’s work.

Pribram proposed that what is unfolded is a vast symphony of vibrating wave forms that he calls a frequency domain, which he equates with the interference patterns that unfolded from the implicate order and from which we create our experience of the universe. He sees the brain as a hologram enfolded into a holographic universe. This gives the brain the ability to perceptually represent the wave forms into what we perceive as material objects. He also suggests that our experience of the material world is analogous to the phantom limb phenomenon; i.e, a perceptual illusion experienced as material reality.

Even Pribram’s idea that we are a holographic mind/brain interpreting a holographic universe is just another mental abstraction. Once again we are attempting to take two aspects of the holomovement and create two separate “things” that ultimately cannot be separated.

We are not looking at a hologram. We are an aspect of a hologram. The observer is the observed.

“When you see the world you see God. There is no seeing God apart from the world. Beyond the world to see God is to be God.” Nisargadatta Maharaj

This essay is based in part on sections of the book The Holographic Universe by Michael Talbot.

David Center

Aesthetic Perception and Beauty Culture

Having read The Evolution of Beauty, a book by Richard Prum, I subsequently had some speculative thoughts arising out of Prum’s thesis, which are discussed below.

If females have employed aesthetic selection (AS) as an evolutionary tactic to remold males with the objective of increasing female sexual autonomy and thereby improving their reproductive outcomes, as Prum argues, it would appear to be necessary for evolution to also generate a refinement of aesthetic perception (AP) as a trait in females. By definition, the Greek root of the word “aesthetic” means “of sense perception.” One meaning of the word when used as an adjective is “concern with appearance.” Thus, it seems that the term can be used to convey the idea of “concern with perceived appearance.” I think this is probably a pretty good guess as to what Darwin meant in his use of the word, and Prum seems to accept Darwin’s position on the matter. Once this trait is well established, strengthened and elaborated, it might generalize to giving concern with perceived appearance to other activities that were not involved in the original evolutionary goal for AS.

I think the term “beauty” as a concept held by non-human animals is unlikely and could be dropped as being too anthropomorphic. Instead, I’d suggest to just simply go with “concern for appearance.” In the case of AS, this concern is for how physically dominant, aggressive and asocial a potential mate appears. As aesthetic selection progresses, one would expect a shift in male appearance and behavior toward the female end of the spectrum, which appears to have occurred in the human lineage. The success of AS for females, as an evolutionary strategy, I think would strengthen the focus on perceived appearance and in turn produce greater perceptual skill. resulting in finer discrimination of physical and social attributes.

I posit that AP grounded in a strong concern for physical appearance generalized from mate choice to include self. This does not rule out the potential effects of social values and culture on the expression of concern with appearance. Strong patriarchal cultures such as most of those in the middle east allow little or no expression along these lines. More open cultures, such as those considered to be western, allow for much more freedom of expression. Even in more open cultures, social values and practical considerations could influence women to voluntarily moderate their self-directed concern for appearance. When expression of AP is moderated, I wonder if the concern with appearance might be found to more strongly influence the attention given to living context; i.e., the home or office. I think that as the physical and social differences between men and women narrow, including social roles such as occupations, it could easily lead to other means of distinguishing between the sexes. If women have already evolved a strong concern for appearance, I think one response might be to employ female beauty culture to accentuate differences. 

I suggest that the generalization of AP played an important part in the social evolution of a feminine beauty culture. This culture can serve as a means of drawing an observable contrast between men and women. Further, and less tied to specific times and circumstances, I suggest the possibility that the generalized AP trait has led to women using their person as a “canvas” for the expression of beauty motivated by the AP trait. The beauty motif in feminine culture seems to be related to a range of expressions involving things like fashion in clothing, colorful and tactile sensitive fabrics, make-up, adornment, styling of hair and gracefully patterned movement and mannerisms. Expression of the AP trait also may extend to presentations involving the context in which a woman lives. There is likely a social imitation factor in the adoption of components in feminine culture that are influenced by AP. I think that many females in whom the trait is relatively weak may imitate trend setters in whom the trait is stronger. This might make the biologically based trait appear more dominant than it is in actuality.

One caveat is that these speculations are for females in general and may not apply to specific individuals in which it might be weaker. Even if one were to look at individual women, what one would expect is a distribution that follows the pattern of many other traits. The trait will be quite strong in a small portion of the population, moderate in strength in the majority of the population. and weak in a small portion of the population. The strength and expression of the trait may also vary with changes in social preferences and economics, among other factors. It is likely that the trait may have migrated to males to some extent. though one would expect it to be largely absent in many, generally weaker in those males who have acquired it, distributed in those males who have the trait in a manner similar to the distribution of other traits. and to be subject to significant social forces of suppression.

Most explanations that I’ve read or heard about beauty culture is that it is tied to the notion of sexual signaling. In short, women “dress” for men to attract their attention. Note that the sources of most such explanations have been men. I don’t doubt that women do, at times, employ their manner of “dress” to appeal to men. However, I think this an insufficient motivation to explain the extent of beauty culture. On the other hand, I have often heard women object to this interpretation of their behavior, saying that they don’t dress for men. I’ve also heard women say that they “dress” for other women. I’ve heard it said that the behavior is motivated by a sense of personal satisfaction derived from expressing oneself beautifully. In light of the AP trait, explanations like these seem to me to make sense. Who else to better appreciate the explication of a trait than others who posses the same trait or who else would be intrinsically rewarded by expressing a trait than someone possessing the trait?

