Reflections

The post category containing my commentary on things spiritual

Are We Merely Divine Puppets?

          Self-identified denizens of the Absolute (hereafter mystics) declare that reality is an indivisible whole, and there are experiments in quantum physics that support the assertion. The whole referred to is what I think of as Source (a.k.a. God). It follows from this view that if one is an aspect of an indivisible whole then one is not, indeed, cannot be separate from that whole. If one is not separate from the whole then mystics say there cannot be any choices or actions that do not arise from the whole. In short, there can’t be separate “doers.” I think I understand this argument and agree with it up to a point. In fact, I sometimes say that “Ego is the mask God hides behind while pretending to be you.”, which I think captures the point the mystics are voicing; i.e. Source is ultimately behind everything. I agree that should one reach a state of resonance with Source (Self-realization) then one experiences “oneself” to be the Divine behind the mask. However, most people experience compartmentalized or egoic consciousnesses and are not in resonance with Source.

Here is an illustration to make more concrete the idea of being a “doer” when not in resonance with Source. The human body is a living, organic whole. If some cell, not in resonance with the body, launches off on its own and tries to become independent of the whole, what is the result? Cancer. Thus, we might say that the mass of humanity that is ignorant of the whole and often acts in a manner that is not congruent with Source are like cancerous cells that have declared their independence from the whole and launched their own program. Therefore, one might say that egoic consciousness is like a cancer cell and Self-realization is like a spontaneous remission that turns a cancer cell back into a cooperative aspect of the living body and in the process contributes to an improvement in the immune system. Would we say that a cancer cell has no independence of action? Would we say that it can’t be a “doer” of independent actions because the living body is an organic whole? I don’t think so.

A compartmentalized consciousness absent Self-realization is an egoic consciousness. So, how does an ego (I prefer fictive-self) come about. It is produced by resistance to Source or to pure being. Such an ego consciousness makes choices and pursues its own agenda in the world. Perhaps from an Absolute perspective the world is not real but that has no relevance to ego or the fictive-self. To explore this I’ll use a metaphor to explore a fictive-self operating in the world. Imagine waking up and finding yourself in the cockpit of an airplane in flight. There is no one else in the cockpit or in the plane. What are you to do?

You could realize that you are not a pilot and just sit back, relax and leave things to the autopilot. In short, you could just be and enjoy the ride and see what happens. However, the idea of placing your trust in the airplane’s autopilot begins to make you anxious. You imagine all the awful things that could happen if the autopilot should fail and you can’t fly the plane. Fear arises. Thus, fear motivated, you begin to read all of the instrument labels and study the guidance mechanisms. Further, after getting some idea about the function of various mechanisms, you turn off the autopilot and begin to experiment in an attempt to fly the plane. Some of this exploration results in things that almost panic you, some don’t appear to have an effect and some make changes that you are comfortable with. As your explorations continue, you begin to feel more and more like you are making good choices and are learning to fly the airplane. You begin to view yourself as a pilot and are excited about flying. You make a couple of successful landings and takeoffs. You are now confident in yourself as a pilot and are at ease.

However, the truth is that you are in a flight simulator that is so good that you can’t tell the difference between it and a real airplane. You are not actually in an airplane. You are not actually flying. You can’t really crash. You are not actually making any real choices, good or bad. You are not really flying an airplane, and you certainly are not a real pilot. It is all virtual reality. A virtual airplane, virtual choices, virtual outcomes, virtual control and virtual piloting. In short, it is all unreal. It is just a simulation, but you have failed to recognize it as a simulation. However, you have acquired some of the skills necessary for piloting an aircraft.

When some mystics say that reality is a “dream/illusion with no doers,” the implication is that the world as we know it, which includes life, is a simulation. I prefer the metaphor of a computer simulation to dream or illusion, but it isn’t a difference that makes any real difference. According to these mystics, the simulation we call the world is actually on autopilot, but almost every one of us goes through a process similar to the one described above and resists going with the flow, i.e, just being. Resistance results in the autopilot being blocked, a fictive-self created and behavior directed at control of the immediate aspects of the simulation undertaken. Most people are confused by the claim of mystics that there actually is no world, no people, no choices, no one doing anything, etc. Confusion arises due to a failure to recognize that the claim is intended to convey that it is all a simulation (a.k.a. dream or illusion) and not real in the sense that most people tend to think about reality.

The problem here is one of perspective. From the perspective of the mystic, the world and everything in it is virtual and therefore not real. No thing really exists and nothing “real” ever happens. However, from the perspective of most human beings both things and events are real. There are choices and outcomes. There are actions and actors. Each, from his or her own perspective, is right in terms of the reality  perceived. That one perspective is relative and the other absolute means that each looks pass the other and each is certain they have the Truth and perhaps one does.

One must wonder why, if the “enlightened” have the Truth, they think telling others about their phenomenological Truth will have any effect. Conceptual communication can’t capture phenomenological Truth. Of course, the refrain one often hears is that their conceptual communication is a pointer, but it might also be a subtle way of elevating oneself. The ghost of ego past? Personally, I find the “no doer” view no improvement over the deterministic view of causation posited by scientific materialism. What’s the difference between being a mechanistic robot at the mercy of simple determinism and lacking free will* or being merely a puppet dancing to the tune of a divine puppet master?

The risk is that the ignorant believe the mystics. The ignorant would then still live in a relative world but believe in the absolute perspective. It is important to recognize that they believe, not that they know from their own experience. Thus, believing that they live in a simulation, indeed that they are a simulation, and that they don’t have any real choices and can’t take any real actions, they stop taking the simulation seriously. I am reminded of a quote from Fred Davis’ web site, “So long as it “feels” like there are choices, its important for us to make skillful ones.” What happens to the ignorant if they stop taking choices in the relative world seriously and fail to make skillful choices?

Further, I would ask, might there actually be a reason for the simulation? Might encouraging people, virtual or not, to believe that interacting with the simulation is pointless actually be detrimental in some manner? Looking at the matter from a human perspective, one must ask, why would Source (a.k.a. Cosmic Intelligence, the Divine or God) manifest a simulation like the world, if it serves no purpose and the activity of the avatars within it is pointless? Is what we call the world merely a cosmic soap opera created by Source for meaningless amusement?

Many, including myself, reject the idea that Source has no purpose and the simulation is meaningless. So, why is there a simulation? As hypotheses about such things go, I find the hypothesis offered by Tom Campbell, in his trilogy My Big TOE, as likely as any other that I’ve heard. Campbell makes the assumption that evolution, as a process, is implicit in the nature of things or a core aspect of the whole. It applies not only to life, as we experience it but also to Source. The driving goal posited for the evolutionary process is reduction of entropy. He suggests that a simulation is the method used by Source to decrease its entropy and thereby evolve. All of the compartmentalized consciousnesses employed in the simulation are evolving toward a reduction in entropy. Perhaps Source is employing something akin to parallel processing to more efficiently reduce the entropy of the whole. When a compartmentalized consciousness embodied in an avatar arrives at a level of entropy within the simulation that can make a positive contribution to decreasing the entropy of the whole, the simulation is transcended, and one continues to progress with greater awareness of being an aspect of the whole.

This perspective is one that has something meaningful to say to the avatars in the simulation (a.k.a. the world). It says they have a purpose and they can make choices and take actions that are meaningful within the context in which they operate. Indeed, they can affect their own state of compartmentalized consciousness by lowering their entropy through those choices and actions. This breaks down their resistance to just being and can bring them to a point where they are available to the Absolute and are in resonance with Source. This in turn serves Source by decreasing the entropy of Source. Perhaps, some or all mystics might argue, based on their experience, that Source is perfect and has no need to evolve. However, why should one believe that the understanding of mystics, still living in the simulation through a fictive-self (even though greatly diminished), is itself complete and perfect. It seems unlikely to me but then who am I but an ignorant puppet compelled by the Divine to write this meaningless essay that serves no purpose.

An Eclectic Program of Meditation and Self-Inquiry

The discussion of this program is organized around different states of the “self.”

1.          The starting point will be with the identity-self, which is the state in which one is fully identified with the body/mind. The “I” that thinks that it is the operative component of the body/mind is generally known as the ego or, as I call it in some of my writing, the fictive-self (see Automatic Programs in Chapter One beginning on page 21 of Self-agency and Beyond) or personal narrative (the “me” story). This is where most people undertaking a meditation program for the first time are coming from. Ego is the subject and everything else is perceived as a separate object. This is the dualistic perspective.

a.          Initial meditation techniques usually have one sit quietly and erect, breathing deeply and slowly from the diaphragm. Let’s just call it “sitting meditation.” If the eyes are open, they will be oriented either toward the floor, a blank wall or possibly a mandala. If the eyes are shut, one may be instructed to imagine having the eyes focused on the area between the eyes, or no attention is given to the eyes at all when closed. Some instructions might suggest focusing on an object, e.g., candle, and some may suggest use of a mantra or chant, e.g., AUM. The technique used is less important than its “goodness of fit” for you.

b.          This is the point where many meditators experience what is called “monkey mind.” The goal during this phase of sitting meditation is to simply learn to relax and observe the activity of the mind without getting seduced by it. As one gains some experience, the frenetic activity experienced by most new meditators will slow down. This more subdued stage might be called the “hummingbird mind.” The mind still flits about but not as energetically as in the beginning.

2.          After things have settled down, one will recognize something of a perceptual shift developing that establishes a division. This shift is the identity-self morphing into an observer and an ego.

a.          During this phase, one should “side” with the observer and allow some distancing from the ego to develop. One should be a somewhat disinterested observer of the activities of the ego. The goal is to begin identifying with the observer rather than with the ego and its body/mind.

b.          As one establishes identification with the observer rather than the ego, it will become apparent that the observer is not to be found in the story that comprises the ego nor can it be found anywhere in the body. Many aspects of “the fictive-self” will come under observation. Some of these may have been buried and outside of conscious awareness. I have discussed these elsewhere as automatic programs or APs (see Automatic Programs in Chapter One beginning on page 21 of Self-agency and Beyond). Some of these APs you may recognize as being the basis for dysfunctional beliefs, emotions and behaviors. This is usually a good time to deconstruct such APs. Often just observing these arise and dissipate will lead to their undoing. However, if you think a more direct approach is needed, I have discussed such methods in Chapters Two, Three and Four in Part I of Self-agency and Beyond. Carl Jung said, “Whatever does not emerge as consciousness returns as Destiny.” That is, you are likely to keep repeating unconscious patterns until they become conscious, are examined and neutralized.

3.          Let’s now think of the observer as the mindful-self. At this time, it is useful to begin what is called “mindful meditation.” Mindful meditation can of course be done as part of sitting meditation, but it is most effective when used to carry meditation into one’s daily life. Mindful meditation is simply paying attention, which most of us think is easy enough to do until we consciously begin observing our efforts to do so. Your attention will, by default, slip when it isn’t held captive by an engaging task. This is the way your brain is “wired” and is discussed elsewhere (see Chapter Six beginning on page 78 or Self-agency and Beyond) as the default mode network or relaxed attention network (RAN).

a.          The objective here is to have the observer closely monitor what the body/mind is doing as it goes about its daily activities. In short, your meditation is literally on what you’re doing moment to moment. What you will observe is that many of the body’s routines are run by APs, and the default mode will try to kick in and begin to generate unrelated mental content whose purpose is to reinforce the fictive-self. If the mindful-self isn’t careful, it will get seduced by this content and lose focus on current activity.

b.          Losing focus during mindfulness is especially likely when one isn’t engaged in doing something. During such times, the best tactic is to become present with anything that is available in the moment. Be present with or mindful of the sound of a breeze blowing through leaves, your dog, a ticking clock, sunlight streaming in through a window, a flower, a ceramic cup, the rise and fall of your abdomen as you breathe or whatever is available. Presence is the focus of Leonard Jacobson’s and Richard Moss’s teachings.

c.          When one becomes well established in mindfulness meditation and can maintain focus on what one is doing from moment to moment or simply being present with something manifest in the moment, you are in what I call the “Teflon mind.” You are now ready for the emergence of the inquiring- self. The inquiring-self is named for the activity that establishes it, which is called “self-inquiry.” This method is often associated with the teachings of the Indian sage Sri Ramana Maharishi and is discussed in Self-agency and Beyond in Chapter Seven beginning on page 89.

