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Seven IllusionsGiven that sequences on this blog are dealing in one way or another with our need to break through to wiser levels of consciousness, it seemed worth republishing this short sequence from 2014. The reservations I shared in the first post have come to seem a familiar response of mine to texts that combine wise insights with what strikes me as fantasy. None the less the insights make books such as this one worth flagging up. This is the final post of the sequence.

I prefaced this review-sequence of posts about Karen Wilson’s 7 Illusions: Discover who you really are with an explanation of why it has been somewhat delayed, partly by my feeling that I needed to publish the post on the No-Self issue first.

Also, I was planning to do a simple review but the book raises so many fascinating issues it was hard to resist launching into a full-blown commentary. Hopefully, with the delay, I have been able to balance the need to flag up meaningful echoes while remaining sufficiently focused on the text itself to do it justice as I feel it is an insightful and honest exploration from direct experience of various challenges to and rewards for the serious meditator.

This is the last of three parts. The first post looked at her basic intention and flagged up a couple of caveats from my point of view. The previous post focused on the importance of meditation and its challenges. This third post will look at the shift in priorities involved and what we might learn from that.

Why we should change our priorities.

Karen makes a compelling case, I feel.

As the quotation from Bahá’u’lláh at the end of the previous post implies, it all comes down to a question of priorities. She makes this point strongly (750):

If you put half of the energy you put into work and making money into meditating, you may become enlightened in a year!! Your choice, your will, your life.

If Ehrenfeld is to be believed in his book Flourishing the world will be a far better place simply as a result of this, as well.

Karen is particularly telling in her use of analogies again here (1045)

In general we do not identify with our cars and believe that`s all we are. We do know it`s just a vehicle, and it`s not because the car dies that we will die with it. We know that we will move on. It is exactly the same with our body. By the way, notice that we always say ‘our’ body, like we say ‘our car’ or ‘our house’, something that we possess not something that we are.

This makes for an interesting take on death, which is borne out by the accounts of those who have survived close encounters with the scythe-bearing skeleton (1131): ‘Death is just the end of the vehicle, not the passenger.’

Then we draw close again to the No-Self issue and the movie character analogy (1255-65):

. . . . really who are you? By now you know that you are not your body, you are not your mind, and death doesn`t exist. The ‘you’ you believe in is the one which is not real. It is the one which will die when the body dies. . . . The biggest illusion is to believe that we are the car. That`s a reason why we are so scared of dying, because we know for sure that the car will die. There is no doubt about that. They all die. But we are not the car. We are not the character. And we do not die. The thing is that by identifying too much with the character, we forget who we really are.

The word ‘character’ pins down a key point. In a way there is an unintended pun here. Character can refer either to a person in a novel, play or film script, or it can be used to describe that aspect of a person that has a moral dimension. (In this context I fell over a deliberate pun which I can’t resist sharing. We are dealing with a car-actor here!)

This for me homes in on part of what freeing ourselves from character in the first sense enables us to achieve in terms of creating character in the second sense. The contrast is perhaps most easily captured by the idea of personality (from the Latin persona, meaning a theatrical mask and later the character in a play) versus character (from the Greek, originally also meaning a protagonist in a play, but moving through Aristotle’s emphasis on an ethical dimension to signify something closer to integrity). Meditation enables us to disidentify with the mask we wear, our personality, and to discover who we really are, to become our true selves, if you like.

She goes onto discuss the importance of love and of giving, and how much better it is for us than pursuing our own material advantage (1388-1397):

Our true self is not capable of hurting anyone, of killing, of damaging or stealing other people’s goods. We need to put a costume on in order to achieve that. . . . . your real self is all about giving. Giving is feeding your soul. Seeing the happiness on someone else`s face because of what you gave them, will fill your heart with much more joy than a free meal ticket.

As we have discussed on this blog, for instance in the context of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT – 1456) ‘The veryACT manual common ‘I don`t feel like it’ may only be another trick from your ego to prevent you from realizing who you are.’

ACT takes the view that if we wait until we feel like doing something, we may well never do it. Doing it will make us feel better so we need to get on with it no matter how we feel to start with. In this context, we must accept though, at the same time, that the main rewards of meditation may not come quickly (1478):

You cannot change everything in one day. It will happen progressively. The changes won`t happen faster than you can handle them. If you work on yourself, you will experience the changes as perfect gradual steps, like a beautiful flower gently blossoming.

And we should not have grandiose ideas about how what we can then do will change the world. People who have trodden the path tell a different story (1494):

They don`t talk about changing the world, they perform little or big acts of kindness every day. It may be the family guy who volunteers once a week at his local charity, the kid who shares his lunch with his friend, the lady who feeds the birds in the garden, and the activists who spend months of their life trying to stop whaling.

This is very much in line with the Bahá’í model of community building, the first stage of civilisation building, which starts small but gradually influences greater numbers of people until a tipping point is reached: this will inevitably be ‘the work of centuries.’ Whether we reach the tipping point before we destroy ourselves will depend upon our choices.

She is on similar ground to ACT again when she discusses the nature of suffering (1535):

There are two types of pain: physical pain, which is as much real as our body is, and emotional pain which is as much an illusion as our mind is.

ACT clarifies that pain is what life brings: suffering is what we add to it by what our minds make of it. Karen begins to tread the same ground.

She begins by looking at emotion (1550-53):

Without emotion we just see life as it exactly is, with a clear perception and without any projections. Without emotion we just become watchers of this movie we are playing. We do not try to change it or wish for it to be different because we REALLY DON`T MIND how it is and how it will end up. Without emotion there is no suffering. . . . . . Emotional suffering is in the mind and the mind only. The pain we experience exists because there is a dichotomy between what is and what we want.

Part of the problem is the sense of separateness (1583): ‘Because we believe ourselves separated we`ve become blind to the perfection and the interconnectedness of all things.’ As some spiritual traditions explain it, because we are underneath the woven carpet of creation, as it were, we see only the knots and tangles and not the pattern.

We have to have faith in the existence of a pattern even if we cannot see it (1595-98):

True faith is not blind faith. True faith comes from knowledge. It comes from learning about life, about God and about yourself.  . . . . Connection is very important to our well being. We need to find connection with life, with people, and with nature. Connection brings us closer to oneness.

