Reflections

The post category containing my commentary on things spiritual

The Seven UUA Principles: Comments

After facilitating a discussion of the book With Purpose and Principles edited by Edward Frost for a book group and facilitating a series of discussions with the congregants at MLUUC, I have a few general thoughts that I want to share that I have taken from the above experiences.

Broadly speaking, it seems to me that problems in promoting and practicing many of the principles ultimately depends on judgment. Not judgment of the principles but judgment of self and others. Being non-judgmental of oneself and of others makes possible, for example, such things as recognition of inherent worth, compassion and acceptance, among other qualities. Non-judgment also is important for being able to encourage spiritual growth in self and others and a search for Truth and meaning in self and supporting the same in others. Being non-judgmental makes possible an act of identification, which is critical for being able to identify with the other and to feel a sense of unity with him or her.

Some recent research on the effectiveness of psychotherapy and counseling examined the problem of failure of these efforts to help some clients. What the study revealed was that many people who failed to benefit had a common self-judgment. The self-judgment evident in many such participants was that they didn’t deserve to get better. Clearly, self-judgment can thwart the efforts even of someone who has sought help with their problems. Likewise, judgment of others can thwart efforts that you make to be accepting of, respectful of, compassionate toward or otherwise fully open and supportive of others. While facilitating discussions of the seven principles, I have heard people say or imply that they found this to be difficult or impossible with some people.

Further, some of the other principles promote values like democratic processes, world community and the interdependent web of existence. Acting on these and other similar values also cause some people difficulties. I would suggest that problems acting from these values are also related to judgment. To be non-judgmental in these instances requires feeling a sense of unity with the people voting, with people unknown to you and living in other cultures and about efforts to preserve the interdependent web of existence.

The ability to be non-judgmental largely comes down to one’s perspective. Western culture, in particular, tends to hold to perspectives that interfere with being non-judgmental. One such perspective is materialism. Adherents to a materialist perspective largely accept the scientific materialist hypothesis that the universe came into existence through an inexplicable cosmic accident (the so-called Big Bang). Further, the unfolding of that event through time and space progresses through an evolutionary process governed by random events that determine the direction that the unfolding takes. In this view, the universe and any life in it came about through a random process. Being a random process, the outcomes are accidental and imply no purpose, and lacking purpose has no meaning. So it is a purely nihilistic view in which there is no reason to cultivate a non-judgmental perspective. Alternatively, there are traditional religious perspectives held by many people in the West, which are mostly dualistic views that see the world as a moral battle between good and evil, the dammed and the saved. Such a perspective is clearly built upon a foundation of judgment.

Christian Unitarianism held that God is One. I would also suggest that the One God would be all inclusive. If God is all inclusive, then everything that exists is a manifestation of God, which includes every living thing. All is in God, which is not the traditional Christian understanding of God. In other words, panentheism (all-in-God), which should not to be confused with pantheism (all-is-God), to use a religious term or to use more philosophic terms nondualism or monistic idealism.

Further, Christian Universalism held that every living being is, at root and in the eyes of God, divine whether or not they recognize this, are Christians or have even heard of Jesus. If every being is at root divine, then each is a part of God or Source, if you prefer. There is at root no separation between living entities. They all arise from the same Source and return to that Source when they transition from the material world. Think of waves arising from the ocean and collapsing back into the ocean.

I have argued in a critical post on my website (Standing on the Side of Love) that Unitarian Universalism, largely without realizing it, implies a nondual perspective. A perspective in my view that could more easily lead to non-judgment in the practice of the seven principles. I don’t think the UUA considers itself to be promoting such a perspective, and if it does, it hasn’t articulated it very well. The best articulations of a nondual perspective can be found in some Eastern religious philosophies, e.g., Tantra and in philosophical idealism in the West. To anyone interested, I would suggest the writings of Christopher Wallis on Tantra and those of Bernardo Kastrup on idealism. You will also find a number of posts on my website that address nondualism and idealism. You might begin with the brief posts Standing on the Side of Love and Love and Hate in Human Thought.

In both posts, I suggest that “evil” is essentially the face of ignorance. The ignorance is an ignorance about the divine nature of humanity and oneself. In a philosophical system arising from some forms of Eastern thought, the spiritual nature of people is viewed as being manifest along a bipolar dimension that runs from ignorant to enlightened with many points in between. Thus, one can forgive an ignorant person while at the same time rejecting “evil” actions that result from that ignorance. This is possible because at their core they are a manifestation of divinity, God or Source.

The prevalence of ignorance among human beings and the difficulties of overcoming it underlies the concept of reincarnation in some of these philosophical systems. Reincarnation is the method by which the many lifetimes needed to overcome ignorance and achieve enlightenment is accomplished. All people evolve and grow spiritually, but it often isn’t apparent in the course of a single, brief human lifetime. Treating people who engage in “evil” actions, arising from ignorance, with respect, dignity and justice while resisting and preventing their behavior is viewed as more likely to facilitate their spiritual evolution than being vengeful toward them and imposing demeaning and cruel punishments.

