It is my pleasure to present the first and long-awaited interview with Jessie Christenson, the world-renowned author and playwright. Jessie’s work is often acclaimed for its authenticity and remarkable insight into the dynamics of human personality and culture. In this interview, I’ll try to drill down and tap into the source of knowledge that allows him to create remarkable works of art that have garnered almost every literary award worth mentioning. For brevity, I’ll simply use initials to indicate who is speaking. The following is a transcript of the live interview done with Jessie over Zoom. Subscribers can watch the video of the interview on the Night Owl web site. Let’s dive in.
NO: Jessie, can you fill us in a little on your background. I have heard that both of your parents were cultural anthropologists. Were you able to spend much time with them as you grew up?
JC: Yes, both of my parents were anthropologists. They spent a lot of time in the field studying indigenous people and especially their language and culture. I was fortunate to be able to go along on all of their expeditions.
NO: You obviously are educated, so how was this accomplished in the field?
JC: Pretty much the way education took place for most of human history. You might think of it as a community effort. I was taught formal skills such as composition, grammar, mathematics and science by my parents. Most of my formal education was through independent study materials under the supervision of my parents. However, there was a much broader informal dimension to my education that came from immersion in the culture around me and guidance from members of the indigenous community.
NO: Was there any informal component in particular that was, in your view, especially important to your development as a writer?
JC: Yes. I think the experience that was most transformative for me was an extended expedition that my parents undertook to study a group of indigenous people who were very isolated and had had very limited contact with the world outside of their village.
NO: How long did this extended expedition last?
JC: We lived among The People for six years.
NO: That is a long time for a kid. How old were you during this period?
JC: I lived with The People between the ages of 12 and 18.
NO: You refer to your hosts as The People. Do they have a name?
JC: Of course, but their name for themselves, in their language, simply means The People. Thus, I just refer to them as The People because the word in their language is difficult for English speakers to pronounce and would be a meaningless sound in any case.
NO: So, what was the nature of the transformative educational experience that you had while living with The People?
JC: It was grounded in a relationship that developed between myself and a person that I will call the village shaman, though The People used a different name. Their shaman was a very old and very wise woman who served as a combination physician and spiritual guide. Before you ask her name, I’ll just say that I came to simply call her by the word in The People’s language for grandma.
JC: Yes. Many of the young people in the tribe referred to her in that way, and I did as well. Also, she was certainly old enough to be my grandmother, and given our life style, I had little opportunity to cultivate a relationship with my actual grandmothers who were thousands of miles away for most of my life.
NO: OK. So, Grandma it is. What did you learn from Grandma that gave you such a deep insight into people and their ways?
JC: At first, I just hung around her some when I wasn’t doing schoolwork. After a year or so, I had picked up enough of the language for simple communication. She began to take an interest in me and helped me with the language. Eventually, I became adept enough with the language and the culture that I was able to question her about her activities. This is when she began to mentor me in her perspective on the world and when my true education began.
NO: What did you learn from her that was so transformative?
JC: To begin with, she began teaching me about the nature of the world as she understood it. She talked about what would translate into English as “spirits.” The basic system she taught was that all life is the manifestation of what I would describe as an energy field, though in her language it was called the spirit realm. Humans, she taught, have seven major points of connection with this field. In her terms, we are potentially under the influence of seven spirits. Each connection links to what might be described as a drive or program. Again, Grandma talked in terms of the guidance or influence that flowed from each of these spirits. How you function depends on which of these connections (spirits) is dominant.
NO: What was it about this system that she taught you that gave you such a solid grasp of human beings’ motivations and behaviors?
JC: I learned from her that virtually all of humanity is dominated by one of three programs or drives.
NO: So, pretty much everyone is driven by one of these three programs or drives?
JC: That isn’t quite right. Everyone is dominated by one of the three, but the other two serve in a supporting role. Thus, the underlying dynamic is a triad. Think of a triangle where the focus is the apex of the triangle.
NO: What are these three basic drives or programs?
JC: Each of the core drives can be associated with a function. The first is safety. The second is sex. The third is status.
NO: So, these three drives are all that one needs to understand human motivation and behavior?
JC: Yes, or at least almost. There are other connections that can activate and come into play, but the vast majority of human beings and their cultures are entangled in these three core programs.
NO: Okay, let’s take one of them and unpack it. Why not the first one — safety.
JC: Fine. Safety is a biological imperative. If one isn’t safe then there is little if any hope for success at sexual reproduction or of achieving social status. The drive for safety leads to fear of anything that can be imagined to pose a threat. Most individuals and most cultures are strongly influenced by fear. From fear comes suspicion of others and their motives. This in turn leads to defensiveness, which can be no more than a psychological attitude or can progress to more overt forms. Fear- driven defensiveness leads to prejudgments about people, usually grounded in superficial characteristics such as race, ethnicity or class. The result is an “us” against “them” mentality.
NO: I think I see how fear unfolds from a drive for safety in individuals. How does this translate into culture?