I was born and reared as a male in a male-dominant culture, so perhaps my speculations are off the mark. They do, at least, seem reasonable to me from my perspective. Women may have a very different take on the beauty culture. I know of some who see it as arising out of male oppression. That is, a set of behaviors imposed on them by men for their own purposes. I think there may be some truth to this in the case of sexually explicit styles of dress. However, beauty culture goes well beyond sexually explicit dress, and I don’t think it can be adequately explained solely by a dominant patriarchal culture. Prum’s aesthetic selection based in aesthetic perception seems to have explanatory merit.

David Center

The World Is An Illusion ?

“The world is an illusion” is a statement that gets tossed about in some quarters. It is my intention in this essay to share my understanding of the statement. An illusion is defined as “something that deceives by producing a false or misleading impression of reality. Most people that I have talked to about the title statement take “illusion” to be equivalent to “mirage.” A mirage has no substance, function or meaning. There is a big difference between a distortion of or misleading impression of something and its total absence. I would include in the idea of illusion the  revealing of an aspect or part of something rather than the whole. To take a simple example, think about what your impression might be if your first experience with a dog was only the tail. Your impression would surely result in a false or misleading perception of the actual nature of a dog. The word “world” in the title statement is probably better represented by the phrase, “your experience of and beliefs about reality.” Thus, we might translate the statement to read, “Your experience of reality provides a misleading impression,” while recognizing that “experience” begins as a perceptual phenomenon. This does not mean it has no substance, function or meaning. If someone uttering the title statement or someone hearing the title statement understands “illusion” as meaning “mirage,” I think the meaning of the statement is misunderstood. I think the original intent was to suggest that our perceived reality might seem to be true and correct but is in fact false or misleading. Hereafter, the word “illusion” is used to simply mean a distortion in our perception that results in a false or misleading impression of reality.

It is also likely that what you perceive is largely a cognitive construction. Neuroscientist Don DeGracia has pointed out that vision research shows that the visual cortex receives more input from the brain itself than from sensory input through the eyes. The eyes in turn are said to only take in about a fifth of the available sensory data. This appears to support the idea that we actually construct what we see. Persons who have been blind from birth and that medical science provides with an intact vision system still have to learn to see images that you take for granted. Some actually find the experience so confusing that they say they would prefer to be blind and wear dark glasses to block stimulus input. I will end this introduction with a quote from Albert Einstein that you might ponder, “Reality is an illusion, albeit a persistent one.”

 In the following, I will discuss the translated title statement relative to four perspectives, where the fourth is the likely source of the title statement.

The first perspective is biological. I will briefly describe here a way of looking at perception from an evolutionary perspective. There is only one person that I am familiar with who has developed and conducted research on this evolutionary perspective. If you’re interested in the details, I recommend you read Donald Hoffman’s book, The Case Against Reality.

The research done by Hoffman and the resulting scientific theory views what we perceive as “fitness icons.” Hoffman’s research and theory suggests that evolution has shaped our perceptions to be finely tuned to those aspects of the world that have fitness implications for us as biological organisms. Fitness refers directly or indirectly to things important for survival and reproduction. One way to look at this is that anything we perceive, including our body, is an “object” in a field of energies (note, what we call matter is just concentrations of energy) that go well beyond what we can sense. Evolution has shaped our sensory organs to only recognize those characteristics of the energy field that have fitness implications for humans. Further, what we perceive in a fitness icon is a representation of its critical features for us presented in a form that is most meaningful to us. There are many aspects of our environment that don’t have fitness implications for us and to which we are essentially blind. The limited amount that we do perceive seems to us to be reality. The belief that we see reality as it is, is an illusion. It is only a particular take on a segment of the sensory field. Your personal perception of reality is not reality as it is. It just seems that way.

The second perspective is psychological. Almost all normal people have what might be called a personality, self-concept or ego with which they identify. Whatever you wish to call it, this is what most people think they are. Bill, for example, has a lot of characteristics that he would ascribe to himself, such as hardworking, fairminded, charitable, shy, a poor public speaker, apolitical, good with animals, a victim of an abusive father, and so on. All of these things and more are woven into a personal narrative, and this narrative is based in large part on memories of past experience. This narrative gives Bill a road map that tells him where he fits in. It also provides a ready explanation for things that he thinks, feels or does. It shapes his life by determining what he believes he can and can’t do, what he expects from life and how he goes about being in the world.

