Bad Religion and False Satori – Practical Mysticism #006

There’s a natural mystic blowin’ through the air
– Bob Marley, Natural Mystic

Image under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license from Vincent Le Moign, via Wikimedia

It has been pointed out by a few folks that #005 was a bit abstract. I had a choice of stretching it out over a bunch of posts, risking folks losing the plot between posts, or writing it up in a single one in compressed form. I chose the latter. Hopefully, the framework discussed there can be productively unpacked over time in subsequent articles such as this one.

It has also been pointed out that I often fail to connect the dots. That comes from thinking about something enough so that things that are obvious to me aren’t necessarily clear in any objective sense. Fixing that is going to be my primary writing improvement objective for the next while.

So then…

Evolution

One result of considering ‘the mystic’ as a naturally evolved capacity maintained under selective pressure is that it’s unpinned from being the Voice of God.

In fact, it doesn’t even have to be the perfect secular analog for the Voice of God.

Things evolve limited by the potential of where they start. Things are then maintained under selective pressure because they are good enough, not perfect. And once they hit good enough status, progress (if that’s even a good term for evolutionary change) tends to stop.

A picture helps explain this.

  • Below, you see a modeled terrain with a bunch of hills.
  • The highest one will have to pass for perfect; within this terrain, it’s clearly higher than the others.
  • Think of this as a map of possible evolutionary solutions to a challenge, with higher being better and successfully adapting to the challenge as moving uphill from wherever you start.
  • But if you end up on top of one of the less perfect ones, you’d need to go downhill before you’d be able to get higher.
  • Evolution doesn’t do downhill–only uphill. A random mutation might pop you far enough away from one top so that things move towards some other local maxima, maybe even the ‘perfect’ one, but that’s the exception. A random change is more likely to simply break things.
If evolution is a gradient that moves upward toward improved fitness, it’s always a movement from a very specific location on the map of all possible solutions and thus heads uphill to the closest local maxima.

Given that, here are a couple of suboptimal mystic phenomena…unfortunate cases of local maxima, as it were.

Bad Religion – always look a gift horse in the mouth

I was in college in the early 1970s, an era of widespread ontological disquiet. One Monday, after weekend field trips looking for answers, two friends joyously described having found The Answer while undergoing the same classic religious experience: white light, resolution of doubt, “heart strangely warmed,” etc. The results: one converted to born-again Christianity, and the other became a devotee of Guru Maharaj Ji, the 15-year-old perfect master.

Both were absolutely certain that they’d found The One True Answer.

Back cover of the book, Who is Guru Maharaj Ji?

My immediate conclusion: Be careful! Folks will jump in and try to convert you at a particularly vulnerable moment–right after you’ve been saved. They might even honestly believe their answer is The Answer.

Stepping back, while not common, the white light experience is not particularly rare either, especially for people suffering from a significant inner crisis nearing a breaking point.

I view it as part of our human birthright.

Set and setting can be manipulated to make it more likely–that’s what my friends had experienced.

Another example: the Cathari had a ritual called Consolamentum that signaled a celebrant’s once-in-a-lifetime break with their secular life. It involved laying on of hands–an initiator pressing their palm on the forehead of the initiate–and was specifically aimed at triggering this sort of ecstatic experience, one culturally primed to occur. (More on them below.)

Cathari rock art, sort of. I was trying to recreate an image I remembered from somewhere and failing (the palm should be down), but I did get a cool image. - Hand over concentric circles carved into rock.
Cathari rock art, sort of. I was trying to recreate an image I remembered from somewhere using ChatGPT and failing (the palm should be down), but I did get a cool image.

This type of experience is at the near-tend of the mystical experiences pool, relatively close to the everyday experiences of awe, wonder, and the type of ecstasy available through dance or immersion in nature.

It can often appear when, for example, someone is battling addiction and is in a war between ego and their wider situation and is self-medicating to blunt the pain of being only an ego trapped in their everyday life. This experience pops them out of their ego-built cage while providing a grounding in intense, immediate awareness. The conversion experience is often parodied: I used to be fucked up on false drugs, but now I’m fucked up on the real thing: the Lord!

Based on what I’ve read and observed, these experiences should be treated as gifts. The best advice on these and related phenomena is to let the package open and unfold. Don’t let someone jump in and tell you what’s in there instead.