This resonates with the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Who also makes the same kind of link with deeds as Karen does at various points: ‘By faith is meant, first, conscious knowledge, and second, the practice of good deeds.

Here is where things get momentarily slightly confused for me. She begins by saying that (1648): ‘Emotions and feelings help us determine what is good for us, and what is not.’ However, even though the phrasing here suggests they are equivalent what she then says suggests there is a definite distinction in her mind (1652): ‘One is real, the other is an illusion. Feelings are the language of our soul, whereas emotion is the reaction of the mind. Our emotions are our reactions to the world.’

The value of the distinction is then unpacked in more detail (1654 through 1674):

. . . . feelings are our guidance, and instead of being our ‘reactions’ they are our creations. . . . . Feelings are our intuition. . . . . Anger, fear, sadness, pain, frustration, etc, are what we call bad emotions. And joy, happiness, ecstasy, pleasure, excitement, etc, are what we call good emotions. But in both cases they are just illusions.

Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman

I think she is basically correct here. However, my personal view is that greater clarity comes from using feeling and emotion as equivalent, so that ‘gut feeling’ can be seen as a product of the reptilian brain and therefore not to be relied upon. Intuition, as distinct from instinct, needs to be reserved for those intimations and promptings from our spirit that can be relied upon. I have dealt with this at great length elsewhere in my discussion of Kahneman’s ideas. Karen’s terminology, though less than optimal in my view, does not distract from the power and relevance of the points she is making.

I do have serious reservations though about the way she phrases her suggestions as to how to deal with emotion (1678): ‘if you are angry, be angry totally.’

I’m not sure this is a helpful way to express what I think she might mean. I feel containment in full awareness is a better way of putting it. This allows you to steer between acting out and repression and also enables you to find the most constructive way of expressing the anger should you chose to do so. At the very least you will be able to integrate it.

In the end though, in spite of all my grumblings here and there, I feel that this is an immensely valuable book. It has helped me in my quest for a deeper experience of my own true nature, though this is still proving quite a challenge. I think the benefits of reading Karen’s powerful insights and following her personal journey far outweigh any disagreements I might have with aspects of her philosophy.

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Seven Illusions

Given that sequences on this blog are dealing in one way or another with our need to break through to wiser levels of consciousness, it seemed worth republishing this short sequence from 2014. The reservations I shared in the first post have come to seem a familiar response of mine to texts that combine wise insights with what strikes me as fantasy. None the less the insights make books such as this one worth flagging up. The final post will appear tomorrow.

I prefaced this review-sequence of posts about Karen Wilson’s 7 Illusions: Discover who you really are with an explanation of why it has been somewhat delayed, partly by my feeling that I needed to publish the post on the No-Self issue first.

Also, I was planning to do a simple review but the book raises so many fascinating issues it was hard to resist launching into a full-blown commentary. Hopefully, with the delay, I have been able to balance the need to flag up meaningful echoes while remaining sufficiently focused on the text itself to do it justice as I feel it is an insightful and honest exploration from direct experience of various challenges to and rewards for the serious meditator.

This is the second of three parts. The previous post looked at her basic intention and flagged up a couple of caveats from my point of view. This post focuses on the importance of meditation and its challenges. The third post will look at the shift in priorities involved and what we might learn from that.

Why meditation matters

Part of what relates to the importance of meditation, I’ve dealt with in a previous post, which focused on the No-Self issue so I will not revisit that here. What follows will inevitably have implications that are relevant to that issue also.

To describe our life as we perceive it, Karen uses the metaphor of a film to convey that what we experience is only a simulation and not reality. To over-identify with our character, in the Hollywood sense, is to surrender to the illusion and we can choose otherwise (429):

You have the free will of letting the Ego control you, or you can become the master and start living the movie through a totally different perspective.

She argues that (433): ‘To find yourself and to find presence, meditation is the best tool that you have.’

Even so, the task that confronts us will not be easy. Our movie role will not give up without a fight (435):

The Ego, the mind will try to prevent it, it will do anything to stop it. Of course, because the more you do it, the more IT will disappear.

She clarifies what we must do in response (437):

The challenge is to still do it under any circumstances, despite what is being said inside your head.

She shares some of her most telling insights and useful analogies here to help us see what we must do and why (531):

. . . when we are listening to the mind, we find ourselves in the past or a probable future. It is really an amazing tool, which is here to help us survive in a physical body in this three dimensional world. The problem is that we forget that it is just that, a tool, a computer. Over the years we put effort into making it strong, sharp and intelligent. Unfortunately, we overuse it and we forget to turn it off.

This is territory that Hanson and Mendius also explore from their slightly different and somewhat more academic angle. They Buddha Brainanalyse in some depth the neuropsychology of this survival tool from the perspective of brain science.

Karen is very clear about the trap that has been sprung on us by the worldly and practical success of our survival tool (535):

After a while we even forget that we are actually separate from it. This is the biggest illusion, the identification with the mind.

I might want to take issue with her terminology here, when she is discussing what she refers to as the ‘mind’ (582-89):

It is a computer, gathering, analyzing data and offering solutions. It never stops. It is restless. We made it that way. It will only exist in time, in the past or in the future, and it will always try to escape the present, because in the NOW the mind is not. . . . The main problem is that the brain takes everything the mind thinks as real. For the brain there are no differences between an actual physical danger, and your mind thinking about a fictional, imaginary danger.

This conflicts with the understanding I have developed after years of reconciling psychology with Bahá’í spirituality. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá assures us that the mind is an emanation of the spirit and not a product of the brain: this fits with the idea of the brain not the mind as a transceiver, ie it both receives and generates data as the computer does. The brain therefore can be seen in this version of the model as the source of ‘static’ that interferes with our access to the mind, which is our direct link to the world of spirit. However, I don’t think this possible quibble should deter us from recognizing the value of what she then goes on to say on the back of this analogy. Her core point is none the less clear (599-600):

If the mind is only a computer, then it is there for someone to use it: you.  The mind is just a tool, but a wonderful tool. The only problem is the common mistake of identifying with that tool. . . . . You need to find yourself. You need to find where and who you are. And I will say it again: meditation is the only means through which you are going to find these answers.