4.          The purpose of self-inquiry is similar to mindfulness except that it is not focused specifically on what one is doing or something that is present but on being aware of being aware from moment to moment or being present in the spacious moment. A psychiatrist, Bessel van der Kolk, identifies the medial prefrontal cortex as the part of the brain responsible for experiencing the present moment. This is located behind the area of the face called the brow. No doubt, this is why Kriya Yoga emphasizes keeping attention gently focused on this area during meditation.

a.          The basic idea in self-inquiry is to establish a conscious sense of being a field of awareness. Rupert Spira teaches a simple and direct method of finding that sense. He suggests that one ask oneself the question, “Am I aware?” To answer the question, one must note that one is aware of being aware. That is where you want to be. Once you are there, you should try to relax into that state of being and remain there. There is an exercise at the end of The Looking Glass that will help you experience a state of pristine awareness.

b.          As the establishment of this state progresses, there will be a perceptual shift. When this happens, you will identify yourself with conscious awareness. You will experience yourself simply as a field of awareness that includes the body/mind. However, you will not identify yourself as being the body/mind.

1. With the shift described above, you have become an aware-self or what I have described as having a natural mind. This is a refined state of duality in which you are clear of most, if not all, dysfunctional APs and are free of making or, at least, taking seriously judgments, beliefs, opinions and expectations. It is a state that allows one to hold a dispassionate view of the world and its events. It is not, however, what some call Enlightenment or Self-realization, which is a non-dual state. Arriving at what some refer to as simply I AM, you have done about all you can do. The rest depends on Grace and what I’ve referred to as being Taken.

2. According to some teachers, Enlightenment has several progressive states. There appear to be at least three states once the condition referred to as Enlightenment or Self-realization is entered. The first of these is accompanied by experiences of what some call Void Consciousness, a state described as Pure Being. It is suggested that many think this is the end state, and thinking this constrains any further progress. This may be followed by experiences of what is called God (or Christ) Consciousness, a state described as sense of Divine-Love. Finally, there may be experiences of what is called Unity Consciousness, a state described as being Love-Bliss (see charts of states here)

This third state is one in which it is said that one comes to the full recognition that one is an integral aspect of an indivisible whole. There is a direct understanding that this whole is Source Consciousness – the ground of all being and unconditional love.

The Looking Glass

This piece was adapted from a post by Fred Davis

You are always awake, but you are not always consciously awake.

What matters is simple recognition [that is, of when you’re consciously awake], because however you display yourself to yourself, you’re almost surely going to have to come back to fresh conscious recognition over and over again. This is the discipline part. This is the process part. Awareness colonizes the body one bit, one seeing, one unconscious pattern at a time.

In every moment that you ally yourself with thinking, which includes every activity of the mind, you are voting for thinking. It’ll take some work to shift that default position. It’ll take a lot of willingness. Thinking isn’t a bad thing, it is just that most of us do too much of it when it isn’t necessary. When your car is stuck in mud, you need to think about how to free it but when someone cuts you off in traffic there is nothing to think about.

Again and again, as you touch truth through actual experience–as you discover truth through continuous inquiry–that touch will bring a longer, stronger, more profound experience of what you always already are–that which knows what you are. Your true essence is pure awareness of what is now, not what you think about it.

Be relentlessly aware of and skeptical about your thoughts. You won’t always have to take your thoughts through a process of formal inquiry. In the beginning inquiry is necessary to purge your mind of pointless chatter. Ask yourself again and again, “Is what I’m thinking really true, or is it a belief, an opinion, a judgment or even a delusion? Even if what you’re thinking is true, do you really need to be engaged in this line of thought right now? The veil of thought arises, it’s questioned, penetrated, and it parts. Repetition is the mother of clarity. Eventually, the inquiry becomes less formal and more spontaneous. Life itself becomes constant inquiry. Like everything else, you don’t have to do a thing. It just happens effortlessly.

You may tell yourself, “It can’t be that simple.” It is.

Liberation is all about right now, this moment.

Freedom is now or never, here or nowhere.

[Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” Mark 4:9]

A simple demonstration exercise follows below:

 

Exercise

This exercise based on a Buddhist meditation practice called rigpa (being aware of awareness).

Find a quiet relaxing spot where your visual awareness can be spacious. Examples of the type of setting that I have in mind might be sitting or standing on a peak gazing out across a beautiful wooded valley, sitting on a dock in the early evening gazing out across the waters of a quiet, undisturbed lake or whatever works for you. The essential feature is the relaxed mood the setting evokes, not the setting itself.

Now, just enjoy the feeling of relaxation that the scene evokes in your body, take in the spacious view before you, listen to the subtle sounds arising from the scene, feel the air move about your face and body, smell any odors carried by the air you breathe. Allow yourself to become fully immersed in the totality of the moment. When you are fully settled into the exercise you will be acutely aware but your awareness will be free of thoughts (i.e., words and images) but full of sensations and feelings — pure experience. Fully present.

This is you as an awake consciousness or in your natural mind. It is always available. It can be brought to any circumstance under any conditions. You merely need to learn to stay in this state of consciousness as your normal or habitual way of being. Practice the use of thinking as a tool for accomplishing a specific task and then put it away and become present with your immediate experience.

There is probably no end to the depths of this state of awakened awareness but you first have to learn to live in it before it can flower.

Brain Networks and Meditation

Caveat: I have very limited knowledge of neurology and brain processes. What I present here is my understanding of scientific reports about the working of a particular aspect of the brain as a metaphor to explore meditation.

          Brain imaging studies have recently identified a network of brain areas and their associated functions that have been named the default mode network. This network has been labeled default because it seems to be responsible for most brain activity taking place when one’s attention is not specifically engaged. It would appear that focused attention draws largely upon other brain areas and those areas represent a separate network, which to my knowledge has not been labeled. For simplicity’s sake let’s hereafter just refer to these as the Focused Attention Network (FAN) and the Relaxed Attention Network (RAN). These networks are illustrated in the figure at end of this essay. We are all familiar with the notion of left brain and right brain functions, but apparently there is another “divide” along the lines of a brain using focused attention and a brain whose attention processes are relaxed. As with the left and right brain concept, the RAN and FAN brain states do not necessarily mean exclusive functions for each network but rather primary functions. The FAN is frequently directed externally but can also be directed internally at specific cognitive tasks or physical states. The FAN appears to be more analytic and rational, while the RAN seems to be more metaphorical and imaginative.

The FAN appears to engage those areas of the brain that govern executive functions in the brain such as active attention, decision making, problem solving, planning and working memory. It accesses and engages knowledge and skills that an individual has acquired for engaging tasks of various sorts. It also exercises control over motor functions needed to engage in voluntary actions like drawing or surgery. If you’re trying to cognitively inventory the things that you will need to take with you on a trip, to relax a tight muscle in your neck, learn how to solve quadratic equations or teach a child to read, the FAN is engaged. However, when activities requiring focused attention come to an end, RAN is automatically your default state. Clearly, if you’re doing nothing but sitting staring out a window, the RAN will engage. However, when you’re engaged in routine activities that don’t require focused attention such as running on a treadmill or driving down a stretch of road with little or no traffic, you usually will default to RAN. Even when focused attention may be needed, boredom can result in inattention and defaulting to RAN.

When RAN is engaged what you get appears similar to free association or random presentation. In this state, thoughts, memories, images and feelings stream into awareness often with little or no apparent structure. As long as these stimuli stream, you remain in RAN. However, if you focus on one or more of these stimuli and begin to engage with it, FAN comes back into operation. Thus, FAN can be focused on either an external or an internal task. To illustrate the process of going from RAN to an internal version of FAN, think of standing in front of a conveyor belt and watching suitcases streaming by. This is analogous to RAN-generated thoughts and images streaming through awareness. If you grab one of these suitcases off of the conveyor belt and begin unpacking it, this is analogous to focusing on one thought or image and following a chain of associations elicited by your attention to it. You are now back in FAN. This, however, is usually a less engaged level of FAN than the level, for example, required for solving quadratic equations or teaching someone to read. This suggests that there are degrees of FAN and RAN, meaning that they are not “digital” states that are either on or off.

My hypothesis is that RAN is largely responsible for the creation of a fictive-self, self-narrative or ego and especially for maintaining and reinforcing it. One way of thinking about the ego is as a psychological construct that functions as the subject or “doer” assigned responsibility for our activities. This fictive-self begins forming early in the developmental period and generally becomes stronger as a child ages into an adult. It seems to me, again from introspective observation, that most of the activity generated by RAN is to bring into awareness thoughts, images and memories associated with our experiences. These become the “bricks” from which we build, repair and reinforce our fictive-self.

Initially, the mind begins a process of organizing this information into some sort of kernel story that is rooted in and identified with the body/mind. This becomes the core construct around which our fictive-self or personal narrative evolves. This fictive-self or ego largely has the function of providing a sense of coherence and continuity to our life experience. It becomes the basis of the meaning we assign to our lives. As our narrative becomes fairly well established more and more of what arises from the RAN are thoughts, ideas, images, attitudes, opinions and judgments (among others inputs) that reinforce our fictive-self and ensure our identification with the narrative.

The fictive-self can be recognized through the stream of “self-talk” that dominates your awareness when the FAN is engaged with content RAN has generated. Much of this “self-talk” can be recognized as rehearsal of one’s personal narrative. We become the fiction we have created to explain our self to our self. We are like a hamster trapped in an exercise wheel — always running but never getting anywhere. If you want to escape, you must first become aware of the structure of your personal narrative by examining the themes in your self-talk and what they imply about the beliefs, opinions and attitudes largely operating beneath your awareness and directing you like a puppet master. “Cutting” the strings linking you to your puppet master is the most essential step required for liberation.

I would suggest that very young children, before the core construct for the fictive-self is established, are not individuated. Therefore, their consciousness is more likely to be resonate with what some describe as Unity consciousness. Perhaps this is what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Or, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, regain your “natural mind.” In other words, you cannot access Unity consciousness or the Absolute (“kingdom of heaven”) unless you can first learn to stand aside from the fictive-self (“be converted”) and return to a less individuated manifestation of consciousness (“become as little children”).

One activity that comes to mind while thinking about RAN is sitting meditation. When one sits to “practice” meditation, two things are likely to happen. First, the FAN is disengaged and, second, the RAN is engaged. These are operations that most of us easily do with hardly a thought. However, the purpose of meditation cannot be to simply engage the RAN, because if that were true, then there would be no difference between meditation and daydreaming. So, the question arises, what is the relationship between the RAN and meditation?

Many meditation teachers initially advocate the practice of sitting  meditation. Sitting meditation is usually described as concentrating on a specific focus such as a rhythmic function like the breath, an auditory stimulus or a visual stimulus. The nature of the auditory or visual stimulus suggested will vary depending upon the tradition from which the suggestion is coming, but there is no evidence that I am aware of from brain imaging studies indicating any functional difference between the effects of different stimuli from different traditions. For example, if the focus is on a sound such as “Aum” or “Amen,” then during mindfulness meditation one simply uses this sound either vocalized or sub-vocalized as a focus, and whenever one recognizes that the focus of attention has drifted, the instruction is to simply mentally note the deviation and return to the focus.