There is one caveat on taking a nondual perspective. While conceptually learning about a nondual perspective can be useful, to truly embody it you need to experience it. Trying to understand nondualism purely through the intellect is a bit like trying to imagine what chocolate taste like having never experienced the taste before. It is fine to study nondualism enough to get the basic ideas involved in a nondual perspective. However, you should then spend your time on contemplation and meditation to open yourself to the experience. As the Kriya yoga master Sri Yogananda advised his students, “Read a little and meditate a lot.”

I have been meditating pretty much daily for over a dozen years now and have come to practice what I refer to as gestalt-field meditation as a way of being open to nondual experience. It is a method that I would be happy to teach to anyone interested. I can’t guarantee that this or any other method will definitely get you to an experience of nonduality. You just have to be open to it and be patient. In the meantime, one should go as far a possible with practicing the principles based on a purely conceptual understanding of non-judgment and a nondual perspective.

The Several Selves

I think the course of personal identity moves across four, basic developmental domains, though not everyone explicates and integrates all four domains. The four domains are sensory, physical, mental and spiritual. In keeping with the present focus, let’s refer to them as the sensory self, physical self, mental self and spiritual self. In the following I will set out a hypothetical description of how this development unfolds.

The development of selves is largely a process dependent upon differentiation. A new born infant initially identifies with its sensory field and has a sensory self. With time and experience, a process that differentiates the self from the sensory field begins. This starts with differentiating various aspects of the sensory field from one another and assigning them the status of being separate “things.” For example, think of a bird and its song. At first, the bird and its song are part of the generalized, unified sensory field. With experience, an infant begins to recognize the bird as the source of the song and to consider the two as an integrated whole that attention turns the bird into an object of consciousness. Once captured as an object of consciousness, the bird and its song become abstracted through visual and auditory representation. With that comes the ability to recall a memory that encodes the bird symbolically. This memory allows the bird to be isolated, explored and manipulated symbolically as an object in consciousness. This cognitive possession of the bird and its song differentiates it from the self and make it a separate object within awareness.

This process of differentiation goes on until a clear sense of two categories develops: self and other. By “other” is meant things that have become differentiated as separate “things.” The next step is begun with the question, who is this self that is aware of all these other things, which can be turned into objects of consciousness? At this time, the thing that garners the most attention in awareness is the physical body. The physical body not only has been differentiated from the sensory field but has also been recognized as the seat of a great many subjective experiences. It experiences emotional reactions, thoughts and feelings along with auditory, visual, olfactory and tactile sensations, among others. All this appears to be localized in the physical body. Under these conditions, it is very easy to identify oneself with the body. Hence, we have the physical self. The former sensory self has been transcended but the transition from sensory to physical self integrates the sensory self into the physical self.

The real fireworks begin with transcending the physical self and arriving at the mental self. With the beginning of the mental self a significant change in perception takes place. Up until this point, perception has been largely a bottom up process, which means that perception is relatively unhindered by filters. As language skills grow and experience is reconstructed with visual and linguistic symbols, a shift away from a focus on the physical body begins and is accompanied by a change of focus to mental activity. Not only are memories encoded but are also interpreted. Memories are assigned meanings and so begins the creation of a personal past. Perception now begins to shift toward a top down process, which means that perception comes to be a process subject to filtering. We also learn that we can describe and interpret imaginal outcomes thereby conjuring up a future. The narrative approach to life has begun in earnest. Our mental self becomes absorbed with the content of our mind.

With this mental focus, our narratives and their meanings begin to organize themselves into an hierarchy of beliefs about ourselves and our lives. Along with the mental self, ego arrives on the scene. Our identity has now transcended the physical self. The physical self, along with the sensory self integrated into it, has been incorporated into the newly developed mental self. The first stage of the mental self could be described as egocentric. We are consumed with ourselves; with our self narrative. We narrowly perceive the world through a first person perspective.

As we gain experience, develop cognitively and become more sophisticated in our thinking, our narratives grow more complex and our perspective broadens into a second person perspective. This new stage in the mental self could be described as ethnocentric. We now include in our identities others who belong to groups in which we are embedded. Our identity now includes our family and family friends. It may include others similar to us who, for example, are members of our religion and attend services with us. It will grow to include “outsiders,” known to us, who share our beliefs and other characteristics such as ethnicity, language, dress, food habits and so on. For some of us, development becomes arrested at this stage due to a constrained range of experiences. A constraint on our range of experience results in a lack of opportunity for new cognitive growth. Often, the constraint is imposed by our narratives and the beliefs about the world that they impose on our perceptions and the meaning we attribute to them. Things such as racism are usually grounded in an ethnocentric identity.