JC: Fear at the cultural level is usually exhibited as aggressiveness, which can range from violent behavior to “friendly” competition. You know the old saying that the best defense is a good offense. Culturally, this aggressiveness will show up in some sports, movies, television and video games, to name a few. On another level, one can see it clearly in institutions such as police forces, Homeland Security and in military organizations. All of these institutions need an “enemy” to employ their protective mandates against. These can range from criminals, individuals from a cultural outgroup, terrorists who are acting out of their own safety drive and fear and finally, state actors who can be cast as a large scale evil that threatens the nation and are targets for major military campaigns, or at least preparation for one.
NO: This drive appears to be almost fractal in the way that it grows and expands into evermore complex patterns that acquire all kinds of rationales as it evolves. But, if we understand this, isn’t that the key to deconstructing it?
JC: You and I might be able to deconstruct it, but most people are totally oblivious to the underlying dynamics. They see only the surface manifestations without ever drilling down to the roots from which these surface manifestations spring. One might say they act as if they are blind or asleep.
NO: I think I’m beginning to understand what some people mean by “waking up.” Let’s delve into another drive. What about the second drive? What about sex?
JC: This one is much easier to observe because it has become ubiquitous, in Western life, through mass media. Evolution has given humans a strong sex drive that is largely motivated by pleasure, but there are some other factors such as a commonly experienced biological impetus in women for children. The underlying purpose of sex is reproduction, but pleasure is a potent reinforcing motivation for engaging in sex, which frequently results in conception whether intended or not.
NO: Modern contraceptives seem to have undermined this drive to a large extent, as evidenced by falling birth rates around the globe.
JC: That is true, and it may be a good thing given the pressures of over population. However, a decline in reproduction will have no impact on pleasure-driven sex as a major motivating drive. While reproduction was the primary evolutionary goal, the method used to achieve it continues to apply with or without reproduction.
NO: So, with reproduction declining, what other role does the sex drive play in motivation and culture?
JC: A very big role. Think about all the permutations that sexuality has undergone. If you examine the stories that surround biologically based sex-related behavior, what you see is an explanation generated by culture with individual adaptation to the cultural story about that behavior.
NO: Could you give an example of what you mean by cultural explanations or cultural stories?
JC: Sure. Take for example sexual attraction. The biology of sexual attraction is designed to direct one toward sexual partners that are likely to produce viable and successful offspring. This is a biological program that the individual and culture needs to explain. You have this set of preferences and behaviors that seem to mysteriously arise from outside of awareness. The individual experiencing them didn’t arrive at these preferences and related behaviors by any rational or thoughtful process. They just asserted themselves. The human ego evolved to mediate between our internal programs and the environment. The ego likes to feel it is in control of what is going on. A spontaneous arising of preferences and behaviors demands an explanation that rationalizes them. Early on in our species history, individual egos set out to generate a plausible explanation or story governing how these preferences and behaviors are actually “chosen” by an individual. Over time these individual stories aggregate into a cultural explanation and individuals acquire the story through enculturation.
Once the explanation or story is in place, it is dynamic. This means that it evolves and adapts over time and may become, to some degree, divorced from the biological program, which was its initial reason for being. Thus, we see different cultures employ somewhat different stories and different expectations based on those stories but almost never a variation that is contrary to the biological imperative for reproduction. The dynamic nature of these stories also results in all sorts of effects. Explanations for sexual attraction lead to effects on social behaviors, mannerisms, notions of attractiveness, clothing styles, hair styles, cosmetics and grooming in general, which in turn impacts businesses, entertainment and the economy. Thus, the fractal nature of the permutations referred to earlier.
NO: Well, that is fascinating. I had never thought about how so much of what permeates everyday life is actually generated by a basic biological program. Can you give a couple of more examples?
JC: OK. Another permutation with its origins in the basic biological program that motivates reproduction also impacts what culturally we often label “mother love.” There is a biological program that kicks in when the sex drive achieves reproduction. Hormonal changes are elicited in both sexes, but especially in the female, that has a bonding effect between the mother and the child. Along with this bonding effect comes a “halo effect” so that the child is viewed as “perfect or precious.” The hormonal changes also produce a strong positive affect toward the child. These feelings motivate nurturance and protection of the child so that it can develop into an adult and repeat the process. This whole process has been explained through the cultural stories concerning the “joys” of motherhood, the “gift” of children, the importance of family, and so on. However, to keep things brief, I’ll bring this example to a close. Based on the discussion above, I think you and your audience can work out any further details for yourself.
Briefly, I’ll mention one more cultural theme tied to the basic sex program embedded in our biology. This one relates to the cultural stories or rules that have evolved to manage marriage and family. The rules relating to marriage generally are tied to the story about sexual attraction. Under the best of conditions, the cultural story about who one should be attracted to and why are interfaced with who one should marry. For example, in some cultures, the story employs the notion of “romantic love” to tie together the rules of attraction and marriage. In other cultures, the story employs the notion that this is a matter for the family to decide based on the “better judgment” of the parents. In such cases, the role of economics and social status have become the dominant themes in the story. This can create conflict when the cultural story doesn’t interface very well with the “laws of attraction” grounded in the basic biological program. You can no doubt think of other stories.