The thing about personal narratives is that they are to a great extent a fiction. To begin with, the narrative is comprised of selected memories from the pool of all the memories available. These selected memories, like all memories, are subject to editing and revision. Research shows that memories are not stable though we like to think they are. Memories change over time in both subtle and dramatic ways. Even two or more people having a similar experience will create different memories of it. This is often apparent in conversations with siblings about experiences shared in the home while growing up. In the course of weaving the memories into a narrative some license is taken in order to create a cohesive story, which is believed without question. The narrative seems like who you are but it is just a psychological construct that is mentally active whenever you aren’t focused on a task. You frequently review, update, edit and reinforce this narrative to the exclusion of many other possible variations on the narrative. The psychological construct posing as you is a constructed fiction, which does have elements of truth in it. I would say it can also be thought of as an illusion because it is a distortion of your complete body of perceived experience. Usually, those experiences that have a strong emotional component are the ones selected to weave a story around. Your construed personal reality is who you believe you are. It seems like it is your true “self,” but it is an illusion in the sense that it is to some degree a distortion of your fully lived experience. I have discussed this further in a post (among others) titled The Natural Mind on my website and in Chapter Four of my ebook, Self-Agency and Beyond.

The third perspective is cultural. This is a much larger narrative than your personal narrative but a narrative nonetheless. Every culture and sub-culture has a story that explains to members who they are, what they should believe and how they should act. This narrative is embedded in history, literature, media, myths (e.g., self-reliant individualism) and other means of conveying and reinforcing the story. Cultural narratives often overlap a nation so we can, for example, talk about the American culture or the American story — albeit with sub-plots. In some cases, the culture is broader than a nation and may, for example, be tied to an ethnic group (e.g., the Kurds) spread across several countries. What seems to be true to you is but one of many stories that could be woven about your culture by making different assumptions and emphasizing different events, different people and different interpretations. In fact, for anyone who takes the trouble, it is often much easier to see the revisions, editing and modifications of a cultural narrative across historical time than to see it in one’s personal narrative. This first became apparent to me when, as an undergraduate, I took a three-term course in constitutional law. I completed this course seeing the U.S. Constitution as providing a foundation more like shifting sand than a rock solid foundation. Identification with a cultural narrative is belief in just one of many potential constructions. While it may seem to you to be correct and true, it is an illusion in the sense that it is a distortion of the total cultural experience. If you would like to explore this dimension in greater detail, I recommend Jeremy Lent’s book, The Patterning Instinct and an analysis based in neuroscience by Iain McGilchrist titled, The Master and His Emissary:The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. It is also not hard to find explications of alternate stories about cultures, especially from groups diminished by the prevailing story.

To summarize the first three perspectives, you have biologically imposed limitations and restrictions on what aspects of reality that you can perceive and how you construe them. You create a fictive-self as a tool for negotiating your way through life and explaining your thoughts, emotions and actions. You adopt a belief in a constructed cultural narrative in which to embed your personal narrative and try to sync the two to work together. All of these, in their own way, distort the deeper reality from which they are extracted. In short, relative to the deeper reality they are illusions. In most cases useful and also true in a superficial sense.

 The fourth perspective is the really deep dive in this essay. There are a number of labels that might be used for the fourth perspective. I will call it the spiritual perspective, because that is a term commonly used these days for some of the things that will be discussed. This is a perspective recognized by many traditions, including Christian, Buddhist, Moslem and the Vedantic and Tantrik traditions in India.

When talking about religious and theistic philosophical systems, it can be said that they often have two faces. The exoteric face, which is the public face and is most visible through its churches, temples and so forth and by its practices, ceremonies and rituals. The exoteric face is most often associated with systems of belief. Then there is the esoteric face, which may be associated with monasteries, ashrams, and even ascetics and hermits. The esoteric face is most often associated with systems of practice (see the Introduction and Part II of my ebook Self-Agency and Beyond) and personal experience of gnosis (intuitive knowledge of spiritual truth). The esoteric is a side of Christianity that has largely been absent for some time, but is currently seeing something of a revival. This segment will draw on the esoteric face and the teachings of individuals referred to as sages, awakened, realized and enlightened among other labels. The presentation will be somewhat generic rather than tradition specific.

The view from this perspective asserts, on the basis of phenomenological knowing or gnosis, that the material cosmos, including all life forms, are epiphenomena that arise from a universal primordial awareness/consciousness that has no beginning nor end. I make a distinction between awareness and consciousness in the Introduction to my eBook Self-Agency and Beyond but will hereafter stay with the term consciousness. This primordial consciousness contains the material cosmos but is not limited to the material cosmos. In another essay, I describe the cosmos as like a cosmic egg, characterized by locality*, floating in a sea of primordial consciousness (characterized by non-locality*). A sea of consciousness that is inherently intelligent, creative, inquisitive and unconditionally accepting of its own being and everything that arises from it, This type of conception can be found in either a theistic version called panentheism (see Part III of my eBook SelfAgency and Beyond or one of several essays such as this one) or a philosophical version called monistic idealism (see the works of Bernardo Kastrup and in particular The Idea of the World, which is for most readers not the book of his to begin with. I suggest starting with A Rationalist Spirituality). You can find a list of most of Kastrup’s books along with an audio interview about each book on a page on my website.