It seems that the basic process in this form of meditation is to learn to use a solitary focus of attention that requires no thought, which engages FAN at a low level. Keeping FAN engaged at a low level with a stimulus requiring no thought helps avoid becoming entangled in the activity of the RAN. Once this condition is met, one can observe the products of RAN running in the background, so to speak. It has been said that the function of the mind is to generate thoughts, just as the function of the heart is to pump blood. If that is so, it is the RAN that is largely responsible for generating the thoughts.

What one must learn to avoid is engaging FAN with any of the stimuli thrown up by RAN. Of course, this will happen and happen regularly for beginners. The only solution is to gently withdraw FAN from the RAN product it engaged and move it back to the meditative focus.

In the process of learning to hold FAN at “arms length” and simply observing the products of RAN passing through awareness, one begins to get a good sense of what sorts of stimuli are being generated by RAN. Frequently, patterns will emerge among the stimuli passing through awareness. This is how one begins to get a handle on the beliefs, opinions and attitudes largely operating beneath your awareness. Many people may also have emotional reactions to patterns of stimuli that relate to negative events in their lives and may be initially overwhelmed by their emotions. These events have probably made contributions of importance to your personal narrative. They may also be the source of especially problematic attitudes, beliefs and opinions that affect your functioning. Becoming aware of these potent cognitive components “pulling your strings” is the first step in cutting those strings.

Most spiritual teachings that point one toward Self-realization consider being able to sustain full presence in the moment (the natural mind) to be a necessary condition. Regaining the natural mind first requires cutting those puppet strings directing your life from outside of conscious awareness. By presence what is meant is that what you experience, whether events, thoughts, feelings, sensations, objects or people, are simply that. You register these stimuli in your awareness but your mind brings to them no preconceived interpretation and makes no judgment arising from such interpretations. This does not necessarily mean that you will draw no conclusion about what you are aware of but that any such conclusion will be untainted by the content of ego. You will discover that in most instances no conclusions are necessary at all. What you observe simply is what it is and requires nothing from you.

It would seem that insight meditation is the next step in one’s meditation practice. The transition from sitting to insight meditation is not a sharp or clear transition. However, at some point the process of noting the activity generated by the RAN and recognizing patterns related to your beliefs, opinions and attitudes begins to develop into an intuitive understanding of the conditioned nature of that aspect of consciousness we call the self. With this intuitive insight comes an opportunity to begin the process of standing aside or dis-identifying with the “fictive or narrative self” that is the illusion you refer to as “me.”

 The illusion of permanent self dissolving as awareness penetrates and knows the illusion. Moving deeper, beyond the small self, beyond aversion and attachment, beyond ignorance.Barbara Brodsky and John Orr (meditation teachers).

Meditation then becomes a natural abiding in awareness of awareness. One’s attention is both relaxed and focused in the present moment. One does not dwell on the imagined future or recollected past. One does not spin “ego stories” about the self nor explanatory stories about others, which can include institutions, organizations or people. One is in the natural mind. Knowing Unity consciousness or the Absolute still depends upon grace (see Taken), but one has done all that is possible to prepare for it and is able to expand into it should it occur.

There is one practice, which I think of as contemplative meditation, that is worth mentioning separately. This is the use, by one school of Zen meditation, of what is known as a koan. A koan is a riddle that is used as the focus of meditation. For example, the widely quoted koan, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Zen is not the only source of such riddles. Here are a couple from non-Zen sources, “The only way out is in” and “There is only one mind.” It appears that the purpose of a koan is to shut down the RAN by silencing its near incessant chatter with an intellectual conundrum that has no rational solution. This not only serves as a focus for FAN but exhausts FAN’s efforts to bring rational understanding to the conundrum. At the point of exhaustion one might say rationality implodes, leaving what Zen refers to as “no mind” or, according to the Hindu sage Pantanjali, puts one beyond words and concepts. The American mystic Franklin Merrill-Wolff describes this state as consciousness without an object.

Figure

 

Two views of the brain with the RAN in blue and the FAN in orange and yellow.

 

Addendum

In the above, I discussed what in neuroscience is called the “default mode network.” In that section, I relabeled the default network as the “relaxed attention network” (RAN) and the alternate state as the “focused attention network” (FAN). To review part of the above discussion:

 My hypothesis is that RAN is largely responsible for the creation of a fictive-self, self-narrative or ego and especially for maintaining and reinforcing it [emphasis added]. One way of thinking about the ego is as a psychological construct that functions as the subject or “doer” assigned responsibility for our activities. This fictive-self begins forming early in the developmental period and generally becomes stronger as a child ages into an adult. It seems to me, from introspective observation, that most of the activity generated by RAN serves to bring into awareness thoughts, images and memories associated with our experiences. These become the “bricks” from which we build, repair and reinforce our fictive-self.

Now, a recent study discussed in the New Scientist has provided evidence that supports my hypothesis:

“The team gave 20 volunteers infusions on two days, once containing 75 micrograms of LSD, the other [day] a placebo. Then volunteers lay in a scanner and had their brains imaged with three different techniques, which together built up a comprehensive picture of neural activity, both with the drug and without.”

Carhart-Harris et al.

MRI scans showed that LSD caused brain activity to become less coordinated in regions that make up what is called the default mode network. The size of the effect was correlated with participants’ ratings of their own ego dissolution, suggesting that this network underlies a stable sense of self [my emphasis].”

          Another imaging type, magnetoencephalography (MEG), showed that the rhythm of alpha brainwaves weakened under LSD, an effect that was also correlated with ego dissolution. Alpha rhythms are stronger in humans than other animals, and Carhart-Harris thinks it could be a signature of high-level human consciousness.

Click here for journal paper.

 

A Personal Odyssey

This is an account based on one aspect of my life experiences. The theme employed encompasses those events that are religious or spiritual in nature.

My earliest recollection of religion was during the time when my father was overseas in the U.S. Army and my mother and I were living with her parents in Nashville, Tennessee. My grandparents, my mother and I attended a local Baptist church that was within walking distance of my grandparents’ home. I recall standing on the bench beside my mother so that I could see over the heads of those seated in front of us. What I most remember from that church experience was hymn singing. My maternal grandfather (Papa Spann), according to his eulogy, was an active supporter of the local Negro (black) church and helped raise funds to support the church. Probably not unrelated to this support was his practice of reverse integrating the city buses when he rode them. Most trips were by city bus and whenever I went with him on a bus trip we always sat in the back with the black passengers.

I also have early recollections of being admonished to avoid swearing and using the “Lord’s name in vain” at the risk of being struck by lightning. I don’t recall specifically who did this admonishing but the most likely sources were my paternal grandmother and an aunt who both lived in the same general area. I should for the sake of accuracy point out that none of my paternal relatives are actually biologically related to me. My father was abandoned as a very young child and was reared by the Smith family whose members I had a familial relationship with all of my life. After my father’s return, we lived on campus, in married student housing, at Vanderbilt University. I am told that my father did a double undergraduate major in English and chemistry and then went on to do a masters degree in English, all of which was done in 39 months.

As my father was completing school, we moved into a house that was owned by the Smiths and my father taught high school English for one year. During this time I recall running in an empty field not far from the house and taking a fall. I remember “taking the Lord’s name in vain” in the course of this event. With some anxiety I awaited the promised lightening strike, which of course never came. After several minutes without retribution and being experimental, even at that young age, I repeatedly challenged the heavens to do their best. Nothing. I walked out of that field a confirmed doubter in the “wrath of God.”

Following my completion of the second grade my father took a position teaching English at Meridian Junior College and we moved to Mississippi. My father, in my recollection up to this point, had not attended church, nor had my mother since leaving her parents home. Once we settled in Meridian, my mother took up religion again and with me in tow she began attending a nearby Baptist church. My father did not attend nor did my only sibling at the time who was too young. During my attendance, I “joined” the church and was baptized.

In the summer, I would ride either the train or bus from Meridian to Nashville and spend a few weeks with my paternal grandmother and grandfather. I saw little of the latter since he worked as a night watchman and slept in the daytime. Mama Smith belonged to the Church of the Nazarene and she frequently took me with her on Sunday. Papa Smith never attended church as far as I can recall. The most vivid recollection I have about this church was the singing which was accompanied by a lot of movement and activity.

Mama Smith often told me that movies were the work of the devil but had apparently struck a compromise with him. She gave me admission fare to the nearby local movie theater on Saturdays so that I could go and watch the serial and double feature (usually westerns). She also purchased a TV to give me an additional reason to come and visit her since we did not have a TV at home and the only station in the state of Mississippi at that time was located some distance from us in the Capitol of Jackson. We would not have a TV until after we moved to Madison, TN.

After a few years at Meridian Junior College, my father decided that there was no future in teaching English. We moved back to Nashville and lived for a few months with Mama and Papa Smith, until my father acquired a house in Madison, Tennessee. My father enrolled in a graduate program at Vanderbilt in audio-speech pathology and took a full-time, night job as a chemist with Avco Manufacturing Corporation.

After getting settled in Madison, my mother found a local church she liked and began trying to drag me along with her. I balked. First, I was now old enough and big enough that I could successfully assert myself with her. In particular, I recall an incident where she was trying to get me to put on some dress slacks and a white shirt to wear to church and I said I would only go if I could wear my jeans. I knew that this was entirely unacceptable to her. An extended argument ensued about proper attire to wear to church. My position was that if God cared what I wore to church I didn’t have any use for him. She refused to let me wear jeans and I did not attend church with her while we lived in Madison.

After my father completed his graduate program, he accepted a position as head of the Fairhaven School for retarded children in Atlanta and we moved to Decatur, Georgia. My mother went back on her “crusade” and wanted to “turn a new leaf” now that my father was no longer occupied all the time with school and work. She wanted the entire family to attend a local Baptist church. My father relented and agreed that we would all go and continue going until the first time they showed up at the house soliciting money. I went since my father had agreed that we would all attend. It was only one week before a representative of the church’s building fund committee showed up at the door. Thereafter, only my mother and siblings attended. Sometime after we moved to Decatur I became acquainted with the word atheist and decided it fit with my outlook. Thereafter, I described myself as an atheist.

Just after I began my senior year in high school, I was out with a group of friends one Sunday driving around the metro Atlanta area. One of the guys in the car kept saying, “We’re going to have a wreck. Take me home.” There was nothing about how we were driving that would cause him any alarm and he was hardly the type that got alarmed about much anyway. He definitely had never in our experience been known to voice premonitions. Of course, we all scoffed at his declaration and ignored him. He continued to request to be taken home. Eventually, we did drop him off and a couple of others as well. Finally, there was just the driver and I left in the car and we headed for my house. It had begun to rain and had gotten dark. We came around a curve and entered a long straight stretch of highway that was close to the turn off for my house. A car was coming toward us and another car was in the process of passing it. The car that was passing spun out and ran the other car off the road. The car began spinning round and round and drifting from one side of the road to the other. It finally went off the road on our side and then came back on the road just in time to hit us head on while it was broadside in the road forming a letter T with the two vehicles.

I went partially through the windshield and back into the car. When everything came to a stop I sat there briefly and then asked the driver how he was. He had hit the steering wheel with his face and made a total mess of his mouth. He managed to get out of the car and come around and help me get the door open on the passenger side so I could get out. We were just standing there in the rain trying take in what had happened when the guy that had been run off the road appeared. He looked at me and said something to the effect that I was bleeding to death. He grabbed me by the arm and rushed me to his car and we took off down the highway. I had felt wetness on my face but thought it was water from the rain. As we drove down the highway I became aware of a gritty feeling in my eyes and realized it was probably glass from the windshield. I recall trying to keep my eyes very still so as not to do any more damage than had already been done.

