Thought As A System
In Thought As A System theoretical physicist David Bohm takes as his subject the role of thought and knowledge at every level of human affairs, from our private reflections on personal identity to our collective efforts to fashion a tolerable civilization.
Elaborating upon principles of the relationship between mind and matter first put forward in Wholeness and the Implicit Order, Dr. Bohm rejects the notion that our thinking processes neutrally report on what is ‘out there’ in an objective world.
He explores the manner in which thought actively participates in forming our perceptions, our sense of meaning and our daily actions.
He suggests that collective thought and knowledge have become so automated that we are in large part controlled by them, with a subsequent loss of authenticity, freedom and order.
In the 33 days of conversation with 50 seminar participants in Ojai, California, Dr. Bohm offers a radical perspective on an underlying source of human conflict, and inquires into the possibility of individual and collective transformation.
In Bohm’s view, we have inherited a belief that mind (or thought) is of an inherently different and higher order than matter.
This belief has nurtured a faith in what we call objectivity – the capacity to observe and report neutrally on some object or event, without having any effect on what we are looking at, or without being affected by it.
Historically, this perspective has given us a scientific and cultural world view in which isolated, fragmentary parts mechanically interact with one another.
Bohm points out that this fragmentary view corresponds to ‘reality’ in significant respects, but suggests that we have overextended our faith in the objectivist perspective.
Once we make the critical (and false) assumption that thought and knowledge are not participating in our sense of reality, but only reporting on it, we are committed to a view that does not take into account the complex, unbroken process that underlies the world as we experience it. To help bring into focus thought’s participatory nature, Bohm undertakes an extensive redefinition of thought itself.
To begin with, thought is not fresh direct perception. It is literally that which has been thought – the past, carried forward into the present. It is the instantaneous display of memory, a superimposition of images on to the active, living present.
On the one hand, the memory is what allows us to perform even the simplest of tasks, such as getting dressed in the morning.
On the other hand, memory is also responsible for various aspects of fear, anxiety or apprehension, and the actions that proceed from these memories.
Thought, then, is also inclusive of feelings, in the form of latent emotional experiences. Not only negative, painful emotions are folded into thought, but pleasurable ones as well. Indeed the whole spectrum of emotions as we typically experience them is seen by Bohm as thought related. The manner in which feeling and thought interpenetrate one another is central to Bohm’s view of the functioning of consciousness.
Throughout the mind and body, he says, they form a structure of neurophysiological reflexes. Through repetition, emotional intensity and defensiveness, these reflexes become ‘hard-wired’ in consciousness, to such an extent that they respond independently of our conscious choice.
If, for example, someone tells you that a member of your family is both ugly and stupid, you will most likely have instantaneous surges of adrenaline and blood pressure that are inseparable from your thought: “He is wrong! He is rude and malicious for saying such things!”. The thought ‘He is wrong’ will tend to justify and perpetuate the body surges. Likewise, the surges will tend to certify the thought.
In time, the experience will fade, but it is effectively stored in the memory of what becomes ‘thought’. There it waits to be instantly recalled the next time a similar situation is encountered.
In addition to emotions and reflexes, Bohm includes human artifacts in his definition of thought. Computer systems, musical instruments, cars, buildings – these are all illustrations of thought in its fixed, concrete form.
From Bohm’s perspective, to make a fundamental separation between thought and its products would be the equivalent of suggesting that whether a person is male or female is a separate phenomenon from the genetic process that determined the sex to begin with. Such a separation would in fact illustrate the very fragmentation under examination.
Finally, Bohm posits that thought and knowledge are primarily collective phenomena. Our common experience is that we have personal thoughts that come from our individual’self’. Bohm suggests that this is a culturally inherited sensibility that overemphasized the role of isolated parts. He inverts this view, noting that the ‘flow of meaning’ between people is more fundamental than any individual’s particular thoughts. The individual is thus seen as an idiosyncrasy (literally, ‘private mixture’) of the collective movement of values, meanings and intentions.
The essential relevance of Bohm’s redefinition of thought is the proposal that body, emotion, intellect, reflex and artifact are now understood as one unbroken field of mutually informing thought.
All of these components interpenetrate one another to such an extent, says Bohm, that we are compelled to see ‘thought as a system’ – concrete as well as abstract, active as well as passive,collective as well as individual.
Our traditional world view, in an attempt to maintain a simple, orderly image of cause and effect, does not take into account these subtler aspects of thought’s activity. This leads to what Bohm calls a ‘systemic fault’ in the whole of thought. The issue here, says Bohm, is that ‘thought doesn’t know it is doing something and then struggles against what it is doing”.
For example, flattery is a pleasing experience which usually sets up a reflex of receptivity toward the one who flatters. If Jane fails to flatter John when he expects her to, or takes advantage of him in some unpleasant way, John will attribute his subsequent bad feelings to something Jane did. He fails to see that he participated in constructing the reflex that produced not only good feelings, but the bad ones as well.
A similar process of incoherence is at work in the nation-state.
When the United States attributes diabolical characteristics towards various Middle East countries that thwart its easy access to oil, it is not taking into account its own central involvement in an international petroleum-based economy which quite naturally gives inordinate power to those who possess crude oil.
In this case, the reflexive response may be war. The feature common in both examples is the sense of being in control with an independent response. “I will get even with her.” or “We must demonstrate where the real power lies.”
In Bohm’s view, the real power is in the activity of thought.
While independence and choice appear to be inherent in our actions, we are actually being driven to agendas which in fact act faster than, and independent of, our conscious choice. Bohm sees the pervasive tendency of thought to struggle against its own creations as thecentral dilemma of our time. Consequently, we must now endeavour not only to apply thought, but to understand what thought is, to grasp the significance of its immediate activity, both in and around us. Is it possible then, to be aware of the activity of thought without acquiring a new agenda,namely, the intention to ‘fix’ thought?
Can we suspend our habit of defining and solving problems, and attend to thought as if for the first time? Such open learning, says Bohm, lays the foundation for an exploration of proprioception. Proprioception (literally, ‘self-perception’) is that which enables us to walk, sit, eat, or engage in any other daily activity without having to constantly monitor what we are doing. An instantaneous feedback system informs the body, allowing it to act without conscious control.
If we wish to scratch a mosquito bite on the back of our leg, it is proprioception that allows us to scratch the bite without (a) looking at our hand, (B) looking at our leg or (c) having the mistaken impression that someone else is scratching our leg.
Dr. Bohm points out that while proprioception of the body comes naturally, we not seem to have proprioception of thought.
If, however, mind and matter are indeed continuum, it is reasonable to explore the extension of physiological proprioception into the more subtle material activity of thought.
Bohm suggests that the immediacy and accuracy of bodily proprioception are inhibited at the level of thought due to the gross accumulation of reflexes, personified in the image of a ‘thinker’ – an interior entity who seems to look out on the world, as well as looking inwardly at emotions, thoughts and so on.
This thinker, says Bohm, is a product of thought rather than a transcendental entity; and the thinker is steadfastly committed to preserving some variation of its own reflexive structure.
Here the state of open learning is crucial for new understanding.
If the reflexive structure can simply be attended to rather than acted upon (as the thinker would be inclined to do), then the momentum which drives the reflexes is already being dissipated.
In this vein, Bohm outlines a series of practical experiments which call into awareness the interplay of words and feelings in the formation of reflexes. This conjunction of open learning and concrete experiments with the thought-feeling dynamic suggests the beginning of proprioception of thought.
Such proprioception is intimately related to that which Dr. Bohm refers to as ‘insight’. We often associate insight with the ‘aha!’ phenomenon of having suddenly grasped the significance of some puzzle or problem. Bohm’s notion of insight includes such particular instances, but extends to a much more general, and generative, level of appreciation.
He sees insight as an active energy, a subtle level of intelligence in the universe at large, of a different order from that which we commonly experience in the mind/matter domain. He suggests that such insight has the capacity to directly affect the structure of the brain, dispelling the ‘electrochemical fog’ generated by accumulated reflexes.
Quite unlike the memory-laden structure of the ‘thinker’ operating upon thought, proprioception provides a medium of appropriate subtlety for the activity of such insight. In this way, learning, proprioception and insight work together, with the potential to reorder our thought processes and bring about a general level of coherence unavailable to us through thought alone.
While all these experiments can be undertaken by individuals, Bohm points to a complementary mode of inquiry thought the process of group dialogue. He suggests that such meetings have no agenda, other than the intention to explore thought,and though a facilitator may be useful in the beginning, the meetings should be free ofauthority so that people speak directly to one another.
In groups of 20 to 40 people, the systemic and reflexive nature of thought can come clearly into focus, eliciting a wide range of responses from the participants.
Self-images, assumptions, and prejudices may all emerge, often with their attendant emotions – defensiveness, anger, fear and many others. The virtue of such approach, says Bohm, is that the group may be able to detect the flow of meaning passing amongst its members. This meaning may be the content of some particular subject; it may also be the quickened pulses that pass thought group as the result of conflict between two or more members. Such dialogue holds out the possibility of direct insight into the collective movement of thought, rather than its expression in any particular individual.
Bohm suggests that the potential for collective intelligence inherent in such groups could lead to a new and creative art form, one which may involve significant numbers of people and beneficially affect the trajectory of our current civilization.
Throughout Thought As A System Dr. Bohm emphasizes that the model of thought he puts forward is propositional.
Not only does he deny and final knowledge of these issues for himself, he claims that no such knowledge is even possible.
Such knowledge would be thought, which can only make approximate representations. Dr. Bohm often invoked Alfred Korzybski’s observation that any object of thought (including,for Bohm, thought itself) is both ‘more than what we think, and different’. None the less, as we do rely to a great extent on images and representations, a relatively accurate map of the process of though, based on clear observation and sound inferences, is surely more desirable than a flawed map.
It was Dr. Bohm’s intention that Thought As A System be approached as just such a propositional map, to be tested against direct life experiences, and measured by its veracity and its usefulness in reducing conflict and sorrow in the world at large.
—Thought As A System, Forward, Lee Nichol, Ojai, CA
What is inquiry?…why do we inquire?…Because there is something we do not understand; something is not working out right. As long as things are working our right there is no reason for a question. Then you raise a question. Where does the question come from? It must come from the same general mind which produced the situation that needed the inquiry—that is, we’ve been doing something wrong somewhere; our thoughts are wrong or our actions are wrong, and out of that mind we have made a question.
That question will contain presuppositions…These suppositions are largely unaware. By the time we become aware of them we can all them assumptions. We presuppose all sorts of things. You see, when I’ m going to walk on the floor I presuppose that it will support me, but it might not…as soon as you find out it’s not so, you must look again, and begin to see where your presuppositions are wrong, and change them. So in an inquiry, we are looking into our presuppositions.
Now the questions will, in the beginning, reflect the presuppositions that we have already…we ask what we might call a wrong question…part of the inquiry is to look at the question—to question the question…
Unfolding Meaning, pp. 33-4, David Bohm
…we all know that the world is in a difficult situation and has been for basically a long time; that we now have various crises in various parts of the world. We have…nationalism…People seem to have all sorts of hatred…religious hatreds or racial hatreds…People seem unable to get together to face common problems, such as the ecological one or the economic one.
So one begins to wonder what is going to happen to the human race. Technology keeps advancing with greater…power, either for good or destruction. And it seems that there is always this great danger of destruction…It’s sort of endemic; it’s not just something that occasionally happens. It’s in the whole situation.
…Either we go into a depression, which will help save the ecology, or we go into a boom, which will momentarily make us happy but will eventually ruin the ecology… the faster we go into prosperity, the faster we create all these other problems.
It seems that whichever way you turn, it doesn’t really work. Why not? Is there any way out? Can you imagine that a hundred or two hundred or five hundred years of this won’t lead to some gigantic catastrophe, either to the ecology or in some other way?
…People have been dealing with this piecemeal—looking at symptoms, saying that we’ve got to solve this problem or that problem. But there is something deeper, which people haven’t been considering, that is constantly generating these problems.
What is the source of all this trouble? This is what we really have been concerned with in all these dialogues…I’m saying that the source is basically thought. Many people would think that such a statement is crazy, because thought is the one thing we have with which to solve our problems. That’s part of our tradition. Yet it looks as if the thing we use to solve our problems is the source of our problems…
I’m saying the reason we don’t see the source of our problems is that the means by which we try to solve them are the source…I’m not suggesting that the achievements of thought are negligible…but there is another side to it which is leading to our destruction, and we have to look at that.
Now I’ll try to say what is wrong with thought…
One of the obvious things wrong with thought is fragmentation. Thought is breaking things up into bits which should not be broken up…
It seems very hard for human beings to accept seriously this simple fact of the effect of fragmentation….nations are established by thought…most of the nations of the Middle East were invented by the British or the French…what we are doing is establishing boundaries where really there is a close connection—that is what is wrong with fragmentation. And at the same time we are trying to establish unity where there isn’t any, or not very much.
We can also consider professional groups. In science, for instance, every little specialty is fragmented from every other one. People hardly know what is happening in a somewhat different field…knowledge is fragmented…
It seems strange…It really could be thought of as irrational…or perhaps crazy…
The more general difficulty with thought is that thought is participatory…thought is always doing a great deal, but it tends to say that it hasn’t done anything, that it is just telling you the way things are. But thought affects everything…It has affected all the trees, it has affected the mountains, the plains and the farms…
Thought has produced tremendous effects outwardly…But I want to say that you don’t decide what to do with information. The information takes over. It runs you. Thought runs you. Thought, however, gives the false information that you are running it, that you are the one who controls thought, whereas actually thought is the one who controls each one of us. Until thought is understood—better yet, more than understood, perceived—it will actually control us; but it will create the impression that it is just our servant, that it is just doing what we want it to do.
That’s the difficulty. Thought is participating and then saying it’s not participating. But it is taking part in everything.
…Another problem of fragmentation is that thought divides itself from feeling and from the body. Thought is said to be the mind; we have the notion that it is something abstract or spiritual or immaterial. Then there is the body, which is very physical. And we have emotions, which are perhaps somewhere in between. The idea is they are all different. And we experience them as different because we think of them as different…
There is a profound connection between the state of the body and the way you think.
All of this (fragmentation—seeing division where there is wholeness, wholeness where there is division) will tend to introduce quite a bit of confusion, or what I call ‘incoherence,’ into thinking or into actions because you will not get the results you expect. That’s a major sign of incoherence: you want to do something but it doesn’t come out the way you intend. That’s usually a sign you have some wrong information somewhere. The right approach would be to say; ‘Yes, that’s incoherent. Let me try to find out the wrong information and change it.’ But the trouble is, there is a lot of information in which people don’t do that.
This is another major feature of thought: thought doesn’t know it is doing something and then it struggles against what it is doing. It doesn’t want to know that it is doing it. And it struggle against the results, trying to avoid those unpleasant results while keeping on with that way of thinking. That is what I call sustained incoherence. There is also simple incoherence, which we can’t avoid having because thoughts are always incomplete—thought can never be complete… But when we find that what is happening is contradictory or confused or isn’t doing what we expect, then we should change our thoughts to reflect what is happening… When it comes to things that matter…it seems we generally don’t. Now this seems rather odd…
Nobody has the intention of producing this sort of situation. We are producing these situations contrary to our conscious intentions because there is another resistance going on of which we’re not very conscious.
Thought As A System, pp. 1-11
Thought As A System, pp. 52-55
Bohm: I’m proposing that this whole system works by a set of reflexes—that thought is a very subtle set of reflexes which is potentially unlimited; you can add more and more and you can modify your reflexes…Even the whole logical process, once it’s committed to memory, becomes a set of reflexes…There may be a perception of reason beyond reflexes, but anything perceived becomes sooner or later a set of reflexes…
I say that it’s useful to look at this as a system of reflexes. A reflex just operates, as we’ve seen in the case of knee-jerk. However we usually don’t think that thought is like the knee-jerk reflex. We think we are controlling thought and producing thought…I’m suggesting that is not generally so—that a vast part of our thought just comes from the reflex system. You only find out what the thought is after it comes out. Now, this really overturns a great deal of how we look at the mind or the personality or our entire cultural background.
…The question is this: can you become aware of the reflex character of thought—that it is a reflex, that it is a whole system of reflexes which is constantly capable of being modified, added to, changed? And we could say that as long as the reflexes are free to change then there must be some kind of intelligence of perception, something a bit beyond the reflex, which would be able to see whether it’s coherent or not. But when it get conditioned too strongly it may resist that perception; it may not allow it…
The point is that these reflexes serve us if they are not too rigid. And if they don’t work, if they are incoherent, we can drop them or they drop by themselves. On the other hand, when the reflex gets very strong and rigid it won’t be dropped.
I think there is a neurophysiological reason for that. Every thought involves some change in the chemistry of the system. A strong thought with a lot of emotion, for instance, involves a bigger change. Or a constant repetition builds up the change. And both together make a very powerful effect. It’s been observed that the nerves in the brain don’t quite touch each other, but there are synapses that connect them. Researchers say that experience, perception, thought, and so on, establish synapse connections. We may assume that the more you repeat a pattern, the stronger those connections become; after a while they get very strong, very hard to shake. You could say something happens in the chemistry, in the physics, in the neurophysiological process…the reflexes get conditioned very strongly, and they are very hard to change.