This view further asserts that particularized consciousness in each biological organisms is simply a contracted kernel of primordial consciousness that in its particularized form is unaware of its roots in primordial consciousness. The material cosmos was “imagined” into being by primordial consciousness to serve as a basis for the evolution of life. Life serves as the vehicle for kernels of particularized consciousness and in a self-conscious life form that might be called personal consciousness. The purpose of particularized consciousness is to provide primordial consciousness with the opportunity to explore its own infinite potential through experience. Experience arises out of the tension that is created through complimentary pairs, such as, satiety and hunger, hot and cold, life and death, love and hate, good and evil, male and female, health and disease, and so on. Once set in motion, this system is independent and autonomous, allowing full expression of whatever it generates.

This is a complex perspective with many variations that all point to much the same conclusions. The paragraphs above hardly do justice to the perspective but that was not their intent. If you want to explore the fourth perspective further there are a number of reference links above. You might also read Part I of Tantra Illuminated by Christopher Wallis for the philosophical foundation for the yoga tradition based in Tantra. You can also find additional essays on my website by employing the search engine or looking at the titles page. Finally, you might get some idea of this from the poem Conundrum that I recently wrote and that can be found on this page.

Many persons who have realized their true nature as vehicles for primordial consciousness and have opened to consciously embodying primordial consciousness have made statements such as the title statement for this essay. Their intent seems to be to convey that there is a deeper reality beneath what seems to be reality to most humans. From their perspective, what most of humanity calls reality is in fact closer to a lucid dream in primordial consciousness. This does not make it any less real or meaningful to participants in the “dream” but what the “dreamers” perceive as reality is a false or misleading perception of the deeper reality underlying it and therefore can be called an illusion. A similar statement that is associated with this perspective is that “There Is No Doer” about which I have also written an essay titled Are We Merely Divine Puppets?.

* locality and non-locality are physics terms that essentially mean within space/time and beyond space/time respectively.

finis

David Center

Authenticity

Recently, I heard a claim that there were only two authentic expressions of sex, i.e., the natural binary of male and female. The speaker argued that this binary and only this binary is natural and therefore authentic. As I considered this claim, my thoughts went back to the early history of life on this planet when sex evolved as a reproductive strategy. Biological evolution, as a process, produced two reproductively distinct sexes. The strategy has endured because it improved the odds of successful reproduction of any species using it. Sexes exist for a biologically functional purpose and only for that reason. Remove the biological advantages from sexual reproduction and sexes never would have evolved. This means in its most fundamental sense male and female reflect reproductive sexes. The majority of individuals are male or female in the reproductive meaning of the two categories. Any fundamental differences between the two reproductive sexes, whether in anatomy, physiology, affect, cognition or behavior appear of necessity to be tied to reproductive functions. This seems to be what the speaker mentioned above had in mind. In another piece on this site, I have argued that male and female represent a complimentary pair that anchor the points at either end of a spectrum lying between the pair. The speaker denied as authentic the spectrum and thus anyone representing it.

Evolution is not an invariant process and a minority of births result in atypical outcomes related to sex, as well as other characteristics. Some atypical sex related outcomes are more easily identified than others. There are variations in anatomical outcomes such as in the structure of the genitalia. There are also physiological variations such as Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, which result in a genetically XY individual who appears female but has no internal female reproductive organs. There also appear to be a range of atypical sex related outcomes, possibly related to physiological processes, that aren’t well understood. For example, there are likely atypical outcomes due to hormone exposure during development that is hypothesized to occur at the wrong time or persist for too long or too brief of a period or to involve the wrong hormone altogether. These are usually only identifiable through overt behavior and/or reports of covert psychological states such as thoughts, feelings and behavioral impulses arising in awareness and becoming objects of consciousness, which may or may not be overtly acted upon. Thus, in addition to anatomical variations, there can be outcomes resulting in variations in sexual orientation, sense of sexuality and gender identity. These atypical variations can be manifest in various combinations and to varying degrees and will be stronger and more intense in some individuals than in others. I would say that any variation that is a product of nature is natural and any claim that it is unnatural is a false claim.

If you take the variations above, which arguably have a basis in biology and then insert them into the psycho-social context represented by culture, a whole new layer of considerations emerge. Culture represents a range of narratives about human nature and the role of people in the institutions and practices of society. These include such things as religion, politics, medicine and psychology among others. During development, we all begin to build up a narrative about how we fit into this many-faceted cultural matrix. For example, many would call this personal narrative ego or self. How we define our fit into this matrix or allow it to be defined for us can have far ranging implications. It is my assertion that it is a human right for each individual to define for themselves their relationship to the cultural matrix in which they live. That said, understand that there are components within the matrix that resist such a right in many of the variations within a population. Deniers of human rights tend to have rigid personalities and a need for certainty even if they are certainly wrong. Such people could be said to be lost in their mind.

What I mean by the mind is that scaffold of mental constructs that go by names such as ideas, concepts, beliefs and facts that are usually revealed in our use of language. Our experiences are encoded through images and words and are therefore linked to the scaffold. The development of the cultural mind is supported by the experiences of the body in the physical world. Experience is a critical contributor to the development of the cultural mind. Complimentary pairs, like male and female or good and evil, exist because they make experience possible through the tensions produced by the contrast between the end points – if no contrasts, then no experience. You can’t have the experience of temperature without the binary of hot and cold.