We soon arrived at the emergency room for a university hospital where I went into shock. While I was lying on the table violently shaking, I overheard two physicians talking. They were basically saying that I had lost a lot of blood and needed a transfusion of whole blood and that they didn’t have enough of the right type. I later learned that a student from the theology school on campus who had my somewhat rare (5%) blood type responded to a call and came in to donate some additional blood. I remember seriously praying for the first time in my life while lying on that table. There is some truth to the old saying that there are no atheists in foxholes. I was looking for help from any quarter that it might be available. In this prayer I proposed a deal. Let me live and I would acquiesce to serving in the military. This was in the days of military conscription and the draft rubbed my libertarian sensibilities the wrong way but it was about all I could think of to put on the table, so to speak.

I spent several hours in surgery having glass picked out of my eyes and face and initial repair work done that resulted in about 350 stitches in my face. I spent nearly a week in the hospital with my face completely covered by bandages, including my eyes. When I asked about my eye sight I kept getting evasive answers. It was a great relief when the bandages were removed and I found that I still had my eyesight though I was missing an eyelid and couldn’t close that eye. Needless to say, my face was a mess and once my injuries had healed I began a series of plastic surgery procedures to reconfigure my face.

About a year after the accident, I was sitting looking at the contrast provided by two photos. One was my senior picture for the school annual that had been taken a couple of weeks prior to the accident and the other was a “before” picture taken in the plastic surgeon’s office before he began the operations on my face. Spontaneously, a strong wave of emotion swept through me. I had the distinct feeling that the person pictured from before the accident no longer existed. At first, I interpreted the feelings that I was experiencing as sadness, but then I realized that the feeling was dissonance. The “self” that I’d experienced since the accident and the “self” elicited by the high school photo simply didn’t match up. I understood that a single event, totally out of my control, was capable of changing how others perceived me and how I perceived myself. Intuitively, I realized that I was free of the “self” represented by the school picture. At the time this was simply an intuitive sense but today I would say that what I realized was the fictive nature of the self. Our sense of who we are, our ego, is an act of creative self-expression. Unfortunately, we tend to view this creation as “writ in stone” and surrender ourselves to the dictates of this fiction as if we are its puppets. This realization set me free of the past and what had been constructed from it. This sense of freedom was liberating and marked the beginning of a redefinition of myself and one that had a degree of fluidity inherent in it. This was what today I would call a noetic* experience. I have composed a poem (Epiphany) that attempts to capture this experience. It can be found on my website.

*The word noetic refers to “inner understanding,” a kind of intuitive consciousness—direct and immediate access to knowledge beyond what’s obtainable to our normal senses.

One result of this noetic experience was a question that began to creep into my thoughts. That question was simply if “ego” or “self” is a fiction, created from the way we pick from among our memories of our experiences and then spin them into a narrative, who is making these choices and creating the interpretation of them? This led me to an interest in psychology and philosophy and especially religious philosophies from India, China and Japan. In the course of searching out such books in local bookstores. I ran across a biography titled There is a River. This was a biography by Thomas Sugrue of the psychic Edgar Cayce. In this biography there was a section based on Cayce readings about reincarnation and the eternal nature of the soul or consciousness that cyclically inhabits our physical bodies. This resonated strongly with me and seemed to be pointing toward an answer to my question. At this time, I also had a friend who kept trying to get me to read the Christian Bible. Given that I had begun a trip “down the rabbit hole,” I agreed to take a look and let him know what I thought.

About this time, I was also in the process of moving to Knoxville, Tennessee to live with my family and take my father up on his offer to put me through college. Prior to this I had been attending night school taking what today would be called “developmental courses” to compensate for some of the many deficits I had from high school. Before I could make the arrangements to move to Knoxville, I was called up for a draft physical where I was told to expect induction into the Army within 90 days. I was determined to go to college and looked for a way to get around the potential draft call.

I was employed in a Georgia DOT lab on the Georgia Tech campus and one day at lunch time walked over to the Naval ROTC and Naval Reserve building on campus. I was informed that if I joined the USNR that I could get a deferment from active duty until I completed college and would have a two year active duty obligation, which was no longer than I would have to spend in the U.S. Army, if I were drafted. I decided to join the USNR. The USNR application form had a box in which one was asked to write in their religion. I entered “None” and was told this was unacceptable. I said this was the truth and that I wasn’t going to lie just to satisfy the Navy. The recruiter and I were at logger heads until I mentioned that my mother was a Baptist. He said, “fine put that in the blank.” Thus, I met the requirement by writing, “my mother is a Baptist.”

That summer I went to Great Lakes naval training center for “boot camp” and then returned to Atlanta, settled my affairs and moved to Knoxville in August. While waiting to hear about my application for admission to the University of Tennessee and for school to start, I went to the Knoxville library to look for some reading material. There I ran across a book by Frank Barron about his research on creativity. It was in his book that I first encountered a discussion of religious agnosticism. This discussion was in the context of his finding that the psychological profiles of “true believers” and atheist were almost identical. Barron pointed out that at root both were making an assertion for which they could offer no empirical proof. On the other hand, agnostics simply take the position that they don’t know if such an entity as God exists or not and are content to wait for some evidence that bears on the question. I decided that this was closer to how I saw my own position than atheism and I began describing myself as an agnostic.

After a year or so at UT, I recalled my promise to my friend to read the bible and decided to take a look at the bible. The first thing that I decided was that the Old Testament was not Christian but Jewish. Further, the New Testament superseded the Old Testament in any event. That bit of logic dispensed with a lot of material. Next, I asked myself what was important in the New Testament. The answer for me was only those portions that purported to convey directly the teachings of Jesus upon which Christianity was supposed to have been built. I had now narrowed the task down to the four gospels. I looked those over and decided on Matthew for two reasons. First, at the time there was some opinion that it was the oldest. Second, it seemed to offer a fairly complete account. Thus, I put my emphasis on Matthew and then wrote a didactic play titled, A Dialogue with Jesus.

During the period that I was reading Matthew and writing on this play, I was also giving a lot of thought to the morality of the Vietnam war that was hotly in progress. I had just missed getting embroiled in this conflict, which may have been another intuitive event. When I was looking at alternatives to being drafted, I had almost enlisted in the U.S. Army’s warrant officer program to be trained as a helicopter pilot. At the last minute, I backed out determined to find a way to go on to college, which I did through the USNR program. After completing the play, I sent a copy to my friend and told him that this was what I took from the bible. He took the play to his Baptist minister who after reading it told him that it could only have been written by an atheist.

During my junior year at UT, Shirley and I decided to get married. We wanted to plan our own ceremony and did not want it to be religious in nature. On the other hand, we didn’t want to have a civil ceremony over which we would have little control. My now lifelong friend and philosophy instructor at UT suggested that we get married in his church, which was the Unitarian Church of Knoxville. He spoke with his minister who agreed to perform the ceremony and to let us design it. Thus, we had a small private “church” wedding.

During my time at UT, I had read a lot of the Edgar Cayce material and had become quite interested in it and the implications it held about spiritual matters. I learned that there was an organization called the Association for Research and Enlightenment (A.R.E.) in Virginia Beach, Virginia. that was dedicated to preserving and distributing the materials delivered through Cayce. I wrote to the A.R.E. and said that I anticipated being in the Virginia Beach area in the near future and wanted to know if their archive of materials were open to the public. Why I felt I would soon be in the area I couldn’t say. I just felt that I would and strongly enough to contact them about possibly getting access to their archives.

After graduating from UT, Shirley and I moved to Decatur, GA and lived with a friend and his wife for a short period until Shirley could find a job. I was waiting on orders that would begin my active duty in the USN. Writing the Dialogue had if nothing else helped me clarify my thinking about the Vietnam war, which was simply that there was no justification for it either ethically or legally. While waiting on my orders, I spent a lot of time struggling with my commitment to serve in the USN. In a way, I felt bound to my commitment both by the prayer mentioned earlier and by the fact that I had voluntarily joined the USNR albeit in the face of what qualified as coercion. But, I had made something of a pact with the Navy. They would keep me from being drafted, allow me to attend college now and in return I would owe them no more of my time than being drafted would have taken.

After struggling with this dilemma for a month or so, what appeared to be a workable solution came to me. I drafted a letter to the Commandant of the Sixth Naval District to which my USNR unit belonged. In that letter, I said that I had resolved that ethically I could not allow someone else to determine when I would or would not engage in an act of violence. Thus, I planned to honor my commitment to serve in the USN but reserved to myself the right to decide whether or not to engage in violent behavior. In short, I would not blindly follow an order to commit violence. Further, I would accept no pay from the Navy while on active duty and thereby I viewed my service as wholly voluntary and in no way subordinate to their intentions because I was not accepting pay to serve.

I received a reply that offered me the opportunity to apply for a conscientious objectors discharge. I wrote them back and rejected the offer on the grounds that I was not a C.O. because I could conceive of circumstance in which I might engage in violent behavior but only I could make that determination. Shortly thereafter I received orders to report to the naval base in Charleston, South Carolina for processing.

The first thing that happened in Charleston was an attempt to transfer me from the USN to the Marine Corp. I fought this transfer largely through the office of Senator Al Gore, Sr. of Tennessee. After that effort was foiled, I went through a number of “pay days” and refused to accept the checks. This apparently created some disruption of the financial operations because the disbursing office became very insistent that I had to clear the checks out of their accounts. Eventually, I took the checks, put them in an envelope with a letter and sent them to Senator Gore. In that letter, I told him basically what was taking place and that the checks represented money that belonged to the taxpaying citizens of the U.S. Further, since he was a representative of those citizens I suggested that he should distribute the money in any way that he saw fit.

Once I accepted the checks, I received orders to report to the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt an aircraft carrier in dry dock in Portsmouth, VA. Interestingly, Portsmouth is not very many miles from Virginia Beach where the A.R.E. is located and this assignment put me right where earlier I had told the A.R.E. I expected to be; i.e. in the Virginia Beach area. Upon arriving on board, I was asked to report to a conference room where I met with several officers. They told me that they had been informed by the Department of the Navy that I did not have to accept my pay checks and that if I had any further issues that I should talk with them before getting Senator Gore’s office involved. They then assigned me to work in the chaplains office on board the ship.

I was soon designated the office manager for the chaplains of which there were two. One was a Protestant minister and the other a Catholic priest. This office consisted of the two chaplains and four enlisted personnel. The office performed or coordinated all religious services on board, ran the ship’s library, maintained the crew’s lounge and handled all personnel matters of a personal nature such as deaths in the family and similar emergencies. When I had been on board for only a few months, the Protestant minister recommended me for Annapolis, which recommendation I declined and asked that it be removed from my personnel file. The Protestant minister was shortly transferred to another duty station. I became friends with the Catholic priest and spent a good bit of time off the ship at his apartment. The replacement for the Protestant minister was a Southern Baptist and the youngest captain in the history of the USN Chaplains Corp. I let him read my play, Dialogue with Jesus, after he’d been on board a little while. After reading it, he declared that he was the only chaplain in the U.S. Navy whose office was run by an atheist.

In my role as Chaplain’s Yeoman, I learned to set-up and assist with Catholic mass. I also was involved in working with the Jewish, the Mormon and the Black Muslim personnel on board. I assisted them in scheduling their services and finding locations for their services when necessary. I also helped with obtaining any supplies that were needed. In fact, we maintained a locker of supplies specifically provided by the Navy for Jewish religious observances and services. In the course of carrying out these duties, I became familiar with the diversity of religious practice on board the ship.

After being separated from the U.S. Navy at the end of my two years, I returned to Decatur, GA. During the initial months back in Decatur, I did not do much of anything but relax. We lived in an apartment next to an old cemetery. One day I sat quietly, for an extended period of time, just gazing out the window at the cemetery, which because of all of the trees and landscaping was pleasant to the eye. I suppose one might say I was in a meditative or contemplative state. Suddenly, I found myself in what I can only describe as a profound state of disembodied awareness in which all sensory contact with the physical world was lost. I have written a poem – The Void – that attempts to capture the sense of this experience. It is on my website. The only other description of a similar experience I’ve come across is in The Biology of Transcendence (p. 11 ). This is the second experience in my life that I would now describe as noetic in nature.