And they also interfere. A reflex may connect to the endorphins and produce an impulse to hold that whole pattern further. In other words, it produces a defensive reflex. Not merely is it stuck because it’s chemically so well built up, but also there is a defensive reflex which defends against evidence which might weaken it. Thus it all happens, one reflex after another after another. It’s just a vast system of reflexes. And they form a ‘structure’ as they get more rigid.
Q: Isn’t this the evolution of learning? Isn’t this also how our bodies have evolved?
Bohm: It may be. But now the question is: are those reflexes coherent? According to the theory of evolution, incoherent systems don’t last very long. This is called ‘natural selection.’ In thought, however, we seem to be able to keep up these incoherent systems of reflexes, at least for quite a while. Sometimes the people who have them might not live very long, but in our society we have arranged conditions where we can go on with a lot of incoherence without actually leading to a selection process…
…Now, we could say that an intelligent response on seeing incoherence would be to stop it, to suspend it and begin to look for the reason for the incoherence and then to change it. But I say there is a defensive incoherence. An incoherent train of thought which gets attached to endorphins will typically defend itself, because you will feel very uncomfortable when it is questioned; the questioning starts to remove the endorphins…
Q:…Can we use the word ‘reaction’ with the reflexes? Are these reflexes all physiological or is the reaction psychological?
Bohm: I want to emphasize that it is not just psychological, Every reaction is also neurophysiological. That’s why I prefer to call it a reflex. Every reaction of thought is always simultaneously emotional, neurophsyiological, chemical and everything else. It is all one system. In some cases that may not be important, but there is always a slight effect at the very least. And when there’s a powerful conditioning the effect is very great. I mean, when you just have a thought such as ‘the cup is on the table’ it’s a rather minor effect; but some physical effect is going on just to say that.
Q: Could we say that anything we do or think that is out of harmony with the whole would be incoherence?
Bohm: It depends on what we mean by ‘the whole.’ It’s hard to give a positive definition, but the basic sign of incoherence is that you’re getting some result which you don’t intend and don’t want. And the other signs are contradiction, conflict, stress, all those things….
Q: And also our action to try to get out of the confusion would be incoherent?
Bohm: We may have an inappropriate action. Within the system, the action to get out is part of the trouble….
…the universe as a whole is coherent, and anything incoherent we do is just part of the coherence of the universe when we look at it that way, even though if we do something crazy we will get a result we don’t want.
…You could say that in the universe as a whole there’s no reason to say there is inchorence. But we, in our particular structure, are not coherent. And a species that is not coherent with itself or its environment doesn’t survive. That’s part of the coherence of the universe. It is precisely because the universe is coherent that an incoherent species doesn’t survive.
Q: Questioning our incoherence may also be part of our coherence. It could be the universal coherence that’s stepping in and saying: ‘Wait a minute. This isn’t working.’
Bohm: It could be that’s part of it too. The question is then: which is going to prevail – this questioning or the old conditioning habits?
Q: Would you say that at the moment of conception, each human being is pretty much predestined to have this incoherence?
Bohm: I think it’s built into the nature of thought that this is a possibility. And by now we have built up a society and a culture which implants it in everybody, even if it were not there. But because thought is reflex, the minute there were creatures who could think that much, there was the possibility that though wouldn’t behave coherently.
Now, I’ve outlined to you the possibility of conditioning the reflex – by repetition, by powerful emotions, by defensive methods, and other ways. And when it’s strongly conditioned, the reflex could get stuck. Then there would come a time when that reflex could get stuck. There there would come a time when that reflex was no longer appropriate but wouldn’t be able to change; therefore, that would produce incoherence. If something changes and reflex doesn’t, you have incoherence…
Q: What are the criteria for coherence?
Bohm: There’s no unique criterion for coherence, but you have to be sensitive to incoherence. And as we’ve said, the test for incoherence is whether you’re getting the results you don’t want….
Q: Is the incoherence in the DNA, and are we born with that?
Bohm: Not this particular incoherence of thought. The possibility of our thinking is somehow in the DNA; as is the possibility that our thinking could go wrong. And somehow in the history of the human race that has happened. We don’t know whether it was inevitable. But considering the nature or our brain, we can see that it looks likely that this sort of thing could happen…
Cognitive Symmetry Breaking
…we cannot really use the word ‘selfish’ because that carries the implication
that there actually is such a thing as a self. Talking about being ‘unselfish’
traps us in the same false assumption—it reifies the idea of self. Saying
that one ought not to cherish the self is the same thing as cherishing the
self—putting oneself last is the same thing as putting oneself first, since
everything still revolves around the central idea of self. There is no getting
away from it. Similarly, there is no way of getting out of a neurotic pattern
of behavior because mind and the pattern it creates by deliberate action are
the same system.
When a definite…self is created there is an intensely rewarding glow of
satisfaction—every bit of me feels suffused with the delicious warmth of
confirmation: “I am!…I am!…I am!…” This is the message and I could
listen to it all day! When we are euphoric this is the gist of what we are
constantly trying to tell others—if not directly by saying how great we
are, then indirectly by spinning a web of self-reference, by becoming
proprietary towards everything that is going on, by exerting control
on the meaning of what is happening…
“Cognitive Symmetry Breaking,” Nicholas Williams
It is…possible to think of symmetry-breaking in terms of Aristotelian versus John von Neumann’s Quantum Logic; or, alternatively, in terms of closed Either/Or logic versus open Both/And logic. When we look for an answer within a given framework of understanding the only two terms which are available are Yes and No [+] and [-]. We can only think of things that are relevant to the rules which we are using to search ‘answer-space’ with, and relevance means either ‘agreement’ or ‘ disagreement.’ In order to deal with the inherent indeterminacy of quantum systems mathematician John von Neumann came up with a form of logic with an ‘irrelevant’ term in it, namely [Maybe]. Maybe doesn’t ever rule anything out, any more than it definitely includes anything; in fact, it isn’t definite at all. This may seem useless, but it is actually very advantageous: Yes and No trap us with a definite context, whilst Maybe doesn’t trap us anywhere. Maybe allows us mobility within the unbounded set of all possibilities, it doesn’t collapse the system by making arbitrary assumptions.
A break in cognitive symmetry amounts to ‘arbitrarily settling upon a particular mode of description.’ When we frame an hypothesis, or propose a model, we break symmetry. Once questions are asked on the basis of our thinking, the answers that come back to us confirm the validity of the paradigm which informs those questions. A strong theory succeeds tautologically by interpreting everything in its own terms and always obtaining Yes or No answer…
We are not just talking abut formal theories here—it is very much the case that all of us have a ‘model’ of reality, whether we realize it or not, and the principle of organizational closure applies just as much to us…The information content of our minds decreases in proportion to the extent to which we use closed (or tautological) logic. This ‘closure factor’ may also be pictured in terms of ‘purposefulness’: the more purposeful we are in life, the more we are relying on rules, and the more seriously we rely on rules, the more we make life relevant to those rules. Purposefulness, then, is just another way of talking about Yes and No—purposeful behavior is simply an expression of Aristotelian (Either/Or) logic. If I try to obtain a goal, then I am re-confirming the validity of the rules which I am
using to construct that goal; and if I try to avoid that goal, I am similarly reinforcing the way of looking at things that leads me to think that there is something there to avoid. I can hit the target, or miss the target; either way I am making the target crucially relevant to me. The only possible way of gaining perspective on the matter is through dropping purposefulness…
Nicholas Williams, Cognitive Symmetry Breaking (new-alchemy.net)
Nicholas Williams, Cognitive Symmetry Breaking
In thermodynamic terms, the imposition of a model to explain what is going on results in an increase in the entropy of the system. This statement is fairly counter-intuitive since one naturally takes the transition from unpredictability to predictability to be an increase in order. One imagines that having a model allows one to derive more, and not less, useful information from the system under observation. They key word here is ‘useful’ since useful means that certain assumptions have been made and forgotten about. Before a model is used to filter information there is no knowing what is relevant and useful, and what is irrelevant and useless, and therefore the amount of information that is needed to meaningfully describe the system is unlimited. This is another way of saying that the information content of an undescribed system is infinite, since no decisions have been made regarding ‘cut-off’ points, points beyond which we have no interest in collecting data. In other words, if ‘anything could be the case,’ then we need an endless series of descriptive terms to cover all the possibilities, which is the definition of maximum complexity and maximum information content. On the other hand, if we already know within what ‘sort’ of things are possible (i.e., if we already know where to look) then this reduces the parameter of complexity. A symmetry-break in this case means the situation where I am able to discriminate, I have a ‘right’ way and a ‘wrong’ way to look at the universe. Symmetry is where no discrimination is possible, where there is no ‘right way’ and no ‘wrong way,’ no ‘up’ and no ‘down’; there is no ‘situational polarity’—all directions are the same.
The Satisfaction of Being Right
Once we decide to look at reality in a certain way there is a satisfying ‘click’ as everything falls into
place and we see a pattern where before there was only chaos and uncharted elements. The contrast between the discomfort of not knowing (of having no template for our experience) and the ‘satisfactoriness’ of having everything organized coherently means that we have a natural bias towards moving away from the essential relativity (or ambiguity) of the unprocessed picture to the self-evident ‘obviousness’ that we experience once we focus on one level of organization and ignore all others. When this tendency is taken to an extreme I find myself falling into what others can plainly see to be a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy,’ i.e., I process information so selectively that my assumptions are unfailingly confirmed. An information-collapsing bias is created which distorts my behavior and thinking to such an extent that the patterns of my life become oppressively narrow, repetitive and predictable. Inflexible and anxiety-laden beliefs form which are very difficult to challenge…
Relevance Versus Irrelevance
It is also possible to think of symmetry-breaking in terms of Aristotelian versus John von Neumann’s Quantum Logic; or, alternatively, in terms of closed Either/Or logic versus open Both/And logic. When we look for an answer within a give framework of understanding the only two terms which are available are Yes and No [+] and [-]. We can only think of things that are relevant to the rules which we are using to search ‘answer-space’ with, and relevance means either ‘agreement’ or ‘ disagreement.’ In order to deal with the inherent indeterminacy of quantum systems mathematician John von Neumann came up with a form of logic with an ‘irrelevant’ term in it, namely [Maybe]. Maybe doesn’t ever rule anything out, any more than it definitely includes anything; in fact, it isn’t definite at all. This may seem useless, but it is actually very advantageous: Yes and No trap us with a definite context, whilst Maybe doesn’t trap us anywhere. Maybe allows us mobility within the unbounded set of all possibilities, it doesn’t collapse the system by making arbitrary assumptions.
A break in cognitive symmetry amounts to ‘arbitrarily settling upon a particular mode of description.’ When we frame an hypothesis, or propose a model, we break symmetry. Once questions are asked on the basis of our thinking, the answers that come back to us confirm the validity of the paradigm which informs those questions. A strong theory succeeds tautologically by interpreting everything in its own terms and always obtaining Yes or No answer…
We are not just talking abut formal theories here—it is very much the case that all of us have a ‘model’ of reality, whether we realize it or not, and the principle of organizational closure applies just as much to us…The information content of our minds decreases in proportion to the extent to which we use closed (or tautological) logic. This ‘closure factor’ may also be pictured in terms of ‘purposefulness’: the more purposeful we are in life, the more we are relying on rules, and the more seriously we rely on rules, the more we make life relevant to those rules. Purposefulness, then, is just another way of talking about Yes and No—purposeful behavior is simply an expression of Aristotelian (Either/Or) logic. If I try to obtain a goal, then I am re-confirming the validity of the rules which I am using to construct that goal; and if I try to avoid that goal, I am similarly reinforcing the way of looking at things that leads me to think that there is something there to avoid. I can hit the target, or miss the target; either way I am making the target crucially relevant to me. The only possible way of gaining perspective on the matter is through dropping purposefulness, which is a notion that we will come back to shortly…
The Urge To Make The Universe Relevant To Me
The fact that psychology lacks an equivalent to those laws celebrated in the physical sciences has not gone unnoticed. Psychologists such as Hans Eysenck have tried to duplicate the success of classical physics and chemistry in deriving elegant and powerfully predictive laws, but still we have nothing. We don’t even have a single law to cover our nakedness. This just seems to be the way of it:
psychology is different than physics, and therefore there is no need for us to suffer from ‘physics-envy.’ Yet, if we stopped to reflect for a moment, we might realize that we possessed a ‘psychological law’ all along…
We will state it as follows. Chemical reactions are drive by energetic considerations, and these considerations in turn are most elegantly expressed in terms of the second law of thermodynamics. To put things simply, we could say that systems have a tendency to maximize their entropy content, which is to say, to maximize the predictability of their behavior. To reverse this tendency takes an energy input from outside the system. The psychological equivalent of entropy is therefore the tendency to increase definition of details. Alternatively, it also equals the tendency for cognitive symmetry-break to occur. More colloquially, we could say that the equivalent to chemical reactivity, which would be psychological reactivity, is the urge to describe ourselves and the world that we live in, where ‘describing’ means ‘making relevant.’ This increase in perceived ‘relevance,’ which we have also called organizational closure, is a manifestation of psychological entropy.
The Link Between ‘Making Up Your Mind’ and Euphoria
We will now bring in an extra ingredient—pleasure (or satisfaction). It is not a particularly odd thing to say that when we attain a goal we fee good…
However, we can now propose a different basis for feeling good. Whilst it is clearly true that attaining a socially or biologically reinforced goal gives satisfaction, there is also a different, rather more subtle basis for satisfaction. If both hit and miss re-affirm the context of meaning within which ‘hit and miss’ is construed, then both are equally good in terms of providing a basic orientation with which to operate. Having such an orientation, as we already noted, is in itself a source of satisfaction. To render the world predictable feels nice—the irreversible process of ‘making up my mind’ about something affords me a sense of relief because the uncomfortableness of ‘not being sure’ is gotten rid of. That is it—the subject is closed!
If I am intensely euphoric then this euphoria shows itself in the way that I love to dwell upon specific details, the way I extract enjoyment from re-iterating definite views and definite pronouncements. In states of manic elation the pleasure comes from the feeling that one has attained what one has set out to attain, or, perhaps, that one is capable of achieving whatever one wants to achieve. There is the satisfaction of being ‘right,’ along with the glow of feeling supremely potent in one’s ability to carry out goal-oriented activity. Similarly, a person who is experiencing intense euphoria due to the ingestion of amphetamine enjoys talking about nitty-gritty details, enthusing about trivia, endlessly putting things together and taking them apart, and generally performing routine tasks with formidable zeal. On the one hand, there is undoubtedly the pleasure of attaining goals, but along with this there would seem to be a less obvious pleasure, one which is derived from having a definite framework within which to act (and talk).
In OCD there is little in the way of successful goal-achieving: one’s activity does not ever really provide satisfaction in this regard, and in fact one’s behavior might be characterized as ‘forever seeking to correct a terminally uncorrectable situation.’ Yet there is the possibility, nevertheless, of obtaining the satisfaction of having a meaningful structure to work in. There is, in effect, a secondary gain of the chronically maladaptive and inefficient obsessive-compulsive behavior. One can be unhappy, and yet still secure! One can be content (or even smug) in one’s misery, so to speak. The most extreme example of suffering on one level combined with satisfaction on another is provided by paranoia. Paranoia takes one to heights (or depths) of terror which are totally unimaginable to the non-paranoid person, yet at the same time, no one can deny him or her the satisfaction of being ‘right’ in his or her interpretation! When a hydrogen atom combines with a fluorine atom a considerable amount of energy is released and a considerable amount of security is obtained in the chemical product. Similarly, when I as a paranoia sufferer latch on to a paranoid idea (or framework of ideas) there is a great deal of irreversibility going on and as a consequence a great deal of security is obtained, albeit security of a viciously oppressive nature. The idea that one might actually enjoy paranoia seems a bit far-fetched, but it is by no means rare to hear people speaking of past episodes of paranoia with a kind of wistful nostalgia. Some even come right out with it, and say that they kind of liked their paranoia, in a funny kind of way.
The Two Directions
If you happen to suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder and I run through the argument given above it may be the case that you can relate to your situation, but even so, what are you supposed to do now? What sort of practical guidance can be derived from a thermodynamically oriented model of neurosis? The perceptive reader will have noticed that all we have done is to indicate how normal problem solving approaches fail to be of any help. No purposeful action that you can think of can help you escape because your ‘purpose’ is your problem itself in a form you do not recognize. The ‘answer’ you came to is not the right answer because the question you originally asked was not the right question. What is worse, there is no right question…
We can think about this dilemma by considering the two possible directions in which it is possible to move. Direction is the direction of increasing dissymmetry, where I focus on the details and lose sight of the assumptions I have made in order to bring those details into prominence. This is the direction of increasing ‘security,’ where rules are solid and dependable, where Yes is always Yes, and never No. The further we move in direction the more congruent our ‘idea of what is’ become ‘what is.’
Direction is the direction of increasing symmetry, increasing relativity, where Yes is only Yes because of the way we choose to frame the question. It is the direction of decreasing relevance of our mental map (our concepts) to reality—the further we go in direction the less predictable our world gets, and the more strange it appears. Our sense of security approaches vanishing point.