The cultural mind, in my view, might be thought of as a cognitive structure existing within awareness. By way of illustration, imagine a large grassy field (awareness) with a complex set of “monkey bars” (cultural mind) set up on part of it. Most of us spend most of our time “playing” on the monkey bars and are largely oblivious to the field (awareness). When an experience occurs, we usually interpret it through the structures comprising the cultural mind. This is what is known as top-down perception. Looking at an experience from the perspective of the field and excluding the monkey bars is called bottom up perception and is typical of young children and awakened adults. This is the perspective of the natural mind.

I would suggest that the self that resides in the cultural mind is a personal myth and is a story woven from memories, which are selective and ever changing. This self can never be authentic in any foundational sense. Authenticity in a person is, in my view, to be found only in the beingness from which awareness arises, not in the cultural mind. Thus, to legitimately characterize someone as authentic is to speak of them as an expression of that underlying beingness, a state that precedes mind and body. A state that resides in the source of awareness, which is Primordial Awareness or Universal Mind. The authentic Self shines through some individuals’ way of being in the world and is hidden by others’ way of being in the world. It is not that one has it and another lacks it, for both have it. It is just evident in one and not the other. Let us seek communion with our authentic Self and then let it shine into the world to be seen by all who have eyes with which to see it.

Night Owl Interviews Teresa Gentry on Phenomenological Psychology #2

Welcome to another edition of Night Owl, where people with unusual perspectives on life get a chance to be heard. This interview is with Teresa Gentry, a phenomenological psychologist who uses introspection to study issues of interest. The following is a transcript of the live interview done with Teresa over Zoom. For brevity, I’ll simply use initials to indicate who is speaking. Subscribers can watch the video of the interview on the Night Owl web site. Let’s dive in.

NO:     For openers why don’t you tell us briefly what a phenomenological psychologist is and what introspective methods are.

TG:     A phenomenological psychologist studies one subject — herself or himself. Introspection attempts to observe the thoughts arising in the mind and to allow a free association among those thoughts without attaching one’s thinking mind to any of them.

NO:     That doesn’t sound like a very scientific approach. It certainly isn’t objective.

TG:     No. It isn’t objective. It is clearly subjective, which is the nature of phenomenological research. No one is truly objective. Researchers who claim to be objective are deluding themselves. We inhabit a holistic universe. How can a researcher stand aside from the whole and conceptually isolate an aspect of the whole as an object for study and not bring anything phenomenological to the investigation? It isn’t possible. There are methods that can be employed to minimize phenomenological confounding, but they can’t be eliminated. The phenomenological self decides on what questions to ask, what methods to use to obtain an answer to a questions and what the answer means. The mere act of studying an objectified aspect of the whole has the potential to significantly impact the study.

NO:     How can you learn anything generalizable to others by simply studying yourself?

TG:     It is pretty simple. What you do is observe thought patterns until the more personal ones fade and deeper patterns begin to emerge. Through an evolving process of extinguishing personal patterns one begins to reveal core patterns.

NO:     And what is a core pattern?

TG:     A core pattern is similar to what Jung called an archetype. It is somewhat like a template that is shared by all people or subgroups within a larger population. Personal patterns are permutations or individualized elaborations of core patterns that adapt the template to an individual. At the core level, common patterns are revealed that are generalizable beyond the research subject, that is, me.

NO:     Is there a methodology to introspection or is it a personal talent?

TG:     Certainly, some untrained people will be better at it than others. However, there are a variety of protocols that are taught that facilitate the introspective method. These begin with contemplative and meditative practices, use of autosuggestion, conditions of sensory deprivation and psychoactive substances, to name a few.

NO:     Do you have a specialized focus for your studies?

TG:     Yes. To return to Jungian terminology, I currently focus on the anima.

NO:     Please define anima for our viewers.

TG:     Anima, in depth psychology, is related to the female archetype or the core patterns related to being female.

NO:     Please tell us something of what your studies have revealed to you.

TG:     As a female researcher my goal was to uncover core patterns unique to females.

NO:     Did you find any core patterns and, if so, what was their nature?

TG:     Yes. First and foremost was the core physical pattern. This pattern is one that begins to be understood at an early age. Even as a child, a female recognizes that she has a body designed for a specific and complex biological function. She may not fully understand this pattern yet but she is aware of it.

NO:     Are there any other core physical patterns?

TG:     Size and strength are observed by female children to be attenuated in adult females relative to most adult males. Later in development this is personally experienced with male peers. Thus, a female child comes to see females as physically smaller and weaker than most males.

NO:     Rather obvious to adults, but I can see where it might be a significant understanding when it first arises in a child.

TG:     Yes. This is recognized as a defining characteristic of the species. This core physical pattern is compounded by recognition of a core temperament pattern. In general, the temperament behind actions executed through the core physical pattern is more assertive or aggressive when articulating male behavior relative to female behavior. In short, the female child recognizes that she will probably be physically smaller and weaker and that her physicality is less energized by temperament.