About a year or so later, I was walking in the yard of a small apartment complex where we lived and that was owned by my brother-in-law. It was a cold winter day and no one was outside so it was quiet and I was very much alone. As I walked about immersed in the solitude, I was suddenly flooded with an intuitive realization. What I came to know in that moment was that reality as we know it is a social construct. Just as several years earlier I had realized that the ego or self is a fictional narrative that we spin for ourselves so too is social reality. In short, these were parallel intuitions but one was on a personal level and the other was on a societal level. This I would classify as my third noetic experience. I attempted to describe the event with a poem. The poem is titled “Outlaw” and can be found on my website.

The cumulative effect of the three noetic experiences described above was that I achieved a private, intuitive and direct understanding that there is a spiritual dimension to life that is superordinate to the physical world. An understanding that encompasses a phenomenological* understanding of both personal and social reality.

*Phenomenological understanding is a personal and subjective understanding of  reality that arises in one’s conscious awareness and reflects the meaning that our experiences convey to us.

I subsequently did a good bit of reading looking for material that I found compatible with my understanding. Two sources that I read during this time that resonated with me were the writings of the American mystic Franklin Merrell-Wolff and the Seth channeling by Jane Roberts. During this same period, a friend told me about a woman he’d met through his brother who did psychic readings. The friend, a university professor, was pretty impressed with this woman’s abilities. He offered to see if the psychic could do a reading on me without my being present since she was a considerable distance away. She agreed and I too found her impressive for among other things she told me some personal things that no one other than myself was aware of and would have been extraordinarily unlikely guesses. Between the earlier premonition about the auto accident, my own intuitive sense that I would be located close to Virginia Beach and this woman’s readings, I was convinced that there were information flows taking place in the universe that could not be accounted for by current scientific theories about what was possible.

My next experience with religion was to become a minister in the Universal Life Church, which was entered with the idea of using a church as a vehicle for tax purposes. While this did not work out as a “tax dodge” for reasons I won’t go into here, it did require that a “church” be formed and services conducted. Thus, I prepared a set of founding principles for a religion that I called Trinitarianism, not realizing at the time that there was already a religion using the name Trinitarian that had been around for 800 years or so. The principles for my version of Trinitarianism can be found on my web site. The Trinitarian congregation was small and met monthly in my home’s large family room in which I performed one marriage.

For a number of years following this time, I was too involved with my family and career to be actively involved in spiritual matters other than a little reading here and there when the opportunity presented itself. Upon retiring from my university position, I began to devote more time to thinking about spiritual matters. One effect of this was to, for the first time in my life, voluntarily associate myself with a church. My wife (Shirley) and I joined a small lay led Unitarian, Universalist Fellowship – Mountain Light. This was probably influenced in part by having been married in such a church and in part because I didn’t really consider it a religion; i.e., no theology and no dogma. After serving in several administrative capacities in this church, it became clear to me that this was not a spiritual community but a very contentious community. Further, I realized that I was not entirely comfortable with the idea of being a member of an organization that called itself a church. Thus, we left the church.

Shirley and I spent several years educating our selves about various spiritual traditions both through attending retreats and by reading. We also pursued spiritual practices taught by these traditions and continue to do so. We were initiated into Kriya Yoga at the Center for Spiritual Awareness in Lakemont, GA. The center at that time was lead by the late Roy Davis its founder and primary teacher. Roy Davis was a former student of Paramahansa Yogananda who died in the early 1950s. Paramahansa Yogananda was brought to the U.S. in the 1920s by the Unitarian Church of Boston and was supported by them for a short time. He is noted for the creation of the Self-Realization Fellowship to promote Kriya Yoga practices, including meditation. The SRF still operates today. While we have returned to Mountain Light Fellowship, we continue to study and practice yoga based spiritual practices that have their roots in Vedanta, Tantra and Buddhism.

Note: The above is a personal narrative constructed from events in my life. I could choose different events or make alternative interpretations of them and create a different narrative. In large part, we define who we are and this personal narrative is a self-definition of at least one thread that weaves through the recollection and interpretation of events in my life. I cannot say that it is a true narrative in some absolute sense, but it is meaningful to me.

A Quantum Metaphor for Enlightenment

          Werner Heisenberg is famous for the Uncertainty Principle. This principle basically posits a limitation on localization of conjugate pairs of physical properties such as momentum and position. Essentially, the principle says that you can’t have precise observation of both properties simultaneously. Simply stated localization refers to placing some event or property in space and time. However, Niels Bohr saw additional implications in this formulation and extended it into what is now known as the Complementarity Principle. In Bohr’s more general version, he proposes that the limitation on localization applies also to alternate ways of perceiving and interpreting any given event. Bohr stipulated that the alternate ways of perceiving and interpreting an event were in fact complementary. More importantly, for the purposes of this piece, Bohr proposed that a full understanding of categorical dichotomies can only come about through establishing a superposition of the conjugate pair. A superposition for the purpose of this piece will be defined as a condition in which neither component of a complementary pair is localized.

Robert Jahn and Brenda Dunne in Margins of Reality extend the complementarity principle to include states of consciousness. These writers provide several examples of such complementary processes in human consciousness: analysis/synthesis, observation/participation, reasoning/intuition and doing/being. It appears that both the physical and mental worlds consist of many such dyadic pairs. The concept can also be extended to the biological dimension (male/female), to the emotional dimension (love/hate) and to the social dimension (rich/poor). Many other examples could no doubt be generated but these should be sufficient for illustration. The point is that it isn’t possible to have both of these dichotomous but complementary pairs manifest simultaneously within the same physical reality, consciousness or person, which no doubt lies behind our general disdain for any ambiguity that we perceive in a recognized and accepted dichotomy such as male/female. Thus, this is how the dualistic world that we inhabit is built.

Jahn and Dunne suggest that for the most part the best one can do with complementary processes within localized consciousness is learn to establish a balance between them. Take, for example, an activity such as art. One cannot access creative inspiration while focused on the details of the painting process. On the other hand, one cannot practice the details of the painting process while seeking an artistic intuition. If one focuses exclusively on intuition then one may have an artistic inspiration but not a work of art. On the other hand, if one focuses exclusively on the painting process one may create a painting but not a creative masterpiece. The switching from one mode to the other and back again involves the dichotomy between doing and being. As the quantum physicist Amit Goswami has suggested, one should learn to regularly shift between these alternatives or as he often says, “do, be, do, be, do.” However, this describes a balance achieved by alternating between modes, not a superposition.

To experience a superposition one must go further and resolve the differentiated nature of the complementary pairs. It is proposed then that experiencing a superposition is what occurs when one has the simultaneous experience of both local and non-local consciousness, that is, an enlightenment experience. In short, enlightenment is the resolution of the apparent dichotomy within consciousness. Thus, enlightenment might be defined as a direct experience of the superposition of all dualistic systems within material reality and thereby revealing their undifferentiated origins; i.e., the unity of All That Is.

See also: Reality Appears to Arise from Mysterious Foundations

 

Spirituality and Religion

Adapted in part from the Introduction to: The End of Materialism by Charles Tart, PhD

          Noted science writer Sharon Begley reported how His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the highest-ranking lama in Tibetan Buddhism and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, watched a brain operation while on a visit to an American medical school. He recalled scientists explaining with great conviction that consciousness is nothing more than a manifestation of brain activity. When the brain stops functioning, from injury or death, our mind vanishes—period, end of story.

Further, Begley reports, the Dalai Lama had always been bothered by the seeming certainty of this kind of “explaining away” of consciousness. Even if you accept the theory that our minds are what our brains do, that our emotions and thoughts are expressions of brain activity, isn’t there more? Isn’t some kind of two-way causation possible?

Could it be, as common sense seems to tell us, that mind might have an active reality of its own rather than just being a by-product of brain activity? His Holiness voiced this question to the chief surgeon.

Begley reports that the brain surgeon hardly paused before authoritatively answering no—period. What we call consciousness or mind is nothing but a product of the physical operation of the brain. The Dalai Lama is a very polite person, and he let the matter drop. He was used to hearing such absolute statements from people who consider themselves scientists.

But, as Begley quotes from the Dalai Lama’s 2005 book, The Universe in a Single Atom, “I thought then and still think that there is yet no scientific basis for such a categorical claim…The view that all mental processes are necessarily physical processes is a metaphysical assumption, not a scientific fact”

On Seeking the Spiritual as a Scientist

“Seeking” is a word commonly associated with spiritual pursuits, but “science” and “scientist” are usually associated with a materialistic view of the universe in which there’s nothing real to the “spiritual,” so how could a scientist seek the spiritual? Wouldn’t such seeking lead to intellectual and emotional conflicts that could be confusing and invalidating, as well as a waste of time?

Indeed, that’s how it is for a lot of people today. Something in them seeks, often desperately, something “spiritual” to make their lives authentic and worthwhile, yet no intelligent person can disregard modern science and its understandings without mentally harming themselves in various ways. But modern science, which has given us so much materially, tells “spiritual seekers” that they’re, at best, soft headed folks unwilling to be completely scientific and, at worst, superstitious fools, perhaps having a serious psychopathology that drives them to seek the “spiritual.”

It was probably simpler in the old days: one believed or disbelieved the one belief system available in your village and that was it. There wasn’t much in the way of competing views. Today we live in an environment rich with information! Tart says, here I am, for example, a constantly fluctuating mixture of scientist; father; husband; psychologist; parapsychologist; teacher; writer; carpenter; bulldozer operator; liberal; conservative; skeptic; and serious off-and-on student of Buddhism, Christianity, Sufism, Yoga, the Fourth Way, and Aikido, believing we have the potential of gods, believing we’re usually practically mindless robots, and so on. That’s a lot of information and roles to balance! And besides offering ideas, many of these spiritual paths say it’s not enough to just think about and believe or disbelieve their ideas—you can and should live your life so that you can have direct personal experience of the spiritual.

On Spirituality and Religion

There is an important distinction to make about science and spirituality, not about science and religion. 

In reality, spirituality and religion can’t be totally separated  because a categorical distinction oversimplifies a complex interaction. Tart and many other writers, however, do make following distinction. Spirituality is used to refer to life-changing, primary experiences that happen to individuals, while religion refers to social organizations based in beliefs that are relatively fixed and dogmatic. Such organizations and belief systems are usually initiated by the spiritual experiences and teachings of a founder. These organizations and belief systems incorporate and develop (with more or less fidelity) those basic experiences into ongoing social structures, relationships, beliefs, needs, and customs.

Tart argues that you can be scientifically oriented and yet seek and value personal spiritual experience and growth without the doubt and conflict generated by regarding yourself as “irrational,” “unscientific,” or “crazy.” Because there are many psychological and social factors, once spirituality becomes religion, the distinction isn’t quite as clear-cut as we might like it to be. We humans are social creatures, and this can affect, to some degree, the very spiritual experiences we have as well as our ongoing interpretation and understanding of them. Most of us need some ongoing social support in our spiritual lives, so I doubt we’ll ever have a “pure” spirituality unaffected by religion. It must also be the case that if a religion is to survive it must still satisfy at least some people’s spiritual needs.

For Tart, the word “religion” connotes the particular church he was raised in (Lutheran), its doctrines, and the effects on his personality or self that he can now recognize from a wiser (he hopes), adult perspective. On the one hand, there were many good effects: a concern for the welfare of others; a basic belief in some kind of wise, loving, and caring intelligence in the universe; and numerous instances of experiencing kindness and care from adults in the church that helped shape him.