Normally, we experience a tropism towards direction, we like to maximize our feeling of being adapted to our environment. All rule-based (purposeful) behavior sends us in this direction. Interpreting experience is also rule-based behavior. To see things this way is to take into account the complexity of the universe, which is to say, the way in which the universe cannot be reduced to one level of description without losing what you are trying to describe. It is pertinent within the context of this discussion because it answers our question about breaking out of the pattern of OCD. All we have to do is move in direction, and this is done by abandoning our habitual modus operandi, by leaving behind the framework within which we perceive ourselves to have some sort of ‘purchase’ on what is troubling us. There are no specific indicators which we can read off and know that we are moving in direction because a static framework of quantitative understanding is precisely what we are leaving behind. We are abandoning our terms of reference, our cozy and comforting map. However, there is an indicator which we can rely on, and this is our feeling of being insecure!
Normally, this feeling appears as anxiety or frank terror—a point-blank refusal to let ‘something or other’ (some supposed catastrophe) happen. The answer is not for me to positively force myself to accept the catastrophe, because that would only be another game that I am playing with myself. Instead, as each moment in time unfolds, I simply watch and see what happens. I don’t control the show, and try to get what I think is going to happen to happen, because that is in fact a refusal to wait quietly and see what actually is going to happen if I don’t control. There is nothing to do, apart from allowing life to unfold around me. Of course, this sounds far easier that it is in practice—the whole endeavor is positively fraught with difficulties. In practice, as Alan Watts says, I have to accept my attempts to control as further manifestations of the universe unfolding itself. I have to be ‘all-inclusive’ in my accepting; I cannot demand spontaneity and reject directed action because this is picking and choosing. I accept my unaccepting as part of the total picture—basically, I cannot become insecure on purpose, because deliberate insecurity is actually just another form of security.
In conclusion, then, what we have said is that we cannot think of our situation in terms of having a problem from which we wish to escape because that reifies our assumptions. What we have here is a vicious circle, the same vicious circle that we run into with chronic anxiety, i.e., avoiding reinforces the idea that there is something there which is worth avoiding. The formation of a vicious circle is characterizable in terms of an information collapse, as we have said. In the following passage Alan Watts brings our attention to the archetypal nature of this problem:
The story of the Fall, of the eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge
of Good and Evil, describes man’s involvement in the vicious circle—a
condition in which, of his own power, he is able to do nothing good that is
not vitiated by evil. In this condition it may be said that “all good deeds
are done for the love of gain,” that is, with a purely self-interested motive, because “honesty is the best policy.” Every advance in morality is counterbalanced by the growth of repressed evil in the unconscious, for morality has to be imposed by law and wherever there is compulsion there is repression of instinctual urges. Indeed, the very formulation of the ideal of righteousness suggests and aggravates its opposite. Thus St. Paul says,
“I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.”…
…regarding the question of how to break out of the vicious cycle, Watts, as we have already noted, advises the ‘non-technique’ of unconditional acceptance. Our resistance to such an approach, Watts argues, stems from our unacknowledged desire to ‘escape by our own cleverness,’ so to speak:
When it is said that man will not let himself be saved as he is, this is
another way of saying that he will not accept himself as he is; subtly
he gets around this simple act by making a technique out of acceptance,
setting it up as something which he should do in order to be a ‘good boy.’
And as soon as acceptance is made a question of doing and technique we
have the vicious circle. True acceptance is not something to be attained;
it is not an ideal to be sought after—a state of soul which can be possessed
and acquired, which we can add to ourselves in order to increase our
spiritual stature. If another paradox may be forgiven, true acceptance
is accepting yourself as you are NOW, at this moment, before you have
even begun to make yourself different by accepting yourself.
The Hidden Gain Of Neurosis
We have touched upon the real difficulty in dropping neurotic patterns of thinking and behaving when we looked at the idea that our need to escape suffering is less important to us than our need to have this ‘escape’ happen within the context of understanding which we can understand. It is not enough to be saved—we want to know how we are to be saved. This points to the hidden gain of neurosis, which we can explain as follows. So far we have mentioned the idea (which has wide acceptance in the field of psychology) that neurosis is refused pain. We have also explored the notion that ‘pain’ may be better defined as ‘terror due to loss of existential security.’ Our primary need is the need to have a framework, in other words. Another way to put it is to say that we are, at root, terrified of freedom. This sounds odd. We say that we want freedom, we go on about it incessantly, we write speeches about it and sing songs about it. We make an ideal of it. Yet the subtext is always there—what we really want is the freedom to carry on pretending that our model actually is reality. We want the freedom to stay in our safe framework, and, what is more, we want to be fulfilled by it! I want to be free to make lots of money and marry a super-model. I want the freedom to own a house that costs $750,000, and own a Ferrari, to be smarter than everyone else. I want the freedom to be good-looking, sophisticated and admired. What I don’t want is the freedom to see that none of these things matter a damn.
The hidden gain of neurosis is that I get to have a nice secure structure to hide in, to block out knowledge of what lies beyond that structure. I may be miserable but I’m secure. I may be having a totally rotten time—but it’s comfortable. I may be suffering, but I still get to have my own way and not face up to stuff that I don’t want to face up to. What this means is that it is not enough just to be sick of feeling miserable and sick of feeling jealous of everyone else having a nice life; my motivation must be deeper than this—I must want to see the truth about myself, no matte what that truth might turn out to be…
Hylotropism And Holotropism
I might find myself wondering what exactly the truth might turn out to be. One answer would of course be for you to say “see for yourself…” and leave it at that. But perhaps it is possible to get a little closer through discussion. Earlier we defined a so-called psychological ‘law’ which stated that the basic drive behind our activity is the ‘urge to describe.’ This is not the full story though: there are two directions and not just one, and the fact that one is a lot easier to head down doesn’t mean that we have to forget the ‘difficult’ direction. If the only tropism in town was the tropism towards increasing psychological entropy we would all have hit rock bottom a long time ago. There is more to it than the movement towards equilibrium, there is the movement out of equilibrium. Despite the second law of thermodynamics, life still manages to surprise us; despite ourselves, we still manage to grow, and leave behind old patterns and routines. Fritjof Capra makes the same point when he says that dynamic systems have two modes of change open to them; self-maintenance and self-transcendence. Prigogine and Stengers refer to optimization strategies versus radical change. Consciousness-researcher Stan Grof coined the term ‘hylotropic’ (movement towards the part, or towards detail) and ‘holotropic’ (movement towards the whole) and claims that these are the two fundamental drives behind all conscious life.
Regarding the part, we might say that this is the conditioned reality, or ‘the message.’ Messages only make sense within the context within which they were designed, and therefore their meaning is relative—it only exists if we are willing to allow that a certain set of assumptions are true. The whole is, therefore, the unconditioned reality, or ‘the medium’—it has no context because, obviously enough, it is the whole! The medium doesn’t need a context, which is to say, there is no right way to ‘read’ or understand it. This statement, although tending to be rather perplexing at first, is no different than our previous ‘explanation’ of the state of unbroken symmetry as the situation where there is no ‘up’ and no ‘down,’ no ‘right’ and no ‘wrong,’ neither ‘yes’ nor ‘no.’
The Direction Of Increasing Self-Reference
We have proposed the existence of a psychological drive which may be defined in terms of ‘the urge to make the universe relevant to oneself.’ This sounds very fancy upon first hearing, but further thought reveals the idea to be not quite so novel as we might previously have thought. After all, what we are talking about is actually nothing other than the process by which one creates a ‘self,’ and therefore the urge is probably better defined as ‘the urge to be a self.’ When I make stuff relevant to me what I am doing is creating a relationship with a definite external reality of some description. This has the reciprocal effect of defining myself—for if there is a reified external reality which I have a relationship with, then there must be a reified ‘me’ to have that relationship. This is the psychological direction of increasing self-definition. The ‘hidden gain’ of neurosis may therefore be seen in terms of the creation of a ‘self,’ not so much a ‘self’ in the normal sense, but self in the sense of a context of interpretation which provides a strong resolution both of the ‘problem,’ and the self that is being afflicted by this problem.
We can clarify this point by considering the usual usage of the word ‘selfish.’ Selfishness is generally seen as a failing rather than a virtue; conventional morality urges us to be ‘unselfish’—which is a virtuous state. Conventional morality contains an unseen paradox, however, as Watts says in the passage quoted earlier; basically, everything the self does is selfish in motive, even when a self is deliberately being unselfish that is still selfish. To act as a self is to be caught up in an inescapable tautology.
The way in which we are approaching the idea of ‘selfishness’ is somewhat different. In fact we cannot really use the word ‘selfish’ because that carries the implication that there actually is such a thing as a self. Talking about being ‘unselfish’ traps us in the same false assumption—it reifies the idea of self. Saying that one ought not to cherish the self is the same thing as cherishing the self—putting oneself last is the same thing as putting oneself first, since everything still revolves around the central idea of self. There is not getting away from it. Similarly, there is no way of getting out of a neurotic pattern of behavior because mind and the pattern it creates by deliberate action are the same system.
Being A Big Fish In A Little Pond Or A Grain Of Sand In The Desert
We said that moving in the direction of increasing self-reference (or increasing tautology) has a pay-off. In essence, one gets to ‘be somebody.’ I become meaningful in terms of the world and the world becomes meaningful in terms of me; there is a feeling of individual significance—I can say “I am such and such” without fear of my ontological basis being whipped out from under me. I am me and that is that. A decisive break in the cosmic symmetry has been effected—there is ‘self’ versus ‘other.’ Once this divide is in place it becomes very real indeed, it is a source of satisfaction for us; and it is also a source of despair and meaninglessness, since (in order to have the security of being sure of who we are) we have cut ourselves off from what we really are. If I travel in this direction I create a fixed center; a disymmetrical ‘me’ is crystallized out of the perfect symmetry of non-locality.
If, on the other hand, I move in the direction of decreasing self-referentiality, then my individual significance starts to evaporate. The sharp lines delineating the known or pragmatic self get blurred and ambiguous—it all starts to look rather arbitrary. Instead of being a big fish in a small pond I become a grain of sand in the desert, a drop of water in the ocean. From the point of view of ‘being somebody’ this sounds like bad news, but that is only because of the way in which we are looking at it. From another point of view (or rather, the view that has no point, or ‘center’) it is the best possible news: this is the state of non-limitation, of unboundedness, the symmetrical state which resumes when closure comes to an end. I am dissolved in non-referential vastness, I am in a place which is no place, since there is no context for it, no map for it. My horizons have opened up and expanded beyond what I had previously known. Because I am ‘nobody in particular,’ I have no restrictions whatsoever upon me. There is no ‘me’! This is the state of unqualified freedom which we spend most of our lives trying so hard to escape from, the unmodified state which Robert Anton Wilson calls, ‘the non-local self.’
Irreversibility, Work And Conscious Suffering
When a definite (or local) self is created there is an intensely rewarding glow of satisfaction—every bit of me feels suffused with the delicious warmth of confirmation: “I am…I am!…I am!…” This is the message and I could listen to it all day! When we are euphoric this is the gist of what we are constantly trying to tell others—if not directly by saying how great we are, then indirectly by spinning a web of self-reference, by becoming proprietary towards everything that is going on, by exerting control on the meaning of what is happening…Just as a stable molecule like hydrogen fluoride is formed amid a burst of energy, so too is a stable ‘local-self’ formed amid a powerful burst of euphoria. This movement from instability to stability is irreversible, both in chemistry and psychology—it is a one way street, a slippery-slop. Irreversibility does not mean that the process cannot be reversed, but rather that it cannot be reversed without importing energy from outside the system. Therefore, I can turn hydrogen fluoride back into unreacted hydrogen and fluorine by pumping in exactly as much energy as was released in the first place; work has to be done, in other words. If we are going to go along with the analogy between psychology and chemical thermodynamics, then the ‘work’ that is needed to free the individual from being trapped in routines, habitual patterns of thinking, opinions, and predictable personality traits must involve paying back the satisfaction of the original ‘euphoria-burst’ in the coin of ‘reverse-satisfaction,’ acute dis-comfort, or ‘dysphoria.’
It is interesting to note that esoteric psychological systems such as that set out by Gurdjieff speak in terms of the ‘Work”—a process by which a deterministic ‘machine-personality’ is transformed into a free or self-determining being. Gurdjieff, in common with other esoteric teachings (and Buddhism), held that we only possess the illusion of free-will since we are  slaves to our conditioning, and  totally blind to the fact that our thinking is conditioned. This two-step formulation of our predicament has in recent times been echoed by David Bohm, who was until his death professor of theoretical physics at Birbeck College, London. Bohm, taking a radically different approach to psychology, made the following two assertions: [1} thought is ‘participatory,’ which is to say, it helps to create the reality it shows us, and  thought somehow tricks us into thinking that the reality it shows us is independently (or objectively) true. In other words, how we see the world is the result of a hidden bias in or cognitive process.
Gurdjieff stated that freedom from conditioning can only be obtained through ‘conscious suffering’—which may be defined as suffering that one does not try to evade. This is where irreversibility comes in: it is not that we can’t reverse the process of symmetry-breaking, it’s just that we have a bias against it. We have a very serious and deep-rooted objection to suffering! It is at this point that we have to be very careful to explain precisely what we mean by ‘suffering’—we are not talking about the superficial suffering which happens when a goal is not obtained, or when an undesired or ‘negative’ goal is not avoided, but of the profound (or subtle) suffering which occurs when we lose the security of having context within which to gain or avoid anything. It is this subtle but deeply unacceptable form of discomfort that we are referring to as ‘conscious suffering,’ as opposed to ‘suffering within a context’ (which is unconscious, since having a context is concomitant with being conditioned, which also equals ‘the state of being unaware of the fact of this conditioning’).
Two Types Of Suffering
Talk of ‘freedom through suffering’ tends to set off alarm bells, since notions like this are associated with over-zealous religious piety, and the cult of ‘pleasure denial’ which found expression in such Protestant sects as Calvinism and Puritanism. “If it makes you feel good, then its bad” is the motto we think of here. The point is, though, that even if we do decide that we want to ‘do the right thing’ and suffer discomfort to make ourselves better people, this is still not conscious suffering. I am suffering on purpose, I have an agenda, and therefore this is not the same thing at all. Deliberate suffering is not conscious suffering: on the contrary, deliberate suffering means that I want to suffer and I want to suffer within a special context of meaning; I want to suffer and have a guaranteed outcome of that suffering—in other words, I want to have the security of knowing that it is going to do me good.
Deliberate suffering is where I fight my own urges and desires: I want to eat a doughnut and so I don’t; I want to avoid sexual thoughts and so I try hard to think of something else; I want to put myself first, so I put myself last instead…Basically, either I confront the thing I hate, or I deprive myself of the thing I love. Either way, I am sticking firmly within my established frame of reference, and so I learn nothing. All purposeful action serves the function of distracting me from the task of questioning my assumptions, and this is why we find it so hard to drop our closed, goal-oriented behavior.
Matters are not so simple that they can be solved by slavishly following rule-based procedures. If we could become happy through fighting our own inclinations, then there would be no problem, but what happens is that we end up being sanctimoniously miserable, which is far worse than just being miserable without any excuses, because it gives us an officially-validated frame of meaning to hold on. Feeling bad without any ‘props’ is actually conscious suffering, and that is very difficult! Escaping the snares that life sets us is not then a straightforward matter of avoiding pleasure—this does not work any better than the neurotic’s continual attempt to avoid pain, which is the same futile struggle seen from the other side. The key to freeing ourselves from neurosis is not to manage our feelings better, but not to manage them at all. The art is to be without bias: to feel good when we are happy, and to feel bad when we suffer, and to leave it at that. Instead of this we automatically evaluate and analyze ourselves, we get ourselves all tangled up in our agendas. When we are happy we want to be sure that we are happy, and be sure that it will last; often we find ourselves stage-managing our happiness, and so we get stuck in sentimentality. There is also the possibility that we will feel bad about being happy because we don’t feel that we deserve it. Feeling bad gets just as complicated: when we feel bad, we feel bad about feeling bad, and so we get stuck in denial—either this or we feel good about feeling bad, and get stuck in theatricality. Although the need is not acknowledged, the bottom line is that we want everything that happens to be validated by a context. We are like snails, we want to stay safely in our conceptual shells—all the more so when danger threatens…
Non-action sounds strange, if not reprehensible, to us goal-oriented Westerners, but it is well known to students of Taoism as wu wei, the art of not-doing. In terms of Western esotericism, it can be understood as work. What we are essentially saying is that purposeful action creates a context, and it is therefore the opposite of work, because work is the undoing of the security of a context. As we have been saying, the relationship between goal-oriented action and the context it takes place within is a circular sort of thing: purposeful action arises out of that context, and simultaneously reconfirms the validity of that context. This is perfectly and utterly tautological, and yet due to the loss of information that occurs when symmetry is broken, we no longer have the perspective to see the tautological nature of what is going on. This is why the process is irreversible.