NO: Your mention of social status reminds me that status is the third program or drive that you mentioned as forming the basic motivational triangle. Let’s talk a little about this program.
JC: OK. The next step in the base motivational triangle is social status. The drive for status within the social group has obvious ties to the other two programs, that is, safety and sex. Status is one way of enhancing one’s importance to the social group and thereby gain better control of resources needed for safety. Status also generally plays a role in determining one’s attractiveness as a sexual partner.
NO: So, social status is basically a way to enhance one’s position relative to safety and sex?
JC: Yes. You can see the importance of status by looking at almost any social organization, whether it is social class, professional, religious, business, political, military or some other type of social organization. All of these organizations have hierarchies based on the relative prestige of the levels in the hierarchy, usually based on the associated decision-making power, economic power or a combination of both.
NO: Can you give us a couple of examples?
JC: Sure. Take one of the most obvious such as a military organization. Almost everyone is already generally familiar with the ranking structure in a military organization. Clearly, as one’s rank rises, decision-making power increases as well as income. The relationship of military organizations to national safety or defense issues is obvious.
NO: Yes, that one is pretty obvious. How about one less obvious?
JC: How about a social institution such as academia. This is an institutional structure about which a lot of people have only a vague knowledge but is as complex or more complex than a military organization. I won’t bore you with a lot of detail, but there is hierarchy between institutions and specialty areas within institutions. This is further stratified by ranks within the teaching faculty and research faculty. Institutional administration is largely independent of faculty and has a hierarchy of its own. This could be explicated further, but I think you get the idea. You can drill down for the complete details easily enough, if motivated to do so. Decision-making power exists within these institutions, but the institutions as represented by individuals within them also can exercise power in the society at large. One example would be consultants whose expertise and opinions are widely sought and respected by people in government, business and even the military.
NO: Let’s see if I can summarize this for our viewers. Almost everyone is controlled by three basic biological drives or programs. These are safety, sex and status. The first ensures that one reaches sexual maturity and at least has a chance to become sexually active, which increases the probability of the second (reproduction). The third provides a method for improving one’s chances for safety and of becoming sexually active. All of this is to a large degree opaque due to the degree of cultural elaboration built up on these three basic programs. The cultural customs, taboos and formal rules are secondary to the basic programs but help explain, structure and justify the behavior motivated by the basic programs. Most of us are totally absorbed in playing out our lives within the cultural narrative that we live in and using that narrative to derive contextual meaning for our lives. Most people are “blinded” for their entire lives by their identification with cultural and personal narratives.
JC: That seems like a fair summary. Keep in mind that the secondary elaboration on these three basic programs is very diverse and complex, which makes the basic processes less obvious than one might suppose. This complex is often what is meant when we invoke the concept of “world.” The world in this sense is a complex of ideas, concepts, beliefs and expectations that govern a drama called “human culture and civilization” performed on a stage called earth. Whatever aspect of the world you might have a question about, you could do worse than deconstructing it with the goal of finding the underlying biological programs and how they relate to the phenomenon motivating your question.
NO: In your comments, you have hedged a bit here and there about just how pervasive is our entanglement in cultural and personal narratives. Do you wish to comment on that?
JC: All right. I have hedged about pervasiveness because there are always a few people, during any period of time, who rise above cultural and personal narratives and see beyond them.
NO: How do these people rise above narratives?
JC: These people are known in some circles as awake. What they have awakened to is their narratives and their entanglement within them. Once awakened, the individual gains a new perspective on life that helps him or her see through the filters imposed by personal and cultural narratives. One also becomes more aware of the basic drives or programs underlying the narratives and thereby less subject to their demands.
NO: So they are no longer responsive to narratives and their underlying programs?
JC: They may still respond to bio/social narratives with discernment when necessary. Just because one can see clearly that one is living in a complex drama doesn’t mean that it no longer can affect you. Thus, to live in the “world” is of necessity to play a part in the drama. However, even one who is aware of being an actor in a complex drama must be careful not to get lost in the drama. This is best avoided by acting only in situations where it is truly necessary, acting as impeccably as possible and having no expectations about the outcome. In short, not getting emotionally attached to any one possible outcome in the situation. One might described this approach as being in the world through a state of “compassionate indifference.”
NO: I see how acquiring an objective perspective on learned personal and cultural narratives can be liberating. However, can one liberate oneself from biological programs?
JC: Yes, however, I would like to point out that we are all threads of Consciousness making use of complex biological avatars that have evolved specifically to provide us a vehicle through which we can gain experience. Thus, one should not have as a goal to liberate oneself from biological programs just because such liberation is possible, at least in some cases. To be aware of biological programs and how they operate through you is desirable. To selectively choose, on a rational basis, not to be “driven” by a biological program is reasonable. Tinkering with a biological program, when such tinkering is possible, can be justified. This is clearly another case for the application of discernment.
