Tag Archives: self-realization

Howling Wolf Interviews Jessie Christenson

It is my pleasure to present the first and long-awaited interview with Jessie Christenson, the world-renowned author and playwright. Jessie’s work is often acclaimed for its authenticity and remarkable insight into the dynamics of human personality and culture. In this interview, I’ll try to drill down and tap into the source of knowledge that allows him to create remarkable works of art that have garnered almost every literary award worth mentioning. For brevity, I’ll simply use initials to indicate who is speaking. The following is a transcript of the live interview done with Jessie over Zoom. Subscribers can watch the video of the interview on the Howling Wolf web site. Let’s dive in.

HW:     Jessie, can you fill us in a little on your background. I have heard that both of your parents were cultural anthropologists. Were you able to spend much time with them as you grew up?

JC:       Yes, both of my parents were anthropologists. They spent a lot of time in the field studying indigenous people and especially their language and culture. I was fortunate to be able to go along on all of their expeditions.

HW:     You obviously are educated, so how was this accomplished in the field?

JC:       Pretty much the way education took place for most of human history. You might think of it as a community effort. I was taught formal skills such as composition, grammar, mathematics and science by my parents. Most of my formal education was through independent study materials under the supervision of my parents. However, there was a much broader informal dimension to my education that came from immersion in the culture around me and guidance from members of the indigenous community.

HW:     Was there any informal component in particular that was, in your view, especially important to your development as a writer?

JC:       Yes. I think the experience that was most transformative for me was an extended expedition that my parents undertook to study a group of indigenous people who were very isolated and had had very limited contact with the world outside of their village.

HW:     How long did this extended expedition last?

JC:        We lived among The People for six years.

HW:      That is a long time for a kid. How old were you during this period?

JC:         I lived with The People between the ages of 12 and 18.

HW:      You refer to your hosts as The People. Do they have a name?

JC:         Of course, but their name for themselves, in their language, simply means The People. Thus, I just refer to them as The People because the word in their language is difficult for English speakers to pronounce and would be a meaningless sound in any case.

HW:      So, what was the nature of the transformative educational experience that you had while living with The People?

JC:         It was grounded in a relationship that developed between myself and a person that I will call the village shaman, though The People used a different name. Their shaman was a very old and very wise woman who served as a combination physician and spiritual guide. Before you ask her name, I’ll just say that I came to simply call her by the word in The People’s language for grandma.

HW:      Grandma?

JC:         Yes. Many of the young people in the tribe referred to her in that way, and I did as well. Also, she was certainly old enough to be my grandmother, and given our life style, I had little opportunity to cultivate a relationship with my actual grandmothers who were thousands of miles away for most of my life.

HW:      OK. So, Grandma it is. What did you learn from Grandma that gave you such a deep insight into people and their ways?

JC:         At first, I just hung around her some when I wasn’t doing schoolwork. After a year or so, I had picked up enough of the language for simple communication. She began to take an interest in me and helped me with the language. Eventually, I became adept enough with the language and the culture that I was able to question her about her activities. This is when she began to mentor me in her perspective on the world and when my true education began.

HW:      What did you learn from her that was so transformative?

JC:         To begin with, she began teaching me about the nature of the world as she understood it. She talked about what would translate into English as “spirits.” The basic system she taught was that all life is the manifestation of what I would describe as an energy field, though in her language it was called the spirit realm. In humans, she taught that we have seven major points of connection with this field. In her terms, we are potentially under the influence of seven spirits. Each connection links to what might be described as a drive or program. Again, Grandma talked in terms of the guidance or influence that flowed from each of these spirits. How you function depends on which of these connections (spirits) is dominant.

HW:      What was it about this system that she taught you that gave you such a solid grasp of human beings’ motivations and behaviors?

JC:         I learned from her that virtually all of humanity is dominated by one of three programs or drives.

HW:      So, pretty much everyone is driven by one of these three programs or drives?

JC:         That isn’t quite right. Everyone is dominated by one of the three, but the other two serve in a supporting role. Thus, the underlying dynamic is a triad. Think of a triangle where the focus is the apex of the triangle.