Irreversibility means that we cannot extricate ourselves from dis-symmetrical situations by thinking about it, because it was thinking that created the dis-symmetry in the first place. We cannot extricate ourselves by purposeful action, no matter how determined that action is, because purposefulness arises out of thinking. We cannot have the satisfaction of escaping through the power of our own minds! Once the dis-symmetry is there, we are stuck in it, we are caught up in having issues with the world, with making stuff relevant to us when it is not. We take life personally—we use it to confirm out identity. When there is no dis-symmetry then there are ‘no issues’ and so we are free to move on. We are no longer trapped in our conceptions about what is going on, we are no longer afflicted by the drastic defenses that we have taken up to protect ourselves against the openness of radical uncertainty. That defense-system is our everyday rational mind, and our repertory of self-confirming emotions such as anger, envy, jealousy, pride, etc. This defense system is what Carl Jung referred to in terms of ‘the basic psychic crime”—the crime of unconsciousness. Unconsciousness is not a crime in a moral sense, but rather in the sense of it being a transgression of our own nature by ourselves. It is a lie that we have told ourselves, and for which, one way or another, we will have to pay. We can pay in the coin of unconscious suffering, which means we will stick with our story and complain of cosmic injustice, or we can pay through conscious suffering, which means that we don’t complain, but ‘suffer gladly,’ as Tibetan Buddhist master Sogyal Rinpoche puts it.
Chogyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism
On the ego
According to Buddhist tradition, the spiritual path is the process of cutting through our confusion, of uncovering the awakened state of mind. When the awakened state is crowded in by ego and its attendant paranoia, it takes on the character of an underlying instinct. So it is not a matter of building up the awakened state of mind, but rather burning out the confusions which obstruct it. In the process of burning out these confusions, we discover enlightenment. If the process were otherwise, the awakened state of mind would be a product, dependent upon cause and effect and therefore liable to dissolution. Anything which is created must, sooner or later, die. If enlightenment were created in such a way, there would always be the possibility of ego reasserting itself, causing a return to the confused state. Enlightenment is permanent because we have not produced it; we have merely discovered it…
The heart of the confusion is that man has a sense of self which seems to him to be continuous and solid. When a thought or emotion or event occurs, there is a sense of someone being conscious of what is happening. You sense that you are reading these words. The sense of self is actually a transitory, discontinuous event, which in our confusion seems to be quite solid and continuous. Since we take our confused view as being real, we struggle to cover up any possibility of discovering our real condition. “But,” we might ask, “if our real condition is an awakened state, why are we so busy trying to avoid becoming aware of it?” It is because we have become so absorbed in our confused view of the world, that we consider it real, the only possible world. This struggle to maintain the sense of a solid, continuous self is the action of the ego.
Ego, however, is only partially successful in shielding us from pain. It is the dissatisfaction which accompanies ego’s struggle that inspires us to examine what we are doing. Since there are always gaps in our self-consciousness, some insight is possible.
The Three Lords Of Materialism
An interesting metaphor used in Tibetan Buddhism to describe the functioning of ego is that of the “Three Lords of Materialism”: the “Lord of Form,” the “Lord of Speech,” and the “Lord of Mind.” In the discussion of the Three Lords which follows, the words “materialism” and “neurotic” refer to the action of the ego.
The Lord of Form refers to the neurotic pursuit of physical comfort, security and pleasure. Our highly organized and technological society reflects our preoccupation with manipulating physical surroundings so as to shield ourselves from the irritations of the raw, rugged, unpredictable aspects of life. Push-button elevators, pre-packaged meat, air conditioning, flush toilets, private funerals, retirement programs, mass production, weather satellites, bulldozers, fluorescent lighting, nine-to-five jobs, television—all are attempts to create a manageable, safe, predictable, pleasurable world.
The Lord of Form does not signify the physically rich and secure life-situations we create per se. Rather it refers to the neurotic preoccupation that drives us to create them, to try to control nature. It is ego’s ambition to secure and entertain itself, trying to avoid all irritation. So we cling to our pleasures and possessions, we fear change or force change, we try to create a nest or playground.
The Lord of Speech refers to the use of intellect in relating to our world. We adopt sets of categories which serve as handles, as ways of managing phenomena. The most fully developed products of this tendency are ideologies, the systems of ideas that rationalize, justify and sanctify our lives. Nationalism, communism, existentialism, Christianity, Buddhism—all provide us with identities, rules of action, and interpretations of how and why things happen as they do.
Again, the use of intellect is not in itself the Lord of Speech. The Lord of Speech refers to the inclination on the part of ego to interpret anything that is threatening or irritating in such a way as to neutralize the threat or turn it into something “positive” from the ego’s point of view. The Lord of Speech refers to the use of concepts as filters to screen us from a direct perception of what is. The concepts are taken to seriously; they are used as tools to solidify our world and ourselves. If a world of nameable things exists, then “I” as one of the nameable things exist as well. We wish not to leave any room for threatening doubt, uncertainty or confusion.
The Lord of Mind refers to the effort of consciousness to maintain awareness of itself. The Lord of Mind rules when we use spiritual and psychological disciplines as the means of maintaining our self-consciousness, of holding onto our sense of self. Drugs, yoga, prayer, meditation, trances, various psychotherapies—all can be used in this way.
Ego is able to convert everything to its own use, even spirituality. For example, if you have learned of a particularly beneficial meditation technique of spiritual practice, then ego’s attitude is, first to regard it as an object of fascination and, second to examine it. Finally, since ego is seeming solid and cannot really absorb anything, it can only mimic. Thus ego tries to examine and imitate the practice of meditation and the meditative way of life. When we have learned all the trick s and answers of the spiritual game, we automatically try to imitate spirituality, since real involvement would require the complete elimination of ego, and actually the last thing we want to do is to give us the ego completely. However, we cannot experience that which we are trying to imitate; we can only find some area within the bounds of ego that seems to be the same thing. Ego translates everything in terms of its own state of health, its own inherent qualities. It feels a sense of accomplishment and excitement at having been able to create such a pattern. At last it has created a tangible accomplishment, a confirmation of its own individuality.
If we become successful at maintaining our self-consciousness through spiritual techniques, then genuine spiritual development is highly unlikely. Our mental habit becomes so strong as to be hard to penetrate. We may even go so far as to achieve the totally demonic state of complete “Egohood.”
Even though the Lord of Mind is the most powerful in subverting spirituality, still the other two Lords can also rule the spiritual practice. Retreat to nature, isolation, simple, quiet, high people—all can be ways of shielding oneself from irritation, all can be expressions of the Lord of Form. Or perhaps religion may provide us with a rationalization for creating a secure nest, a simple but comfortable home, for acquiring an amiable mate, and a stable, easy job.
The Lord of Speech is involved in spiritual practice as well. In following a spiritual path we may substitute a new religious ideology for our former beliefs, but continue to use it in the old neurotic way. Regardless of how sublime our ideas may be, if we take them too seriously and use them to maintain our ego, we are still be ruled by the Lord of Speech…
The Buddha…examined the process by which the Three Lords rule. He questioned why our minds follow them and whether there is another way. He discovered that the Three Lords seduce us by creating a fundamental myth: that we are solid beings. But ultimately the myth is false, a huge hoax, a gigantic fraud, and it is the root of our suffering…
The Lords’ defenses are created out of the material of our minds. This material of mind is used by the Lords in such a way as to maintain the basic myth of solidity. The…Buddha…discovered that struggling to find answers did not work…He began to realize that there was a sane, awake quality within him which manifested itself only in the absence of struggle…meditation… does involve dealing with neurotic states of mind. The neurotic state of mind is not difficult or impossible to deal with. It has energy, speed and a certain pattern. The practice of meditation involves letting be—trying to go with the pattern, trying to go with the energy and the speed. In this way we learn how to deal with these factors, how to relate with them, not in the sense of causing them to mature in the way we would like, but in the sense of knowing them for what they are and working with their pattern.
If the strategy of continually overlapping thoughts is penetrated, then the Lords stir up emotions to distract us. The colorful, dramatic quality of the emotions captures our attention as if we were watching an absorbing film show…we neither encourage emotions or suppress them. By seeing them clearly, by allowing them to be as they are, we no longer permit them to serve as a means of entertaining and distracting us. Thus they become the inexhaustible energy which fulfills egoless action.
In the absence of thoughts and emotions the Lords bring up a still more powerful weapon, concepts. Labeling phenomena creates a feeling of a solid definite world of “things.” Such a solid world reassures us that we are a solid, continuous thing as well. The world exists, therefore I, the perceiver of the world, exist. Meditation involves seeing the transparency of concepts, so
that labeling no longer serves as a way of solidifying our world and our image of our self. Labeling becomes simply the act of discrimination…
By the examination of his own thoughts, emotions, concepts and the other activities of mind, the Buddha discovered that there is no need to struggle to prove our existence, that we need not be subject to the rule of the Three Lords of Materialism. There is no need to struggle to be free; the absence of struggle is in itself freedom. The egoless state is the attainment of Buddhahood. The process of transforming the material of mind from expressions of ego’s ambition into expressions of basic sanity and enlightenment through the practice of meditation—this might be said to be the true spiritual path.
The Development of Ego
The Five Skandas
As we are going to examine the Buddhist path from beginning to end, from beginners mind to the enlightened one, I think it would be best to start with something very concrete and realistic, the field we are going to cultivate. It would be foolish to study more advanced subjects before we are familiar with the starting point, the nature of the ego…Any spiritual practice needs this basic understanding of the starting point, the material with which we are working.
If we do not know the subject with which we are working, then our study is useless; speculations about the goal become mere fantasy. These speculations may take the form of advanced ideas and descriptions of spiritual experiences, but they only exploit the weaker aspects of human nature, our expectations and desires to see and hear something colorful, something extraordinary. If we begin our study with these dreams of extraordinary, “enlightening” and dramatic experiences, then we will build up our expectations and preconceptions so that later, when we are actually working on the path, our mind will be occupied largely with what will be rather than what is. It is destructive and not fair to people to play on their weaknesses, their expectations and dreams, rather than to present the realistic starting point of what they are
It is necessary, therefore, to start on what we are and why we are searching. Generally, all religious traditions deal with this material, speaking variously of alaya-vijnana or original sin or the fall of man or the basis of ego. Most religions refer to this material in a somewhat pejorative way, but I do not think it is such a shocking or terrible thing. We do not have to be ashamed of who we are. As sentient beings we have wonderful backgrounds. These backgrounds may not be particularly enlightened or peaceful or intelligent. Nevertheless, we still have soil good enough to cultivate…Therefore, in dealing with this subject we are not condemning or trying to eliminate our ego psychology; we are purely acknowledging it, seeing it as it is. In fact understanding the ego is the foundation of Buddhism. So let us see how it develops.
Fundamentally, there is just open space, the basic ground of what we really are. Our most fundamental state of mind, before the creation of ego, is such that there is basic openness, basic freedom, a spacious quality; and we have now and have always had this openness. Take, for example, our everyday lives and thought patterns. When we see an object, in the first instant there is a sudden perception which has no logic or conceptualization to it at all; we just perceive the thing in the open ground. Then immediately we panic and begin to rush about trying to add something to it, either trying to find a name for it or trying to find pigeon-holes in which we could locate and categorize it. Gradually things develop from there.
This development does not take the shape of a solid entity. Rather, this development is illusory, the mistaken belief in a “self” or “ego.” Confused mind is inclined to view itself as a solid, on-going thing, but it is only a collection of tendencies, events. In Buddhist terminology this collection is referred to as the Five Skandas or Five Heaps…
The beginning point is that there is open space, belonging to no one. There is always primordial intelligence connected with the space and openness. Vidya, which means “intelligence” in Sanskrit—precision, sharpness, sharpness with space, sharpness with room in which to put things, exchange things. It is like a spacious hall where there is room to dance about, where there is no danger of knocking things over or tripping over things, for there is completely open space. We are this space, we are one with it, with vidya, intelligence and openness.
But if we are this all the time, where did the confusion come from, where has the space gone, what has happened? Nothing has happened, as a matter of fact. We just became too active in that space. Because it is spacious, it brings the inspiration to dance about; but our dance became a bit too active, we began to spin more than was necessary to express the space. At this point we became self-conscious, conscious that “I” am dancing in the space.
At such a point, space is no longer space as such. It becomes solid. Instead of being one with the space, we feel solid space as a separate entity, as tangible. This is the first experience of duality—space and I, I am dancing in this space, and this spaciousness is a solid, separate thing. Duality means “space and I,” rather than being completely one with the space. This is the birth of “form,” or “other.”
Then a kind of blackout occurs, in the sense that we forget what we are doing. There is a sudden halt, a pause; and we turn around and “discover” solid space, as though we had never before done anything at all, as though we were not the creators of all that solidity. There is a gap. Having already created solidified space, then we are overwhelmed by it and begin to become lost in it. There is a blackout and then, suddenly, an awakening.
When we awaken, we refuse to see the space as openness, refuse to see its smooth and ventilating quality. We completely ignore it, which is called avidya, A means “negation,” vidya means “intelligence,” so it is “un-intelligence.” Because this extreme intelligence has been transformed into the perception of solid space, because this intelligence with a sharp and precise and flowing luminous quality has become static, therefore it is called avidya, “ignorance.” We deliberately ignore. We are not satisfied just to dance in the space but we want to have a partner, and so we choose the space as our partner. If you choose space as your partner in the dance, then of course you want it to dance with you. In order to possess it as a partner, you have to solidify it and ignore its flowing, open quality. This is avidya, ignorance, ignoring intelligence. It is the culmination of the First Skanda, the creation of Ignorance-Form.
In fact, this skanda, the skanda of Ignorance-Form, has three different aspects or stages which we could examine through the use of another metaphor. Suppose in the beginning there is an open plain without any mountains or trees, completely open land, a simple desert without any particular characteristics. That is how we are, what we are. We are very simple and basic. And yet there is a sun shining, a moon shining, and there will be lights and colors, the texture of the desert. There will be some feeling of the energy which plays between heaven and earth. Thisgoes on and on.
Then, strangely, there is suddenly someone to notice all this. It is as if one of the grains of sand had stuck its neck out and begun to look around. We are that grain of sand, coming to the conclusion of our separateness. This is the “Birth of Ignorance” in its first stage, a kind of chemical reaction. Duality has set begun.
The second stage of Ignorance-Form is called “The Ignorance Born Within.” Having noticed that one is separate, then there is the feeling that one has always been so. It is an awkwardness, the instinct toward self-consciousness. It is also one’s excuse for remaining separate, an individual grain of sand. It is an aggressive type of ignorance, though not exactly aggressive in the sense of anger; it has not developed as far as that. Rather it is aggression in the sense that one feels awkward, unbalanced, and so one tries to secure one’s ground, create a shelter for oneself. It is the attitude that one is a confused and separate individual, and that is all there is to it,. One has identified oneself as separate from the basic landscape of space and openness.
The third type of ignorance is “Self-Observing Ignorance” watching oneself. There is a sense of seeing oneself as an external object, which leads to the first notion of “other.” One is beginning to have a relationship with a so-called “external” world. This is why these three stages of ignorance constitute the Skanda Of Form-Ignorance; one is beginning to create a world of forms.
When we speak of ‘ignorance” we do not mean stupidity at all. In a sense, ignorance is very intelligent, but it is completely two-way intelligence. That is to say, one purely reacts t one’s projections rather than just seeing what is. There is no situation of ‘letting be” at all, because one is ignoring what one is all the time. That is the basic definition of ignorance.
The next development is the setting up of a defense mechanism to protect our ignorance. This defense mechanism is Feeling, the Second Skanda. Since we have already ignored open space, we would like next to feel the qualities of solid space in order to bring complete fulfillment to the grasping quality we are developing. Of course space does not mean just bare space, for it contains color and energy. There are tremendous, magnificent displays of color and energy, beautiful and picturesque. But we have ignored them altogether. Instead there is just a solidified version of that color; and the color becomes captured color, and the energy becomes captured energy, because we have solidified the whole space and turned it into “other.” So we begin to reach out and feel the qualities of “other.” By doing this we reassure ourselves that we exist. “If I can feel that out there, then I must be here.”
Whenever anything happens, one reaches out to feel whether the situation is seductive or threatening or neutral. Whenever there is sudden separation, a feeling of not knowing the relationship of “that” to “this,” we tend to feel for our ground. This is the extremely efficient feeling mechanism that we begin to set up, the Second Skandha.
The next mechanism to further establish the ego is the Third Skandha, Perception-Impulse. We begin to be fascinated by our own creation, the static colors and the static energies. We want to relate to them, and so we begin gradually to explore our creation.
In order to explore efficiently there must be a kind of switchboard system, a controller of the feeling mechanism. Feeling transmits its information to the central switchboard, which is the act of perception. According to that information, we make judgments, we react. Whether we react for or against or indifferently is automatically determined by this bureaucracy of feeling and perception. If we feel the situation and find it threatening, when we will push it away from us. If we find it seductive, then we will draw it to us. If we find it neutral, we will be indifferent. These are the three types of impulse: hatred, desire, and stupidity. Thus perception refers to receiving information from the outside world and impulse refers to our response to that information.
The next development is the Fourth Skandha, Concept. Perception-Impulse is an automatic reaction to intuitive feeling. However, this kind of automatic reaction is not really enough of a defense to protect one’s ignorance and guarantee one’s security. In order to really protect and deceive oneself completely, properly, one needs intellect, the ability to name and categorize things. Thus we label things and events as being “good,” “bad,” “beautiful,” “ugly,” and so on, according to which impulse we find appropriate to them.