I also would make a distinction between biological programs. There are what the researcher John Lilly called “death” programs that simply can’t be eliminated, for example, the program that lies behind thirst. Then there are all the other innate biological programs such as those related to sex and reproduction. Finally, there are acquired programs that have a biological substrate but aren’t in and of themselves innate, for example, addictions. Discernment can be applied to both biological and learned narratives. One does not have to respond to impulses arising from biological impulses, whether they are innate or acquired, as is the case with addictions. One can even choose not to respond to impulses from “death” programs but only for short periods of time.
NO: I would imagine that it is difficult to choose not to respond to biological impulses.
JC: Some impulses are, of course, more powerful than others, and this can vary across individuals. However, the first step is to inhibit an automatic reaction to the impulse. I should say here that a distinction needs to be made between impulses and reflexes. When you have an impulse to eat a piece of cake or smoke a cigarette, that is different from a reflex that pulls your hand back from something hot.
One probably should not try to inhibit a reflex unless it is clear that the reflex is dysfunctional. There are ways of “unlearning” or counterconditioning reflexes that have become associated with inappropriate eliciting antecedents. However, in the case of unwanted impulses, modification or even elimination is possible. One can sometimes inhibit emitting a response by “force of will,” which is a skill that is poorly developed in most people and may actually have the opposite result. That is, trying to will the impulse away places intense attention on it and this can actually give it strength. But, if that works for you, then go with it.
Another approach is becoming present with something other than the impulse that is in the moment. Think of this as a diversionary tactic. For example, becoming absorbed in the smell of a flower, the sound of a bird chirping or watching your pet play with a toy. It doesn’t matter as long as it is available now. Of course, it is easy to be present with the impulse but becoming present with the impulse is a bit like unpacking a thought and becoming entangled in it. It takes over. Keep your attention off of the impulse even though you may still be aware of it. If not given attention, it will naturally subside just as it naturally arose — independent of your volition.
One caveat, if you have developed your ability to monitor your thoughts, emotions, impulses and so forth objectively as a mere observer or witness, then you can successfully give that form of attention to an impulse as a way of letting it run its course without responding to it. Many dedicated meditators have acquired this mode of self-monitoring but most people can’t do it.
NO: Does “waking up” imply arriving at some other level of motivation?
JC: Yes, at least in a manner of speaking. There are “spiritual energies” that lie above the basic programs. One of these is compassion.
NO: Could you elaborate a bit on compassion?
JC: Yes. Compassion is a combination of empathy and a predisposition toward supportive actions. A deep feeling of compassion can lead to living a life rooted in unconditional acceptance of others and a willingness to help them, if possible. This means acting from Love, not to be confused with biological bonding or cultural notions of love, whether romantic, religious or familial.
NO: How does the transformation from living through personal and cultural narratives to living through compassion come about?
JC: The core levels are bio/social and mostly reactive. Spiritual unfolding takes one through Grace. One can, however, prepare oneself to be ready to best take advantage of Grace, if it happens. Compassion (a.k.a. the state of “I AM-ness”) is a midpoint between the core motives and true spiritual unfolding. I often refer to this state as the natural mind by which I mean one has reacquired the ability to enter unconditioned awareness.
NO: What do you mean by reacquire?
JC: Infants and very young children live in a state of unconditioned awareness. This is sometimes described as a state in which bottom-up perception dominates. This state is eroded as the core motives are activated and especially when these begin to elicit an evolving personal narrative and to engage the extant cultural narrative.
What begins to develop with narration is a large repertoire of conditioned or learned ways of seeing and responding to events within oneself and the environment. With this development there is a shift toward top-down perception. In short, perceptions are filtered through both personal and cultural constructs or, as some might say, through stories about the world and ourselves. Thus, if one learns to voluntarily shift from top-down perception into bottom-up perception, then one can be said to have reacquired a previous state of being.
NO: Since you use the term “reacquire,” I assume that this is neither a reflexive state or a state of Grace?
JC: Correct. This is something that one can directly influence.
JC: First, you need to carefully observe and consider the drama unfolding through your life and come to see and recognize when learned constructs are guiding your perceptions. When those constructs are recognized, especially as dysfunctional, you need to desensitize yourself to their control over your thoughts, emotions and behavior. Contemplative and meditative practices, among others, can be useful in initiating and working through this process.
Second, you need to work toward learning to make decisions and take actions using discernment. By this, I mean seeing situations as they actually are, not as they are construed through narrative filters, and then arriving at an appropriate response. In many cases, an appropriate response will be no response. In other cases, if your compassion arises, you take the most compassionate response available to you.
Third, your response should be performed with impeccability and followed with equanimity. The former means to the very best of your ability and the latter means without an emotional attachment to the outcome. Equanimity is especially important because it is your defense against becoming entangled in the narrative context that you have, of necessity, engaged.
NO: What are the transformations beyond compassion?