HW:      What are these three basic drives or programs?

JC:         Each of the core drives can be associated with a function. The first is safety. The second is sex. The third is status.

HW:      So, these three drives are all that one needs to understand human motivation and behavior?

JC:         Yes, or at least almost. There are other connections that can activate and come into play, but the vast majority of human beings and their cultures are entangled in these three core programs.

HW:      Okay, let’s take one of them and unpack it. Why not the first one — safety.

JC:         Fine. Safety is a biological imperative. If one isn’t safe then there is little if any hope for success at sexual reproduction or of achieving social status. The drive for safety leads to fear of anything that can be imagined to pose a threat. Most individuals and most cultures are strongly influenced by fear. From fear comes suspicion of others and their motives. This in turn leads to defensiveness, which can be no more than a psychological attitude or can progress to more overt forms. Fear- driven defensiveness leads to prejudgments about people, usually grounded in superficial characteristics such as race, ethnicity or class. The result is an “us” against “them” mentality.

HW:      I think I see how fear unfolds from a drive for safety in individuals. How does this translate into culture?

JC:         Fear at the cultural level is usually exhibited as aggressiveness, which can range from violent behavior to “friendly” competition. You know the old saying that the best defense is a good offense. Culturally, this aggressiveness will show up in some sports, movies, television and video games, to name a few. On another level, one can see it clearly in institutions such as police forces, Homeland Security and in military organizations. All of these institutions need an “enemy” to employ their protective mandates against. These can range from criminals, individuals from a cultural outgroup, terrorists who are acting out of their own safety drive and fear and finally, state actors who can be cast as a large scale evil that threatens the nation and are targets for major military campaigns, or at least preparation for one.

HW:      This drive appears to be almost fractal in the way that it grows and expands into evermore complex patterns that acquire all kinds of rationales as it evolves. But, if we understand this, isn’t that the key to deconstructing it?

JC:         You and I might be able to deconstruct it, but most people are totally oblivious to the underlying dynamics. They see only the surface manifestations without ever drilling down to the roots from which these surface manifestations spring. One might say they act as if they are blind or asleep.

HW:      I think I’m beginning to understand what some people mean by “waking up.” Let’s delve into another drive. What about the second drive? What about sex?

JC:         This one is much easier to observe because it has become ubiquitous, in Western life, through mass media. Evolution has given humans a strong sex drive that is largely motivated by pleasure, but there are some other factors such as a commonly experienced biological impetus in women for children. The underlying purpose of sex is reproduction, but pleasure is a potent reinforcing motivation for engaging in sex, which frequently results in conception whether intended or not.

HW:      Modern contraceptives seem to have undermined this drive to a large extent, as evidenced by falling birth rates around the globe.

JC:         That is true, and it may be a good thing given the pressures of over population. However, a decline in reproduction will have no impact on pleasure-driven sex as a major motivating drive. While reproduction was the primary evolutionary goal, the method used to achieve it continues to apply with or without reproduction.

HW:      So, with reproduction declining, what other role does the sex drive play in motivation and culture?

JC:         A very big role. Think about all the permutations that sexuality has undergone. If you examine the stories that surround biologically based sex-related behavior, what you see is an explanation generated by culture with individual adaptation to the cultural story about that behavior.

HW:      Could you give an example of what you mean by cultural explanations or cultural stories?

JC:         Sure. Take for example sexual attraction. The biology of sexual attraction is designed to direct one toward sexual partners that are likely to produce viable and successful offspring. This is a biological program that the individual and culture needs to explain. You have this set of preferences and behaviors that seem to mysteriously arise from outside of awareness. The individual experiencing them didn’t arrive at these preferences and related behaviors by any rational or thoughtful process. They just asserted themselves. The human ego evolved to mediate between our internal programs and the environment. The ego likes to feel it is in control of what is going on. A spontaneous arising of preferences and behaviors demands an explanation that rationalizes them. Early on in our species history, individual egos set out to generate a plausible explanation or story governing how these preferences and behaviors are actually “chosen” by an individual. Over time these individual stories aggregate into a cultural explanation and individuals acquire the story through enculturation.