NO:     Yes. I can see where the first realization of these core patterns could have a psychological impact for both female and male children. What follows on this realization?

TG:     The earliest stage of social development rests upon a perception of “like me” or “not like me.” This usually leads to differentiation into male and female peer groups and the development of different peer cultures reflecting differences in physicality and temperament. These groups tend to stereotype one another while viewing themselves to be diverse and complex. This tendency is reinforced and elaborated by the family and society into several layers of secondary patterns. The two groups move through childhood on different tracks with minimal cross-over or overlap.

NO:     I have observed exactly what you’re describing. I have also observed a significant weakening of this division later on.

TG:     Specifically, one sees the division broken down to some degree by the onset of puberty. The introduction of sex hormones into the relatively stable same-sex groups is disruptive but is not sufficient to destroy the groups and their respective gender cultures. Hormones also initiate additional core patterns.

NO:     Elaborate on these patterns from your studies, please.

TG:     In the pubescent female, sex hormones stimulate two new core physical patterns. The first core pattern in puberty is the transformation of the body by the development of secondary sexual characteristics. The second core pattern is the initiation of internal physical changes that initiates fertility. These two patterns then become the stimuli that trigger the full activation of sexual orientation that in most cases casts males in a different and more desirable light.

NO:     So it would seem. What do you find following on from these changes?

TG:     Along with the full activation of sexual orientation comes desire for male attention, along with anticipation of pleasure and intrusive thoughts and feelings related to sexual activity and conception.

NO:     This suggests to me a potential conflict with earlier core patterns that you described.

TG:     Indeed. The development of secondary sexual characteristics, coupled with awakened sexuality, puts a young female in an awkward position. Such a girl gets a lot of attention both covert and overt from males ranging in age pretty much across the spectrum from adolescents to seniors. The attention can be and often is intrusive and unwelcome. The girl wants attention but realizes that it has to be managed because there isn’t any way to selectively attract it with high precision.

NO:     I can see how it could be something of a shock to unexpectedly find yourself the center of unwanted sexual attention. So, how is it managed?

TG:     Yes. Attention that is unsolicited, unwanted and often difficult to repel. Keep in mind the other earlier realization that one is smaller, weaker and less aggressive than most males. Physically managing unwanted attention isn’t generally an option. Fortunately, during the preadolescent period the same sex peer group provided an educational experience in which young females had an opportunity to refine their social perception and skills.

NO:     Why is this fortunate?

TG:     Because it provides skills that help a female become more adept at picking up on social cues and to then deploy social skills suitable for manipulating an undesirable situation.

NO:     Is this usually effective?

TG:     It can be effective in situations where the male is well socialized, not highly aroused and not intent on imposing his sexual arousal on the female. However, all too frequently this is not the case. To see that this is true one need only look at how common sexual abuse and sexual assault are in society.

NO:     So, it is often the case, isn’t it, that a female in her very person is a walking advertisement that has a general rather than a selective appeal, which can attract potentially dangerous attention and even assault.

TG:     Yes. In fact, society uses females as sexual objects, which exacerbates the situation. I refer to enhancement of secondary sexual characteristics for social ends such as commerce.

NO:     Are you saying that society socializes women into roles that require them to make a certain type of presentation if they are to be seen as socially acceptable.

TG:     Clarify “presentation.”

NO:     I mean things like fashion in clothing, sensual fabric, color, make-up, adornment, styling of hair, as well as patterned movement and mannerisms. Things that are aimed at stimulating sexual attention in males.

TG:     I know that women can and do present themselves with the intent of being sexually attractive at certain times. However, my research suggests that many women actively work on their presentation out of an aesthetic sensibility or a desire for beauty that is on average much stronger in women than in men. In short, their presentation is usually for the appreciation of others with a similar aesthetic sensibility, which is largely other women, though it also captures the appreciative attention of some men.

NO:     What do you think is the basis for this aesthetic sensibility?

TG:     It is an ability that evolved over the history of the species and is intimately tied to women’s use of aesthetic sensibility to select for traits in males that altered first their appearance and then their behavior in order to further female sexual autonomy. This is, evolutionarily speaking, driven by the desire in females to produce the most viable offspring possible. Especially, male offspring that have a high probability of being, at maturity, selected by females as mates and therefore highly likely to successfully reproduce.

NO:     I’ll have to give this idea some thought. How does this lead to fashion, make-up, adornment and so forth, if its origins lie in an evolutionary need for women to mold male appearance and behavior?

TG:     You are correct about the origins, but once an aesthetic sensibility was established, it took on a life of its own. In short, it became a foundational block in the establishment of a female culture. A culture that has generally been interpreted wrongly because it has been viewed from a male-centric perspective in the context of an overall male-oriented culture or patriarchy.

NO:     So, you would say that there is a biologically based tendency within the female population to individually take their person as a canvas on which to make their best attempt at creating beauty?

TG:     Yes, I have no disagreement with that as a summary statement. I would also mention that this tendency also manifests itself not only in personal presentation but also in contexts associated with the person, such as the beautification of living spaces.