This does not mean that we should devalue what she calls the mind (613-621):

First of all, it does help you take care of your body to survive in the world. . . . . Secondly, it enables us to project ourselves in time, in the past and in the future, so we can understand what went wrong and avoid the same mistakes, and we can anticipate and plan for our future. . . . . Then, the mind helps us to tap into and translate information from the spirit world, . . . . . Also, a clear, focused and pointed mind will help us achieve anything we dream of. . . . . . Last, but not least, the mind will translate into words your true being, your soul.

Also that description indicates to me that her concept of mind is closer to that of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá than her original points suggested.

Nor do I want to argue with her next main point (622):

Our essence, our soul is energy and only energy. It does not communicate with language. It communicates with impressions, feelings, and intuitions.

She then moves onto a theme close to my heart (sorry if that sounds like a joke!) and one dealt with in some detail already on this blog so I won’t dwell at length on it here (625):

We are under the impression that our head says something and our heart, our inside, is trying to say something else. Believe me, in these situations, always listen to your heart. Always.

A key point comes slightly later and, though apparently simple, is in my view of profound importance, not just in terms of schooling, which is her point at the time, but for all of us throughout our lives (677): ‘we are not taught how not to use the mind when we do not need it.’ This is something crucial which it is never too late to learn.

ThriveShe emphasises that (677) children, if properly taught, ‘would learn how to focus and use their mind to solve problems, as well as how to turn the mind off in order to not over load it and stay stress free.’ And also, I would say, to gain access to other aspects of consciousness with different powers. Layard and Clark are similarly advocating the teaching of mindfulness in schools in their book Thrive, reviewed earlier on this blog Unfortunately there is little sign yet that schooling will shift from its current reinforcement of the language-bound ruminating mind any time soon.

One of the challenges of undertaking meditation is that the rewards, in terms for example of a quietness and expansion of consciousness, cannot be experienced except as a result of meditation itself, so we have to embark on an effortful discipline motivated by faith alone. She puts it succinctly (716):

That silence and that space cannot be understood at all by the mind or the intellect as it is a no-mind place. The only way to comprehend it is to experience it, to live it. You need to find it for yourself.

Even so (722) ‘Enlightenment is not something far away and complicated to reach. It has always been there, inside you, easy to grasp, just waiting for you to be ready.’

Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, says essentially the same thing (Gleanings: CLIII):

Deprive not yourselves of the unfading and resplendent Light that shineth within the Lamp of Divine glory. Let the flame of the love of God burn brightly within your radiant hearts. . . . O My servants! My holy, My divinely ordained Revelation may be likened unto an ocean in whose depths are concealed innumerable pearls of great price, of surpassing luster. It is the duty of every seeker to bestir himself and strive to attain the shores of this ocean, so that he may, in proportion to the eagerness of his search and the efforts he hath exerted, partake of such benefits as have been pre-ordained in God’s irrevocable and hidden Tablets. . . . This most great, this fathomless and surging Ocean is near, astonishingly near, unto you. Behold it is closer to you than your life-vein! Swift as the twinkling of an eye ye can, if ye but wish it, reach and partake of this imperishable favor, this God-given grace, this incorruptible gift, this most potent and unspeakably glorious bounty.

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Learning to Fly v3

For source of image see link

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Grave & Courtyard v2

Usually I stroll to the Death Cafe from home after an early dinner. This time the situation was a bit more hectic, which might have been a sign of things to come.

I had spent too long in town and was dashing to the Courtyard to grab a sandwich before the six o’clock start. I got there just before 5.30. The reception area and the cafe was buzzing. The queue at the counter wasn’t too bad so I got my order in and my cappuccino reasonably quickly, though there was a bit of a crisis when fake news came through that they had run out of brown bread. I hate white for reasons I won’t bore you with right now. Anyway panic over when they established I’d apparently got there in time to catch the last slices of brown.

By ten to six I’d finished my sandwich and picked up my coffee to take to the meeting room. That’s where the problems started. I pulled open the door to see a room full of clothing, presumably costumes of some kind. I caught up with a member of staff who said the meeting was on the mezzanine floor. I carried my coffee carefully up the stairs and checked out the room at that level – crammed with people I didn’t know definitely not talking about death. Not there then.

On the way back to the stairs I saw the white hair of one of our clan bobbing up the stairs.

‘It’s not on the mezzanine,’ he said. ‘I don’t know where it is.’

I decided to check with the reception desk.

‘It is on that floor,’ the girl at the till told me. ‘It’s past the cafe.’

On the way back to the stairs for the second time I met another death enthusiast.

‘Where’s the meeting?’ she asked clutching her coffee and cake.

‘Follow me,’ I asserted confidently. We trekked up the stairs. She waited with her coffee and cake at a nearby table where I placed my coffee as well for safety while I checked out the room, which turned out to be either non-existent or a Platform 9¾ problem. I opted for non-existent and went back to the table where we sat for a while, she nibbling her cake and me scanning the stairs between sips of almost cold coffee for any hints about where the meeting was going to be.

After about five minutes, I decided it was time to go back to reception again. As I reached the bottom of the stairs, I saw a familiar face talking to what looked like the manager. She didn’t look happy.

‘So we haven’t got a room tonight?’ she probed.

‘I’m really sorry but demand was so high today we’ve had to use every available space,’ he flustered.

‘What do we do then?’ she asked with surprising politeness.

‘Well, there’s a table upstairs on the gallery floor with enough chairs.’

As we could only just hear him speak against the background noise we were not pleased about this, but there was nothing else we could do.

We trooped upstairs again but went one floor higher this time.

Two tables were at the stairwell where the noise was loudest.

We pulled them together and surrounded them with chairs, trying to make sure we would all be as close together as possible.

After a few moments more people trickled in and we got ourselves seated.

I was pleased to see the lady from the train had come. I gave a full account of our first meeting in a previous post. She was someone with a keen interest in consciousness and spirituality.