If we do continue in our development, the next stage in the evolution of the mental self could be described as sociocentric. We now have acquired the ability to take a third person perspective. We can identify with a much larger social group than in the past. Our expanded narratives gives us a social perspective that is much broader than our previous provincial identity. We can now bring into our identity persons who differ from us in significant ways because we share a broader membership with them. For example, if we strongly identify with our nationality, we can incorporate people who may have significant differences from ourselves into our identity because they too are American or French or Chinese and so on. It is likely that the upper developmental limit for most people is a sociocentric perspective. People that we might describe as nationalists are probably operating from this level of identity.

A small number of people who continue to develop will transition to a worldcentric perspective. The final step in the development of the mental self. They now identify with a context that exceeds the boundaries of nation states. Such individuals become “citizens” of the world and identify with humanity in its many variations. All the previous self identities and narratives related to those identities have been incorporated into and subsumed by the new broader identity. These are people who advocate for just treatment of all living things, of a more holistic approach to the health of the planet and sustainable styles of living. Many of us would consider this the pinnacle of human cognitive development, which it may be in a sense.

Yet, there remains, at least, one more development related to self or identity. This transformation goes by various names but in the first paragraph it was called the spiritual self. Transcendence of the mental self to the spiritual self could be described as arriving at a Kosmocentric perspective. This is a relatively rare occurrence and you probably have never met such a person. One reason that it is so rare is because almost everyone becomes deeply entangled in their ever more complex personal narratives or more simply stated in their mental self. As one spiritual teacher put it, we are “lost in our minds.” The mental self lives through symbolic representations of the past and for imagined futures and gives little attention to the present. What goes unrecognized is that recall of narratives about the past are about things that no longer exist, if they ever did, and that narratives about the future are about things that may never come to pass. The only reality that one can truly grasp is the one that is fleetingly present in the moment. One likely distinction between the earlier selves and the spiritual self is that the former are largely governed by processes associated with the left hemisphere in the brain and the latter in the right hemisphere. It is the difference between a particularlized and a holistic grasp on our experienced reality.

I ask that you contemplate the following questions carefully. Are you really the stories (narratives) that you tell about yourself? Do these narratives feel love or anger? Can your narratives think about things? Who is it that knows your subjective experience? Who is editing and telling these stories that you live by? It is certainly not the narratives that you associate with your name; e.g., Bill Smith or Mary Jones, doing all these things. So, who is doing it? If you like, you can read a poem that I wrote that also addresses this issue here or read a more complete list of questions here.

It would appear that you have a subtle self that is the observer of all that you are. It is not your sensory field though it is aware of the sensory field. It is not your physical body though it is aware of the physical body. It is not your mental activity though it is aware of your mental activity. It is your uncluttered ever present conscious awareness. The spiritual self has always been present but your attention has been elsewhere. You’ve lived much of your life consumed by distractions. If you can identify with the spiritual self you will have a unique perspective that still has access to all the prior selves that you’ve grown through, if they will still serve you, but you will not be entangled in them.

One person, the late Franklin Merrell-Wolff, who connected with his spiritual self and became present with his pristine conscious awareness described living through the spiritual self as the “high indifference.” What he meant by this phrase was that he seldom needed to interpret his experience through narratives. He seldom found beliefs that gave meaning to those narratives useful. Thus, he found little use for judgment and was open to and accepting of life as it passed through him. He found that he was emotionally disengaged from most events taking place around him. The people involved in those events were entangled in stories that often competed with one another for the status of “truth.” This does not mean that he did not engage the world. What it means is that he engaged the world through discernment free of any narrative generated prescription about how he should engage it.

He found that being fully present in the world required little attention to the world of the mind that consumed those around him. Giving little attention to the mentally constructed world gave him a clearer view of what was important and when he acted he was more likely to have an effect on something that mattered. The late Abraham Maslow, a developmental psychologist, described the pinnacle of his developmental pyramid as self transcendence. It is a rising above the mental self and all that went before it. It is an experience and there is no formula for creating a transcendent experience. It is an internal journey following a pathless path. It is awakening to one’s true nature and being released from ignorance.

 

Infinite Universe

I recall that even as a child the visible universe challenged me. I looked in awe and wonder at the night sky in its immensity. I asked myself what could contain it? To my young mind there was no knowledge of extension beyond sight or of the concept of infinity. But bring forth that knowledge and the impossibility of the universe only expands. I am still in awe and wonder at the very thought of an infinite universe.

If someone asked me what can contain the infinite universe, the only possible answer that comes to mind is consciousness. I learned that as a philosophical system this answer is based in idealism. As a theological system, the answer is based in panentheism. I will try to explain.

To begin, no explication of systems such as these can be had without first offering the root assumption that the narrative is built upon. I lay down as my root or core assumption the assertion that the “infinite” universe arises from primordial consciousness or, perhaps better still, source consciousness. If the universe is “infinite,” then source consciousness must be at least if not more inclusive than the “infinite” universe. To clarify, I use the term “infinite” with quotation marks to indicate my uncertainty about what the word means. It is, I think, beyond the keen of the human mind and certainly beyond mine.