So the structure of ego is gradually becoming heavier and heavier, stronger and stronger. Up to this point ego’s development has been purely an action and reaction process; but from now on ego gradually develops beyond the ape instinct and becomes more sophisticated. We begin to experience intellectual speculation, confirming or interpreting ourselves, putting ourselves into certain logical, interpretive situations. The basic nature of intellect is quite logical. Obviously there will be the tendency to work for a positive condition: to confirm our experience, to interpret weakness into strength, to fabricate a logic of security, to confirm our ignorance.
In a sense it might be said that primordial intelligence is operating all the time, but it is being employed by the dualistic fixation, ignorance. In the beginning stages of the development of ego this intelligence operates as the intuitive sharpness of feeling. Later it operates in the form of intellect. Actually it seems that there is no such thing as the ego at all; there is no such thing as “I am.” It is an accumulation of a lot of stuff. It is a “brilliant work of art,” a product of the intellect which says, “Let’s give it a name, let’s call it something, let’s call it ‘I am’, “ which is very clever. “I” is the product of intellect, the label which unifies into one whole the disorganized and scattered development of ego.
The last stage of the development of ego is the Fifth Skandha, Consciousness. At this level an amalgamation takes place: the intuitive intelligence of the Second Skandha, the energy of the Third, and the intellectualization of the Fourth combine to produce thoughts and emotions. Thus at the level of the Fifth Skandha we find the Six Realms as well as the uncontrollable and illogical patterns of discursive thought.
This is the complete picture of ego. It is in this state that all of us have arrived at our study of Buddhist psychology and meditation.
In Buddhist literature there is a metaphor commonly used to describe this whole process, the creation and development of ego. It speaks of a monkey locked in an empty house, a house with five windows representing the five senses. This monkey is inquisitive, poking it head out of each window and jumping up and down, up and down, restlessly. He is a captive monkey in an empty house. It is a solid house, rather than the jungle in which the monkey leapt and swung, rather than trees in which he could hear the wind moving and the rustling of the leaves and branches. All these things become completely solidified. In fact, the jungle itself has become his solid house, his prison. Instead of perching in a tree, this inquisitive monkey has been walled in by a solid world, as if a flowing thing, a dramatic and beautiful waterfall, had suddenly been frozen.
This frozen house, made of frozen colors and energies, is completely still. This seems to be the point where time begins as past, future and present. The flux of things becomes solid tangible time, a solid idea of time.
The inquisitive monkey awakens from his blackout, but he does not awaken completely. He awakens to find himself trapped inside of a solid, claustrophobic house with just five windows. He becomes bored, as though captured in a zoo behind iron bars, and he tries to explore the bars by climbing up and down. That he has been captured is not particularly important; but the idea of capture id magnified a thousand times because of is fascination with it. If one is fascinated, the sense of claustrophobia becomes more and more vivid, more and more acute, because one begins to explore one’s imprisonment. In fact fascination is part of the reason he remains imprisoned. He is captured by his fascination. Of course at the beginning there was the sudden blackout which confirmed his belief in a solid world. But now having taken solidity for granted, he is trapped by his involvement with it.
Of course the inquisitive monkey does not explore all the time. He begins to become agitated, begins to feel that something is very repetitive and uninteresting, and he begins to become neurotic. Hungry for entertainment, he tries to feel and appreciate the texture of the wall, attempting to make sure that this seeming solidity is really solid. Then, assured that the space is solid, the monkey begins to relate to it by grasping it, repelling it or ignoring it. If he attempts to grasp the space in order to possess it as his own experience, his own discovery, his own understanding, this is desire. Or, if the space seems a prison to him so that he tries to kick and batter his way out, fighting harder and harder, then this is hatred. Hatred is not just the mentality of destruction alone; but it is even more a feeling of defensiveness, defending oneself against claustrophobia. The monkey does not necessarily feel that there is an opponent or enemy approaching; he simply wants to escape his prison.
Finally the monkey might try to ignore that he is imprisoned or that there is something seductive in his environment. He plays deaf and dumb and so is indifferent and slothful in relation to what is happening around him. This is stupidity.
To go back a bit, you might say that the monkey is born into this house as he awakens from the blackout. He does not know how he arrived in this prison, so he assumes he has always been there, forgetting that he himself solidified the space into walls. Then he feels the texture of the walls, which is the Second Skandha, Feeling. After that, he relates to the house in terms of desire, hatred and stupidity, the Third Skandha, Perception-Impulse. Then, having developed these three ways of relating to house, the monkey begins to label and categorize it: “This is a window. This corner is pleasant. That wall frightens me and is bad.” He develops a conceptual framework with which to label and categorize and evaluate his house, his world, according to whether he desire, hates, or feels indifferent to it. This is the Fourth Skandha, Concept.
The monkey’s development through the Fourth Skankha has been fairly logical and predictable. But the pattern of development begins to break down as he enters the Fifth Skandha, Consciousness. The thought pattern becomes irregular and unpredictable and the monkey begins to hallucinate, to dream.
When we speak of “hallucination: or “dream,” it means that we attach values to things and events which they do not have. We have definite opinions about the way things are and should be. This is projection: we project our version of things onto what is there. Thus we become completely immersed in a world of our own creation, a world of conflicting values and opinions. Hallucination, in this sense, is a misinterpretation of things and events, reading into the phenomenal world meanings which it does not have.
This is what the monkey begins to experience at the level of the Fifth Skandha. Having tried to get out and having failed, he feels dejected, helpless, and so he begins to go completely insane. Because he is so tired of struggling, it is very tempting for him to relax and let his mind wander and hallucinate. This is the creation of the Six Lokas or Six Realms. There is a great deal of discussion in the Buddhist tradition about hell beings, people in heaven, the human world, the animal realm, and other psychological states of being. These are the different kinds of projections, the dream worlds we create for ourselves.
Having struggled and failed to escape, having experienced claustrophobia and pain, this monkey begins to wish for something good, something beautiful and seductive. So the first realm he begins to hallucinate is the Deva Loka, the God Realm, “heaven,” a place filled with beautiful, splendid things. The monkey dreams of strolling out of his house, walking in luxuriant fields, eating ripe fruit, sitting and swinging in the trees, living a life of freedom and ease.
Then he also begins to hallucinate the Asura Realm, or the Realm of The Jealous Gods. Having experienced the dream of heaven, the monkey wants to defend and maintain his great bliss and happiness. He suffers from paranoia, worrying that others may try to take his treasures from him, and so he begins to feel jealousy. He is proud of himself, has enjoyed his creations of the God Realm, and this has led him into jealousy of the Asura Realm.
Then he also perceives the earth-bound quality of these experiences. Instead of simply alternating between jealousy and pride, he begins to feel comfortable, at home in the “human world,” the “earthly world.” It is the world of just leading a regular life, doing things ordinarily, in a mundane fashion. This is The Human Realm.
But then the monkey also senses that something is a bit dull, something is not quite flowing. This is because, as he progresses from the Realm of the Gods to the Realm of the Jealous Gods to the Realm of Human Beings, and his hallucinations become more and more solid, then this whole development begins to feel rather heavy and stupid. At this point he is born into the Animal Realm. He would rather crawl or moo or bark then enjoy the pleasure of pride or envy. This is the simplicity of animals.
Then the process is intensified, and the monkey starts to experience a desperate feeling of starvation, because he really does not want to descend to any lower realms of the gods; so he begins to feel hunger and thirst, a tremendous feeling of nostalgia for what he remembers he once had. This is the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts or Preta Realm.
Then there is a sudden losing of faith and the monkey begins to doubt himself and his world, begins to react violently. All this is a terrible nightmare. He realizes that such a nightmare could not be true and he begins to hate himself for creating all this horror. This is the dream of the Hell Realm, the last of the Six Realms.
Throughout the entire development of the Six Realms the monkey has experienced discursive thoughts, ideas, fantasies, and whole thought patterns. Up to the level of the Fifth Skandha his process of psychological evolution has been very regular and predictable. From the First Shandha each successive development arose in a systematic pattern, like an overlay of tiles on a
roof. But now the monkey’s state of mind becomes very distorted and disturbed, as suddenly this mental jigsaw puzzle erupts and his thought patterns become irregular and unpredictable. This seems to be our state of mind as we come to the teachings and the practice of meditation. This is the place from which we must start our practice.
I think that it is very important to discuss the basis of the path—ego, or confusion—before we speak of liberation and freedom. If I were only to discuss the experience of liberation, that would be very dangerous. This is why we begin by considering the development of the ego. It is a kind of psychological portrait of our mental states. I am afraid this has not been an especially beautiful talk, but we have to 88iface the facts. That seems to be the process of working on the path.
…you just have to see what you are. Often we tend to look for the positive side, the beauty of spirituality, and ignore ourselves as we really are. This is the greatest danger. If we are engaged in self-analysis, our spiritual practice is trying to find some ultimate analysis, an ultimate self-deception. Ego’s intelligence is tremendously talented. It can distort anything. If one seizes on the ideas of spirituality or self-analysis or transcendence of ego, immediately ego takes hold of them and translates them into self-deception.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
A holon (Greek: ὅλον, holon neuter form of ὅλος, holos “whole”) is something that is simultaneously a whole and a part. The word was coined by Arthur Koestler in his book The Ghost in the Machine (1967, p. 48). Koestler was compelled by two observations in proposing the notion of the holon. The first observation was influenced by Nobel Prize winner Herbert A. Simon’s parable of the two watchmakers, wherein Simon concludes that complex systems will evolve from simple systems much more rapidly if there are stable intermediate forms present in that evolutionary process than if they are not present. The second observation was made by Koestler himself in his analysis of hierarchies and stable intermediate forms in both living organisms and social organizations. He concluded that, although it is easy to identify sub-wholes or parts, wholes and parts in an absolute sense do not exist anywhere. Koestler proposed the word holon to describe the hybrid nature of sub-wholes and parts within in vivo systems. From this perspective, holons exist simultaneously as self-contained wholes in relation to their sub-ordinate parts, and dependent parts when considered from the inverse direction.
Koestler also says holons are autonomous, self-reliant units that possess a degree of independence and handle contingencies without asking higher authorities for instructions. These holons are also simultaneously subject to control from one or more of these higher authorities. The first property ensures that holons are stable forms that are able to withstand disturbances, while the latter property signifies that they are intermediate forms, providing a context for the proper functionality for the larger whole.
Finally, Koestler defines a holarchy as a hierarchy of self-regulating holons that function first as autonomous wholes in supra-ordination to their parts, secondly as dependent parts in sub-ordination to controls on higher levels, and thirdly in coordination with their local environment.
A holon is a system (or phenomenon) which is an evolving self-organizing dissipative structure, composed of other holons, whose structures exist at a balance point between chaos and order. It is maintained by the throughput of matter–energy and information–entropy connected to other holons and is simultaneously a whole in and itself at the same time being nested within another holon and so is a part of something much larger than itself. Holons range in size from the smallest subatomic particles and strings, all the way up to the multiverse, comprising many universes. Individual humans, their societies and their cultures are intermediate level holons, created by the interaction of forces working upon us both top-down and bottom-up. On a non-physical level, words, ideas, sounds, emotions—everything that can be identified—is simultaneously part of something, and can be viewed as having parts of its own, similar to sign in regard of semiotics. Defined in this way, holons are related to the concept of autopoiesis, especially as it was developed in the application of Stafford Beer to second-order cybernetics and viable system theory, but also Niklas Luhmann in his social systems theory.
Since a holon is embedded in larger wholes, it is influenced by and influences these larger wholes. And since a holon also contains subsystems, or parts, it is similarly influenced by and influences these parts. Information flows bidirectionally between smaller and larger systems as well as rhizomatic contagion. When this bidirectionality of information flow and understanding of role is compromised, for whatever reason, the system begins to break down: wholes no longer recognize their dependence on their subsidiary parts, and parts no longer recognize the organizing authority of the wholes. Cancer may be understood as such a breakdown in the biological realm.
A hierarchy of holons is called a holarchy. The holarchic model can be seen as an attempt to modify and modernise perceptions of natural hierarchy.
Ken Wilber comments that the test of holon hierarchy (e.g. holarchy) is that if all instances of a given type of holon were removed from existence, then all those holons of which they were a part must necessarily cease to exist too. Thus an atom is of a lower standing in the hierarchy than a molecule, because if you removed all molecules, atoms could still exist, whereas if you removed all atoms, molecules, in a strict sense would cease to exist. Wilber’s concept is known as the doctrine of the fundamental and the significant. A hydrogen atom is more fundamental than an ant, but an ant is more significant.
The doctrine of the fundamental and the significant are contrasted by the radical rhizome oriented pragmatics of Deleuze and Guattari, and other continental philosophy.
A significant feature of Koestler’s concept of holarchy is that it is open ended both in the macrocosmic as well as in the microcosmic dimensions. This aspect of his theory has several important implications. The holarchic system does not begin with strings or end with the multiverse. Those are just the existing limits of the reach of the human mind in the two dimensions at the present time. Those limits will be crossed later on because they do not encompass the whole of reality. Popper (Objective Knowledge) teaches that what the human mind knows and will ever know of truth at a given point of time and space is verisimilitude – something like truth, and that the human mind will continue to get closer to reality but never reach it. In other words, the human quest for knowledge is an unending journey with innumerable grand sights ahead but with no possibility of reaching the journey’s end. The work of modern physicists designed to discover the theory of everything (TOE) is reaching deep into the microcosm under the assumption that the macrocosm is eventually made of the microcosm. This approach falls short on two counts: the first is that the fundamental is not the same as significant and the second is that this approach does not take into account that the microcosmic dimension is open ended. It follows that the search for TOE will discover phenomena more microcosmic than strings or the more comprehensive M theory. It is also the case that many laws of nature that apply to systems relatively low in the hierarchy cease to apply at higher levels. M theory might have predictive power at the sub-atomic level but it will inform but little about reality at higher levels. The work of the particle physicists is indeed laudable but they should give the theory they are looking for another name. This is not to claim that the concept of holarchy is already the theory of everything.
Types of holons
An individual holon possesses a dominant monad; that is, it possesses a definable “I-ness”. An individual holon is discrete, self-contained, and also demonstrates the quality of agency, or self-directed behavior. The individual holon, although a discrete and self-contained whole, is made up of parts; in the case of a human, examples of these parts would include the heart, lungs, liver, brain, spleen, etc. When a human exercises agency, taking a step to the left, for example, the entire holon, including the constituent parts, moves together as one unit.
A social holon does not possess a dominant monad; it possesses only a definable “we-ness”, as it is a collective made up of individual holons. In addition, rather than possessing discrete agency, a social holon possesses what is defined as nexus agency. An illustration of nexus agency is best described by a flock of geese. Each goose is an individual holon, the flock makes up a social holon. Although the flock moves as one unit when flying, and it is “directed” by the choices of the lead goose, the flock itself is not mandated to follow that lead goose. Another way to consider this would be collective activity that has the potential for independent internal activity at any given moment.
American philosopher Ken Wilber includes Artifacts in his theory of holons. Artifacts are anything (e.g. a statue or a piece of music) that is created by either an individual holon or a social holon. While lacking any of the defining structural characteristics – agency; self-maintenance; I-ness; Self Transcendence – of the previous two holons, Artifacts are useful to include in a comprehensive scheme due to their potential to replicate aspects of and profoundly affect (via, say interpretation) the previously described holons. Artifacts are made up individual or social holons (e.g. a statue is made up atoms).
The development of Artificial Intelligence may force one to question where the line should be drawn between the individual holon and the artifact.
Heaps are defined as random collections of holons that lack any sort of organisational significance. A pile of leaves would be an example of a heap. Note, one could question whether a pile of leaves could be an “artifact” of an ecosystem “social holon”. This raises a problem of intentionality: in short, if social holons create artifacts but lack intentionality (the domain of individual holons) how can we distinguish between heaps and artifacts? Further, if an artist (individual holon) paints a picture (artifact) in a deliberately chaotic and unstructured way does it become a heap?
Holon in Multiagent Systems
Multiagent systems are systems composed of autonomous software entities. They are able to simulate a system or to solve problems. Holon may be viewed as a sort of recursive agent: an agent composed of agents which an agent at a given level has its own behavior as a partial consequence of these part’s behaviors.
Janus Multiagent Platform is a software platform able to execute holons.
The Conscious Universe
The psyche’s attachment to the brain, i.e., its space-time limitation, is no longer as self-evident and incontrovertible as we have hitherto been led to believe…It is not only permissible to doubt the absolute validity of space-time perception; it is, in the view of the available facts, even imperative to do so.
–Carl Jung, Psychology and the Occult
In science, the acceptance of new ideas follows a predictable, four-stage sequence. In Stage 1, skeptics confidently proclaim that the idea is impossible because it violates the Laws of Science. This stage can last for years or for centuries, depending on how much the idea challenges conventional wisdom. In Stage 2, skeptics reluctantly concede that the idea is possible but that it is not very interesting and the claimed effects are extremely weak. Stage 3 begins when the mainstream realizes not only that the idea is important but that its effects are much stronger and more pervasive than previously imagined. Stage 4 is achieved when the same critics who previously disavowed any interest in the idea begin to proclaim that they thought of it first. Eventually, no on remembers that the idea was once considered a dangerous heresy.