And there were two new faces as well – and they were young. I was happy to see that as it would make it easier to answer a question I’ve been asked more than once when talking about the Death Cafe: ‘Are there any young people there?’ Brilliant! I could now say an emphatic ‘Yes!’

It was hard going at first to make ourselves heard against the background noise, most of it caused by young children waiting for their programme to start in the main theatre. At least the noise would drop once the doors opened and they went in.

‘When someone is dementing, do their family go through a grieving process even before they die?’ This was an entirely unexpected question from someone so young, one of the new arrivals. Her voice was too quiet at first so she had to  repeat what she said.

That set the first ball rolling. Sadly, the white-haired man I mentioned earlier really struggled as he had a hearing problem. Turning up his hearing aid was no solution as it simply made the shouting from below even more of a problem. He wasn’t the only one by any means who was struggling. Most of us had a hard time hearing someone on the other side of the table.

‘It’s not the Death Cafe tonight,’ I quipped, ‘more like the Deaf Cafe.’ It seemed to ease the tension slightly, and fortunately the man with the hearing aid couldn’t hear me. (My apologies to David Lodge for stealing his joke: he published a novel in 2008 called Deaf Sentence about a man struggling with hearing loss.)

From dementia we slid into DMT because the topic had shifted to whether the mind is affected by the brain or somehow separate from it and whether we could somehow access a transcendent realm. I had to do some research when I got home as I’d never heard of DMT.

It was mentioned in the meeting as a pineal hormone with transliminal effects. Wikipedia writes:

N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT or N,N-DMT) is a powerful psychedelic compound of the tryptamine family. It is a structural analog of serotonin and melatonin and a functional analog of other psychedelic tryptamines such as 4-AcO-DMT, 5-MeO-DMT, 5-HO-DMT, psilocybin (4-PO-DMT), and psilocin (4-HO-DMT).

Most of that went over my head. The next bit was more accessible.

Historically, it has been consumed by indigenous Amazonian cultures in the form of ayahuasca for divinatory and healing purposes. It was first synthesised in 1931, and in 1946, microbiologist Oswaldo Gonçalves de Lima discovered its natural presence in plants. In the 1960s, it was detected in mammalian organisms as well.

I can’t find support for the pineal connection (for example):

And although Strassman clearly states that his ideas about DMT and the pineal gland “are not proven”, many people have accepted them as fact. As of June 2010, there is currently no scientific evidence that the pineal gland produces DMT, much less any evidence for the more far-out speculations that Strassman makes about DMT being a chemical modulator of the human soul. When Strassman examined the pineal glands from “about ten” human corpse brains, there was nary a trace of DMT to be found in them. This doesn’t invalidate his theory, since DMT is metabolized quickly, and none of the corpse brains were fresh-frozen. Further tests on fresh-frozen brains could be done. Someday there may be evidence that DMT is produced in the pineal gland, but that day has not yet arrived.

It did remind me though of Aldous Huxley’s work on the ‘doors of perception’ and Stanislav Grof’s on LSD.

Just as the other new comer was about to speak the loudspeaker blared out a fifteen minute warning about when people should make a move to take their seats.

She had to start again. She picked up on what the lady from the train had shared about Faith, Physics & Psychology concerning various books such as those by Fritjof Kapra and David Bohm. She explained her deep interest in matters of the mind, consciousness and spirituality, something which was clearly shared by others present including me.

Somehow, I have no idea now of how, we moved onto exploring virtual selves in this age of the internet and social media. Would we be mourned after we die by other FB users who had never met us? Does excessive reliance on social media cut us off from real contact with other people? We concluded that social media, just like all other leaps forward in terms of tools and technology throughout human history, was a mixed blessing – just like fire, which we can use to keep warm in winter and cook our food or to burn down a neighbour’s hut if he has upset us.

At about this point the blaring began again to summon all the noisy ones downstairs to their seats. Bliss. Silence.

We had a long exploration then of whether there is a soul, a spiritual dimension, a mind independent of the body – all my favourite stuff. I was astonished to find that someone did not agree that agnosticism is the only rational stance if you rely on reason alone. To believe there is or there is not a God is an act of faith.

‘Well, that’s not how I see it?’ a different voice chipped in.

‘How do you see it then?’ I asked trying to hide my shock at this denial of the obvious.

‘I’m not quite sure. I think it’s more a question of acceptance.’

I’m still not quite sure what she meant by that but we went onto explore whether truth was on a ‘huge hill,’ as John Donne expressed it, and we’re all on our different paths towards it or is there a better metaphor.

I think there was general agreement in the end with the other part of Donne’s position as expressed in his third satire (line 77): ‘doubt wisely.’

Whatever else, we all felt at the end of the evening, as we said our goodbyes, that it had been a great experience which we had all enjoyed enormously.

And I’ll end on my usual challenge. Death Cafes are held in many places. Maybe there’s one near you. Do you dare to give it a go?

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LamberthIs consciousness spirit, mind or brain?

Or none of the above perhaps?

Just kidding.

I was asked to give a talk on this topic at the University of Birmingham at the beginning of March. I have done this once before (see link) and have ruminated on the issues before and since on this blog. I had so much running round in my mind-brain, whichever it is, that I needed to start organising my ideas in good time. Writing a blog post seemed a good way of helping in that process. The last post on Monday hopefully conveyed a sense of what actually happened. This is simply what I thought I might say!

‘Doubt Wisely’

David Lamberth in William James and the Metaphysics of Experience reports James’s point of view on the investigation of such matters, and I feel this is a good place to begin (page 222):

For James, then, there are falsification conditions for any given truth claim, but no absolute verification condition, regardless of how stable the truth claim may be as an experiential function. He writes in The Will to Believe that as an empiricist he believes that we can in fact attain truth, but not that we can know infallibly when we have.

When it comes to these issues, fundamentalist certainty is completely out of place. I may have chosen to believe certain things about the mind and its independence of the brain but I cannot know what I believe is true in the same way as I can know my own address. Similarly, though, those like Dennett and Churchland who believe that the mind is entirely reducible to the brain cannot be absolutely sure of their position either.