The implication of the above root assumption is that our reality arises within consciousness. I will borrow an analogy, from Bernardo Kastrup, based upon dissociative identity disorder (DID), a.k.a. multiple personality disorder. Hopefully, this analogy will illustrate my impression of an idealist reality. The description will not adhere rigidly to descriptions of clinical DID. That said, imagine that you are a person with (DID). In this condition you may have multiple identities. Each identity is distinguished from the others and each is playing a different role and controlling conscious awareness with a different flavor, at different times and under different circumstances. Now imagine that the person with DID when asleep relaxes the barriers separating the identities from one another, and when s/he dreams, all the identities have a character in the dream.

The context in which the dream unfolds is common to each identity. However, each identity has a different perspective on the content and a different system of beliefs, values and goals, to varying degrees, from the other identities. Thus, each has a personal reality that includes a version of the common content and that has been processed through his/her beliefs, values and goals. Each identity has a dream character that plays out its role in the dream. Each dream character interacts with the common content as do the other dream characters and each dream character is part of the common content. In short, the dream we imagine is much like a fully functioning reality though more constrained in scope.

Now, take the above description and apply it analogously to the everyday reality that you experience. Your reality, like a dream, has common content that is drawn on by everyone. Subgroups, to varying degrees, may draw on specialized content common to the subgroup. The common content has evolved from necessity through the creativity and intention of consciousnesses grappling with need or desire. In other words, content evolves, and the more it is employed, the stronger it becomes. At first, in a manner of speaking, as an experiment, then a habit and finally a virtual addiction, which gives it a strong presence within the common content. It is a form that began as a thought and evolved into something with much greater actuality. It has become deeply embedded in memory and at times this memory is an object of consciousness. As an object of consciousness it becomes subject to manipulations that we often call thinking.

We also perceive thought forms as “real” objects outside of ourselves – think fork, cup, shovel, etc. You perceive many characteristic of a thought form that may include representations that have color, smell, texture, density weight and extension in space. These thought forms comprise your reality. You assume that they exist outside of you, but do they? What do you know of things that exist outside of you? Nothing. You have no experience with anything that exists outside of you because everything you know is confined within your consciousness or, if you prefer, awareness. Others may agree with you about the “external” characteristics of forms, but they share common content with you and are just as confined within their consciousness as you are in yours. Your assumed reality “out there” is completely inaccessible to you. It is just an idea, belief or an assumption. Enter deep sleep or die and the world ceases to exist for you because it is no longer an object of consciousness.

Earlier, I suggested that new thought forms arise through creativity and intention. However, all thought forms reside within source consciousness. We, as characters playing out an evolving narrative within source consciousness, absorb new thoughts from source consciousness. How accessible those thoughts are depends on the degree to which a person can relax the barriers separating one’s embodied consciousness from source consciousness. Relax the barriers and a question posed, with genuine desire and need for an answer will find an answer emerging from source consciousness. This is why answers often come in the form of dreams. That is, our barriers are more relaxed during sleep and dreaming. We call asking such questions and answers to them creativity or insight.

So, whatever one perceives becomes an object of consciousness and cannot be shown to exist anywhere else other than in awareness. Try to specify one thing that you can prove exists outside of your consciousness. If you think about it, you will realize that you can’t use agreement by others as proof because everything they “know” exists within their consciousness. Know also that your “body” is a thought form that exists as an object of your own consciousness, which is an extension of source consciousness. You live in a matrix of thought forms that, upon being perceived by you, can become objects of consciousness. Once you are aware of these forms they may also become memories.

You have no way of knowing the actual nature of a thought form. Your perception of it gives it characteristics consistent with your perspective, but it could exhibit very different characteristics if perceived from a different perspective. You are not an objective entity performing on a stage, independent of you, that you construe as external reality. However, you contribute to the creation of both yourself and the reality in which you perform.

In short, you and your perspective on reality are simply a strand in the carpet of source consciousness. You exist to make experience possible for source consciousness. You are an experience collector for source consciousness gathering experience from a unique perspective. It is through such experience that source consciousness comes to know its own potential and to evolve in ways that maximize that potential. The greater your realization of the nature of your reality and that of others, the greater is the evolution of your consciousness and your contribution to the maximization of source consciousness’ potential.

That is your purpose for being. To the extent that you fulfill that purpose, your life is a meaningful contribution to source consciousness. To the extent that you are ignorant of the nature of your reality and that of others, the more prone to error you are and the less growth enhancing are your contributions.

Noetic Events

To begin, let’s clarify what is meant by a noetic event. Noetic was a word that received a boost in frequency of use and recognition from the astronaut Edgar Mitchell. He chose it after a search for a word to describe an experience he had on his return voyage from the moon. One definition of the word noetic is that it refers to “inner understanding,” a kind of intuitive consciousness—direct and immediate access to knowledge beyond what’s obtainable from our normal senses. This post will attempt to illustrate noetic experiences from personal examples.

While there is at least one possible noetic event other than the ones to be discussed below that I could describe. It could be easily dismissed as coincidence, so I’ll pass on it.