Second, treat them as a natural phenomenon, part of an ongoing process, and not the last word. This is the critical shift provided by using an evolutionary rather than a religious framework to understand what’s going on. Meaning has been created, not delivered from on high. The creative process will continue.

(It’s a fair question to ask why I feel qualified to have an opinion on any of this! After trying to finangle any sort of response from The Lord during high school, I went the false drugs route in college. There I read the usual suspects (Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Underhill, Mircea Eliade, Carl Jung, etc.), and most relevant to this, Stan Grof‘s Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD Research (1975). Grof was one of the earliest LSD researchers, and this book and subsequent work established him as the Linneaus of non-ordinary experience. Based on thousands of trip reports, he laid out a classification system grouping the reported experiences. Added to that, I’ve done a few hundred group workshops using Grof’s post-LSD system to induce non-ordinary states: three hours of fast and deep breathing to loud music. Part of the workshop: folks conclude the day with descriptions of their experiences. With an average of 12 participants per workshop, I’ve heard something like 200 x 12 or 2400 ‘trip reports’ myself. In some cases, this was with the same individual over repeated sessions, allowing me to see their experiences as part of an evolving process. And I still read a lot.)

Perhaps it’s my Viking heritage–a culture that found a peak experience in combat and killing rage–but non-ordinary experiences are no more worthy of absolute trust than any other. If the neighbor’s dog, Sam, is telepathically instructing you to kill the postman, you need to reflect. Even if the neighbor’s dog is telepathically instructing you to call your boss and quit RIGHT NOW, it’s time to hit pause. Tomorrow or next week will be good enough for that if the dog should happen to be right.

One problem with being in a culture that doesn’t really work well with this sort of stuff is that folks are often left flailing. That does seem to be changing a bit recently. There are people who can be a resource, are familiar with these experiences, and can help unpack them in an individual context rather than imposing a one-size-fits-all interpretation: transpersonal psychologists, folks in Grof’s spiritual emergency network, Jungian analysts, bartenders, etc. There are also a wide variety of integration exercises that can help.

False Satori

Satori: sudden enlightenment and a state of consciousness attained by intuitive illumination representing the spiritual goal of Zen Buddhism
– Merrian Webster online dictionary

Carl Jung called attention to mandalas as images of an integrating journey. He noticed them emerging spontaneously in therapy sessions. Often, dream figures would appear in conflict in a dream narrative, and then, as the conflicts resolved, they would appear in an image that put all the figures represented into relation to each other within a bigger whole. Typically, the pattern had a framework with four parts. (Four is sort of a magic number in Jungian therapy, signaling a big integrating shift in the psyche.) That led to his ongoing interest in mandalas in religious art and his adoption of the Sanskrit term to describe these images.

Mandala of Jnanadakini, Tibetian, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

Now, look at the mandala on the left below. It fits the criteria: a quaternity of figures arranged around a center in four sections. The image is called the Tetramorph, with the four figures representing the four apostles. It dates from the 2nd century and was kept current as a numinous symbol through the years, appearing in the book of Kells (c. 800) and in the 20th century in Sister Aimee McPherson‘s Foursquare Church, famous for involving tens of thousands in public faith-healing demonstrations.

Medieval Christian mandala and a card from the Crowley/Harris Tarot deck

But what’s wrong with this picture?

If the mandalas are images of numinous integration (as Jung claims, and as this seems to have been), where’s the feminine side?

The answer, of course, is nowhere…which pretty much matches the patriarchal history of the West. (Crowley’s Tarot deck on the right uses the Tetramorph to show his deck’s version of the Pope. He’s illuminated from within by the Goddess (points to Crowley), while the card clearly displays tradition’s patriarchal nature.)

If my hypothesis is correct, mandalas are images from a psyche’s system that provide experiences that transform personal and cultural conflicts. In individual cases, that typically occurs with a convincing emotional pop that recenters the individual in a broader context. They are a mechanism that deals with deep conflict…but they only work with what’s given. There’s no ‘perfect’; no Voice of God–only a local maxima.

In other words, if you have an experience that resolves four conflicting ways of being a dick, you emerge still a dick. If the feminine is not part of your internal struggle, the feminine side of wholeness is still excluded.

This is what I’m terming a false satori. The resolving experience has to be convincing or it’s ineffective– but the resolution only works with whatever the individual is struggling with. (This queues up the next installment, #007 – The Bigger the Headache, the Bigger the Pill.)