We are both performing an act of faith.

is-god-a-delusionIt is in this spirit that I want to explain my point of view and with the same intent as Reitan in his book Is God a Delusion? He explains that he wishes to demonstrate that it is just as rational to believe in God as it is not to believe in God. I am not trying to persuade anyone to believe as I do, I simply want people to accept that I am as rational as any sceptic out there, and more so than the so-called sceptics who have absolute faith in their disbelief. The only tenable position using reason alone is agnosticism. Absolute conviction of any kind is faith, which goes beyond where reason can take us.

John Hick adduces an argument to explain why we cannot be absolutely sure about spiritual issues, an argument which appeals to a mind like mine. In his book The Fifth Dimension, he contends that experiencing the spiritual world in this material one would compel belief whereas God wants us to be free to choose whether to believe or not (pages 37-38):

In terms of the monotheistic traditions first, why should not the personal divine presence be unmistakably evident to us? The answer is that in order for us to exist as autonomous finite persons in God’s presence, God must not be compulsorily evident to us. To make space for human freedom, God must be deus absconditus, the hidden God – hidden and yet so readily found by those who are willing to exist in the divine presence, . . . . . This is why religious awareness does not share the compulsory character of sense awareness. Our physical environment must force itself upon our attention if we are to survive within it. But our supra-natural environment, the fifth dimension of the universe, must not be forced upon our attention if we are to exist within it as free spiritual beings. . . . To be a person is, amongst many other things, to be a (relatively) free agent in relation to those aspects of reality that place us under a moral or spiritual claim.

So, most of us won’t find evidence so compelling it forces us to believe in a spiritual perspective whether it involves the concept of God or the idea I’m discussing here, that the mind is independent of the brain. Conversely, materialists should be aware that there is no evidence that could compel us not to believe it either. There is only enough evidence either way to convince the predisposed to that belief.

As an atheist/agnostic of almost 25 years standing and a mature student at the time I finished my clinical psychology training after six years of exposure to a basically materialist and sceptical approach to the mind, I was pretty clear where I’d confidently placed my bets.

There were three prevailing ideas within the psychological community at the time about the nature of the mind: the eliminative materialism advocated by such thinkers as Paul Churchland; the epiphenomenological approach which says consciousness is simply an accidental by-product of brain complexity; and the emergent property idea that posits that, just as the cells in our body as a whole combine to create something greater than themselves, so do our brain cells. I’d chosen the last option as the most sensible. Consciousness is not entirely reducible to a simple aggregate of cells: the mind is something extra. But I didn’t believe for one moment that it was not ultimately a material phenomenon.

mind v3The Emanation Shock

Well, not that is until I took the leap of faith I call declaring my intention to work at becoming a Bahá’í.

The words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of the Founder of the Faith, were a bit of a shock to me at first: ‘. . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit.’

I had spent so much of my life thinking bottom up about this issue that the idea of working top down seemed initially absurd. There wasn’t a top to work down from in the first place, as far as I saw it to begin with.

Although I absolutely trusted ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to be stating what he knew to be true and, because of all that I had read about his life, I believed that what he thought was true was more likely to be so than my version, I realised that this was something that required a thorough investigation of the empirical evidence if I was to bring my sceptical head on board alongside my accepting heart.

My memory of the process by which I set out to investigate suggests that my initial research involved looking into near death experiences (NDEs) and Psi.

I decided that, as I was not absolutely certain of this, I’d better make sure I was even aware of that body of data at this time. I checked my bookshelves. To my surprise, it showed that I was reading about NDEs and Psi even before I declared as a Bahá’í. My copies of Raymond Moody’s Life after Life and John Randall’s Parapsychology and the Nature of Life both date from 1981, a whole year earlier at the very least. There is no reference to either book in my journals of 1981/82 so I don’t know whether I read them before finding the Bahá’í Faith.

Not that in the end, after years of checking this out as more research became known, NDEs have provided completely conclusive proof that there is a soul and that the mind derives from it. Even my Black Swan example of Pam Reynolds, which I discovered much later, could not clinch it absolutely. This was the beginning of my realisation that we are inevitably dealing with acts of faith here and that both beliefs are equally rational when not asserted dogmatically. Even if you couldn’t explain them away entirely in material terms, the existence of Psi complicated the picture somewhat.

For example, Braude’s work in Immortal Remains makes it clear that it is difficult conclusively to determine whether apparently strong evidence of mind-body independence such as mediumship and reincarnation are not in fact examples of what he calls super-psi, though at points he thinks survivalist theories have the edge (page 216):

On the super-psi hypothesis, the evidence needs to be explained in terms of the psychic successes of, and interactions between, many different individuals. And it must also posit multiple sources of information, both items in the world and different peoples beliefs and memories. But on the survival hypothesis, we seem to require fewer causal links and one individual… from whom all information flows.

Less sympathetically, Pim van Lommel’s research on near-death experiences is robustly attacked by Evan Thompson in his existentially philosophical treatise, Waking, Dreaming, Being which also claims to have turned my black swan, Pam Reynolds’ NDE, into a dead albatross.

I’ll explore this in more detail in the next post on Saturday.

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Birmingham QE Hosp MedicalSchool

As I walk onto the platform a garbled announcement on the PA system informs me that the crackle for Birmingham will hiss from crackle 4.

I stroll in plenty of time to the appropriate end of platform 3. I’m glad of the bench on which to park my faded brown backpack loaded with food, coffee and a laptop. Just as I’m putting it down I hear a voice in my ear.

‘This train doesn’t usually go from 4, does it?’ The tone is full of a positive energy that sounds quite infectious.

I look up. A lady, slightly younger than me, is placing a brightly coloured shopping bag on the bench.

‘It used to but it hasn’t happened for ages. Not sure why now,’ I answer.

As we speak our train goes past the platform causing a moment of confusion before we realise it will have to reverse back onto the cul-de-sac of platform 4.

‘Where are you heading?’ she asks.

‘To the University.’

‘Oh! Why there?’

‘To run a seminar on consciousness.’

‘Oh wow!’ She almost leaps out of her skin. ‘That’s my life’s work. I’ve spent years working on that.’

‘You’re kidding,’ I say, almost equally astonished.

‘No. Honestly. It really is.’