Once the explanation or story is in place, it is dynamic. This means that it evolves and adapts over time and may become, to some degree, divorced from the biological program, which was its initial reason for being. Thus, we see different cultures employ somewhat different stories and different expectations based on those stories but almost never a variation that is contrary to the biological imperative for reproduction. The dynamic nature of these stories also results in all sorts of effects. Explanations for sexual attraction lead to effects on social behaviors, mannerisms, notions of attractiveness, clothing styles, hair styles, cosmetics and grooming in general, which in turn impacts businesses, entertainment and the economy. Thus, the fractal nature of the permutations referred to earlier.

HW:      Well, that is fascinating. I had never thought about how so much of what permeates everyday life is actually generated by a basic biological program. Can you give a couple of more examples?

JC:         OK. Another permutation with its origins in the basic biological program that motivates reproduction also impacts what culturally we often label “mother love.” There is a biological program that kicks in when the sex drive achieves reproduction. Hormonal changes are elicited in both sexes, but especially in the female, that has a bonding effect between the mother and the child. Along with this bonding effect comes a “halo effect” so that the child is viewed as “perfect or precious.” The hormonal changes also produce a strong positive affect toward the child. These feelings motivate nurturance and protection of the child so that it can develop into an adult and repeat the process. This whole process has been explained through the cultural stories concerning the “joys” of motherhood, the “gift” of children, the importance of family, and so on. However, to keep things brief, I’ll bring this example to a close. Based on the discussion above, I think you and your audience can work out any further details for yourself.

Briefly, I’ll mention one more cultural theme tied to the basic sex program embedded in our biology. This one relates to the cultural stories or rules that have evolved to manage marriage and family. The rules relating to marriage generally are tied to the story about sexual attraction. Under the best of conditions, the cultural story about who one should be attracted to and why are interfaced with who one should marry. For example, in some cultures, the story employs the notion of “romantic love” to tie together the rules of attraction and marriage. In other cultures, the story employs the notion that this is a matter for the family to decide based on the “better judgment” of the parents. In such cases, the role of economics and social status have become the dominant themes in the story. This can create conflict when the cultural story doesn’t interface very well with the “laws of attraction” grounded in the basic biological program. You can no doubt think of other stories.

HW:      Your mention of social status reminds me that status is the third program or drive that you mentioned as forming the basic motivational triangle. Let’s talk a little about this program.

JC:         OK. The next step in the base motivational triangle is social status. The drive for status within the social group has obvious ties to the other two programs, that is, safety and sex. Status is one way of enhancing one’s importance to the social group and thereby gain better control of resources needed for safety. Status also generally plays a role in determining one’s attractiveness as a sexual partner.

HW:      So, social status is basically a way enhance one’s position relative to safety and sex?

JC:         Yes. You can see the importance of status by looking at almost any social organization, whether it is a social class, professional, religious, business, political, military or some other type of social organization. All of these organizations have hierarchies based on the relative prestige of the levels in the hierarchy, usually based on the associated decision-making power, economic power or a combination of both.

HW:      Can you give us a couple of examples?

JC:         Sure. Take one of the most obvious such as a military organization. Almost everyone is already generally familiar with the ranking structure in a military organization. Clearly, as one’s rank rises, decision-making power increases as well as income. The relationship of military organizations to national safety or defense issues is obvious.

HW:      Yes, that one is pretty obvious. How about one less obvious?

JC:         How about a social institution such as academia. This is an institutional structure about which a lot of people have only a vague knowledge but is as complex or more complex than a military organization. I won’t bore you with a lot of detail, but there is hierarchy between institutions and specialty areas within institutions. This is further stratified by ranks within the teaching faculty and research faculty. Institutional administration is largely independent of faculty and has a hierarchy of its own. This could be explicated further, but I think you get the idea. You can drill down for the complete details easily enough, if motivated to do so. Decision-making power exists within these institutions, but the institutions as represented by individuals within them also can exercise power in the society at large. One example would be consultants to government, business and even the military, whose expertise and opinions are widely sought and respected.