The first noetic event in my life took place when I was 17 years old. At the time, I was just beginning my senior year in high school. It might be useful to know that at that time I could be described as an angry, troubled youth who was frequently in difficulty at school, when I bothered to go. I barely scraped by academically. In my junior year, I dropped out of school, unofficially, to find a job and then make the exit official. I failed to find employment and my father insisted that I return to school, which I did. My father required that I pass my classes and that proved to be a low bar for me. I subsequently graduated with a 1.5 GPA (D+) on a 4 point scale.

With that background I’ll begin the description of the first noetic event. It began on a rainy Sunday in September. I spent the day “cruising” the metro area, where I lived, with a group of friends. This meant that we simply drove around with no particular destination listening to music and talking. One of the people in the car began saying that he wanted to go home because we were going to have a wreck. This was the first time that this individual had ever said anything like this and everyone dismissed his “warning” and his request as being silly.

Eventually, we arrived back in the suburban neighborhood from which we had departed. The first person to be dropped off was the prognosticator. We then proceeded to drop off a couple of other people at their cars. At this point only the driver and myself were left in the car. We began driving out a highway that led to my parents’ home. It was night by now and still raining. As we entered a long straight away, a car coming from the opposite direction was being passed by another car. When the passing car cut back into it’s proper lane, it began spinning and drifting from one side of the road to the other. As it approached us, it went off the road onto the shoulder. Just before it reached us it came back onto the road crossway in the road and hit us creating a T-bone collision.

As predicted the wreck did occur though this isn’t the end of the story. Suffice it to say that the car that hit us was estimated to be doing between 80 and 90 mph. This was in the days prior to seat belts and one result was that I punched a hole in the windshield with my face. The injuries I received resulted in several hospitalizations and surgeries.

The really interesting result of this accident only took place about a year later. I’ll describe this noetic event but I’ll lead off with a poem I wrote trying to capture it:

Epiphany
Before and after images,
Objects of consciousness.
A smiling face – blemish free,
Another marked by trauma.
The contrast contemplated,
An emotional shudder evoked.
A sense of engulfing sadness,
Tears well up – stain cheeks.
The smiling face – frozen in time,
Behind the smile – a death mask.
Its life story no longer told,
Erased in the blink of an eye.
A story built upon shifting sand,
Scattered by the winds of reality.
But, what of the other face,
Who looks out from those eyes?
A question answered – epiphany,
Anyone – just anyone at all.
A blank page for a new story,
A personal myth for a new face.
The power of a fictive narrative ,
To set life on a new journey.
Who is this novelist in the mind,
Who pens this fictive self?
Another, much deeper question,
Set aside for the moment.

The noetic event behind the poem took place while sitting in my parked car in the front passenger seat. I was just sitting and looking at two pictures. One was my senior picture taken a week or so before the accident and the other was a “before” picture taken by my plastic surgeon before he began his work. I was drawn to the contrast between the two pictures but otherwise was not thinking of anything in particular about the pictures. As I sat there, I was overcome with the sense that the person in the senior photo was no more. I felt very sad and tears streamed down my cheeks. When that subsided, I began to realize how the narrative for the person in the “before” picture had been disrupted. It had been disrupted by how other people now responded to me, which also disrupted my narrative. Then, I had a sudden realization about personal narratives. I simply knew that they were a self generated fiction. I have in my writing come to refer to this narrative as the fictive-self. I also realized that I needed this story but that I didn’t need to conflate myself with the story.

I began weaving a new story. To paraphrase the title of a book I once read, I turned left at Thursday and went off in a new direction. As my narrative about myself changed, others saw me as a different person. This transformation didn’t happen overnight but through a slow, steady evolution. I’ll spare you the details of that evolution. Briefly, however, I began as a youth whose own father said was aimless and predicted that I would be in prison before I was 25. The outcome of the insight I had that day sitting in my car led me eventually to become a developmental therapist working with troubled children and that to a career as a professor and eventually a department chair in a large urban research university. A sudden insight had broken the identification I had with my personal narrative and shown me that I was not my story. A noetic event had set me free.

The second noetic event in my life arrived when I was 28 years old and had just gotten out of the U.S. Navy. I’ll introduce this noetic event with a poem that tries to capture it:

The Void
Body resting in quiet repose,
Eyes embracing the natural world.
Awareness filled with oneness,
Attention seeking no-thing to grasp.
The image of nature fades,
Darkness slides into awareness.
Deep silence spreads throughout,
Perception sleeps in the darkness.
Only pure awareness manifesting,
Conscious only of the Void.
Thoughts seep into awareness – like,
Siren songs – drifting in the deep.
Thoughts like lyrics reveal stories,
Unguarded, open to awareness.
Attention takes hold of the thoughts,
Creating objects of consciousness.
A sense of privacy breached, or
Perhaps fear of exposure.
Contraction – then withdrawal,
Return to the resting body.