In the sense that all such experiences are some version of a local maxima, all are less than Nirvana, or Full Illumination, or the Voice of God, or whatever the brass ring is called on the merry-go-round you’re riding.

Back to Cathari

My issue with what I’m calling bad religion and/or false satori is the misguided assumption of certainty both can provide–with often dire consequences. Here’s a classic example.

The Cathari were Christians with a gnostic theology that Rome declared heretical. They were intense dualists and believed that God created the world but departed, leaving it ruled by the Demiurge, i.e., Satan. That explained the existence of pain, death, sin, and why things are obviously so screwed up. It also left a bit of spirit in each of us trapped in the matter of our bodies. Through knowledge and practice (gnosis), one could release the spark back into the Godhead. Christ was born to show us the way out.

At one point, the Cathari made up a large part of southern France’s population. Most of them were murdered by Pope Innocent’s armies during the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) or the subsequent Inquisition. This was the most extreme example of Christian-on-Christian Crusader violence, topping even the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. One of the first actions in the Crusade was the siege of Beziers, a city of 15,000 people mixed between Catholics and Cathari, which ended in the murder of most of its population. When asked how to distinguish between the two groups, the Papal legate and commander, Arnaud Amalric, ordered, “Kill them all. God will recognize his own.”

Bad religion and false satori, indeed!

Thanks for reading.

Instinctual Integration Part 2 – Practical Mysticism #005b

This is the 2nd part of this:

Hypothesis 3: Balance can work at cross purposes to the ego’s immediate mission. Hence, the counter-balancing system has to be able to overpower the ego if need be.

There’s a concept invoked in Stan Grof’s breathwork system, Jungian dreamwork, and psychedelic-assisted therapy of an inner healer–that there is a mechanism that provides just what’s needed to start healing trauma or unblock a blocked life.

This could be overly rosy. If we’re looking at something that evolved, it only has to be good enough most of the time.

We might need to distinguish between a utopian version of Self that provides wise and compassionate guidance and a good-enough version of Self that evolved because an integrated individual is more energy efficient than one headed off in various directions at once or one that’s conflicted at key action points. The latter version of Self would likely happily break a few eggs to make the omelet.

An example of what I mean: one sickle cell allele gives some immunity to malaria. Both, and you die painfully. That evolved and is maintained by selection because the malaria vs. sickle cell equation preserves the allele.

It’s not often discussed, but any traditional practice that goes deep, for example, old-school meditation practices, has to acknowledge the triggering of not just peak experiences but also nadir experiences. We can achieve a state of exalted meaning, or meaning can collapse. Stan and Christine Grof, after decades of work with psychedelics and then their Holotropic breathing technique, formed the Spiritual Emergency Network to deal specifically with such emergencies. (It was later renamed the Spiritual Emergence Network in order to sound a bit less dire:-)

The Self’s intervention need not be so abrupt. Many of Jung’s case histories involve individuals whose conscious side had become so maladaptively or rigidly overbalanced that the unconscious slowly kicked them out of their workday life with increasingly severe neurotic symptoms which, when followed out, can lead to a needed greater wholeness.

The commonality, however, is that the Self is capable of throwing a spanner in the works and bringing the ego’s game plan to a screeching halt.

Tantric mandala of Vajrayogini, By Anonymous, improved by Poke2001 – Rubin Museum of Art, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3589258

Hypothesis 4: CNOS are a means to relax the ego’s grip and allow excluded aspects in. As such, they have an evolved place in our psyche’s structure.

Too much of the animal disfigures the civilized human being, too much culture makes a sick animal.
– Carl Jung, “The Psychology of the Unconscious”, 1916

This is where the corollary comes in: like earthquakes, it’s better to have things adjusted with multiple small tremors than one big potentially obliterating quake.

I am arguing that CNOS in our species are under selective pressure. The phrase “under selective pressure” means that a trait is sustained by some sort of evolutionary pressure…like the sickle cell allele mentioned above. Once that pressure is removed, the trait decays or disappears like the eyes of cave-dwelling fish.

CNOS and their cultivation are found in the earliest histories, in archaeological evidence, and across all known cultures. Widening out to a long view, that argues that for their being under selective pressure. (The fact that they are often fun isn’t a counterargument. What we consider fun is itself likely under selective pressure:-)

A simple view of the ego is that it’s an evolved anti-‘look squirrels’ mechanism. It puts energy under the direction of conscious intention by walling it off from both internal and external distracting impulses. It gives us conscious agency. The ability to focus in and exclude distractions has made us who we are, for better or worse.