The idea discussed in this book is in the midst of the most important and the most difficult of the four transitions—from Stage 1 to Stage 2. While the idea itself is ancient, it has taken more than a century to demonstrate it conclusively in accordance with rigorous, scientific standards. This demonstration has accelerated Stage 2 acceptance, and Stage 3 can already be glimpsed on the horizon.
The idea is that those compelling, perplexing, and sometimes profound human experiences known as ‘psychic phenomena’ are real. This will come as no surprise to most of the world’s population, because the majority already believe in psychic phenomena. But over the past few years, something has propelled us beyond old debates over personal beliefs. The reality of psychic phenomena is now no longer based solely on faith, or wishful thinking, or absorbing anecdotes. It is not even based upon the results of a few scientific experiments. Instead, we know that these phenomena exist because of new ways of evaluating massive amounts of scientific evidence collected over a century by scores of researchers.
Psychic or ‘psi’ phenomena fall into two general categories. The first involves perceiving objects or events beyond the range of ordinary senses. The second is mentally causing action at a distance. In both categories, it seems the intention, the mind’s will, can do things that—according to prevailing scientific theories—it isn’t supposed to be able to do. We wish to know what is happening to loved ones, and somehow, sometimes, that information is available even over large distances. We wish to speed the recovery of a loved one’s illness, and somehow that person gets better quicker, even at a distance. Mind willing, many interesting things appear to be possible.
Understanding such experiences requires an expanded view of human consciousness. Is the mind merely a mechanistic, information-processing bundle of neurons? Is it a ‘computer made of meat’ as some cognitive scientists and neuroscientists believe? Or is it something more? The evidence suggests that while many aspects of mental functioning are undoubtedly related to brain structure and electromechanical activity, there is also something else happening, something very interesting.
This Is for Real?
In discussions of the reality of Psi phenomena, especially from the scientific perspective, one question always hovers in the background: You mean this is for real? In the midst of all the nonsense and excessive silliness proclaimed in the name of psychic phenomena, the misinformed use of the term ‘parapsychology’ by self-proclaimed ‘paranormal investigators,’ the perennial laughingstock of magicians and conjurers…this is for real?
The short answer is, Yes.
A more elaborate answer is Psi has been shown to exist in thousands of experiments. There are disagreements over how to interpret the evidence, but the fact is that virtually all scientists who have studied the evidence, including hard-nosed skeptics, now agree that something interesting is going on that merits serious scientific attention. Late we’ll discuss why very few scientists and science journalists are aware of this dramatic shift in informed opinion.
The most important indication of a shift from Stage 1 to Stage 2 can be seen in the gradually changing attitudes of prominent skeptics. In a 1995 book saturated with piercing skepticism, the late Carl Sagan of Cornell University. Maintained his lifelong mission of educating the public about science, in this case by debunking popular hysteria over alien abductions, channelers, faith healers, the ‘face’ on Mars, and practically everything found in the New Age section of most bookstores. Then, in one paragraph among 450 pages, we find an astonishing admission:
At the time of writing there are three claims in the ESP field which, in my opinion, deserve serious study: (1) that by thought alone humans can (barely) affect random number generators; (2) that people under mild sensory deprivation can receive thoughts or images ‘projected’ at them; and (3) that young children sometimes report the details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation.
Other signs of shifting opinions are cropping up with increasing frequency in the scientific literature. Starting in the 1980’s, well-known scientific journals like Foundations of Physics, American Psychologist, and Statistical Science published articles favorably reviewing the scientific evidence for psychic phenomena. The Proceedings of the IEEE, the flagship journal of the Institute for Electronic and Electrical Engineers, has published major debates on Psi research. Invited articles have appeared in the prestigious journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences. A favorable article on telepathy research appeared in 1994 in Psychological Bulletin, one of the top-ranked journals in academic psychology. And an article presenting a theoretical model for precognition appeared in 1994 in Physical Review, a prominent physics journal.
In the 1990s alone, seminars on psi research were part of the regular programs at the annual conferences of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Psychological Association, and the American Statistical Association. Invited lectures on the status of psi research were presented for diplomats at the United Nations, for academics at Harvard University, and for scientists at Bell Laboratories.
The Pentagon has not overlooked these activities.
From 1981 to 1995, five different U.S. government-sponsored scientific review committees were given the task of examining the evidence for psi effects. The reviews were prompted by concerns that if psi were genuine, it might be important for national security reasons. We would have to assume that foreign governments would exploit psi if they could.
Reports were prepared by the Congressional Research Service, the Army Research Institute, the National Research Council, the Office of Technology Assessment, and the American Institutes for Research (the latter commissioned by the Central Intelligence Agency). While disagreeing over the fine points of interpretation, all five reviews concluded that the experimental evidence for certain forms of psychic phenomena merited serious scientific study.
For example, in 1981 the Congressional Research Service concluded that ‘Recent experiments in remote viewing and other studies in parapsychology suggests that there exists an ‘interconnectiveness’ of the human mind with other minds and with matter. This interconnectiveness would appear to be functional in nature and amplified by intent and emotion.’ The report concluded with suggestions of possible applications for health care, investigative work, and ‘the ability of the human mind to obtain information as an important factor in successful decision making by executives.’
In 1985 a report prepared by the Army Research Institute concluded that ‘the bottom line is that the data reviewed in [this] report constitute genuine scientific anomalies for which no one has an adequate explanation or set of explanations…if they are what they appear to be, their theoretical (and, eventually, their practical) implications are enormous.’
In 1987 the National Research Council reviewed parapsychology (the scientific discipline that includes psi) at the request of the U.S. Army. The committee recommended that the army monitor parapsychological research being conducted in the former Soviet Union and in the United States, suggested that the army consider funding specific experiments, and most significantly, admitted that it could not propose plausible alternatives to the ‘psy hypothesis’ for some classes of psi experiments. Dr. Ray Hyman, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon and a longtime skeptic of psi phenomena, was chairman of the National Research Council’s review on parapsychology. He stated in a 1988 interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education that ‘Parapsychologists should be rejoicing. This is the first government committee that said their work should be taken seriously.’
In early 1989 the Office of Technology Assessment issued a report of a workshop on the status of parapsychology. The end of the report stated that “It is clear that parapsychology continues to face strong resistance from the scientific establishment. The question is—how can the field improve it chances of obtaining a fair hearing across a broader spectrum of the scientific community, so that emotionality does not impede objective assessment of the experimental results? Whether the final result of such an assessment is positive, negative, or something in between, the field appears to merit such considerations.’
In 1995 the American Institutes for Research reviewed formerly classified government-sponsored psi research for the CIA at the request of the U.S. Congress. Statistician Jessica Utts of the University of California, Davis, one of the two principal reviewers, concluded that ‘The statistical results of the studies examined are far beyond what is expected by chance. Arguments that these results could be due to methodological flaws in the experiments are soundly refuted. Effects of similar magnitude to those found in government-sponsored research…have been replicated at a number of laboratories across the world. Such consistency cannot be readily explained by claims of flaws or fraud…it is recommended that future experiments focus on understanding how this phenomenon works, and on how to make it as useful as possible. There is little benefit to continuing experiments designed to offer proof.’
Surprisingly, the other principal reviewer, skeptic Ray Hyman, agreed: ‘The statistical departures from chance appear to be too large and consistent to attribute to statistical flukes of any sort…I tend to agree with Professor Utts that real effects are occurring in these experiments. Something other than chance departures from the null hypothesis has occurred in these experiments.’
These opinions are even being reflected in the staid realm of college textbooks. One of the most popular books in the history of college publishing is Introduction to Psychology, by Richard L. Atkinson and three coauthors. A portion of the preface in the 1990 edition of this textbook reads: “Readers should take note of new section in Chapter 6 entitled ‘Psi Phenomena.’ We have discussed parapsychology in previous editions but have been very critical of the research and skeptical of the claims made in the field. And although we still have strong reservations about most of the research in parapsychology, we find the recent work on telepathy worth of careful consideration.”
The popular ‘serious’ media have not overlooked this opinion shift. The May 1993 issue of New Scientist, a popular British science magazine, carried a five-page cover story on telepathy research. It opened with the lines, ‘Psychic research has long been written off as the stuff of cranks and frauds. But there’s now one telepathy experiment that leaves even the skeptics scratching their heads.’ And in the last five years, Newsweek, the New York Times Magazine, Psychology Today, ABC’s Nightline, national news programs, and television and print media around the world have begun to moderate previously held Stage 1 opinions. They’re now beginning to publish and broadcast Stage 2 stories that take scientific psi research seriously.
If all this is true, then a thousand other questions immediately bubble up. Why hasn’t everyone heard about this on the nightly news? Why is this topic so controversial? Who has psi? How does it work? What are its implications and applications? These are all good questions, and this book will attempt to answer them through four general themes: Motivation, Evidence, Understanding, and Implications.
Theme 1: Motivation
Why should anyone take psychic phenomena seriously? The answer rests on the strength of the scientific evidence, which stands on its own merits. But to appreciate fully why the scientific case is so persuasive, and why any scientific controversy exists at all, we have to take a slightly circuitous route.
That route will first consider the language used to discuss psi, since much of the confusion about this topic comes from misunderstood and misapplied words (chapter 1). This is followed by examples of common human experiences that provide hints about the existence and nature of psi phenomena (chapter 2). We will then consider the topic of replication, where we will learn what counts as valid scientific evidence (chapter 3). And we’ll end with meta-analysis, where we will see how replication is measured and why it is so important (chapter 4).
In sum, the motivations underlying this scientific exploration can be found in mythology, folktales, religious doctrines, and innumerable personal anecdotes. While sufficient to catch everyone’s attention, stories and personal experiences do not provide the hard, trustworthy evidence that cause scientists to accept confidently that a claimed effect is what it appears to be. Stories, after all, invariably (wrong) reflect subjective beliefs and faith, which may or may not be true.
Beginning in the 1880’s, and accumulating ever since, a new form of scientifically valid evidence appeared—empirical data produced in controlled, experimental studies. While not as exciting as folklore and anecdotes, from the scientific perspective these data were more meaningful because they were produced according to well-accepted scientific procedures. Scores of scientists from around the world had quietly contributed these studies.
Today, with more than a hundred years of research on this topic, an immense amount of scientific evidence has been accumulated. Contrary to the assertions of some skeptics, the question is not whether there is any scientific evidence, but “What does a proper evaluation of the evidence reveal?” and “Has positive evidence been independently replicated?”
As we’ll see, the question of replicability—can independent, competent investigators obtain approximately the same results in repeated experiments?—is fundamental to making the scientific case for psi.
Theme 2: Evidence
Theme 2 discusses the main categories of psi experiments and the evidence that the effects seen in these experiments are genuinely replicable. The evidence is based on analysis of more than a thousand experiments investigating various forms of telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, psychic healing, and psychokinesis (presented in chapters 5 through 9). The evidence for these basic psychic phenomena is so well established that most psi researchers today no longer conduct “proof-oriented” experiments. Instead, they focus on “process-oriented” questions like, What influences psi performance? And How does it work?
Also presented are experiments exploring how psi interacts with more mundane aspects of human experience, such as unusual physical effects associated with the “mass mind” of groups of people (chapter 10), psi effects in casino gambling and lottery games (chapter 11), and applications of psi (chapter 12).
Theme 3: Understanding
The wealth of scientific evidence discussed in theme 2 will show that some psi phenomena exist, and that they are probably expressed in more ways than anyone had previously thought. The vast majority of the information used to make this case has been publicly available for years. One might expect that the growing scientific evidence for genuine psi would have raised great curiosity. Funding would flow, and researchers around the world would be attempting to replicate these effects. After all, the implications of genuine psi are profoundly important for both theoretical and practical reasons. But this has not yet been the case. Few scientists are aware that any scientifically valid case can be made for psi, and fewer still realize that the cumulative evidence is highly persuasive.
In theme 3 we consider why this is so. One reason is that the information discussed here has been suppressed and ridiculed by a relatively small group of highly skeptical philosophers and scientists (chapter 13). Are the skeptics right, and all the scientists reporting successful psi experiments over the past century were simply delusional or incompetent? Or is there another explanation for the skepticism?
We will see that because scientists are also human, the process of evaluating scientific claims is not as pristinely rational or logical as the general public believes (chapter 14). The tendency to adopt a fixed set of beliefs and defend them to the death is incompatible with science, which is essentially a loose confederation of evolving theories in many domains. Unfortunately, this tendency has driven some scientists to continue to defend outmoded, inaccurate worldviews. The tendency is also seen in the behavior of belligerent skeptics who loudly proclaim that widespread belief in psi reflects a decline in the public’s critical thinking ability. One hopes that such skeptics would occasionally apply a little skepticism to their own positions, but history amply demonstrates that science progresses mainly by funerals, not by reason and logic alone.
Understanding why the public has generally accepted the existence of psi and why science has generally rejected it requires an examination of the origins of science (chapter 15). In exploring the clash of beliefs, we will discover that the scientific controversy has had very little to do with the evidence itself, and very much to do with the psychology, sociology, and history of science.
Discussions about underlying assumptions in science rarely surface in skeptical debates over psi, because this topic involved deeply held, often unexamined beliefs about the nature of the world. It is much easier to imagine a potential flaw in one experiment, and use that flaw to cast doubt on an entire class of experiments, than it is to consider the overall results of a thousand similar studies. A related issue is how science deals with anomalies, those extraordinary “damn facts” that challenge mainstream theories. As we look into the nature and value of anomalies, and how scientists react to them, we will also explore the role that prejudice, in the literal sense of “prejudging,” has played in controlling what is presumed to be scientifically valid. Other issues, like how scientific disciplines rarely talk to one another, and the historical abyss between science and religion, make it abundantly clear that if psychic experience were any other form of curious natural phenomena, they would have been adopted long ago by the scientific mainstream on the basis of evidence alone.
Theme 4: Implications
The eventual scientific acceptance of psychic phenomena is inevitable. The origins of acceptance are already brewing through the persuasive weight of the laboratory evidence. Converging theoretical developments from many disciplines are offering glimpses at ways of understanding how psi works (chapter 16). There are explorations of psi effects by major industrial labs, evaluation of claims of psychic healing by the Office of Alternative Medicine of the National Institutes for Health, and articles about psi research appearing in the ‘serious’ media.
As acceptance grows, the implications of psi will become more apparent. But we already know that these phenomena present profound challenges to many aspects of science, philosophy, and religion (chapter 17). These challenges nudge scientists to reconsider basic assumptions about space, time, mind, and matter. Philosophers will rekindle the perennial debates over the role of consciousness in the physical world. Theologians will reconsider the concept of divine intervention, as some phenomena previously considered to be miracles will probably become subject to scientific understanding.
These considerations are long overdue. And exclusive focus on what might be called “the outer world” has led to a grievous split between the private world of human experience and the public world as described by science. In particular, science has provided little understanding of profoundly important human concepts like hope and meaning. The split between objective and the subjective has in the past been dismissed as a nonproblem, or as a problem belonging to religion and not to science.
But this split has also led to major technological blunders, and a rising popular antagonism toward science. This is a pity, because scientific methods are exceptionally powerful tools for overcoming persona biases and building workable models of the ‘truth.’ There is every reason to expect that the same methods that gave us a better understanding of galaxies and genes will also shed light on experiences described by mystics throughout history.
Now let’s explore a little more closely what we’re talking about. What is psi?
Theme 1: Motivation
What is psi? What does it mean to study the scientific evidence for psi? What counts as scientific evidence? How do we evaluate that evidence?
To answer these questions, we’ll begin by considering what is meant by psi, to help distinguish it from the wild, wacky world of the paranormal. We’ll reflect on how some doubts about psi can be traced to confusion over related words like “supernatural,’ and we’ll consider what science is and how it fits into the study of psi.
Next, we’ll ready some case studies that provide the motivation for studying whether what seems to be happening in psi experiences is really happening. Can the real-life anecdotes about psi be confirmed under controlled conditions? Then we’ll cover two very important topics—replication and meta-analysis—that will allow us to make sense of the scientific evidence presented in theme 2.
What Is Psi?
Many errors, of a truth, consist merely in the application of the wrong names of things. Baruch Spinoza
Since primeval times, people have spoken of strange and sometimes profoundly meaningful personal experiences. Such experiences have been reported by the majority of the world’s population and across all cultures. In modern times, they’re still reported by most people, including the majority of college professors. These experiences, called “psychic” or psi, suggest the presence of deep, invisible interconnections among people, and between objects and people. The most curious aspect of psi experiences is that they seem to transcend the usual boundaries of time and space.
For over a century, these very same experiences have been systematically dismissed as impossible, or ridiculed as delusionary, by a small group of influential academics and journalists who have assumed that existing scientific theories are inviolate and complete. This has created a paradox. Many people believe in psi because of their experiences, and yet the defenders of the status quo have insisted that this belief is unjustified.
Paradoxes are extremely important because they point out logical contradictions in assumptions. The first cousins of paradoxes are anomalies, those unexplained oddities that crop up now and again in science. Like paradoxes, anomalies are useful for revealing possible gaps in prevailing theories. Sometimes the gaps and contradictions are resolved peacefully and the old theories are shown to accommodate the oddities after all. But that is not always the case, so paradoxes and anomalies are not much like by scientists who have built their careers on conventional theories. Anomalies present annoying challenges to established ways of thinking, and because theories tend to take on a life of their own, no theory is going to lie down and dies without putting up a strenuous fight.