This noetic event occurred one afternoon while I was sitting in my apartment looking out the window in the direction of a cemetery. I don’t recall thinking about anything, though I can’t say some stray thoughts weren’t passing through my awareness. If so, they were not receiving any attention and therefore were not objects of consciousness. All was quiet and time seemed at a stand still. Gradually, I sensed my awareness sliding into a state of primordial emptiness, pure no-thing-ness, a void.

I was a disembodied awareness alert to the infinite nature of the pristine awareness from which my awareness arose. After a while, I became aware of (I am tempted to say thoughts but that isn’t quite it — more like an intuitive sense) another singular awareness being present. I intuitively came to know a great deal about this awareness that was much beyond what I already knew. What I am saying is that this awareness was of someone I was already acquainted with. I have previously described this experience as a bit like a mind meld though not of conceptualized particulars but rather of essences. I also had a feeling of intrusiveness and breaching the privacy of another uninvited. I felt that I was in a situation in which I didn’t understand the protocols. I contracted and withdrew. I found my body sitting very still looking out the window at a cemetery.

The third noetic event in my life took place when I was about 30 years of age. It was a cold winter day and I felt withdrawn from the world. I left the apartment and began a solitary walk in the cold. While I was walking, I stopped and looked distractedly at the dormant grass along my path. As I stood quietly looking at the grass, I suddenly experienced a sense of infusion. A flow of energy that carried with it a knowing about the nature of the reality I inhabited. The following is a poem that tries to capture what was experienced:

Outlaw

An outlaw is a man
A man made whole.
Born in quiet and solitude
The quiet of alone-ness.
Wind, cold and desolate,
Heralds his birth
And being.
Eyes like polished glass
Opening on everything
Nothing.
His flesh shivers, then accepts
The coldness passes.
It was only a fleeting thought
Set aside now
Forgotten.
His life pulses in rhythm
Time is a schedule
Life a continuum.
To the man
All is simple, clear
To be.
The breath of God
Passes over him
Transforming.
Its essence absorbed

Flowing through his veins
Cleansing.
Bursting into his brain
Lifting a thousand shades
Clearing binding webs.
Webs like steel girders
Weighing upon the mind
Suppressing the man.
And the man knew God
And he was made free.
All history and tradition
Culture and words
Rescinded — Grace.
Freedom from the past
And from the future
An outlaw.
God moved through him
And he was God.
He was neither good nor evil
Nor right or wrong.
And the man moved
With the world and through it
But, was not of it.
For he knew not
The world, nor man
But was both.
And yet, something else.

I have often compared this noetic event with the first one. Not that they were anything alike in terms of what took place but in the core message. What I took that message to be follows. While the ego or fictive-self of an individual is a story about who and what that individual is, the third event conveyed that this was true for the world as well. That is, what we call the world is a narrative that creates a mental framework that we think of as the world. The world too is a fiction. It creates a stage on which life plays out. It seems few ever see beyond the fiction and wonder about what lies there.

Elsewhere, I have described this framework as the web of the world. For me, the web of the world is a complex of interacting concepts that, while variable to some degree, come together and form consistent themes that run like strands in a spider’s web. This web creates the reality that we experience and is a mental reality though it clearly has components experienced as physical. Take for example an airplane. This is a complex conceptual entity that is manifest as a physical artifact through varied processes all of which have conceptual origins. Or, take history as an example. This too is a complex conceptual entity that organizes how we understand the collective past. This understanding informs our present activities, which in turn unfolds our future. Remove human beings from the planet and wait a few millennia and little if any evidence of the web of the world will remain. The “reality” that humans lived in will have largely vanished. The planet will still be here and life will go on but the “world” will have vanished.

These examples of noetic events from my life clearly demonstrated to me that the materialist philosophy driving our culture is perhaps useful in some ways but is a very narrow perspective on the nature of reality. A perspective that, as a dominant point of view, is being challenged and it’s hold on the world is slipping. These events changed the way that I looked at myself and the “world.” I do not ask that anyone accept or believe that these events are valid or even that they actually took place. These were phenomenological events, which means that they were private experiences that provided me with a truth that cannot really be shared. Only those who have had similar experiences of their own can begin to grasp the importance and meaning of these experiences for me. For those who have had no such experiences, you may be willing to entertain their possibility but can only accept them as true and valid through your own noetic experiences. For those who reject them out of hand, consider the possibility that you are “flying blind.”

Love and Hate in Human Thought

Consider the notions of infinity and the finite. This pair of concepts embody both a contradictory and a complementary relationship. The two concepts compliment one another in that each makes the other more understandable through their contrast. They are contradictory in that each conveys a meaning that is 180 degrees out from the other.

The finite can only exist as a reduction of the infinite. That is, the finite is a subset of the infinite. Now consider an ocean and a wave. The wave can only exist as a subset of the ocean. The finite can never subsume the infinite and a wave can never subsume an ocean.