Our train pulls to a stop behind us. We pick up our bags and wait by a door for the light to come on.

‘Do you mind if we sit together? I’d love to talk,’ she asks.

‘I’d be happy to. I will just need 15 minutes before we get to University station to go over my notes.’ (There’s copy of them for anyone interested in the footnotes.)

‘No problem. I’ll be getting off at Worcester.’

‘Perfect.’

The light comes on. I press to open the door and we settle at a table close by in the warm sunlight streaming through the glass.

The talking begins between us even before I take my coat off. It continues in a constant flow thereafter. Two girls who initially chose to sit at the table opposite to us decide to move to the next carriage. The idea of an hour’s exposure to the excited exchanges of two old fogeys discussing mind, spirit, higher energy, God, the universe and an afterlife is clearly too much for them.

Later, as the train pulls out of Great Malvern I take a card out of my wallet to write down the name of the book we were just discussing: Faith, Physics & Psychology by John Fitzgerald Medina.

‘Are your details on the back?’ she asks.

‘For sure. Is it OK if I have yours,’ I ask getting out my notebook.

‘No problem. I don’t have a television, email address or computer anymore, but this is my mobile.’

I scribble it down.

‘I wasn’t planning to take this train,’ she explains. ‘But my sister wasn’t feeling well and wanted to rest so I said I’d go back early.’

‘That’s weird,’ I reply. ‘I was going to take the later train but the organiser of the seminar wanted me there earlier to set up, so I decided to travel on this one.’

We definitely conclude that our meeting is synchronicity not coincidence. Chance doesn’t seem the likeliest explanation.

She gets off at Foregate Street. I get out my notes to check, for the last time, that they will work for an interactive session with about 15 people. Well before my destination I am happy with my notes. I just watch for the tall clock tower that will signal I am nearly there.

There it is on schedule. I pack up my stuff. As I walk along the platform towards the exit stairs I ring the organiser.

‘I’m going to need my car,’ she tells me, ‘so give me time to drive around the one-way system to pick you up. It’ll take me longer than it would to walk.’

I wait in watery sunlight for the lift, with my destination in eyeshot. I am totally unprepared for what is about to happen.

In about five minutes her car pulls up. Within less than a minute we are squeezing into the cramped car park in front of the looming facade of the Medical Centre. We talk our way through the elaborate security system and I’m in the shining glass and gleaming metal entrance hall again. Memories of the last time four years ago flood back. I’ve described them before so won’t dwell on them now.

We climb the stairs to the first floor labyrinth. We fruitlessly loop round the circle of one set of seminar rooms and set off from the stairwell round the next. We are in luck. The last room we come to is the one for us.

Thirty chairs. Rather more than I was expecting but still not too many for a seminar-style approach even if the room is full.

As the system there won’t talk to my Mac, I save my Keynote slides onto a memory stick in PowerPoint format. The university computer obligingly accepts them. The first slide appears on the screen.

Consciousness

We’re good to go.

Fifteen minutes before we start. The room is filling up. We need more chairs. Five minutes to go and a student asks me if she can sit down in front of the first row. Before I can even answer, another student kneels down to my left.

‘That’s not necessary,’ I joke, implying I’m not a guru. She seems to get the joke but I’m not quite sure.

The professor I’ve been talking to in-between all the toing and froing, stands up at this point, looks around and says, ‘I’m going to find a bigger room.’ Our organiser goes with him. I look up towards the door and see the queue of people three-wide snaking out into the corridor.

I decide to start packing up all my stuff to set up again somewhere else. I sense this could take some time.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

After what seems an eternity of fidgeting restlessly in our places, whether sitting, kneeling, pacing or standing, we’re told to follow the professor to a lecture theatre up stairs. We trail behind him chatting desultorily. When we get to the stairs there’s a traffic jam.

Stalled half-way up the stairwell on a step less wide than my foot is long I’m left with an insecure sense I might topple backwards at any moment onto the tail of the queue below .

Minutes pass.

‘We need to go downstairs to the ground floor. There’s a room there,’ someone shouts from on high.

We dutifully turn round and slowly descend. We wait in the shining entrance hall. I begin to see how many of us there are. This is definitely going to be no seminar. It really will have to be a lecture. Lectures aren’t my thing. I love bouncing ideas around in small groups, learning from others in an intense exchange of perspectives.

Still, I’m going to have to make the best of a bad job.

At last! The porter (not sure that’s the right word) comes back and leads us along a different labyrinthine corridor, from which we step into a massive hall with the lectern stuck in the far left corner away from the door.

This could be tricky, I think.

As people take their seats I set up again.

The microphone doesn’t work and it’s fixed to the desktop so I can’t carry it anyway.

I stare incredulously into the vast space around me. The front row is several feet away and the back row seems in a different dimension altogether. I’m going to have to shout. I get my flask of coffee out. I’m going to need it if I don’t want to be croaking by the end. At a conservative estimate there are about 100 people here. I’m glad I didn’t know this in advance. I’d be jelly by now if I had.

I set the slide to show the word ‘Consciousness’ again. I prepare my reluctant mind for lecture mode.

They introduce me. I start by explaining that I want to leave space for questions and feedback as we go, even though we are so many. I want to learn from their perspectives as well as sharing mine.

I try to click onto the next text with my right hand on the mouse. The right button does nothing. I need a track pad!

‘This isn’t working,’ I share. ‘I’m used to a real computer.’ They laugh. That helps.

‘Press the left button,’ a supportive voice from the front row advises.

That works. ‘Spirit, Mind or Brain,’ appears.

I ask my three questions. ‘How many of you are more or less convinced that the mind is simply a product of the brain?’ Maybe forty hands or so shoot up. There are too many to count properly. ‘How many of you are more or less convinced that the mind is independent of the brain?’ Almost the same number. That’s encouraging. ‘How many have no real idea which way to go on this?’ Probably about twenty.

I go on to share my collision of perspectives in 1982 after I’d moved from atheism to the Bahá’í Faith. I click for the ‘Abdu’l-Bahá quote. After repeating my earlier mistake, the quote appears.