JC: There are three states beyond I Am-ness. The fifth state is Self-realization by which is meant that one experiences one’s higher Self or a state of pure being. After that comes what some might call God Consciousness or Christ Consciousness, in which one fully experiences non-duality and Divine Love. Finally, there is Unity Consciousness, in which one experiences merger with the whole and knows that ultimately there is nothing but Source, Consciousness or God, as you will. A state of Love-Bliss.
NO: Wow. That takes us a long way from where we started. Would you care to elaborate on any of these?
JC: Not really. These last three conditions, in particular, affect very, very few people and play little role in coming to see how I understand humanity and express that understanding in my work. However, if enough people were to work toward and reacquire their natural mind, civilization and humanity would be transformed for the better regardless of what transformations may lie beyond.
NO: Thank you for sharing with us.
JC: It has been my pleasure.
To follow the analysis that will be presented below, it is necessary to first briefly and broadly summarize two philosophical positions. The reader is asked to bear with me through these summaries. There are two opposed worldviews that one might take in trying to understand the nature of reality.
The first worldview is that of Western culture. Historically, this was a theological conception that saw the world as consisting of God and God’s creations, which included humanity (a dualistic view). This conception began to be challenged by naturalists, seeking to understand God’s creation, whose findings conflicted with the understanding adopted by religious authorities. The view adopted by religious leaders was not that of God; i.e., was not based in scripture, but largely borrowed from earlier Greek philosophers. However, this clash grew more intense until the “great compromise” offered by Rene Descartes. His compromise proposed that matters of the material world should be left to the naturalists (subsequently scientists) and that matters of the spiritual world should be left to theologians (also a dualistic view). The divide between science and religion grew until science largely dismissed religious views as irrelevant. This led to the evolution of a perspective that excluded anything non-material.
Scientific materialism posits a point of initiation for matter that is called “the big bang.” When a renowned physicist, who supports this model, was asked where the big bang came from, he replied that its origin was spontaneous creation from nothing. In short, it was a random event with no known cause, though once set in motion, the result is a deterministic unfolding whose final outcome was built into the point of initiation. This view assumes that everything in the universe is composed of material elements and assembled from the bottom up. Thus, everything can be understood by breaking it down into the pieces that it was assembled from and studying the relationship of the pieces to one another. This is what is called reductionism. This view assumes that everything, including life and the universe itself, arose through a random event and has no purpose and therefore no fundamental meaning. Contemporary Western culture has been strongly influenced by the materialist perspective while retaining a dualistic view of how things are structured.
Scientific materialism is the current paradigm of science with the core assumption that matter is all that exists. There are opponents to this view who root their opposition in the inability of a materialist paradigm to account for consciousness. Thus, the old dualist division persists to this day, though spirit has been largely replaced by consciousness. Some scientific materialist have attempted to resolve this problem by asserting that consciousness is an illusion. This solution has not been accepted very widely because it is at odds with personal experience. More importantly, there is considerable evidence that consciousness is a reality that must be dealt with, not the least of which is the role consciousness appears to play in the outcome of some quantum physics experiments. At root, these experiments clearly suggest that consciousness is required for matter to come into existence. In short, the collapse of a “wave of possibilities” into an outcome in the material world appears to require consciousness. In other words, consciousness is primary.
From the perspective of materialism, consciousness is an epiphenomenon or an emergent property of matter. It assumes that consciousness is individually generated by aggregates of matter that have achieved a sufficient level of complexity. Implicit in this view is the idea that complex order is the source of consciousness. How consciousness could arise from the combination of elements of matter is unknown. Faced with the inability to posit any explanation, short of magic, for how consciousness might arise from complex arrangements of matter, some “materialists” have hypothesized that every particle of matter contains a degree of consciousness. Thus, it is suggested that complex arrangements of elements of matter that already contain some degree of consciousness produce conscious awareness. This hypothesis fails to explain where any degree of consciousness, no matter how insignificant, came from in the first place. It also has no explanation for how the combination of elements of consciousness containing matter results in conscious awareness. This idea is somewhat analogous to suggesting that if one takes small units of biological matter, such as bacteria, and aggregate enough of them together, a living animal will emerge from the complexity.
There are many scientists, though still in a minority, who consider the current scientific paradigm, rooted in the belief that matter is primary, to be a “dead man walking.” This view is predicated upon an ever accumulating body of evidence that falsifies the paradigm’s assumptions. A noted physicist recently published a paper in a major physics journal in which he unequivocally stated that the evidence supports the view that reality is essentially mental. This doesn’t obviate the accomplishments of science under the current paradigm. It does, however, suggest that the new emerging view makes clear that the current paradigm has limits on what can be known and understood and that those limits are being reached.