Let’s now think about “love” and “hate.” According to many spiritual traditions, love is the underlying dynamic of the universe. It is also said by many spiritual traditions that hate arises from fear and that fear is a corruption of love. The logic of the ocean and the wave can help us frame love and hate. It is far more likely that “love” is like the infinite or like an ocean because it is easy to see that “hate” is a more contracted expression than love. Thus, it seems appropriate to think of hate as a subset of love. A subset in the sense that hate arises from a corruption of love by fear that is engendered by spiritual ignorance (see my post The Nature of Evil).

Let’s end this brief discussion with the concepts of “good” and “evil.” I would argue that, like love, good is ontologically superior to evil. Good is the value field in which evil arises just as an ocean is the field in which waves arise. Thus, we can view evil as a subset of good. The infinite, waves, love and good can be thought of as all-inclusive fields in which contradictory and complimentary factions arise. These factions serve the function of making experience possible from the possibilities opened up through the contrasts they provide. After all, you could not experience temperature in the absence of the contrast provided by hot and cold.

Note: This brief comment was stimulated by the writing of the Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo.

Precept versus Practice

Christianity purports to hold love as a value and through precepts such as “love one another” attempts to make it an essential aspect of a religious life. However, the evidence for its practice by Christians is sparse, at least in my experience. Even Christians who seem to exemplify the precept often report something different. For example, the “saint” Mother Theresa has often been offered as an example of Christian compassion and love. On the other hand, I’ve read that she denied this and attributed her behavior to a sense of duty. In short, she seemed to be saying that she acted according to a behavioral form, that is, she acted according what she thought she should do not from how she experienced the world around her and how she felt toward that world.

What is missing here is the lack of practices that develop the ability to be love in the sense that Jesus meant and contemporary spiritual teachers mean. To hold love as a value and advocate for it is simply not enough. Without specific practices designed to actualize love in one’s way of being, love as a value is an empty shell, and a precept such as “love one another” is meaningless. Thus, the result is someone who acts according to an idea or belief about what love should look like but does so not out of love but out of duty or some other motivation.

By way of a concrete analogy, consider a military recruit on a rifle range where marksmanship is valued. The recruit is given the instruction to aim true and shoot straight (precept). Unless this recruit arrives already adept in the use of a rifle, he or she will be largely clue less about how to implement the instruction. What the recruit needs is a practice that develops the skills necessary to aim true and shoot straight. This requires someone skilled in the practice to teach it to the recruit who in turn then engages the practice until the desired level of skill is achieved. Such a practice may have multiple components, such as, body position, breath control. sighting, adjustment for wind, trigger compression and extinguishing reflexive actions; e.g., closing the eyes when firing.

I would suggest that what Jesus and many other spiritual teachers mean by love is grounded in an ability to moderate the ego-self in which its needs and wants are primary and other people’s needs and wants are secondary or even irrelevant. It is only when one has learned to stand aside from the ego-self and its inherent self-centered- ness that it is possible to be love and to engage the world from love. Some spiritual traditions have practices that help one learn how to stand aside from the ego-self. They also have practices that target specific problems that need to be overcome, such as negative feelings toward someone in particular that make it difficult to stand aside from the ego-self that harbors those feelings.

To my knowledge, Christianity has no such practices. Or, perhaps I should say, it has had individuals who developed such practices but they were suppressed and prevented from becoming a part of the religion. In many cases, the person who developed the practices and exhibited their effects was isolated or declared a heretic and in some cases put to death. In contemporary times there has been some effort to introduce the practice of meditation into Christianity through the Centering Prayer movement. One of the earliest advocates was Fa William Johnston who went to Japan to proselytize and took up Zen as a way to better understand the culture. He got more than he expected (Christian Zen, 1971).

 

The Great Illusion

The world we live in is driven by narratives. In earlier times they were called myths. The original meaning of “myth” was a story that, while not entirely factual, contained truth.

One of the narratives central to western civilization is scientific materialism, which takes matter to be primary, i.e., to come first. Materialism begins its narrative with infinite nothingness into which matter suddenly explodes, a.k.a. the Big Bang. The physicist Stephen Hawking was once asked how the Big Bang came to be. He replied, “Spontaneous creation from nothing.”

There is an alternative narrative in western thought that is not as well known, though perhaps it should be. I’ll call it the Great Illusion. The Great Illusion is based on the philosophy of idealism and takes consciousness to be primary, i.e., to come first. One advantage of the Great Illusion over the Big Bang is that it offers a purpose for the universe that can provide an ultimate meaning for life. To answer the question, “How did the Great Illusion come to be and what are its implications?” will now be addressed and is based in part on the book Rationalist Spirituality by philosopher Bernardo Kastrup a proponent of analytic idealism.

In the beginning, there was only timeless and unbound Consciousness imbued with intelligence, curiosity, potential and creativity. For those with a scientific frame of mind and also familiar with the work of the quantum physicist David Bohm — think of the Super Implicate Order. I will hence forth simply refer to this Primordial Consciousness as Source. Some might call it “God” who is believed to be perfect and complete. However, if God is perfect and complete, the universe God allegedly created would be static and unchanging. It is not possible to add to perfection and completeness. However, the universe is dynamic and in flux.