HW:      Let’s see if I can summarize this for our viewers. Almost everyone is controlled by three basic biological drives or programs. These are safety, sex and status. The first ensures that one reaches sexual maturity and at least has a chance to become sexually active, which increases the probability of the second (reproduction). The third provides a method for improving one’s chances for safety and of becoming sexually active. All of this is to a large degree opaque due to the degree of cultural elaboration built up on these three basic programs. The cultural customs, taboos and formal rules are secondary to the basic programs but help explain, structure and justify the behavior motivated by the basic programs. Most of us are totally absorbed in playing out our lives within the cultural narrative that we live in and using that narrative to derive contextual meaning for our lives. Most people are “blinded” for their entire lives by their identification with cultural and personal narratives.

JC:         That seems like a fair summary. Keep in mind that the secondary elaboration on these three basic programs is very diverse and complex, which makes the basic processes less obvious than one might suppose. This complex is often what is meant when we invoke the concept of “world.” The world in this sense is a complex of ideas, concepts, beliefs and expectations that govern a drama called “human culture and civilization” performed on a stage called earth. Whatever aspect of the world you might have a question about, you could do worse than deconstructing it with the goal of finding the underlying biological programs and how they relate to the phenomenon motivating your question.

HW:      In your comments, you have hedged a bit here and there about just how pervasive is our entanglement in cultural and personal narratives. Do you wish to comment on that?

JC:         All right. I have hedged about pervasiveness because there are always a few people, during any period of time, who rise above cultural and personal narratives and see beyond them.

HW:      How do these people rise above narratives?

JC:         These people are known in some circles as awake. What they have awakened to is their narratives and their entanglement within them. Once awakened, the individual gains a new perspective on life that helps him or her sees through the filters imposed by personal and cultural narrative. One also becomes more aware of the basic drives or programs underlying the narratives and thereby less subject to their demands.

HW:       So they are no longer responsive to narratives and their underlying programs?

JC:         They may still respond to bio/social narratives with discernment when necessary. Just because one can see clearly that one is living in a complex drama doesn’t mean that it no longer can affect you. Thus, to live in the “world” is of necessity to play a part in the drama. However, even one who is aware of being an actor in a complex drama must be careful not to get lost in the drama. This is best avoided by acting only in situations where it is truly necessary, acting as impeccably as possible and having no expectations about the outcome. In short, not getting emotionally attached to any one possible outcome in the situation. One might described this approach as being in the world through a state of “compassionate indifference.”

HW:      I see how acquiring an objective perspective on learned personal and cultural narratives can be liberating. However, can one liberate oneself from biological programs?

JC:         Yes, however, I would like to point out that we are all threads of Consciousness making use of complex biological avatars that have evolved specifically to provide us a vehicle through which we can gain experience. Thus, one should not have as a goal to liberate oneself from biological programs just because such liberation is possible, at least in some cases. To be aware of biological programs and how they operate through you is desirable. To selectively choose, on a rational basis, not to be “driven” by a biological program is reasonable. Tinkering with a biological program, when such tinkering is possible, can be justified. This is clearly another case for the application of discernment.

I also would make a distinction between biological programs. There are what the researcher John Lilly called “death” programs that simply can’t be eliminated, for example, the program that lies behind thirst. Then there are all the other innate biological programs such as those related to sex and reproduction. Finally, there are acquired programs that have a biological substrate but aren’t in and of themselves innate, for example, addictions. Discernment can be applied to both biological and learned narratives. One does not have to respond to impulses arising from biological impulses, whether they are innate or acquired, as is the case with addictions. One can even choose not to respond to impulses from “death” programs but only for short periods of time.

HW:      I would imagine that it is difficult to choose not to respond to biological impulses.

JC:         Some impulses are, of course, more powerful than others, and this can vary across individuals. However, the first step is to inhibit an automatic reaction to the impulse. I should say here that a distinction needs to be made between impulses and reflexes. When you have an impulse to eat a piece of cake or smoke a cigarette, that is different from a reflex that pulls your hand back from something hot.