NO:     A most interesting digression. Shall we get back to the original topic concerning the objectification of woman as a sex object and the conflict this leads to ?

TG:     Certainly, the need for attention in some ways creates an approach-avoidance conflict. The female desires male attention to find a mate and seeks to attract it but fears unwelcome and intrusive attention and tries to avoid it. This creates the potential for a lot of anxiety about cross-sex interaction, because it is often difficult to predict how such interactions will develop.

NO:     I hadn’t thought much about it, but I see your point. Are there further points that you would like to bring out?

TG:     Yes. Not only is the maturing female faced with the real possibility of becoming the victim of male sexual assertiveness, if not outright aggression, but she also recognizes the potential for long-term complications.

NO:     Are you referring to an unwanted pregnancy?

TG:     That is one possibility, though that risk is more easily managed than in the past. Even so, the risk still exists and has many social, economic and personal consequences. Coupled with this risk are others. There is always the possibility of being physically injured or even killed, of acquiring a sexually transmitted disease and even long-term mental health problems such a PTSD.

NO:     You paint a pretty scary picture.

TG:     It can be, especially for some young females, but also for mature females as well. It is not uncommon for significant problems related to anxiety to impact female behavior. Social anxiety and withdrawal as well as problems such as eating disorders and substance abuse are also possible.

NO:     I have never really thought much about it, but what you say makes a lot of sense.

TG:     I’m sure you’ve had little incentive to think about it. However, imagine running around on a firing range with a target on your back and you may get some sense of the situation.

NO:     Being aware of your predicament then leads to anxiety?

TG:     No, not initially. There are social conventions that serve to provide some protection from potential problems, especially if one exercises discretion in combination with social conventions.

NO:     I take it bad experiences are most likely if one lets her “guard” down at some point?

TG:     Yes, it is easy to get relaxed and feel comfortable as one sort of habituates to one’s circumstances. I don’t think it is necessary to go into detail, but most women probably could tell you about getting “cornered” on dates when alone with a male who has been a “gentleman” up to then and suddenly becomes both aroused by the situation and is motivated to be very demanding. I would also point out that letting one’s guard down is not the only problem.

NO:     What else poses a problem?

TG:     Males have historically used chemical means to reduce or eliminate resistance to their intentions. For a long time alcohol was probably the most widely used chemical disinhibitor. More recently a range of intoxicants have been introduced that can be employed to make “date rape” much easier to accomplish.

NO:     It is becoming clear to me that the circumstances you describe have potentially serious psychological and lifestyle consequences.

TG:     One should become very vigilant and always on the alert for suspicious circumstances, suggestions and invitations. It can become difficult to openly trust many of the people you encounter. Such a state of vigilance is a precursor for a rather persistent feeling of general anxiety, which can lead to a psychological disorder.

NO:     Do you have any parting words that you’d like to leave with the audience?

TG:     Yes, most people either don’t see or refuse to see the degree to which they are driven by evolutionary biology. We are self-replicating organisms and our evolution has left as little of that to chance as possible. We are driven by biological processes that we veil with all kinds of cultural and personal narratives. The purpose of such narratives is to delude ourselves into believing that we are free agents rationally choosing our actions in the world. We aren’t necessarily zombies but most of us come pretty close. A few of us take the trouble to understand their true nature and find ways to stand aside from it when appropriate.

NO:     Would you say a little more about biological processes?

TG:     Sure. I would divide these processes into three basic categories. We all have them, though they vary somewhat by biological sex. The first category is purely biological. These programs regulate basic biological functions such as heartbeat, liver function, kidney function, menstrual cycles and so on. Not many of us think we have any degree of control over these functions other than in marginal ways. For example, you can do things to slow down or speed up your heart but that is mere influence, not control. We do have some influence over our breathing as well but that is not control. If you think you control your breath, just try stopping it for an extended period of time, say five minutes. You’ll feel the force of the biological program.

There are other processes like thought that we have or can develop control over for specific tasks such as solving problems, planning or creating. But, before you conclude that you fully control your thoughts, try to stop them for a significant period of time. You’ll soon be dissuaded of the idea that you are in control. It is true that some meditators can achieve protracted states free of linguistic thought, but thinking continues in more subtle ways.

The second category I think of as bio-social programs. These are programs that have a primary biological component and a secondary social component. Another way of looking at this is that the same biological program may be expressed somewhat differently depending upon the socio-cultural context in which it has been refined. A simple example is hunger. Pretty much everyone feels a biological urge to eat but what we find appealing as food, how it is prepared and consumed is learned through our culture. If you feel erotically attracted to someone, you can be sure that there is a biological program at the root of it. This program too is likely to have a secondary cultural overlay. Further, biological programs are at the root of such phenomena as the impulse to engage in sexual activity, to conceive a child, to bond with a child and so on. These programs too usually have a social overlay that varies by culture. We often think of these things as personal choices and we have narratives that explain why we believe we make the choices we do, but in the final analysis these narratives are just rationales for things we do and don’t really understand.