The second worldview we’ll discuss is monistic idealism1 (see the referenced note for a fuller explanation), which is the view that everything exists in Consciousness2. This is one of the challenges to the current paradigm of scientific materialism. The core assumption of this view is that Consciousness is all that exists and that it is both infinite, eternal, inherently intelligent and creative. This view does not posit a point of origination for Consciousness. In short, it is assumed that it has always existed. This view assumes that the universe is at root an indivisible whole in which every particle of matter is entangled with every other particle. In this view, matter is a contraction or concentration of Consciousness. The apparent separate constituents of the universe are at root an “illusion.” This view posits that the “illusion” is created by the appearance of complementary pairs reflected within Consciousness. These pairs create contrast effects, which make possible experience. This view suggests that Consciousness created the possibility for experience for the purpose of self-examination, self-awareness and enrichment. This view implies that the universe did not arise by chance, has a purpose and a fundamental meaning.
The view of idealism is that matter is an epiphenomenon or an emergent property of Consciousness. It assumes that Consciousness is a ground state from which everything arises. Thus, everything that exists arises within Consciousness. The closest analogy to this process is probably a dream. Dreams arise in your consciousness and during the experience appear to be quite real. Thus, in a manner of speaking, monistic idealism would say that you are a “dream” character in Consciousness or in Universal Mind. For those familiar with virtual reality games, one might say that you are an “avatar” in a virtual reality3 created by Universal Mind or Consciousness (see the referenced note for a fuller explanation). Material “reality” could be thought of as being generated from a basic division of thought within Universal Mind into a complementary pair such as physical versus biological. From contrasting pairs, experience evolved ever more complex forms, which produced their own sets of complementary pairs. The biological or living forms became “receivers” for Consciousness, which was experienced as an individuated consciousness that is functionally independent from Consciousness. The more complex the life form the more “bandwidth” the “receiver” could accept. In the end, however, there is only one Consciousness (a nondual perspective). Traditionally, this view has been largely that of some Eastern traditions such as yoga. Many readers will immediately think of the Western version of Hatha Yoga with its emphasis on the body. What is referred to here are the traditions within yoga that emphasize a nondual philosophical view similar to monistic idealism and teach practices for the refinement of consciousness; i.e., mental yoga.
Now, let’s examine the implications for the above for one complementary pair that we all have some experience with — sex (male and female). Recall that complementary pairs make experience possible by the contrasts that they impose. To clarify, consider another pair associated with temperature: hot and cold. Without the contrast produced by the pair, temperature could not be experienced. It is also clear that the pair represents a range and does not represent dichotomous categories. In short, there are degrees of temperature along the continuum between the polar anchors for the complementary pair. The greater the points of difference along the continuum the richer the possibilities for experience. Without the experience of the full range of the continuum between the polar anchors for a complementary pair, one can not truly understand the unity from which the pair was derived. For those familiar with the Chinese yin and yang symbols, recall that those symbols for opposites are an abstract representation for complementary pairs. Each symbol contains a component of its opposite and both are contained within a circle representing the whole or unity of which each member of the pair is a partial reflection.
The continuum between the anchor points of male and female includes all sexual variation possible. For purposes of this discussion, the experiences placed under the umbrella term “transgender” (TG) will be considered. The view offered here is that gender is a socially constructed expression of sex and sexuality. While there is some limited variation in sex, there is more variation in the experienced sense of sexuality. The former is anatomical and the latter is probably due to atypical hormonal effects on a developing organism. Gender in this discussion is considered to be a social expression of sex and sexuality, which are convergent in the majority of people but divergent in a minority. Thus, gender is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon, though it may come close to that in many people’s experience. By way of analogy, consider the biological experience of hunger. The body generates this experience, which is variable in its intensity. However, the body does not dictate, except in the most general way, what should be eaten to satisfy hunger. How hunger is satisfied is socially constructed. Society determines what should be considered “food.” It also creates customs around how food is prepared, when it is eaten, how it is eaten, with whom it might be eaten, and so on. Likewise, societies have socially created ways in which sex and the experience of sexuality should be expressed — gender. Generally speaking, there is usually a very tight correlation between the appearance of anatomical sex, experienced sexuality and gender.
What are the implications of the above philosophical discussion for TG?
Lets look at the implications of taking the position of materialism. For our purposes, a TG experiencer is someone who experiences some degree of male sexuality while living through a female body or experiences some degree of female sexuality while living through a male body.
Consider a TG individual who is a materialist. Such an individual has to consider his/her experience to be the result of a random and meaningless biological variation — a victim of circumstance. There are some who would argue that their experience is a deliberate choice, not the result of a random biological variation. The choice is often justified on political and or social grounds, which probably serves to give the experience contextual meaning. I don’t doubt that there may be such individuals. I think that most TG experiencers, however, feel that their experience was imposed, not chosen, and usually leaves them feeling like a victim, not an agent for social change. In fact, one could posit that taking the position that one’s experience results from a sociopolitical decision is a coping mechanism. A way of negating the feeling of being a victim and constructing some meaning from the experience. Second, scientific materialism is reductionist and therefore depends upon studying relationships between clearly defined elements, which are strictly controlled to minimize variation. The continuum of variation for sex is therefore, from a scientific perspective, a messy affair making well controlled studies of sex and sexuality only possible by focusing on the anchor points and excluding everything in between as confounding variation. It is no wonder that persons on the excluded portion of the continuum have been prone to being minimized, pathologized and criminalized. Fortunately, modern day society is not as tenacious about pathologizing and criminalizing personal expression as it has been in the past. This is not to suggest that it isn’t still a problem of significance.
