Tag Archives: transformation

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.

A Personal Odyssey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About a year after the accident, I was sitting looking at the contrast provided by two photos. One was my senior picture for the school annual that had been taken a couple of weeks prior to the accident and the other was a “before” picture taken in the plastic surgeon’s office before he began the operations on my face. Spontaneously, a strong wave of emotion swept through me. I had the distinct feeling that the person pictured from before the accident no longer existed. At first, I interpreted the feelings that I was experiencing as sadness but this gave way to something akin of a sense of an exuberant Aha! I realized that a transformation was taking place. The “self” in the school picture was free of all personal history that had defined that self-hood. At the time this was simply an intuitive sense but today I would say that what I realized was the fictive nature of the self (see sub-section on The self). Our sense of who we are, our ego, is an act of creative self-expression. Unfortunately, we tend to view this creation as “writ in stone” and surrender ourselves to the dictates of this fiction as if we are its puppets. This realization set me free of the past and what had been constructed from it. This sense of freedom was liberating and marked the beginning of a redefinition of myself and one that had a degree of fluidity inherent in it. This was what today I would call a noetic* experience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After being separated from the U.S. Navy at the end of my two years, I returned to Decatur, GA. During the initial months back in Decatur, I did not do much of anything but relax. We lived in an apartment next to an old cemetery. One day I sat quietly, for an extended period of time, just gazing out the window at the cemetery, which because of all of the trees and landscaping was pleasant to the eye. I suppose one might say I was in a meditative or contemplative state. Suddenly, I found myself in what I can only describe as a profound state of awareness as to the Unity of Consciousness. It was as if, to borrow a concept from the TV program Star Trek, I had a Vulcan mind meld with a universal state of consciousness. The only other description of a similar experience I’ve come across in The Biology of Transcendence (p. 11 ). This is the second experience in my life that I would now describe as noetic in nature.

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

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

*Phenomenological understanding is based on the premise that reality consists of objects and events as they are perceived or understood in human consciousness and not of anything independent of human consciousness.

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

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

For a number of years following this time, I was too involved with my family and career to be actively involved in spiritual matters other than a little reading here and there when the opportunity presented itself. Upon retiring from my university position, I began to devote more time to thinking about spiritual matters. One effect of this was to, for the first time in my life, voluntarily associate myself with a church. My wife and I joined a small lay led Unitarian, Universalist Fellowship. This was probably influenced in part by having been married in such a church and in part because I didn’t really consider it a religion; i.e., no theology and no dogma. After serving in several administrative capacities in this church, it became clear to me that this was not a spiritual community but merely a social organization and a quite contentious one at that. Further, the funding practices of the UUA appeared designed to exploit small congregations to the benefit of large congregations. Finally, I was not entirely comfortable with the idea of being a member of an organization that called itself a religion. Thus, we left this church and are not now affiliated with any religious organization. However, my interest in spiritual matters remains and I continue to pursue that interest in whatever suitable ways that presents themselves, including opportunities through religious organizations.

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