Mind & Spirit

Mind & Spirit

Things begin to settle down. The details of the kind of explanation I intended to give I will share in the next short sequence of posts. It’s close to what happens on the day but not exactly the same. I’ll keep the story very brief for now. I’ve gone on long enough.

Episodes of explanation interspersed with a few questions flow on from here for over an hour.

I start by explaining my default position of doubt . . . . .

Inevitable Uncertainty

Inevitable Uncertainty

. . . . . before moving on to the improbability of life: how much more so of consciousness.

“Why bother investigating at all if we can’t prove anything for certain?’ someone asks later. I think after the event I should have said, ‘If science had only ever investigated what looked like a cast-iron certainty, where would quantum physics be now? By the end of the 19th Century eminent scientists thought there was hardly anything left to find out!’

As it is I offer, ‘We need to balance science and spirituality, as the Bahá’í Faith argues, if our civilisation is going to fly rather than crash even though the best we will ever get with human minds is an enhanced but still incomplete understanding which we can’t be completely sure is true.’

The muddle of models about the mind brain relationship. Isn’t monism the better idea? Is it all a solipsism?

‘Filter or spectrum?’ is the question I put. The brain as transceiver maybe.

Myers Spectrum 2

Myers Spectrum (1/2)

The effects of skunk. Do psychedelics break down the filter both ways – the infrared of stuff from below and the ultraviolet of input from above?

Myers Spectrum

Myers Spectrum (2/2)

Psi, though a small effect, is too rigorously explored and too improbable to dismiss – the issue is the explanation not the effect itself. Science has to take this seriously.

‘Isn’t all this a waste of time when we know consciousness is just the beautiful product of evolution and the massive complexity of our neuronal connections?’ asks a student in the second row. I pause to stop myself responding too sharply. I feel at least half the material so far was supposed to have dealt with that. I answer quietly, ‘Such a discount in advance of investigation dismisses countless experiences and phenomena as pure fantasy even though so many people are convinced they are real.’ I should have added, ‘Open-minded agnosticism is the only objective stance for science to take without betraying itself.’

Just before stopping I ask how many people present would be prepared to risk their reputation to investigate the spiritual aspects of consciousness. About ten people put up their hands. That is more than I would have expected. Encouraging again.

At the end there is a queue of students asking more questions and to share contact details. By the time I leave at 19.20 to catch my train I am in a daze of disbelief. I just hope I didn’t sell the topic short as I believe a more open-minded approach to the issue of consciousness is vital if we are to move towards the collaboration between science and religion that is required if we are to create a healthier society.

As I remember stating before, on my previous talk in this same building, if we place any credibility at all in the eloquently expressed arguments of scholars such as Margaret Donaldson in her book Human Minds, Ken Wilber in The Marriage of Sense and SoulJohn Hick in The Fifth Dimension or Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary, we have to accept the likelihood that, until our society finds a better balance between spirituality and science as pathways to what is fundamentally the same truth, we are in danger of joining previous civilisations in a crash landing.

For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

Footnote

The Plan for the Seminar that Never Happened!

If there are fewer than 20 people I might ask them their names and one relevant fact.

Then:

How many of you are virtually certain that the mind is entirely a product of the brain?

How many of you are virtually certain that the mind is in some way independent of the brain?

How many of you are not at all sure which way to go on this?

  1. ‘Doubt Wisely’

Explore the agnosticism case:

William James

Dennet & Churchland

John Hick & Eric Reitan

  1. Prevalent Theories
  2. Eliminative Materialism
  3. Epiphenomenon
  4. Emergent Property
  5. Seen by most as unscientific

Given the improbability of life unless there really are infinite universes (the multiverse theory) the improbability of consciousness is even greater, so perhaps we need to approach the problems it poses with as open a mind as possible (cf Paul Davies The Goldilocks Enigma – God or infinite universes – both unacceptable to him.)

  1. Mind as completely independent of the brain.

This need not imply survival after bodily death but does entail the idea that the mind is not entirely reducible to the brain and that, though probably immaterial, it can control/influence the material brain (cf Schwartz).

  1. Mind as a spiritual entity.

This brings with it baggage our mainstream empirical materialistic culture does not welcome.

  1. There is a spiritual dimension including perhaps a collective unconscious and a potential capacity in all humans to access experiences without any obvious material mechanism (cf work on psi);
  2. There is survival after death (cf reincarnation, mediumship – inconclusive given fraud and super-psi);
  3. What survives is our sense of perceptive individuality in relation to others who have died, to the material world and to a transcendent power often referred to as God in Western culture (NDE evidence cf especially Sartori).

 So What?

The issue should be not to say that the evidence must be seriously flawed because I know the direction it points is not possible. Rather to admit that the evidence raises serious questions that need to be investigated. Otherwise we have scientism not science. The issue is the validity of the interpretation not the validity of the evidence.

How to explore it further?

Well, experimenter expectation effects have to be taken into account. These cut both ways. The convinced will tend to elicit positive results: sceptics the opposite.

Also putting people with suspected psi through thousands of repetitions of the same task will inevitably lead to increasingly random performance. Imagine going to the optician as I did recently and have them run the dot spotting peripheral vision acuity task 1000 times. I’d probably be rated spot-blinded tunnel vision by the end as boredom and fatigue increasingly eroded my attention.

Also the threat to your career as a credible scientist needs to be addressed. Not many people are prepared to commit career suicide by investigating what has been written off a priori as delusional. Often also neither unbelievers nor believers are keen to spend years investigating what they already know to be a fact.

What we need in any case are detached and genuinely agnostic scientists to come forward (because they are most likely to obtain objectively credible results), jeopardise their careers, struggle for funding and devote decades to the exploration of an aspect of this issue.

How many of you are up for that right now?

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Random-Number-Generator_1

Readers should take note of a 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 worthy of careful consideration.

(From the Preface to Introduction to Psychology by Richard L. Atkinson – 1990: quoted in The Spiritual Brain, page 169) 

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 from years to centuries, depending on how much the idea challenges conventional wisdom. In Stage 2, skeptics reluctantly concede that the idea is possible, but it is not very interesting and the claimed effects are extremely weak. Stage 3 begins when the mainstream realizes that the idea is not only important, but its effects are much stronger and more pervasive than previously imagined. Stage 4 is achieved when the same critics who used to disavow any interest in the idea begin to proclaim that they thought of it first. Eventually, no one remembers that the idea was once considered a dangerous heresy.