Now, let’s look at the implications of taking the position of idealism.
Consider a TG individual who is an idealist and especially one who understands idealism through nondual philosophy4 rooted in some Eastern tradition or in one of the increasing number of Western expressions of nondualism. S/he does not view everything as due to blind chance. Such a person is considered to be an individuated manifestation of Consciousness. Such a consciousness is a vehicle through which Consciousness gains experience of its own potential and the unfolding of that potential. If one is a manifestation of Consciousness or of Universal Mind, then your experience is not random and one is certainly not a victim of circumstance. Usually, one’s personal condition is viewed as having its origins in a choice made by the meta-self 5 prior to individuated consciousness being expressed in material form. In short, there was an agreement to the current manifestation as a vehicle for the experience possible for that form. This is probably only one of many previous and different expressions and possibly of many more to come. Why this particular choice was made, in any specific case, lies within one’s consciousness but outside of awareness. There are ways of accessing such material but that is beyond the scope of this essay. From this perspective one does not have to take pathologizing and criminalizing by society of one’s being as a judgment of one’s personal worth. This is not to minimize the social injustice that such judgment produces or its impacts. However, if one views oneself as a unique expression of Consciousness and takes one’s sense of personal worth from that understanding, then one has a more positive basis for one’s sense of self worth and a degree of insulation from the injustices implicit in society.
Finally, let us turn to an analysis of some possible outcomes for a TG individual. There may be outcomes not covered here, but one should be able to work them out from this illustration. Some of the following options will probably only be open to someone who subscribes to a nondual worldview or will certainly be facilitated by such a worldview. As the progression unfolds, a nondual worldview increases in importance.
First, consider an individual on the continuum in unresolved conflict. This conflict comes down to a perceived dualistic choice between the two anchor points (male/female or masculine/feminine). The conflict between the dichotomous anchor points for the continuum is driven in large part by the social narrative about the continuum. The person in conflict is strongly drawn toward the anchor point in conflict with anatomy, which is nonconforming to the social narrative. Such an individual is strongly imbued with the social narrative. The stronger the social pressures the greater the conflict. The social pressure can come from external sources policing the social narrative but will also involve one’s enculturation and internalization of the social narrative. It is probably from this type of conflict that what is often referred to as gender dysphoria arises. Clearly, minimizing susceptibility to external policing efforts will help. Equally if not more important is deconstructing the internalized policing established through enculturation. Psychotherapy, drawing on narrative psychology, can be helpful with the latter.
Second, consider an individual on the continuum who is only moderately drawn to the anchor point in conflict with anatomy. Such a person often will resolve to end the conflict by choosing one anchor point and suppressing the other in this dualistic dance. If the person is male bodied and the choice is to suppress the intrusive sense of femaleness, the conflict is repressed and one’s focus becomes on living through the anatomical sex. There is still potential for negative psychological effects from employing repression, but the immediate conflict has been resolved. The same analysis would hold if the person was female bodied and chose to suppress an intrusive sense of maleness.
Third, consider an individual on the continuum similar to the person in the previous analysis, except the person is strongly drawn to the anchor point in conflict with anatomy. In this case, the decision may be to suppress and modify the anatomical sex and give full expression to the intrusive sense of sexuality. This is what is often referred to a transsexualism. This is a choice that may reduce the conflict one feels between anatomical sex and an intrusive sense of sexuality, but it is fraught with many new potential conflicts. It may also entail a lifetime of pursuing adjustments trying to achieve the perfect approximation to one’s idealized self-image.
Fourth, consider an individual who is a bit more psychologically sophisticated and makes the choice not to suppress but to simply witness and thereby neutralize a choice. In the case of a female bodied person, she lives through her anatomical sex and becomes simply an unresponsive observer (witness) to the arising and subsiding of her intrusive sense of male sexuality. The converse analysis would apply to a male bodied person with an intrusive sense of female sexuality. This approach has the potential to minimize the conflict without the potential problems associated with repression. However, witnessing is a learned skill that makes this a choice only for someone aware of the skill and willing to devote the time and effort to establish it.
Fifth, consider a person who is living through a nondual narrative about his or her life. Such an individual would reject the dualistic choice posed by the anchor points of the continuum. The decision in this individual might be to unify the apparent dualistic choice presented by the continuum. The individual neither vacillates between the apparent choices, employs repression, embarks on bodily modification or sets out to utilize neutralization. In this individual the choice is to integrate the conflicting demands and give expression to a blend of both, which may be made explicit to varying degrees. This might be thought of as a non-binary life-style. Such an individual would also be largely free of or at least largely indifferent to the dualistic demands of social presentation in forms dictated by society.