Tart also thinks a lot of his neurotic shortcomings stem from or were reinforced by church doctrines, such as feelings of being inherently sinful, a nagging feeling that no matter how good he is it’ll never be enough, and a pervasive shame about his body and sexuality that has taken many years to overcome. In many ways, he thinks he was forcibly brainwashed by being taught  religion when he was too young to really understand and make choices. So “religion,” for him, is a complicated category with conscious, semiconscious, and undoubtedly unconscious feelings, positive and negative, that can create conflict and tension. Perhaps, you recognize yourself in this description!

“Spirituality” Tart says has been a matter of a relatively conscious choice on his part as an adult. The aspects of it he’s chosen to make central in his life have given him goals and guidance that have added much meaning and satisfaction.

So the rational distinction between spirituality and religion — primary, life-changing experiences of the spiritual versus institutionalized, socialized doctrines and practices — is important to make. But lurking in the background are all these emotional elements, tending to make spirituality a “good” word and religion a “bad” word for many of us. At both physical and emotional levels, Tart says he tends to get a little tense and defensive when he hears the word religion.  On the other hand, he says when he hears “spirituality,” he relaxes and opens up. He says that to the degree that he recognizes these complexities and work on healing the emotional component, he can be more rational and effective in what he does.

Tart doesn’t generalize further, because there are so many varieties of religion, and aside from their formal beliefs and structures, there are enormous variations in the way different individuals absorb and react to particular religions. By the time some of us reach adulthood, our childhood religions are a useful, and perhaps the best, vehicle for promoting and integrating our individual spiritual experiences, which in turn would further enliven our religions. For others of us, our childhood religions are the enemy of our spiritual growth. How it is for you is a matter for you to discover and work with.

 The End of Materialism

The balance of Tart’s book provides an overview of the foundations for and the status of research in each of several different research areas of psi (shorthand for the phenomena studied by parapsychologists). Tart offers his opinion, as an experimental psychologist, on how convincing the evidence is for each psi phenomenon. Based on the evidence, he divides psi phenomena into two groups. Group One contains what he calls the “big five” and includes telepathy, clairvoyance, pre-cognition, psychokinesis and psychic healing. Tart concludes that each of these phenomena is supported by hundreds of rigorous scientific experiments. Group Two contains post-cognition, out-of-body experiences, near death experiences, after death communication and reincarnation. These phenomena Tart concludes don’t have the level of support found for phenomena in Group One. However, he thinks the amount of evidence is such that they can’t be dismissed out-of-hand and warrant continued investigation.

In an earlier review of the evidence for psi done by Dean Radin in his 1995 book, The Conscious Universe, Radin came to a similar conclusion. Radin indicates that the evidence spans 130 years of experiments, involves hundreds of experimenters, thousands of experiments and hundreds of replications. Radin goes into considerable detail about the types of experimental evidence, including the methodologies used and the types of data analyses applied. One cannot read Radin’s book with an open mind and not be convinced that the body of experimental evidence for psi phenomena clearly indicates that something worthy of serious consideration is going on. You can see the evidence for yourself by clicking here.

Least you dismiss Tart and Radin as mere advocates for their personal views, let me offer you a quote from Carl Sagan who examined a lot of the evidence for paranormal claims while writing his 1995 book The Demon Haunted World.

“At the time of this writing there are three claims in the ESP field which, in my opinion, deserve serious study: (1) that by thought alone humans can (barely) affect random number generators in computers, (2) that people under mild sensory deprivation can receive thoughts or images “projected” at them; and (3) that young children sometimes report the details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation.”

Science is first and foremost a methodology for examining hypotheses derived from theory. Scientific theory is an explanation that attempts to account for demonstrated facts. Western science is grounded in a theoretical paradigm generally known as scientific materialism. The core assumption of scientific materialism is that matter is primary and all phenomena can be understood by reducing them to their material elements and understanding how those elements interact. The world according to scientific materialism is built  of irreducible pieces of matter – a bottom up approach.

Scientific materialism has been the basic paradigm of science since the 17th century and is rooted in a Newtonian worldview. Scientific materialism has, in fact, been highly successful over a long period of time. Unfortunately, this has resulted in it producing scientific dogma and science for many has become scientism or science that ultimately rests upon faith in dogma.

The evidence for psi poses a significant threat to scientific materialism because if the evidence is accepted as factual then scientific theory must account for it but the very nature of the phenomena suggests that it is not and cannot be explained as a product of matter. In short, acceptance of psi phenomena is to accept the real possibility that the core assumptions of scientific materialism are not valid. Thus, the greater one’s faith in the core assumptions of scientific materialism the greater is one’s motivation to be blind to the evidence for and to deny the reality of psi phenomena. In short, to expose oneself as an adherent of scientism.

There are scientists willing to question the validity of the core assumptions of scientific materialism but they are in a minority and are often treated as heretics. Tart, Radin and Sagan clearly belong to that minority. There are other scientists who challenge scientific materialism on grounds other than psi. Physicist Bernard d’Espagnat writing in Scientific American stated, “The doctrine that the world is made up of objects whose existence is independent of human consciousness turns out to be in conflict with quantum mechanics and with facts established by experiments.”

Another physicist, Victor Mansfield, suggests that mind and matter may be part of “…a radically interconnected and interdependent world, one so essentially connected at a deep level that the interconnections are more fundamental, more real than the independent existence of the parts.”

The esteemed Sir James Jean, after pondering the implications of quantum physics, said as long ago as 1948, “The universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine.”

Within the physics community there is a recognition of what is often referred to as “the problem of consciousness” raised by experimental tests of quantum physics. The majority of physicists prefer to ignore the implications of this “problem” and dismiss it as either an “artifact of measurement” or not a scientific problem but a problem better left to philosophers. The minority who treat the problem as a scientific problem find that the evidence suggests that consciousness not matter may be primary. If consciousness is required to collapse a wave into a particle (i.e. to produce matter) then consciousness is an antecedent of matter and matter therefore cannot be primary. If consciousness is primary, the world is constructed from the top down. This reasoning is a significant challenge to the core assumptions of scientific materialism because this conception can potentially explain psi phenomena whereas they are inexplicable in a primacy of matter model.

One physicist who instead of denying that there is a problem has taken the challenge seriously. David Deutsch is an advocate for the multiverse or many worlds theory as a way of explaining away the apparent role of consciousness in quantum wave collapses. The multiverse theory would seem to provide continued support for the primacy of matter. Deutsch suggests that consciousness only appears to collapse a wave when observing it. He argues that when a wave of possibilities collapses ALL the possibilities manifest but each one in a different universe. The apparent single outcome observed is not the product of the observation but a random collapse associated with many outcomes of which only one is manifest in this universe. Thus, the apparent role of consciousness in wave collapse is an illusion.

It would appear that the primacy of consciousness is a simpler explanation than an infinite number of universes. Could there really be a universe where my wife decided, a few months ago, to buy a blue car and another where she decided to buy a red car? Perhaps, but the infinite possibilities this implies is mind boggling. Finally, as clever as Deutsch’s hypothesis is it seems to me that one could argue that the so called “random” collapse into multiple outcomes in multiple universes can still be attributed to observation since I know of no reported instances when observation isn’t associated with collapse. If the collapse was truly random, wouldn’t there be times when observation wasn’t accompanied by collapse? In any event, Deutsch’s explanation doesn’t seem to provide an accounting for psi phenomena.

There is another conception offered by the late David Bohm who proposed a reformulation of quantum theory. Bohm’s reformulation subsumes both top down causation and bottom up causation. To keep it simple, Bohm proposes an implicate order existing in the quantum field and an explicate order existing in the material world, which is an extension of the quantum field. The implicate order provides formative causation or top down causation by unfolding its forms into the explicate order. The explicate order provides feedback by enfolding information back into the implicate order potentially modifying its subsequent explication; i.e., bottom up causation. Consciousness and matter form an interacting unit or loop. I suppose consciousness is still primary over matter in this model but it offers a causative role for both. It seems clear that under this model an explanation for psi is also a possibility.

Regardless of the view taken, we are left with the mystery of mysteries — the origination of matter or consciousness, which remains unanswered and perhaps is unanswerable. A question before which the human mind stands in awe. To quote the late Albert Einstein, “The most beautiful and most profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical…without it [one] is as good as dead.”

I invite you to take an open-minded look at the evidence for psi for yourself and consider the implications of these phenomena for the assumption of the primacy of matter or of consciousness. I can think of no better places to start than with:

The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together by Charles Tart, PhD

The Role of Belief in the Evolution of Consciousness

           The evolution of consciousness that I’ve referred to in the title of other pieces (here and here) is about a process. It is an ongoing process that in the view of some can spread over many lifetimes. It can never, in any absolute sense, come to a conclusion because the possibilities for spiritual growth may be virtually infinite. By spiritual growth I mean development of one’s consciousness in ways that lead to an experience of connection with a larger reality that yields a more comprehensive understanding of the essence of one’s being and the reality in which we live.

It can be argued that the whole of human motivation and action is predicated upon what one believes. By way of an analogy, think of the brain as the processing chips in a computer and the mind as the software all of which depends upon the operating system. I would suggest that our mind functions according to a belief system, which is similar to an operating system in a computer. If you change the operating system on a computer from Windows to Linux, the computer will perform differently. It will still be a computer and it will still have the limitations inherent in its hardware but it will use some capabilities differently and will have access to some capabilities that were previously unused and may lose access to still other capabilities. If computers aren’t your thing, here is another but weaker analogy. Think about the output from your DVD player (hardware) when your change the DVD disc (software) from one of an older, small screen, black and white movie with monaural sound to a disc containing a modern, widescreen, color movie with stereo sound. The DVD player hasn’t changed but the output has been significantly affected by a change in the software. We all have a belief system. Just as you can change the operating system on your computer, you can change or modify your belief system. Such change is not always easy, nor without difficulties but it can also be quite self-enhancing. In fact, there is little reason to prefer one system of personal beliefs over another, except for how well the system works for you. It can be argued that any system of belief that doesn’t lead to coercion or violence toward others and is self-affirming is a personally valid belief system.

What is a belief system? A belief system is a set of filters through which we process experience and thereby come to an understanding of events. The late psychologist George Kelly called these filters personal constructs. Kelly believed that we have what he calls a core construct with subsidiary constructs that are superordinate and subordinate to one another. A given set of beliefs would then create a pyramid of constructs or filters, not unlike a flow chart for a chain of command. When there is a conflict between beliefs, a superordinate belief will take precedence over a subordinate belief, at least in a functional system. Another psychologist, Robert Hogan, suggests in his socioanalytic theory that most people have one of two constructs that underlie their beliefs about morality, which he characterizes as personal conscience and social responsibility. In the former, the superordinate belief is that people are inherently good and that injustice arises from oppressive social institutions. In the latter, the superordinate belief is that people are inherently bad and that social institutions protect people from injustice.

Once we process an event through our beliefs and think we understand the nature of it, we are better able to formulate a response to it. It does not necessarily follow that the response will be a functional response or even a rational response. For a belief system to take root it need only produce a functional response more often than not. Belief systems that produce a preponderance of non-functional responses and fail to adjust become the basis for various psychological or mental disorders. Sometimes a belief system is dysfunctional because we hold contradictory superordinate beliefs that alone might be functional but when in opposition are dysfunctional. The psychologist and psychotherapist Albert Ellis (see Chapter One, page 19) suggested that the primary task of childhood socialization is to establish a belief system. A noted psychiatrist, Michael Gazzaniga (see Chapter One, page 21), has even argued that human beings are belief-creating machines. Ellis would agree but add that we are also predisposed to creating irrational beliefs, an assertion supported by scientific evidence.