One probably should not try to inhibit a reflex unless it is clear that the reflex is dysfunctional. There are ways of “unlearning” or counterconditioning reflexes that have become associated with inappropriate eliciting antecedents. However, in the case of unwanted impulses, modification or even elimination is possible. One can sometimes inhibit emitting a response by “force of will,” which is a skill that is poorly developed in most people and may actually have the opposite result in any case. That is, trying to will the impulse away places intense attention on it and this can actually give it strength. But, if that works for you, then go with it.

Another approach is becoming present with something other than the impulse that is in the moment. Think of this as a diversionary tactic. For example, becoming absorbed in the smell of a flower, the sound of a bird chirping or watching your pet play with a toy. It doesn’t matter as long as it is available now. Of course, it is easy to be present with the impulse but becoming present with the impulse is a bit like unpacking a thought and becoming entangled in it. It takes over. Keep your attention off of the impulse even though you may still be aware of it. If not given attention, it will naturally subside just as it naturally arose — independent of your volition.

One caveat, if you have developed your ability to monitor your thoughts, emotions, impulses and so forth objectively as a mere observer or witness, then you can successfully give that form of attention to an impulse as a way of letting it run its course without responding to it. Many dedicated meditators have acquired this mode of self-monitoring but most people can’t do it.

HW: Does “waking up” imply arriving at some other level of motivation?

JC:         Yes, at least in a manner of speaking. There are “spiritual energies” that lie above the basic programs. One of these is compassion.

HW:      Could you elaborate a bit on compassion?

JC:         Yes. Compassion is a combination of empathy and a predisposition toward supportive actions. A deep feeling of compassion can lead to living a life rooted in unconditional acceptance of others and a willingness to help them, if possible. This means acting from Love, not to be confused with biological bonding or cultural notions of love, whether romantic, religious or familial.

HW:      How does the transformation from living through personal and cultural narratives to living through compassion come about?

JC:         The core levels are bio/social and mostly reactive. Spiritual unfolding takes one through Grace. One can, however, prepare oneself to be ready to best take advantage of Grace, if it happens. Compassion (a.k.a. the state of “I AM-ness”) is a midpoint between the core motives and true spiritual unfolding. I often refer to this state as the natural mind by which I mean one has reacquired the ability to enter unconditioned awareness.

HW:      What do you mean by reacquire?

JC:         Infants and very young children live in a state of unconditioned awareness. This is sometimes described as a state in which bottom-up perception dominates. This state is eroded as the core motives are activated and especially when these begin to elicit an evolving personal narrative and to engage the extant cultural narrative.

What begins to develop with narration is a large repertoire of conditioned or learned ways of seeing and responding to events within oneself and the environment. With this development there is a shift toward top-down perception. In short, perceptions are filtered through both personal and cultural constructs or, as some might say, through stories about the world and ourselves. Thus, if one learns to voluntarily shift from top-down perception into bottom-up perception, then one can be said to have reacquired a previous state of being.

HW:      Since you use the term “reacquire,” I assume that this is neither a reflexive state or a state of Grace?

JC:         Correct. This is something that one can directly influence.

HW:      How?

JC:         First, you need to carefully observe and consider the drama unfolding through your life and come to see and recognize when learned constructs are guiding your perceptions. When those constructs are recognized, especially as dysfunctional, you need to desensitize yourself to their control over your thoughts, emotions and behavior. Contemplative and meditative practices, among others, can be useful in initiating and working through this process.

Second, you need to work toward learning to make decisions and take actions using discernment. By this, I mean seeing situations as they actually are, not as they are construed through narrative filters, and then arriving at an appropriate response. In many cases, an appropriate response will be no response. In other cases, if your compassion arises, you take the most compassionate response available to you.

Third, your response should be performed with impeccability and followed with equanimity. The former means to the very best of your ability and the latter means without an emotional attachment to the outcome. Equanimity is especially important because it is your defense against becoming entangled in the narrative context that you have, of necessity, engaged.

HW:      What are the transformations beyond compassion?