Though anomalies may be seen as nuisances, the history of science shows that each anomaly carries a seed of potential revolution. If the seed can withstand the herbicides of repeated scrutiny, skepticism, and prejudice, it may germinate. It may then provoke a major breakthrough that reshapes the scientific landscape, allowing new technological and sociological concepts to bloom into a fresh vision of “common sense.’”
A long-held commonsense assumption is that the worlds of the subjective and the objective are distinct, with absolutely no overlap. Subjective is “here, in the head,” and objective is “there, out in the world.” Psi phenomena suggest that the strict subjective-objective dichotomy may instead be part of a continuous spectrum, and that the usual assumptions about space and time are probably too restrictive.
The anomalies fall into three general categories: ESP (extrasensory perception; PK (psychokinesis, or mind-matter interaction), and phenomena suggestive of survival after bodily death, including near-death experiences [NDE], apparitions, and reincarnation…Most scientists who study psi today expect that further research will eventually explain these anomalies in scientific terms. It isn’t clear, though, whether they can be fully understood without significant, possibly revolutionary, expansions of the current state of scientific knowledge.
What’s In A Name?
In popular usage, psychic phenomena may be defined as follows:
telepathy Information exchanged between two or more minds, without the use of the ordinary senses.
clairvoyance Information received from a distance, beyond the reach of the ordinary senses. A French term meaning “clear-seeing.” Also called “remote viewing.”
psychokinesis Mental interaction with animate or inanimate matter. Experiments suggest that it is more accurate to think of psychokinesis as information flowing from mind to matter, rather than the application of mental forces or powers. Also called “mind-matter interaction,” “PK.” And sometimes, “telekinesis.”
precognition Information perceived about future events, where the information could not be inferred by ordinary means. Variations include “premonition,” a foreboding of an unfavorable event, and “presentiment,” a sensing of a future emotion.
ESP Extrasensory perception, a term popularized by J.B. Rhine in the 1930’s. It refers to information perceived by telepathy, clairvoyance, or precognition.
psi A letter of the Greek alphabet used as a neutral form for all ESP-type and psychokinetic phenomena.
OBE Out-of-body experience; an experience of feeling separated from the body. Usually accompanied by visual perceptions reminiscent of clairvoyance.
NDE Near-death experience; an experience sometimes reported by those who are revived from nearly dying. Often refers to a core experience that includes feelings of peace, OBE, seeing lights, and certain other phenomena. Related to psi primarily through the OBE experience.
reincarnation The concept of dying and being reborn into a new life. The strongest evidence for this ancient idea comes from children, some of whom recollect verifiable details of previous lives. Related to psi by similarities to clairvoyance and telepathy.
haunting Recurrent phenomena reported to occur in particular locations, including sightings of apparitions, strange sounds, movements of objects, and other anomalous physical and perceptual effects. Related to psi by similarities to psychokinesis and clairvoyance.
poltergeist Large-scale psychokinetic phenomena previously attributed to spirits but now associated with a living person, frequently and adolescent. From the German for “noisy spirit.”
Mistaking the Map for the Territory
Though the terms listed above are in common usage, scientists who study psi try to think about these phenomena in neutrally descriptive terms. This is because popular labels such as “telepathy” carry strong, unstated connotations that cause us to think we understand more than we actually do. As psycholinguists often point out, it’s very easy to mistake the name of the thing for the thing itself. And when we are not clear about what “the thing” is, mistaking the map for the territory can lead to enormous confusion.
Some names also carry hidden theoretical assumptions. For example, some people have imagined that telepathy may literally be a transfer of mental signals from one mind to another. This commonly provokes the image of “mental radio,” which has been proposed by various people over the years, including the author Upton Sinclair, who wrote a famous book by that title.
The concept of “mental radio” naturally suggests that telepathy is based on something like electromagnetic signaling. Brain-wave signals, however, are exceptionally weak, and in cases of telepathy where the “receiver” and “sender” are many miles apart, it is difficult to imagine that anything could detect the infinitesimally tiny signals “broadcast” from the sender. Still, because psi does not fit easily into conventional theories, researchers have repeatedly put the “electromagnetic” theories to the test. The results show that when telepathic receivers are isolated by heavy-duty electromagnetic and magnetic shielding (specially constructed rooms with steel and copper walls), or by extreme distance, they are still able to obtain information from a sender without using the ordinary senses.
So we know that telepathy doesn’t work like conventional electromagnetic signaling. And yet, because the metaphor provides a powerful way of thinking about telepathy, many people still imagine that telepathy “works” through some form of mental radio.
Besides the problems that can arise from taking labels too literally, the strength of the evidence for various categories of psi varies widely. Simply labeling an effect without qualifications tends to give the false impression that all these phenomena stand on equally firm scientific ground, and this is not the case.
Keep in mind that the names and concepts used to describe psi say more about the situations in which the phenomena are observed than about any fundamental properties of the phenomena themselves. This is always true in science but is often glossed over for the sake of simplicity. Depending on what we wish to measure, a photon can be either a wave or a particle. We may call it one thing or the other, but that does not change what it “really” is, something that is neither a wave nor a particle, but apparently both at once.
In addition, in scientific practice many of the basic terms for psi effects are accompanied by strings of qualifiers such as “apparent,” “putative,” and “ostensible.” This is because many claims supposedly involving psi may not be caused by psi, but by normal psychological or misinterpreted physical factors. Here we avoid the repetitive use of qualifiers because they can become monotonous. But it is useful to remember that science deals with hypothesis, theories, and models, and not with absolutes. Every scientific concept carries some qualification.
What Are We Talking About?
Psi research continues to be controversial partly because of confusion about the term ‘paranormal.’ The common view of the paranormal especially as reflected in popular media, is of anything bizarre, occult, or mysterious. In this view, ESP, telepathy, and precognition are lumped together with ‘bleeding’ statues, alien abductions, and five-headed toads.
Other terms commonly used to refer to all things strange include supernatural, psi, psychic, parapsychological, mystical, esoteric, occult, and for some unfathomable reason, ‘PSI,’ pronounced letter by letter, p, s, i, as though that meant something (it doesn’t in this context). The indiscriminate mixing of these terms has led to vast misunderstandings. There really is a difference between the scientific study of psi phenomena and say, the belief that Elvis has reincarnated into a forty-pound zucchini that bears a striking resemblance to the late King of Rock and Roll. To clarify precisely what is meant by the phrase ‘scientific study of psi phenomena’ and to prepare for the concept of replication in science, we mus briefly consider five concepts: paranormal, supernatural, mystical, science, and the scientific method…
Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines paranormal as ‘beyond the range of scientifically known phenomena.’ Note that this definition does not specify psychic phenomena per se, so paranormal can be used to refer to any unexplained, but potentially explainable, phenomenon. Also note that the definition uses the phrase ‘scientifically known,’ which itself raises a rather complicated issue involving the scientific method and the nature of evidence and proof in science. For now, let us take paranormal to mean something like ‘beyond the range of phenomena presently accepted by most scientists.
Many subjects now considered perfectly legitimate areas of scientific inquiry, including hypnosis, dreams, hallucinations, and subliminal perception, were relegated to the wackiest fringes of the paranormal in the late nineteenth century. A few hundred years before that, topics like physics, astronomy, and chemistry were so far out that those who merely dabbled in them risked accusations of heresy, or worse.
This simply points out that science, like most other things, is part of an evolutionary process: odd events considered paranormal eventually become normal after satisfactory scientific explanations
are developed. In this sense—although some scientists would probably shudder at the analogy—virtually all cutting-edge, basic research can be viewed as the systematic practice of probing and explaining the paranormal.
Curiously, many effects that science cannot explain are generally not regarded as paranormal. In psychology, for example, there are some remarkable but completely unexplained phenomena such as photographic memory…lightening calculation in autistic savants…extraordinary musical aptitude in prodigies who seem to spring from the womb ready for Carnegie Hall, and so on.
Perhaps the most widely accepted, yet totally baffling phenomenon is conscious awareness itself, but this too is not regarded as paranormal. Thus in general usage ‘paranormal’ has taken on a connotation of the eerie, bizarre, or ominous in addition to its dictionary meaning. As Marcello Truzzi, a sociologist at Western Michigan, says:
‘The term paranormal was created to designate phenomena considered natural—not supernatural—and which eventually should find scientific explanation but thus far has escaped such explanations…Unfortunately, many critics of the paranormal continue to equate anything purportedly paranormal with the supernatural. This is particularly ironic since those who truly believe in the supernatural (such as the Roman Catholic Church when it speaks of miracles) have long understood that a paranormal explanation precludes a supernatural one.’
Supernatural has several meanings; the usual is ‘miraculous; ascribed to agencies or powers above or beyond nature; divine.’ Because science is commonly regarded as a method of studying the natural world, a supernatural phenomenon is by this definition unexplainable by, and therfore totally incompatible with science.
Today, a few religious traditions continue to maintain that psi is supernatural and therefore not amenable to scientific study. But a few hundred years ago virtually all natural phenomena were thought to be manifestations of supernatural agencies and spirits. Through years of systematic investigation, many of these phenomena are now understood in quite ordinary terms. Thus, it is entirely reasonable to expect that so-called miracles are simply indicators of our present ignorance. Any such events may be more properly labeled first as paranormal, then as normal once we have developed an acceptable scientific explanation. As astronaut Edgar Mitchell put it:
‘There are no unnatural or supernatural phenomena, only very large gaps in our knowledge of what is natural, particularly regarding relatively rare occurrences.’
Mystical refers to the direct perception of reality, knowledge derived directly rather than indirectly. In many respects, mysticism is surprisingly similar to science in that it is a systematic method of exploring the nature of the world. Science concentrates on outer, objective phenomena, and mysticism concentrates on inner, subjective phenomena. It is interesting that numerous scientists, scholars, and sages over the years have revealed deep, underlying similarities between the goals, practices, and findings of science and mysticism. Some of the most famous scientists wrote in terms that are practically indistinguishable from the writings of mystics.
Science may be defined as a well-accepted body of facts and a method of observing these facts. Scientists are quick to disagree, however, over what ‘well-accepted’ means, what ‘facts’ mean, what ‘methods’ mean, what ‘mean’ means, and even sometimes what ‘and’ means. As a result, the definition of science depends to a large extent on whom you ask. We are not too far off the mark by repeating the pithy phrase ‘science is what scientists do.’ In any case, most scientists would probably agree that what made science great is the scientific method. So what’s this method, and why is it so great?
If scientists cannot easily agree on what science is, then it seems unlikely that they can agree on something more complex like ‘the’ scientific method. Psychologists Robert Rosenthal of Harvard University and Ralph Rosnow of Temple University maintain that ‘scientific method’ is difficult to define because “the term ‘scientific method’ is itself surrounded by controversy, and is a misnomer to boot, since there are many recognized and legitimate methods of science.”
A common element among most varieties of scientific method is the use of controlled and disciplined obvservation. However, observation alone is insufficient. As philosopher Jerome Black wrote, “Neither observation, nor generalization, nor the hypothetic-deductive use of assumptions, nor the use of instruments, nor mathematical construction—nor all of them together—can be regarded as essential to science…
The specialness of the scientific method can be illustrated…by comparing it with earlier, prescientific methods of pursuing knowledge. As L.L. White explained, “About 1600 Kepler and Galileo simultaneously and independently formulated the principle that the laws of nature are to be discovered by measurement, and applied this principle in their own work. Where Aristotle had classified, Kepler and Galileo sought to measure.
In addition to careful observation and measurements, a fundamental strength of the scientific method is its reliance on public, consensus, agreement that the measurements are in fact correct.
This differs dramatically from earlier approaches to knowledge, such as the logical arguments favored by philosophers, or the dogmatic acceptance of scripture demanded by religious authorities.
The idea of public agreement about measurements has led to the strong requirement in science (at least in the experimental sciences) that phenomena must be independently and repeatedly measurable to allow this consensus to form. In other words, the idea of repeatability, or replication, has become roughly equivalent to a test for stability.
If a phenomena is highly unstable, we can’t be sure whether we re measuring a real effect, some other effect, or just random variations. With this sort of confusion, no consensus can be reached and the existence of the effect in question remains in doubt. Scientists in the seventeenth century had not yet developed methods of clearly distinguishing between real effects and chance, so they were forced to bypass many interesting physical, biological, and psychological phenomena—in fact, almost everything studied in sciences today. Fortunately, some physical and astronomical effects were stable enough ( or were precisely periodic) that early attempts at measurement were successful. Without such stable effects, science as we know it would have failed miserably and we would still be arguing as in Aristotle’s time. Such philosophical debates typically went something like: Yes, it is so. No, it is not so. Yes, it is. No it isn’t. Tis! Tisn’t…
Gurdjieff And “The Work” (Jacob Needleman, Professor of Philosophy, San Francisco State University)
It is true enough to say that Gurdjieff’s system of ideas is complex and all-encompassing, but one must immediately add that their formulation is designed to point man toward a central and simple power of apprehension which Gurdjieff taught is merely latent within the human mind and which is the only power by which man can actually understand himself in relation to the universe. In this sense the distinction between doctrine and method, which is fairly clear in most of the older spiritual traditions, does not entirely obtain in the Gurdjieff teaching. The formulations of the ideas are themselves meant to have a special action on the sense of self and may therefore be regarded as part of the practical method. This characteristic of the Gurdjieff method reflects what Gurdjieff perceived as the center of gravity of man’s subjectivity—the fact that modern civilization is lopsidedly oriented around the thinking function. Modern man’s illusory feeling of ”I” is built up around his thoughts and therefore, in accordance with the level of the pupil, the ideas themselves are meant to affect this false sense of self. For Gurjieff the deeply penetrating influence of scientific thought in modern life was not something merely to be deplored, but to be understood as the channel through which the eternal Truth first finds its way toward the human heart.
Man, Gurdjieff taught, is an undeveloped creation. He is not really man, considered as a cosmically unique being whose intelligence and power of action mirror the energies of the source of life itself. On the contrary, man as we encounter him is an automaton. His thoughts, feeling, and deeds are little more than mechanical reactions to external and internal stimuli. He cannot do anything. In and around him, everything happens without the participation of his own authentic consciousness. But human beings are ignorant of this state of affairs because of the pervasive influence of culture and education, which engrave in them the illusion of autonomous conscious selves. In short, man is asleep. There is no authentic I am in his presence, but only an egoism which masquerades as the authentic self, and whose machinations poorly imitate the normal human functions of thought, feeling, and will.
Many factors reinforce this sleep. Each of the reactions that proceed in one’s presence is accompanied by a deceptive sense of I—man is many I’s, each imagining itself to be the whole, and each buffered off from awareness of the others. Each of these many I’s represents a process whereby the subtle energy of consciousness is absorbed and degraded, a process that Gurdjieff termed “identification.” Man identifies—that is, squanders his conscious energy, with every passing thought, impulse, and sensation. This state of affairs takes the form of a continuous self-deception and a continuous procession of egoistic emotions, such as anger, self-pity, sentimentality, and fear, which are of such a pervasively painful nature that man is constantly driven to ameliorate this condition through the endless pursuit of social recognition, sensory pleasure, or the vague and unrealizable goal of “happiness.”
According to Gurjieff, the human condition cannot be understood apart from considering humanity within the function of organic life on earth. The human is constructed to transform energies of a specific nature, and neither his potential inner development nor his present actual predicament is understandable apart from this function…(But) man is unable to draw upon the conscious energies passing through him, which in the cosmic scheme, are those possessing the actual power of causal efficacy. Man does not and cannot participate consciously in the great universal order, but instead is tossed around en masse for the purposes limited to the functions of organic life on earth as a whole. Even in this relatively limited sphere—limited, that is, when compared to man’s latent destiny—mankind has become progressively incapable of fulfilling its function, a point that Gurdjieff strongly emphasized in his own writings…the “fate of the earth” is somehow bound up with the possibility of the inner evolution of individual men and women…
How are human beings to change this state of affairs and begin drawing on the universal conscious energies which they are built to absorb but which now pass through them untransformed? How is humanity to assume its proper place in the great chain of being? Gurdjieff’s answer to these questions actually circumscribes the central purpose of his teaching—namely, that human life on earth may now stand at a major transitional point, comparable perhaps to the fall of the great civilizations of the past, and that development of the whole being of man…is the only thing that can permit man to pass through this transition in a manner worthy of human destiny…But whereas the descent of humanity takes place en masse, ascent or evolution is possible only within the individual…
A Study of Gurdjieff’s Teaching, Kenneth Walker, M.D.
The Disinterested Observer
Ouespensky said that he would begin the study of man the machine, with an investigation of his mind, and G’s teaching on this subject differed from all other Western teachings…Ouespensky made free use of diagrams when teaching us, and a diagram which was frequently drawn on the blackboard was the one showing man’s several minds. He said that in this diagram man was regarded as a three-storied being, in the top story of which there resided the intellectual mind or, as Ouespensky now preferred to call it, the Intellectual Centre. In the middle story was man’s emotional mind or centre, and in the lower story…his instinctive…centre. G also said the emotional and intellectual centres were themselves divided into higher and lower minds, though it was rare for humans to operate from their higher mind (It was also the case that, according to G, all living creatures on earth are to be classified in accordance with the number of minds or centres which they possessed, and man was the only creature on this planet equipped with an intellectual centre).