The third and final category I would call idiosyncratic or personal. These are programs that we learn through our experience. These include many skills that we acquire such as driving a car or solving an equation. Such skills are subject to our control, though even these become automatic with practice. Of course, in a sense, even these are biological in nature. In one sense because we are biological organisms and learning is a capacity built-in to us. In another sense, learning these skills may often be motivated by programs of the other two types, because they indirectly contribute to meeting the purpose of such programs. For example, think of the possible links between an adolescent learning to drive and potential for sexual activity or assertion of independence.

Finally, I’d like to say that in physical terms we are biological animals. To the extent that we identify with our physical body, we are “slaves” to our biological nature. However, the truth is that we are spiritual entities that merely inhabit these physical bodies temporarily. These vehicles provide us with an opportunity to gain experience, learn and grow. Learn to identify with your unconditioned awareness or spiritual nature and you will be able to stand aside from your biological or animal nature when you wish and make choices less driven by biological and social programs.

NO:     Well, you have certainly left us with a lot to think about. Thank you sharing your thoughts with us.

TG:     It was a pleasure talking with you and your audience.

Further Ruminations

Several years ago I wrote a poem titled “Rumination.” In some manner, I sense that I am returning to that earlier poem. Pretty clearly the underlying theme of that poem was a quandary about purpose and meaning in the universe and therefore in human life. The key question is, does the universe have a purpose? If so, then life has meaning to the extent that it contributes to that purpose. If not, how could life have meaning? One attempt to answer the last question is the proposal that our meaning derives from context. In other words, we create meaning from our social context, which narrowly includes family and friends. More broadly it includes work and engagement with social networks. In short, meaning is contextual and the context is the world created by culture — the web of the world. Contextual meaning is a distraction from the larger issue. A distraction that some can lose themselves in but others find unsatisfying.

For those who find contextual meaning unsatisfying there are two basic paths that can be followed in the quest for meaning. One path is that of contemporary science. While there are scientific mavericks loose in the world, mainstream science declares that the universe arose out of randomness and has no purpose. Further, that the life that evolved in this random universe also arose out of randomness and has no purpose beyond perpetuating itself. Life that is intelligent and self-reflective is devoid of underlying purpose and meaning and therefore pointless. Why should such a being care whether or not a life without purpose or meaning is perpetuated? Its only possible justification is contextual, and if that is sufficient to sustain it for a few decades, then its biological programs will do their best to drive it into reproducing. Regardless, it will shortly unwind as a living community of cells and slide back into the oblivion that it arose from.

Oblivion is a fate that most such beings fear, for they recognize it as a permanent loss of awareness. Once recognized, a common antidote is denial coupled with immersion in the distraction of context. Those for whom this proves not sufficient are often observed to suffer from existential angst. Symptoms of existential angst often manifest as despair and depression or rage and violence. The former may attempt to find solace in addictions and the latter may seek release through acting-out. So, if you follow the path offered by mainstream science, you can lose yourself in the temporary world of the mind, suffer despair or embrace rage.

The second path open to the quest for meaning is spiritual in nature. One branch along this path is exoteric religion. The exoteric form of religion is the public face of the religion and is directed at the masses, e.g., Islam or Judaism. Most, if not all, exoteric religions address the issue of purpose and meaning. Unfortunately, religions tend to become social institutions, and while they may provide some support for purpose and meaning, they usually end up simply becoming an option in the contextual search for meaning. All too often, they become a toxic option as evidenced by religious authoritarianism and religious terrorism. There are, however, other branches along the spiritual path. The esoteric form of religion is private, individual and typically pursued by a small minority, e.g., Sufism or Kabbalism. Often, this is a minority oppressed by the exoteric institution. In other cases, a private, individual path is pursued independently of any religion. It is primarily this latter case that holds some promise..

For those people who are on the independent, esoteric path, lineages of teachers often become more prominent than religious institutions, especially in the east, e.g., India. Transmission moves from teacher to student, where the student often becomes a teacher to other students and so on. These lineages have their roots in mystical experiences in which the experiencer comes to a direct knowing that is purely a private, personal experience. It is not something that can be given to another but it can be pointed at as a form of guidance. The delusion that anyone on this path must be careful to avoid is that of mistaking the pointing with the thing in itself.

What mystics frequently offer when willing to talk about their experiential knowing is that the universe arises from a creative, intelligent Source or Primordial Awareness in which everything arises. The fundamental characteristics of this Source are awareness and unconditional acceptance of all that arises within awareness. Some of these mystics suggest that we and the physical universe exist as specialized objects of consciousness in this Source or Universal Mind. The purpose for the universe is to support life and the purpose of life is to support individuated states of awareness. Individuated awareness exists to interact with other states of individuated awareness within the context of physicality. The purpose of these interactions is for Source to explore its potential and to evolve in understanding of that potential. Thus, the universe has a purpose and we have a role in that purpose and therein lies our grasp on true meaning.

Following the spiritual path in search of meaning requires that one open to direct know, so that one’s own awareness can know its connection to Source. This is a phenomenological knowing of the truth of the underlying reality that the above description is merely pointing at with words and concepts. Belief in the description and holding it to be true out of faith is falling into the delusion warned against. Such an act is how religions come to be and devolve into a mere source of contextual meaning.