JC:         There are three states beyond I Am-ness. The fifth state is Self-realization by which is meant that one experiences one’s higher Self or a state of pure being. After that comes what some might call God Consciousness or Christ Consciousness, in which one fully experiences non-duality and Divine Love. Finally, there is Unity Consciousness, in which one experiences merger with the whole and knows that ultimately there is nothing but Source, Consciousness or God, as you will. A state of Love-Bliss.

HW:      Wow. That takes us a long way from where we started. Would you care to elaborate on any of these?

JC:         Not really. These last three conditions, in particular, affect very, very few people and play little role in coming to see how I understand humanity and express that understanding in my work. However, if enough people were to work toward and reacquire their natural mind, civilization and humanity would be transformed for the better regardless of what transformations may lie beyond.

HW:      Thank you for sharing with us.

JC:         It has been my pleasure.

                

Discernment and Acting in the World

This essay is in large part grounded in two earlier essays: The Nature of Evil and The Natural Mind. A brief summary of those two essays is included but reading the essays could also be helpful.

          In the Nature of Evil essay it was posited that within relative reality, which is subsumed by absolute reality, there is a bipolar conception of behavior that ranges from ignorant at one end to enlightened at the other end. Of course, as with any bipolar construct one might define a number of intermediate positions between the anchor points at either end of the dimension. In the earlier essay, ignorant behavior was defined as including what is generally thought of as “evil” but went on to include many types of behavior that probably would not generally be thought of as evil, though they might still be considered wrong. The core defining characteristic of ignorant behavior is perceiving everything external to oneself (subject) as an “object” suitable to be used in anyway one sees fit to meet one’s needs and especially wants (egocentric). Wants in this case being something that one has no objective need for but has acquired a desire to possess or consume in some manner. Objects external to the self can be anything, including material objects, social structures and biological organisms, especially other people. The core defining characteristic of enlightenment is Self-realization or recognition that one’s consciousness is in fact not an individual phenomenon but is a localized manifestation of a unified and universal Consciousness, which becomes the operative form of Consciousness within enlightenment (Oneness). Some residual subject/object functioning remains a necessity even for an enlightened person, due to the necessity of operating in a relativistic context. However, egocentric wants will no longer drive the motivational state of such a person, and thus such a person will not view objects in the world to be simple means to an end.

In The Natural Mind essay, a state of functioning that might be thought of a ego-free but without unity with universal Consciousness was described. A state of child-like innocence was offered as a state analogous to the natural mind. The Natural Mind is a follow-up to a discussion of ways in which one can work to eliminate or modify conditioned programs that govern much of our emotional/behavioral functioning. Methods for working on conditioned, automatic programs (APs) [see sub-section in Part I). These conditioned programs are acquired largely through our socialization and come to be organized around and understood through a narrative, which may consist of multiple related stories, constructed from our memories. In the essay, this narrative was called the fictive-self. Neutralizing many of our conditioned ways of interpreting the physical and social environment facilitates becoming free of ego-driven thinking, feeling and acting; i.e., deconstructing and ending our identification with the fictive-self. Once operating from the natural mind, one is available for (i.e., not resisting) a transformation of consciousness through an opening to universal Consciousness. This is not, however, something that one can “make” happen but must allow to take one (see the brief essay Taken).

The question then arises as to how one functions in the relative world when no longer motivated by the fictive-self (egocentric self) and is not yet an open channel for universal Consciousness. As long as one lives in the relative, there will be choices arising out of the dualistic underpinnings of relative reality. Jon Marc Hammer in one of his books makes an interesting distinction. Hammer referred to the earth and the world as being distinct. The former is Gaia-like, which according to Wikipedia, refers to a hypothesis proposing that “…organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a self-regulating, complex system that contributes to maintaining the conditions for life on the planet.” Hammer would go one step further and say that this complex system is an organism and that all components of it arise out of Consciousness and to varying degrees possess consciousness. The world according to Hammer is a complex of ideas, concepts, beliefs and expectations that govern a drama called “human culture and civilization” performed on a stage called earth. Hammer’s drama recalls to mind some lines from a poem (Outlaw) I wrote many years ago in an effort to capture a truth revealed to me during a noetic event (see note at end)*. Several lines from that poem: :

And the man knew God

And he was made free.