(Dean Radin: The Conscious Universe – page 1)  

Another post it seemed appropriate to republish at this point.

In 2002 I read a fascinating book on parapsychology by H.J. Irwin. My recent reading of another intriguing book, The Spiritual Brain, triggered a memory of that experience.

Irwin’s book is a rigorous examination of the work done up to that point in the field of parapsychology. I was still working in the NHS at the time and swimming against all the powerful reductionist currents of thought flowing along the broad estuary of mental health work.  Reading this book was yet another attempt to find a sound empirical basis for my scepticism about materialism.

That sounds like a futile ambition, you may think. But I am not alone in cherishing that hope. Beauregard and O’Leary quote Eccles and Robinson with approval in The Spiritual Brain as saying (page 125):

We regard promissory materialism as superstition without a rational foundation. The more we discover about the brain, the more clearly do we distinguish between the brain events and the mental phenomena, and the more wonderful do both the brain events and the mental phenomena become. Promissory materialism is simply a religious belief held by dogmatic materialists . . . who often confuse their religion with their science.

So that makes five of us at least.

Where a nonmaterialist explanation works well

What reactivated my interest of more than decade ago was Beauregard and O’Leary’s list of things that a nonmaterialist perspective can explain better than a materialist one (ibid.)

For example, a nonmaterialist view can account for the neuroimaging studies that show human subjects in the very act of self-regulating their emotions by concentrating on them. It can account for the placebo effect (the sugar pill that cures, provided the patient is convinced that it is a potent remedy). A nonmaterialist view can also offer science-based explanations of puzzling phenomena that are currently shelved by materialist views. One of these is psi, the apparent ability of some humans to consistently score above chance in controlled studies of mental influences on events. Another is the claim, encountered surprisingly often among patients who have undergone trauma or major surgery, that they experienced a life-changing mystical awareness while unconscious.

My clearest memory of Irwin’s book concerned precisely the massive amount of meticulously generated evidence in favour of psi, especially in terms of subjects’ accurately predicting random numbers at a level slightly but consistently above chance over thousands of carefully controlled trials.  Not a dramatic finding, perhaps, not like apparently successful mediumship or seemingly bending spoons on television, but in an important way more compelling and significant than any of those because all possibility of fakery had been eliminated to leave it beyond all reasonable doubt that something materialists couldn’t explain was going on.

psi dice

Rear-guard materialism

Most materialists, little to their credit or credibility, resolutely refused to look carefully at the evidence as they knew in advance that such findings were impossible and must be the result of fraud or sloppy methodology. So much for science’s supposed openness to all evidence. In fact, it has always been blinded by its current paradigms, so there is really no surprise here either.

Beauregard and O’Leary quote a particularly startling example of materialistic zealotry. Grossman tells of his encounters with materialists about NDEs. He recalls one snatch of dialogue which they quote (page 166)

Exasperated, I asked, “What will it take, short of having a near-death experience yourself, to convince you that it’s real?” Very nonchalantly, without batting an eye, the response was: “Even if I were to have a near-death experience myself, I would conclude that I was hallucinating, rather than believe that my mind can exist independently of my brain.”

There’s no arguing with such intransigent dogmatism – in the face of the evidence that I am convinced exists but which it refuses to examine, such an attitude is bordering on the delusional. What makes it all the more bizarre is that the evidence for psi has been conducted with a rigour and extensive sample size that would be the envy of many a mainstream researcher. Beauregard and O’Leary summarise the findings as follows (pages 170-171):

Psi is not a form of magic. It is a low-level effect demonstrated in many laboratory studies—one that materialism does not account for. . . . Generally, the studies show that people sometimes get small amounts of specific information from a distance that do not depend on the ordinary senses. . . The experimental subject is asked to influence the [Random Number Generator’s] output by “wishing” for 1’s or 0’s. A small but stable effect has been shown over sixty years of tossing dice and RNGs that is reliable irrespective of the subject or the experimenter and remains when independent or skeptical investigators participate.

Not many experimental findings survive, for example, their attempted replication by sceptical experimenters. That in itself argues for something valid as well as seriously strange going on. Sadly we meet the same kind of scientistic dogmatism once again. They quote (pages 171-172) from Dean Radin‘s The Conscious Universe – which I read so long ago I’d completely forgotten it:

Skeptics who continue to repeat the same old assertions that parapsychology is a pseudoscience, or that there are no repeatable experiments, are uninformed not only about the state of parapsychology but also about the current state of skepticism!

entanglement-two

For source website see link

A Blinding Double-bind

Radin also points out the resulting double bind with blistering clarity (quoted on page 173):

If serious scientists are prevented from investigating claims of psi out of fear for their reputations, then who is left to conduct these investigations? Extreme skeptics? No, because the fact is that most extremists do not conduct research; they specialize in criticism. Extreme believers? No, because they are usually not interested in conducting rigorous scientific studies.

I have taken his book down off my shelves and placed it on my desk to read again.

Beauregard and O’Leary conclude (ibid.):

Psi must find its place within an evidence-based paradigm of physics, psychology, and neuroscience. However, working out and testing a hypothesis for psi faces some obstacles in a materialist environment. . . .

They are clear that the effect is small (page 167):

The stubborn problem turns out to be a small statistical effect from controlled laboratory studies, the psi effect, a general term for telepathic and psychokinetic phenomena.

And they are suitably cautious about the hypotheses we can build upon this robust but tiny effect (page 177):

Regarding psi, we can assume one of two things: (1) every single instance of psi is a direct interference in nature, presumably by a divine power from outside the universe; or (2) the universe permits more entanglement than the materialist paradigm does.

They favour the second idea. I would be delighted if this were to be more seriously investigated by mainstream researchers and the findings were then to be integrated into a more spiritual model of reality. The days of materialist domination are numbered, I feel: I’m just not sure how many more there are – whether it will be millions or merely thousands.

Radin

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