The relative activity of the three chief centres in man (intellectual, emotional and instinctive) was different in different individuals, and this provided us with a means of classifying men under three…headings. There were men who did everything by imitating the behavior of those around them, and who thought, felt, moved and reacted much as everybody else thought, felt…and reacted. Such people were controlled almost entirely by their (instinctive) centre, which possessed a special gift for imitation, and a man of this type would henceforth be referred to as man number one. There were other people in whose lives the emotions played a leading part, people who were guided by what they felt and by what they liked and disliked rather than by what they thought. Such people spent their lives in seeking what was pleasant and in avoiding what was unpleasant, but sometimes they reacted pathologically in the reverse way, extracting what was distressing into a horrid form of voluptuousness. An emotionally controlled person of this kind would be spoken of in the future as man number two. Finally there was man number three, the man who was swayed by theories and by what he called his reason, a man whose knowledge was based on logical thinking and who understood everything in a literal sense. A man of this kind would be called man number three.
Ouespensky made it clear to us that no one of these three was superior to any other one and that all three stood together on the same level, equally at the mercy of their psychological machinery and without any will. All that this classification was meant to show us was that the individual behavior and decisions of one kind of man could often be explained by the predominance of one kind of function…This method of classifying people was possible because human development was usually lopsided…
A properly balanced man, working as he should work, resembled a well-trained orchestra, in which one kind of instrument took the lead at one moment of the performance and another instrument at another, each making a contribution to the symphony being played.
In observing ourselves we must look at ourselves with detachment and as though we were looking at another person about whom we knew very little. At first we might find difficulty in assigning our activities to the right centres…For example, at first some of us would confuse thinking and feeling, and feeling and sensing, and it would be helpful for us to remember that intellectual centre worked by comparing one thing to another thing, and by making subsequent
statements on the basis of this comparison, whereas the emotional centre worked by recording its native likes and dislikes, and acting directly on this basis. Instinctive centre was similarly occupied with whether the sensations it was receiving were of a pleasant or of an unpleasant nature. We should bear in mind the fact that neither emotional nor instinctive centre ever argued or reasoned concerning anything, but because they perceived everything directly they returned to the perception of an equally direct response. We should look upon these psychic functions of ours as being different kinds of instrument, each variety of which made it characteristic contributions to the sum total of our knowledge.
There were different ways of knowing a thing and to know it completely was to know it simultaneously with our thinking, our emotional, and even our moving and instinctive minds…
To change something in oneself without losing something of equal value required a knowledge of the whole which we were very far from possessing… after we had gained skill in observing the working of our various centres, we could begin the more difficult job of looking for examples of the wrong working of our various centres, due either to one centre attempting to perform the work of another centre, or else to one centre interfering with the functioning of another centre. He gave, as examples of a centre doing the work of another centre, intellectual centre pretending it ‘felt,’ whereas it was quite incapable of feeling anything, or emotional centre coming to a decision which it was not within its province to make. He described the moving centre as a very clever mimic and said it often imitated other centres working, making it appear outwardly that real thinking or feeling was going on, whereas in actual fact nothing of a genuine nature was happening at all. For example, a person might read out loud from a book or talk to somebody quite impressively, yet he might be only uttering words without any more meaning for him as he uttered them than the words spoken by a parrot had any meaning for a parrot. Reading, speaking and so-called thinking on this very low level often occurred and they were all imitations of other activities concocted by moving centre…
I was surprised at the richness of the…observations I made…by observing myself in this way…Perhaps the earliest and most disquieting findings…was that I was never the same for more than few minutes, and yet I had the effrontery to preface my remarks with such misleading phrases as ‘I always think that…’ or ‘I am convinced that…’ or ‘I feel strongly that…’ What nonsense! I realized now that frequently I had thought and felt quite differently from the way in which I was thinking and feeling at that particular moment. And who was it that was making that dogmatic statement about his own thoughts and feelings? Who, in short, was ‘I’? Here was a problem of the first magnitude to be faced.
Self-observation gave rise to a whole host of new questions.
Ouspensky…drew our attention to the fact that in the West the word ‘consciousness’ was very badly misused, and not only in popular speech but also by psychologists who ought to know better. Consciousness, he said, was not a function, as many Western works on psychology implied, but it was an awareness of a function. For example, some people used the word consciousness as though it were synonymous with thinking, but thought could take place without any awareness of its existence on the part of the thinker, and consciousness could exist without there being present any thought. Consciousness was a variable which exerted an influence on function, the presence of a greater degree or consciousness having the effect of improving the quality of our various activities. The more conscious we were of doing something, the better we did it.
…If we continued to observe ourselves carefully we should find that the moments of ‘coming to’ and of realizing our existence were very short and were separated from each other by long stretches of self-oblivion, in which we thought, felt, moved and acted without being in the least conscious of our existence. It was nonsense to say, as many people did, that we were aware of ourselves, and if we were honest we should have to admit that we passed the day in a state of waking-sleep, a state which lay somewhere between sleep in bed and wakefulness or true self-awareness. We talked, performed our duties, ate and drank, wrote letters, made what we regarded as being important decisions, wrote books, made peace and declared war, in a state of consciousness so low that it was usually nearer to the condition of sleep than to that of self-awareness. Only for a moment or two did we occasionally become conscious of our existence, and then, like people who had turned over in bed and half opened their eyes, we closed them and lapsed back into our dreams again.
Ouspensky pointed out that the lower the level of our consciousness, the blinder and the more subjective were in our outlook…It was only in a state of higher consciousness that it was possible for a man to see himself and the things around him as they really were, not as he imagined them to be.
Ouspensky then went on to say that there were four states of consciousness possible for man and that we were familiar only with two of these, namely, with sleep in bed at night, and with the state of consciousness in which we spent the day, a state which he proposed to call ‘waking sleep.’ Above these two customary states there were two higher levels of consciousness, the first of them being the state…referred to as ‘self-remembering’ or true self-consciousness. Ouspensky said that this was associated with a vivid sense of one’s own existence as well as of what was happening around one, and it was a state of consciousness which some of us might have experienced accidentally, especially during our childhood. The fourth and highest state of consciousness was Objective Consciousness, sometimes referred to in literature as Cosmic Consciousness….
The chief difference between identification, or the mechanical entanglement of the attention in some problem, and an attention which has been deliberately directed on to it, is that identification has the effect of narrowing the field of consciousness, whereas directed attention usually widens it so that more things come within it. It is this narrowing effect of identification which explains the popular saying that a person is unable to see the wood for the trees. What has happened here is that his attention has been imprisoned by one or two of the trees so that nothing else is able to come into view. Similarly, by identifying with an anxiety, disappointment or source of irritation, we put ourselves completely in its power, so that it is impossible to think or feel about anything else. Ouspensky pointed out that identifying was the chief obstacle to self-remembering, for it imprisoned a man in some small part of himself, and was therefore the very antithesis brought about by self-remembering. In short, identification led to loss of all sense of existence, to deeper sleep, greater subjectiveness of outlook and absence of all ability to exercise the most modest range of choice.
Ouspensky repeated all day long that we were passing from one form of identification to another form of it, and that nothing was so trifling that we were unable to become identified with it. A man could become identified even with an ashtray, and if an ashtray could act in this way, it was easy to see how a man’s possessions, his successes and enjoyments, gave him still ampler opportunities for identification. What was more difficult to understand was how a man could be equally well lost in his miseries and misfortunes, and yet such was the case. Ouspensky said that G had often commented on man’s partiality for his own and for other people’s griefs, and had remarked that the last thing a man was willing to give up was his suffering. He would agree, on certain occasions, to renounce his pleasures, but he was so constituted that he clung with the greatest possessiveness and tenacity to his sufferings. It was obvious that anyone who had a desire to develop would have to sacrifice his grievances and his sufferings, for an identification with negative emotions entailed an enormous wastage of nervous energy, a wastage which it was imperative that we should save. Ouspensky said identification with negative emotions played such havoc with out lives that it would be useful to us to make a list of the particular unpleasant emotions to which we were specially partial. Everybody, he said, had his own particular favorites in the way of negative emotions, and we had to become better acquainted with them.
We took his advice and by doing so learnt how powerful was the influence exerted by negative emotions on our lives. We saw how we ennobled these unpleasant feelings when they arose in us, and how we persuaded ourselves that it was only right and proper that we should have them, justifying our anger and irritation by means of such phrases as ‘righteous indignation’. We found ourselves enjoying our sufferings, especially when we were able to blame other people for them, as we almost always managed to do. We saw also how we accepted the portrayal of violence, despair, frustration, melancholy and self-pity on the stage and in literature as the highest form of art, and how cleverly we disguised from ourselves the fact that we were exacting immense enjoyment our of misery and suffering.
Our observations of all forms of negative emotions yielded truly astonishing harvests. Even members of the group who prided themselves on being of a cheerful and eventempered disposition discovered that irritation, jealousy, envy, anger and disapproval of others were continually arising in them. As we acquired skill in observing ourselves we became more and more familiar with the very unpleasant physical sensations which accompanied our various negative emotions, and learnt how quickly the poisons they engendered permeated our bodies. We also learnt from bitter experience how drained we were of all energy after having given it away to a negative emotion, so that we lost a great deal of valuable energy through them.
Sometimes we actually felt the energy pouring out of us and learnt to our cost that once we had yielded ourselves to them—as we almost always did—there was no possibility of getting rid of them. There we had to remain in their power until they had burnt themselves out. The best hope of learning how to avoid falling such an easy prey to negative emotions appeared to lie in becoming more and more sensitive to the early signs of their advent, and, having detected their close proximity to us, to step aside in time. If we waited too long before we did this we were completely in their power.
…Somebody inquired about fear and asked whether it should be included amongst the negative emotions. To this Ouspensky replied that this depended on the nature of the fear, for there were many different kinds of fear. There was, for example, the fear registered by the body when it felt itself slipping towards the edge of a cliff, or when it realized that it was on the point of being run over by a rapidly approaching car, and such fears as these were useful to us because they mobilized our efforts to escape from danger with a speed which far exceeded the quickness of thought. But in addition to these warnings of the presence of physical danger there were also numerous fears which came under the general heading of anxiety, and many fears of this kind originated in the imagination and had no real existence. We were scared of a great many things which might conceivably happen to us, but which were unlikely to happen and never did actually happen. Ouspensky said that many people spent their time inventing them, in justifying them. ‘One has to show forethought and be ready for difficulties when they come,’ they said, and then proceeded to invent new fears. Imaginary fear of this kind had to be included amongst the negative emotions, and if we were ever to get rid of them the first thing to do was to see them more clearly, and the second to cease justifying them.
This, of course, applied to all our negative emotions, that we had to realize that it was we who were responsible for them and that we must not immediately put the blame for them on other people. Another person might have acted as the exciting cause of a negative emotion, but the unpleasant manifestation itself was our own, and not his. If, therefore we wanted to become free from these negative emotions we must straight away accept full responsibility for them, and never, on any occasion, find excuses for them. In other words, we could not enjoy simultaneously two entirely incompatible pleasures, that of putting the blame for our negative emotions on to somebody else, and the pleasure of eventually escaping from them entirely. We must choose one of these two alternatives and give up the other.
Ouspensky then went on to say that there was a common form of identification which played a very large part in keeping us asleep and which was known as inner considering. Inner considering meant identification with oneself or with one took to be oneself, for everybody had a picture of himself, partly authentic and partly fictitious. Having painted this self-portrait, the individual was always presenting it to the world in the hope that the world would accept it as a striking likeness. This work of producing himself, in the theatrical sense of the word, to the world took much of a man’s time, so that he was often very preoccupied when talking with other people with the impression he was producing on them. He took careful note of their reactions to what he was saying, watched their facial expressions, paid attention to the tone of their voices in replying to him, to what they had said and had not said, weighed the respect with which they had received him, the interest they had displayed in his conversation and manifested in many other ways how occupied he was with the effect he was having on them. This intense preoccupation with the impression being made on people and the feeling of inadequacy which often accompanied it was usually called shyness or self-consciousness, but it was the very antithesis of the true self-consciousness and was a manifestation of deeper sleep.
Identification with the self of everyday life, or what Western psychologists call the ‘ego’, may take on many different forms. Freud declares that the ego is first and foremost a body ego, and it is quite true that much inner considering is evoked by a person’s identification about his body and actual or supposed peculiarities, strengths and weaknesses…
But identification with the ‘ego’ may spread far beyond the confines of the physical body, so that a man may be oversensitive about a hundred real or supposed deficiencies or weaknesses in his character and his personal history. He may be distressed on the subject of his upbringing, his parentage, his lack of education, his social standing, his failure to obtain advancement. All these supposed deficiencies have to be hidden from the world and his strong points have to be brought into the foreground when he is talking with other people. The man who is inner considering resembles very closely a commercial traveler with a brand of good to sell. Great skill will have to be used doing this, and it will probably be necessary for him to introduce his good discretely so that he appears not to be pushing them forward at all. Excessive modesty and making fun of oneself are often good tactical moves in the grand strategy of inner considering. ‘Of course, I really know very little about this subject’ may be the opening gambit to a brilliant piece of talking which wins not only the admiration of the audience but a special prize for modesty as well.
Like other highly mechanized activities in us, inner considering is highly contagious. When the person to whom we are talking begins to inner consider, the emotional tension rises, and as a result of this we feel uncomfortable and begin to inner consider ourselves. We feel that something has gone amiss with both the conversation and our relationship with the other person and that it is up to us to put things right. Perhaps we were rater tactless in our handling of the other person a little earlier on, and, as the result of this, he is now offended with us. We decide that we must tread more carefully, and the consequences of our efforts to undo the mischief may well be that the inner considering grows worse. Inner considering is a sign of inner weakness, and it is often due in great part to our fear of other people. It is astonishing how frightened we human beings are of our fellow men.
Controlled and blinded as we are by these inner compulsions, it would be absurd, therefore, for us to imagine that on our ordinary level of being we are capable of understanding another person, let alone of giving him help. We cannot even see that other person as he is, but only as he appears through the distorting glasses our various likes and dislike, prejudices and aversions. No one is capable of entering into and understanding another person unless he has first entered into and understood himself, and even when he is possessed of this self-knowledge a man will often make mistakes. I am still appalled at the very little I am able to see of the person to whom I am talking and at my inability to feel him. We talk together and even intimate things but as complete strangers to the other.
External considering is the precise opposite of inner considering and it would be the correct antidote to inner considering if we could only manage to produce it when required. But external considering is an extremely difficult accomplishment, as different to evoke in ourselves as is self-remembering. It demands an entirely different attitude and relationship to other people, namely, a preoccupation with their welfare instead of our own. The man who considers externally does his best to understand the other person and see what are his needs, and he is only to do this if his own requirements are entirely put on one side. External considering demands of the man who is practicing it a great deal of knowledge and an equal amount of self-control, and this means that it can never happen automatically in a state of sleep, but necessitates a state approaching self-remembering. No person who externally considers can ever talk to another person ‘for his good,’ or ‘to put him right,’ or ‘to explain to him his own point of view,’ for external consideration makes no demands and has no requirements other than those of the person addressed. It allows of no feeling of superiority on the part of the person who is externally considering, for what he is trying to do is put himself into the other man’s place in order that he may be able to discover his needs. This necessitates the abandonment of the last shred of self-identification and, in order that the other person may be seen as he really is, the distorting glasses of the personality, with all it subjective likes and dislikes, have to be laid on one side so that he is viewed as objectively as possible.
Our struggle…takes place at the bottom of a scale of being. We are at the a**-end of the cosmos, Gurdjieff tells us, a place in the scale of the cosmos virtually dense with restrictive laws. Farther up the cosmic scale…we eventually come to the Absolute, the allness, the prime mover, subject to only one law: unity. In the next world down, the level of worlds and galaxies, there are three orders of cosmic law; in the next, designated All Suns, there are six; in the next, at the level of the Sun, there are twelve; at the level of the planets, twenty-four; at the level of our woebegone world, forty-eight orders of laws. Because we live “under forty-eight laws” we are far from the will of the Absolute, according to this system. We move toward the Absolute, toward liberation, by transcending the mechanical laws shackling us. (There are) seven levels of the Ray of Creation…seven levels of matter; each level has its own rate of vibration. The Absolute vibrates most rapidly and is least dense; our level vibrates slowly, through a murky density.
I recently heard an astrophysicist say that at the beginning of Creation, before the Big Bang, there was, indeed, Unity, one law or two—afterwards a sort of fractured symmetry led to the creation of the four forces, gravitation, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear forces: the closer you get to the beginning of Time, the fewer laws; the farther away, the more laws.
Gurdjieff, or his teachers, anticipated much of quantum physics. For example, these Heisenbergian remarks from Gurdjieff in 1915: “Matter or substance presupposes the existence of a force or energy. This does not mean that a dualistic conception of the world is necessary. The concepts of matter and force are as relative as everything else. In the Absolute, where all is one, matter and force are also one. But in this connection matter and force are not taken as real principles of the world itself, but as properties or characteristics of the phenomenal world observed by us.”