Beliefs are important and powerful. On the positive side, consider the placebo effect in medical experiments. Individuals who are diagnosed with an illness and are unknowingly included in the control group often have as much improvement in their condition from the placebo treatment as do the patients in the experimental group who get the experimental treatment. On the negative side, consider the possibility that your beliefs could just as easily cause you to acquire an illness. Or, consider the role of beliefs in hate crimes or the powerful beliefs that lead some individuals to engage in suicidal attacks on their perceived enemies. In the area of education, research on methods of teaching reading have found that the effectiveness of a method is strongly influenced by whether or not the teacher using it believes it to be effective. Finally, research has shown that teachers’ beliefs about their students’ abilities affect the way they interact with those students, which in turn affects the beliefs of the students about themselves. This research study found that student performance was independent of measured ability. In short, a teacher’s beliefs can lead a student to under- or overachieve relative to measured ability. Beliefs then are potent enough to affect all aspects of our lives.

Ellis offers a model for understanding the role of belief. In its simplest form it is called the ABC model. The A is for an antecedent event. The B is for our belief about the event. The C is for the consequences of our belief about the event. There are two possible consequences. One is an emotional consequence or response, which often motivates a behavioral response. In short, our emotions and behavior follow our beliefs. When we construe an event through our belief system, we may choose to ignore the event on the basis that no further attention or other response is called for. We may interpret the event as bad and have a negative emotional response to it. If the negative emotional response is strong enough, it will motivate a negative behavioral response. We may interpret the event as good and have either a positive emotional response or both a positive emotional and behavioral response to it. Emotions, especially primal emotions like fear arising from the limbic system, are, evolutionarily speaking, older than thought, especially rational thought originating in the neocortex. Thus, in some sense primal emotions and rational thought have an hierarchical relationship. On the one hand, we should attempt to move toward decreased negative functioning by freeing ourselves from irrational negative emotions through the use of rational thought. On the other hand, we should attempt to increase positive functioning by strengthening rational positive emotions through the expansion of empathy. Becoming reflective about our beliefs, emotions and behavior rather than being reactive is an essential task in the evolution of consciousness.

Rational thought is the best tool available for evaluating our beliefs about events and the emotional responses that those beliefs elicit. Ellis contends that our tendency to think irrationally results in distortions, flaws, and inaccuracies in our belief system. Parents, peers, community institutions, such as schools, churches, political parties, and the media can introduce distortions into our belief system, if we accept their influence uncritically. Not only are distortions possible in commonly held beliefs, but personal aspects of our belief system are prone to distortions that result from our own faulty thinking. Ellis suggests that we must evaluate our beliefs, particularly when they are leading us into dysfunctional behavior, which is usually but not always motivated by negative emotion. Ellis’ full model is ABCDE. The D in his model stands for disputation, which requires that one challenge the validity of a belief and dispute the rationales offered in its defense. If the belief is found wanting, the goal is to find a more self-affirming way of construing (believing and thinking about) events so that they don’t elicit negative emotions and dysfunctional behavior in the future. The E stands for evaluation of the subsequent results produced by the disputation process. Correctly identifying and changing irrational beliefs is not easy and may sometimes require assistance and an investment of time.

If you have any question, as most of us probably should, about the rationality of our belief system, you should undertake an exploration and evaluation of your beliefs. When engaged in such a practice, you should not attempt to suppress emotional responses because you must experience emotions in order to trace them back to the beliefs that produced them. You may want to suppress a direct behavioral response or engage in as neutral a response as possible until you are more certain about what a rational and self-affirming response would be. Exercising careful control over behavior during this practice also ensures that there is a minimal probability of your behavior exacerbating a situation. Even if the belief under examination appears to be valid and the emotion elicited by the belief is appropriate, the behavioral response motivated by the emotion could be dysfunctional either because it is situation inappropriate (you don’t really know what to do) or at an inappropriate intensity level (you over- or under react). One should always attempt to attain an optimal fit between a situation and one’s response to it.

Positive emotions such as love and compassion can also be based on irrational beliefs and lead to dysfunctional behavior, though negative emotions probably result more frequently from irrational beliefs. The critical test is whether or not the emotion leads to behavior that is self-depreciating. Avoiding reactive responses under negative circumstances can be self-enhancing and potentially beneficial both to you and to an antagonist in a situation. Initially, it is more difficult to draw on love or compassion to motivate one’s response in such a situation than to merely be emotionally detached from it. As one progresses in the evolution of consciousness, it should become easier to draw on positive feelings in a negative situation and to act from those feelings. In short, what I am proposing is that there is an emotional/behavioral continuum along which one might select a response in a given situation that runs from negative to detached to positive. For most of us, the bridge between negative and detached is probably rationality. The bridge between detached and positive is probably empathy. You may recall that in a previous presentation I talked about expanding empathy as being the way to crowd out egotism and selfishness, which are rooted in irrational beliefs.

How does one become more empathetic? The primary tool for working on empathy is perspective taking, which depends upon the development of social perception. Perspective taking is the process of trying to identify with another person and see things as you imagine they see them. There is an interesting developmental sequence that one goes through in refining perspective taking. Robert Selman, a psychologist, has found that we first learn to identify with other people on the basis of external physical similarities such as age, sex and race. Second, we learn to identify with other people on the basis of psychological similarities such as mutual interests, beliefs and attitudes. Third, we learn to identify with other people through self-reflection, that is, by recognizing social roles played by others and imagining oneself filling that role. This is the limit of social perception attained by a significant proportion of the population. Fourth, we learn to identify with others through third-person role-taking or being able to take the perspective of an abstract point-of-view. This is a significant refinement of social perspective taking that is achieved by a minority of adults. The final way in which we learn to identify with others is through a generalized perspective based on multiple, abstract social perspectives, such as, political vs. legal vs. religious vs. moral vs. personal vs. professional. In short, acquiring an understanding of another person as a complex, multidimensional social being. This is the most advanced and rarest form of social perception and permits the most sophisticated identification with others and thereby empathetic understanding of them.

The process of developing better social perception and expanding our capacity for empathy requires cultivating relationships, especially with people who we perceive as different from ourselves. Another psychologist, Sidney Jourard, has emphasized the role of what he calls the transparent-self in establishing empathetic relationships with others. What Jourard means by transparent-self is that in order to identify with another it is necessary to have some understanding of that person. The best way to gain understanding of another person is for them to be willing to share their inner self with you. One of the necessary ingredients in making this happen, according to Jourard, is a willingness to reveal yourself to that person. Revealing oneself is often threatening and a block to developing greater social perception. If you cannot reveal what you believe and feel about your own life and circumstances, it is hardly reasonable to expect someone else to do so.

Thus, the first step is to consider how functional your emotional responses are, especially in relation to the behaviors that they motivate. For example, imagine someone walking through a mall who sees their spouse having lunch with a member of the opposite sex. Further, suppose that person’s emotional reactions include anger, jealousy and betrayal. Based on this emotional reaction, the person storms into the restaurant and confronts the spouse and lunch companion with accusations of infidelity. What does this emotional reaction and behavior motivated by it suggest about the person’s beliefs? Clearly, it suggests that the spouse is not believed to be trustworthy and that the spouse is believed to be capable of infidelity. Suppose that in fact it turns out that the lunch companion is actually a legitimate business client and the lunch is purely business related. It seems reasonable to conclude that our imaginary person very likely holds some irrational beliefs and it is not hard to imagine that these beliefs will lead to disaster. On the other hand, suppose there is good reason to think that the beliefs are justified. One can still ask if the emotional and behavioral consequences in this situation are rational and self-affirming. I would argue that they are not. Further, one might ask what other beliefs does this person hold that is keeping them in a relationship in which the other party is known to be untrustworthy? How rational are those beliefs?

When you identify beliefs that are problematic, examine your belief system and deal with any irrational beliefs that lead you to dysfunctional feelings and actions. Second, even if the beliefs you hold are valid one should consider if their consequences are in balance with the situations in which they occur. Third, rational analysis and thoughtful application of what one learns from self-analysis can lead to both more self-affirming beliefs and consequences that better fit circumstances. Following this work one can most effectively begin developing social perspective taking abilities and expanding one’s empathic connection to others. The next step is to allow your improved empathetic understanding to further refine your beliefs and extend your range of positive emotional and behavioral responses, even in situations that appear to call for negative responses. Not only will this be a better response for your own spiritual development, but it will have the greatest potential for moving an antagonist in a more positive direction.

Becoming spiritually whole through the evolution of consciousness is a process. It is the process of sculpting ourselves, especially our beliefs, emotions and behavior. It is a personal journey that few if any of us will ever see completed.

Spiritual Practice and the Evolution of Consciousness

              In a previous piece, I advocated a panentheistic conceptualization of reality that entails primacy of consciousness, human consciousness as a specialized manifestation within matter, which arises from the universal field of consciousness, recurring material manifestations as a necessary experience for spiritual development, egotism and selfishness as the antithesis of a spiritual life, and the necessity of free will and personal sovereignty for the perfection of consciousness and enlightenment. The present piece will discuss the role of spiritual practice in the evolution of consciousness.

It almost goes without saying that the goal of developing one’s consciousness will be for most people a task requiring some organized effort, which is generally thought of as a spiritual practice. Edgar Cayce (a.k.a. the Sleeping Prophet) frequently addressed the core and most important step in developing a spiritual practice. That step was setting a personal ideal or a purposeful and positive intent to be used to guide one in interactions with others. Cayce recommended that such an ideal should encompass such qualities as love, service, compassion and understanding. He further suggested that as an aid to focus, an historical or fictional exemplar of one’s personal ideal might be selected.

Simply setting an ideal is not enough because to be useful it must be put into practice. An ideal is applied by using it as a standard against which to evaluate one’s thoughts and actions on a daily basis. Bear in mind that evaluation is not a judgment about good or bad. It is simply a determination of to what degree your thoughts and actions were in harmony with your intentions. Cayce counseled that the evolution of your consciousness is not determined by spiritual knowledge but how well you apply that knowledge in your actions. Cayce emphasized both thought and behavior. Thought because of his repeated admonition that “mind is the builder.” What he means here is that consciousness is primary. Who and what you are ultimately derives from your thoughts and it is these thoughts that motivate behavior, including behaviors that resonate with one’s personal ideal. Behavior then must be motivated by positive intent if it is to contribute to one’s spiritual evolution. “Good” behavior motivated by ego, coerced by social opinion or by law is done for the wrong reason and contributes nothing to spiritual evolution. Setting and following a personal ideal then is spiritual practice in it most basic sense.

The Seth entity that channeled through the writer Jane Roberts also spoke of the importance of ideals and supported Cayce’s view that the primary way in which ideals need to be expressed is through interaction with others within the context of daily life. Seth cautions that we often set very broad and general ideals as a way of avoiding having to act upon them. Such ideals seem beyond the ability of a mere individual to significantly impact, so we fail to act or expect institutions to act on our behalf. Seth also warns that people “…often believe that any means is justified in the pursuit of the ideal.” But, “Each act that is not in keeping with the ideal begins to unravel that ideal at its very core.” Seth, like Cayce, suggests that “…in your job and in your associations, are the places where you intersect with the world.” It is in these very personal and daily relationships where you have the most power to affect the world. Personal ideals can only be realized through acting on them. Seth argues that it is the cumulative effect of this type of action that changes the world. Changing the world is a bottom-up process that begins with oneself.

The book The Spirituality of Imperfection takes as its starting point the recognition that all journeys down a spiritual path begin from a state of imperfection. The authors of this book discuss some of the defining characteristics often associated with spirituality.

The first characteristic that marks the journey down a spiritual path is the experience of release. Release frees one from the burden of doubt. Release is what allows one to have faith in the correctness of the journey begun. Here is a little story about release that you’ve probably heard before:

William has fallen over a cliff and as he fell he managed to grab hold of a bush growing from the side of the cliff. There hanging on for dear life he beseeches God to save him. To his great surprise he hears a voice speaking to him. But, he is panicked by the instructions he hears for the booming voice says, “William, let go, release the bush.” William shrieks in reply, “I can’t! I’m too far up!” Again the voice says, “Put aside your doubt. Release the bush.” William considers the instruction in silence for a few moments and then calls out, “Is there anyone else up there?”