Source was inherently curious about its nature and its potential. However, being a unity of all that is, self-exploration was no more possible for Source than for an eye to examine itself. The best way for an eye to examine itself is with a mirror. Thus, Source set about creating a mirror capable of reflecting its potential. Using its inherent creativity, Source imagined a myriad of possibilities for this mirror and settled upon a self-evolving image (virtual reality). Through intention, Source initiated a self-evolving universe where its potential could unfold and reveal itself. And, the Great Illusion came to be. For those familiar with David Bohm’s work, setting into motion the self-evolving image can be thought of as the Implicate Order and the physical universe as what David Bohm called the Explicate Order or the unfolding of the Implicate Order.

One requirement inherent in Source’s intention was for vehicles capable of sustaining a degree of consciousness and with enough diversity to make experience possible. The vehicle that evolved were life forms. The contrast was duality, which the physicist Neils Bohr called complementarity. For example, no hot and cold then no gradient of temperature or experience of temperature. Another requirement was for a causal framework to make possible the interaction between life forms and between life forms and the physical universe. We call this framework space and time, which the physicist Albert Einstein called spacetime. Source itself is nonlocal, which means it does not exist within spacetime but rather spacetime exist within the mirror or virtual reality initiated by Source.

As the evolution of the universe progressed it began to resemble what we see today. At some point in this evolution, the conditions became ripe for the emergence of life. As life began its evolution, nervous systems were able to embody and carry a portion of Source. As life became more and more complex its capacity as a carrier for Source expanded accordingly.

Thus, individuated life forms capable of receiving and sustaining a transmission of consciousness from Source became part of the Great Illusion. The transmission received was filtered down to an appropriate degree by the relative sophistication of a life form’s nervous system. The more sophisticated the nervous system the greater the degree of consciousness received.

At some point in this evolution, the degree of consciousness received was sufficient for self-awareness to emerge. Self-awareness greatly expanded the range of experiences possible. The last known expansion was the capacity for self-reflection or meta-cognition. This latter ability allows for reflection upon abstract representations; e.g., thinking about how a past experience is relevant to a current situation or thinking about your thinking processes. The increasing variety and complexity of experience was enfolded into Source to stimulate its evolution toward completeness.

A carrier of consciousness has a degree of autonomy in its collection of experience. The more complex the nervous system the greater the autonomy. With autonomy comes choices and the more choices the greater the amount of information created for the life form and for Source. The relationship between choice and information is found in the Information Theory of Claude Shannon.

One implication of the Great Illusion is that, as a self-evolving system with autonomous actors that can make choices, the necessary richness of experience required for the evolution of Source is likely. Given that autonomy and choice exist within the Great Illusion, it is unlikely that Source would intervene in the affairs of the world. To do so would reduce the range of choice and information produced by living forms, which would diminish the experiences available to Source. Another implication is that what we call good and evil should be seen as the outcome of choices made by relatively autonomous individuals and groups. Good and evil are a complementary pair, which makes possible a range of experience between the polarities.

It also appears that there is an ongoing natural tendency for each individual consciousness to be exposed to experiences that include what it needs to acquire insight. The choices that you make influence subsequent experiences that the evolving universe will, in time, bring to you. This happens because the enfolding of information from choices, experiences and insights into Source influences the Implicate Order. This feedback affects the unfolding of possibilities into physicality or the Explicate Order. Possibilities that unfold don’t have to be useful or even positive. They simply have to provide the opportunity for insight, which in turn contributes to the evolution of the individual’s consciousness and of Source.

Choices that we make can facilitate or interfere with insight. Acts that interfere with the progress of others are likely to impede your own progress. Feedback from such choices may be experienced as pain and suffering. Feedback that is facilitative will often result in greater clarity and understanding, including at times insight. All beings, whether they know it or not, are contributing to the same universal goal, that is, to both the evolution of personal consciousness and of Source. This implies that we need to always be mindful of the choices we make in life.

The experiences of many people across time suggest that access to Source can occur. Such access occurs to varying degrees for different individuals and is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon. Sometimes this appears to happen without any obvious antecedents and sometimes it seems to be the product of following practices set out by various spiritual traditions as helpful.

What are the implications of the Great Illusion for death?

1.              Nothing essential is lost with the death of the body/mind.

2.              You are just a collection of experiences that are preserved in Source.

3.              With the death of the vehicle your consciousness will be enfolded back into  Source just as it was unfolded into physicality with your birth.

4.              The illusion of individuality and physicality will dissolve.

5.              But, no one truly dies or is lost to others Kastrup leaves us with two questions:

 1.              Is it possible that practices developed by various spiritual traditions can help  facilitate access to Source Consciousness?

2.              Can you break away from your preconceptions and allow yourself more  latitude to investigate spiritual ideas?

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.

 

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

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.