Finally, there is one additional option available from the nondual perspective but one probably chosen by very few. This is to shift identification from the body/mind to fully identifying with pure awareness. Through identification with pure awareness, there is a merger of the self with the meta-self, to as great an extent that is possible, and still live in the world, transcending duality. In such a state the dualistic world of complementary pairs is transformed into a holistic understanding and perspective. A view from which the pairs creating the potential for experience are seen as mere mirror reflections within the whole. Pure awareness is characterized by neither maleness nor femaleness but rather the whole from which they are reflected into the material world.
1. For an excellent video presentation by a leading proponent of monistic idealism click here.
2. Consciousness with a capital “C” is used to indicate a reference to the unified and infinite field of Consciousness or Source of all that is. The use of consciousness with a lower case “C” is used to indicate an individuated contraction of consciousness within Consciousness.
4. Below are links to some sources of teachings on nondualism:
5. Meta-self refers to that which is beyond or behind the self. This is somewhat analogous to some people’s use of the terms soul and oversoul.
This essay begins with two assumptions; if you are uncomfortable with either one, this essay may be a challenge for you. The first assumption is that Awareness/Consciousness1 is the Source of All-That-Is. In this essay, idealism is the preferred perspective over materialism. I will begin with an excerpt adapted from another piece I wrote (see Chapter IX, p. 109) where this preference is addressed.
1. When capital letters are used to begin a word such as in “Consciousness,” the reference is to a primary state as opposed to a derived state (lower case) such as when the word “consciousness” is used. In other words, Consciousness is a universal state and consciousness is a personal or individuated state derived from Consciousness.
There are two dichotomous views on the ultimate nature of reality. One can be called the Primacy of Matter (a.k.a. materialism) and the other the Primacy of Consciousness (a.k.a. idealism). Classical physics and everyday experience support the former, and some interpretations of quantum physics and the experience of various mystics support the latter. The two views have significantly different implications. For example, materialists explain consciousness as an epiphenomenon (derivative) of matter, while idealists explain matter as an epiphenomenon of Consciousness. There is considerable contention around which view is correct. The likelihood is that neither conception will ever be conclusively demonstrated to the satisfaction of everyone.
Both views are faced with essentially the same conundrum, that is, initial origination. If you are of the Primacy of Matter persuasion, you must ask how did matter come about and from what? One hypothesis is the so-called “big bang” event or the near instantaneous expansion of an extremely dense concentration of energy (a.k.a. the primordial atom). Even assuming it is correct, there still remains the question of where did this “primordial atom” come from? The noted physicist Stephen Hawking, for example, suggests spontaneous creation or the creation of something from nothing. If you are of the Primacy of Consciousness persuasion, you must ask where did Boundless Consciousness (hereafter just Consciousness) come from? I know of no hypothesis about the origin of Consciousness. Some Primacy of Matter advocates might argue that matter has always existed and the material universe has cycled through endless re-generations. Likewise, some Primacy of Consciousness advocates might argue that Consciousness has always existed and always will exist. In the end, both camps reach a point where they really have no choice but to say that either matter just is or that Consciousness just is. Regardless of which hypothesis you find the most plausible, you are ultimately faced with a leap of faith.
I make the assumption that Consciousness is primary simply because it provides a model that is broader and deeper than materialism. However, one need not throw off materialism entirely when adopting idealism, because materialism can be subsumed under idealism as a secondary construct. In fact, the two models can be construed to be almost identical except with different root assumptions or starting points. The second assumption that I will make is that evolutionary biology is a valid and powerful process operative at many levels. This almost doesn’t need to be put forward as an assumption since the theory describing the process has pretty well been empirically established. There are, however, some points within the theory that can be argued on scientific grounds, such as the reliance upon random change to the exclusion of any other potential factors. The details of the debate around that issue or others are not necessary to this essay. There are also some who reject the theory out-of-hand, because it is inconsistent with their religious ideology. Such individuals will have to tentatively entertain this assumption for purposes of understanding this essay or stop reading now.
An idea related to the first assumption is that of the indivisible whole. If Consciousness is the source state of All-That-Is, then there is only one Consciousness albeit with many derivative consciousnesses. Thus, All-is-in-Unity becomes an unavoidable philosophical position. The indivisible whole hypothesis is supported by science within the limits of the “physical” universe. Experiments that have been replicated support the quantum state of entanglement by which two particles 2 become connected and share information. If the information is changed in one, it immediately changes in the other even if the second particle is on the other side of the universe. Since the exchange of information in the space/time universe is limited by the speed of light and the speed of light is too slow to account for this near instantaneous exchange of information, entanglement implies an underlying non-locality that is outside of space/time.
2. There is no such thing as a particle as the general public understands the word. The continued use of the term is a carry over from classical physics but it no longer has the “physical” characteristics it was thought to have in classical physics. In short, a particle is not made of matter as it was understood in the classical sense. Some now describe a particle as a concentration of energy and others as a packet of information.