All history and tradition

Culture and words

Rescinded — Grace.

Freedom from the past

And from the future.

An outlaw.

Eckhart Tolle makes a similar distinction albeit on a smaller scale. He speaks of one’s life-situation versus one’s life. Your life-situation is analogous to how you “stand” in relation to the world. Your life is related to your role as one of the biological organisms of which the earth is partially comprised. The world and life-situations are governed by the mind while the earth and life are governed by natural processes.

Consider the world to be a large web spun around the earth. The strands comprising this web can, for example, be thought of, but not limited to: political systems and ideologies, systems of law and concepts of justice, economic and financial systems, occupations, art, music, fashion, religions, philosophies, moral systems, science and technology, social mores, educational systems, systems of kinship and social classes based on racial, ethnic, wealth, gender and various other characteristics. One’s life-situation results from the strands one identifies with and uses to define oneself through. Now, imagine that all human life were eliminated from the earth. What would happen to this web comprising the world that most of us think of as reality? It would vanish instantly, clearly showing that it was not real at all but simply the product of the mind. What would happen to the earth and life? They would continue on following the natural processes that have always ordered them.

A person acting from a conditioned mind is entangled in the world and cannot see beyond it. When one is functioning from a conditioned mind or ego, choices are ruled by APs, which are conditioned programs, many of which reflect beliefs, opinions and expectations that we have adopted about the world. Such choices are often described as judgments or prejudices. Someone who has regained their natural mind acts through the application of refined thought or discernment. Thus, the natural mind functions in the world through the development and practice of discernment. Discernment means seeing the “unfiltered” nature of things or seeing through the web. Thus, the natural mind must weave its way through the world distinguishing between essential and superficial characteristics when choices must be made.

Do understand that the web comprising the world is not an illusion and has real consequences that one must take into account. However, the natural mind helps give one a perspective on the web that opens the possibility of navigating it without becoming lost in it. The American mystic Franklin Merrill-Wolff spoke of what he called the “high indifference,” by which he seemed to be referring to this ability to rise above the web and gain some perspective on it. This does not mean one is indifferent to the real needs of the living but only that one responds to them independent of egoistic influences. While Merrill-Wolff recognized that it is virtually impossible to completely disengage from the world, he thought that one could function in the world without being of the world. The natural mind is grounded in life and being not in the world of the mind or as Leonard Jacobson prefers, “…in the world of time.”

Some choices involve simple preferences and do not require discernment. For example, given a choice between several flavors of creamer for your coffee, personal preferences are adequate for making a choice. However, having found your way back to the natural mind, one no longer has beliefs and opinions (prejudgments) to rely upon in making most choices. One is left with discernment as the basis for making these choices. This means carefully considering the worldly context for a choice and then determining the best course of action, which minimizes any potential harm that might result from the choice to yourself or others and making choices that could potentially be life enhancing. This seems to be close to what the Buddhist mean by right action. There are no hard and fast rules for right action. However, if one approaches decision points without being entangled in and identified with the world, one will usually intuitively understand what to do. For those who have freed themselves from the conditioned mind, right action arises from the heart, not the mind.

* A noetic event, in my experience, is a shift in consciousness that, while it may not always be permanent, one nevertheless never fully returns from it. You can read more about noetic events in my life here: A Personal Odyssey. The term “noetic” was popularized by the moon astronaut Edgar Mitchel who used the term to describe something that happened to him on the way back from the moon. He subsequently founded the Institute for Noetic Sciences (IONS) to study noetic events.

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 who 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 represent a human life and 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 control 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 take control of 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 gaining control of 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 in control of 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 there 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, an ego or 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 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 they perceive. That one perspective is relative and the other absolute means that each talks past 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, Cosmic Intelligence, the Divine, God or whatever label one wants to apply, manifest a simulation like the world, if it serves no purpose and the activity of the avatars within it 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 contribution to the whole, the simulation is transcended, in a manner of speaking, 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 speaks to no purpose.

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 introspective observation 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” and 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 freedom.

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 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 mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness 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 beneath 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 mindfulness 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.