The second characteristic is gratitude. Gratitude is the only possible response to something freely given. A true gift is spontaneous and inspired rather than occasioned. A spiritual person sees the same reality that everyone else sees but recognizes reality in all its aspects as a gift. Here is a story about gratitude:

A blind man begging in a park is approached by a stranger inquiring about how generous people had been. The blind man showed the stranger his collection cup with its meager contents. The stranger asked if he might write something on the blind man’s sign. The blind man agreed. Later the stranger returned and the blind man told him that people had been very generous and asked the stranger what he had written on his sign. The stranger replied that he had written “Today is a wondrous spring day and I am grateful.”

The third characteristic is humility. True humility conveys a mild and noncompetitive manner, modesty, patience and a willingness to remove oneself from the center of the universe. Humility is most of all honesty. It has been observed that those who have humility seldom realize it and those who think they have it seldom do. Here is story about seeking humility:

A man went in search of a sage and upon finding such a man asked the sage to teach him humility. The sage told the man that he could not because humility cannot be taught. It can be learned but is learned through practice. If you cannot practice it, you cannot learn it.

 The fourth characteristic is tolerance. Most of us seek out and identify with those with whom we share strengths and enthusiasms. However, it is our shared weaknesses that truly make us alike while our strengths are what make us different. Tolerance arises out of the recognition that we all struggle with flaws, fears and sorrows. True tolerance based on shared weaknesses makes a sense of community possible. Here is story related to tolerance:

An old and religious black man applied for membership in an exclusive, white church. The pastor tried to persuade him that it was not an idea that should be pursued. The old black man said he would pray on it and maybe the Lord would tell him what to do. He returned a few weeks later and the pastor asked if the Lord had responded to his prayers. “Yes,” replied the old black man. “The Lord told me that it wasn’t any use, that He himself had been trying to get into this same church for years.”

The fifth characteristic is forgiveness. Forgiveness is possible only when will is replaced with willingness. It depends not upon effort but openness. It is not explanation nor is it forgetting. Forgiveness is simply letting go of resentment. Resentment is anger that clings to the past and revisits an old wrong, reliving over and over its pain, creating a vision of self as victim. Here is a story about forgiveness:

A former inmate at a Nazi concentration camp was visiting with a friend who had also been an inmate. The visitor asked his friend if he had forgiven the Nazis. The friend said that he had forgiven them. The visitor said that he hadn’t and hated them more than ever. “In that case,” commented the friend, “they still have you in prison.”

 The last characteristic is being-at-home. Home is that place where we are comfortable with being ourselves. It requires being able to accept ourselves where we are in all of our imperfection. It means being grounded enough to forgive ourselves and others of imperfections and to be open to forgiveness from others. Here is a story about being-at-home:

A man had been looking for many months for a church to attend. One Sunday he visited a church and heard the congregation reading these lines from a prayer book: “Lord, we have all left undone many things that we ought to have done, and we’ve all done many things that we ought not to have done. The man collapsed into a pew and muttered under his breath, “Thank God, I’ve found my people at last.”

In addition to developing a personal ideal to guide one’s thoughts and behavior, there are recognized and established spiritual practices that have a long history in human culture as methods leading to the evolution of consciousness. The following list from the book How to Know God briefly describes four major yogas or paths for spiritual practice.

Bhakti Yoga: The path of devotion. This is the path followed by most of the world’s major religions and especially Christianity in the West. It is the simplest and easiest path with a focus on ritual worship and prayer. Its characteristics are well known to most people.

 Karma Yoga: The path of God-dedicated action. This is a path often followed by those with a vigorous action-oriented temperament who feel a call to duty and service in the world of human affairs. The focus is on good works or seeking always to employ the right means toward the right ends.

Jnana Yoga: The path of intellectual discrimination. This is a difficult and solitary path only for those of considerable will and clarity of mind. Followers of this path attempt to intellectually discern between the transient and the divine in the events around them. It is a path that has produced many saints from people who would not otherwise have embraced religion in any form. The American mystic Franklin Merrill-Wolf is a possible example of someone who followed this path, as was Saint Thomas Aquinas.

 Raja Yoga: The path of meditation. This is a path that combines aspects of the previous three paths. It is primarily for those of a contemplative nature. It also includes study of the body as a vehicle for spiritual energy with a focus on the function and nature of the seven psychic centers or centers of consciousness (a.k.a., chakras or lotuses).

According to Raja yoga, the minds of those who are fully attached to the world and not yet set upon a spiritual path are governed entirely by the three lower chakras. These chakras are centered on the organs of elimination, reproduction and digestion. The chakras involved in spiritual evolution are centered on the heart, throat, forehead and top of the head. The psychic Edgar Cayce often spoke about these chakras but reversed the order of the last two, explaining that the entire system conforms roughly to the shape of a cobra posed to strike so that the top of the head corresponds to the arched neck of the cobra and the forehead to the snout. Moving upward through the centers of consciousness is marked by diminishing ego and loosening of attachment to the material world or what the American mystic Franklin Merrill-Wolff called “the high indifference.”

In the practice of Raja yoga, one focuses the mind or the form of one’s chosen ideal in a chakra first by concentration, then by meditation, which is simply prolonged and unbroken concentration. Finally, absorption or direct intuitive knowledge of the chakra is achieved.

In conclusion, the decision to set upon a spiritual path is a decision to undertake a transformation of oneself. The psychologist George Kelly made the following observation about such tipping points:

“It is not so much what a person is that counts as it is what one ventures to make of oneself. To make the leap, one must do more than disclose oneself; one must risk a certain amount of confusion. Then, as soon as one does catch a glimpse of a different kind of life, one needs to find some way of over-coming the paralyzing moment of threat, for this is the instant when one wonders what one really is — whether one is what one just was or is what one’s about to be.” (gender neutered from original)

 Addendum: In the end, it matters little if you agree with the panentheistic position. The merit to be found in articulating a statement of one’s personal ideals and then endeavoring to put them into daily practice can benefit anyone and depends upon no single philosophical or religious position.

See also:

Free Will and the Evolution of Consciousness

The Role of Belief and the Evolution of Consciousness

 

 

 

 

Goswami’s Brain-Mind Model

          The outline of Goswami’s Brain-Mind model presented below doesn’t capture all of the nuances of the development that the model received in his book The Self-aware Universe. I have used a few terms, especially in the upper part of the Figure at the end, that he doesn’t use but that I think are comparable and to which he probably would not object. For example, he uses the term Unitive Consciousness and I used the term Unified Field of Consciousness (UFC). I have also used three terms that come from David Bohm’s model (Super Implicate Order, Implicate Order and Explicate Order). Bohm indicates that the explication of a collapsing wave of possibility by its unfolding from the Implicate Order (transcendent dimension) into the Explicate Order (material dimension) is what creates our perception of time. Since in Goswami’s model the transcendent non-local consciousness, (NLC) is obscured from local consciousness (LC). I offer Bohm’s idea of how time is created as the basis for the temporal discontinuity that obscures the one from the other. Goswami does discuss a temporal discontinuity as being what obscures our unconscious programming from our conscious awareness so proposing a complimentary temporal discontinuity as the obscuring factor between NLC and LC seems reasonable and provides a certain symmetry.

I have also included in the upper portion of the figure the term Quantum Monad (QM), which is a term used by Goswami but not until a later book (The Physics of the Soul, as I recall) and is roughly equivalent to what is often thought of as a soul. A QM is  one possibility from a more complex set of possibilities which he refers to as a Bliss Body and I have referred to as an Oversoul (OS). If you think of the UFC (NLC, if you prefer) as a fabric then an OS is like one thread contributing to that fabric. An OS is too complex for explication into a single physical body/brain in the material dimension so a portion of it is explicated, i.e., a QM. Thus, LC can be thought of as a node of NLC that has its roots in the transcendent dimension but is generally unaware of its connection to the OS from which it is being projected, which in turn is an integral part of the UFC or NLC. The veil obscuring NLC from LC appears to me to be the temporal discontinuity created by the explication process.

Briefly, as a QM and it’s physical host grow and develop it is presented with many situations and choices. These choices can be thought of as a wave of possibilities with varying probabilities of being chosen and thus collapsed into actuality. Some possibilities are more probable than others for a variety of reasons, including biological programming (e.g., an innate preference for a sweet taste) and socio/cultural influences operating from outside the individual nudging him or her toward particular choices (e.g., parental preferences). Choices have outcomes and if an outcome is rewarding the same choice becomes more probable in future situations in which the previous choice is present. On the other hand, if the outcome is punitive the choice becomes less probable. Eventually, a program based on classical memory and consisting of a type of situation, a choice and an outcome is created and becomes an automatic process that operates beneath conscious awareness. Thus, our life is shaped over time and eventually the vast majority of our thinking, feeling and behavior arise from automatic programs (APs) [see Chapter One, page 21] that keep us largely on autopilot (some suggest as much as 99.99% of our activity is on autopilot). The choice made by an AP is what we sometimes refer to as the “path of least resistance.” Conscious awareness is engaged with dealing with those situations that arise for which we don’t have automatic programs to engage the situation. Conscious awareness also observes the thoughts, feelings and behaviors arising from the unconscious APs. There is a demonstrated brief time lag between the choice made by an AP and awareness of it and its execution.

One effect of this temporal discontinuity is that conscious awareness begins to generate an explanation for why certain thoughts, feelings and/or behaviors are occurring. What evolves is a “fictive self” or agent that is allegedly responsible for these occurrences and constructs an explanation for them or one’s personal narrative. This agent is also referred to as self, ego and I. Thus, if one defines “free will” as the ability to make lower probability choices than the automatic and high probability choice that we would make on autopilot, then the most basic exercise of “free will” is the ability to say “no” to an AP choice arising from outside of awareness. One obstacle to doing this other than the effort required is that often the time lag between decision and awareness is long enough that the temporal discontinuity obscures the operation of the AP. Thus, our action appears to be a reflex response that seems to be coincident with awareness.

Goswami suggests that one effect of meditation practice is that this time lag diminishes and the temporal discontinuity obscuring one’s AP from conscious awareness is weakened. The other effect at this level is that sitting quietly and allowing thoughts and feelings to arise into awareness and pass through provides practice in not reflexively acting on such thoughts and feelings. Goswami likens a thought to a quantum object. One can focus on and follow a thought and observe its path or one can focus on its content and explore the richness of its content but one can’t do both at the same time. Thus, a thought can be compared to either a wave form or a particle form. In meditation, one attempts to develop skill at avoiding following or exploring the thoughts and feelings that arise into consciousness. Thus, systematic application of meditation to develop local consciousness helps one acquire the tools needed to be less of a victim of AP and more deliberate or mindful about one’s choices.

Meditation can also help one bridge the temporal discontinuity obscuring LC from NLC. By learning to deliberately minimize one’s attention to stimuli being generated by APs and the external conditions that activate them, it becomes possible to more easily access NLC. One effect of this is to open the doors to a more creative life since NLC contains infinite possibilities although with limits on the degree LC can engage them. Goswami suggests that Jung’s collective unconscious is an aspect of NLC and that the archetypes (defined as quantum objects) that are available therein constrain the infinite possibilities to a set available for exploitation by humanity. These constraints on possibility along with constraints on choices shaped by biology, language and culture are what create the consensus reality that permits a sense of shared experience. Personally, I view consensus reality at its broadest as a “fictive self” for the species and somewhat more narrowly as a “fictive self” for any given society. Finally, weakening the temporal discontinuity between LC and NLC also opens up the possibility of direct experience of the UFC, which many mystics have described as experiencing the unity of all things or merging with the mind of God.