A Jungian tenant is that everything has a dark side (and the dark side has its own archetype, the Shadow.) Our ability to focus in and wall off distractions, unfortunately, means that we can proceed lock-step as individuals or as a culture towards some objective while the situation has changed to demand something else. A little OCD provides focus. A lot is often maladaptive. The Jungians believe that our robust ego is a trait that has become too effective. Thus, we are disconnected from our broader self and, perhaps, more dire from the wider world of which we are a part.

It remains to be seen how all this is going to work out. We’re a blip on the evolutionary scene. Dinosaurs had a 165m year streak. Genus homo only 2.5m, with homo sapiens sapiens clocking in at .25m. We should be so lucky as to go the way of the dinosaurs.

A common theme of almost all CNOS is they leave the subject with an expanded feeling of connection–to themselves, to other people, and to “all of creation.” We’re undergoing a resurgence of psychedelic therapy. One core finding from the earliest Tim Leary era research and confirmed by the most recent, is that achieving an expanded state correlates highly with the efficacy of the session. The research tool used to measure that, btw, is the Mystical Experience Questionnaire.

If you’ve never seen the Ted Talk above, it provides an eloquent description of the expanded state and a way to get there that’s effective but of limited utility for most all of us:-)

Considering our advanced state of disconnection, we owe it to ourselves to cultivate this side of our potential. To do a good job of it. The modalities are legion: awe, nature, meditation, inebriation, music, and it ramps up from there. See #002 in the section near the end titled Feedback for a simple program to add a bit of awe to your day.

By Oluf Bagge - From Northern Antiquities., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=576714

By Oluf Bagge – From Northern Antiquities 1847., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=576714

I’ve written a longer exploration of this in Jungian terms on Medium. Carl Jung – Building Self: Bliss, Disquiet, Enlightenment, and False Satoris

Next #006 – the bigger the headache, the bigger the pill.

Thanks for reading

Instinctual Integration Part 1 – Practical Mysticism #005a

Life is not a matter of holding good cards but of playing a poor hand well.
– Robert Lewis Stevenson

Show me a sane man and I will cure him for you.
― Carl Gustav Jung


Our story so far:


A general theory of mystical experience – wherein I nerd out

In this series, I’ve been working up to presenting my theory of the role of a group of experiences variously called peak experiences, mystical experiences, altered states, or Non-Ordinary States (NOS). They range in intensity upward from the more common states of wonder, awe, or mild intoxication.

I prefer to think of them as Currently Non-Ordinary States (let’s call ’em CNOS). Many cultures recognize and cultivate them as part of everyday life, making the term non-ordinary inaccurate. Finding a unifying thread—placing experiences we consider outre on a continuum with those we do cultivate—might help make them all more accessible. Dance, for example, has a CNOS dimension that’s sometimes cultivated but often not.

(A recent term, expanded states of consciousness, captures a bit of what I consider their purpose but loads an assumption of their value into the term, putting the cart before the horse. The rest of this article is all about why I think they are, in fact, expanded states and why I think they are necessary.)


The following four hypotheses link instinct, ego, integration, and CNOS in the bones of the theory. Here’s the basic outline. This will be challenged and fleshed out in subsequent articles.

  • Hypothesis 1: We are born a bag of parts that don’t necessarily fit all that well together.
  • Hypothesis 2: This requires a counter-balancing system that knits the parts together into a functional whole.
  • Hypothesis 3: Balance can work at cross purposes to the ego’s short-term objectives. Hence, the counter-balancing system has to be able to overpower the ego if need be.
  • Corollary: like earthquakes, it’s better to have things adjusted with multiple small tremors than one big potentially obliterating quake.
  • Hypothesis 4: CNOS are a means to relax the ego’s grip and allow excluded aspects in. As such, they have an evolved place in our psyche’s structure.

That said, I start the analysis with a core assumption: we are an evolved and embodied species, not floating analytic engines or some sort of ghost running the machine. I look for the meaning of CNOS in that materialist context.

It should be noted that neither psychology nor physics has managed to adequately define consciousness though both centrally use it. There is some possibility that consciousness has the status of an elementary independent component. Millennia of Hindu philosophers would agree, and also, a small cohort of contemporary scientists and philosophers.


Hypothesis 1: We are born a bag of parts.

We often talk as if there’s a self we can find. I think that’s incorrect. Self is something we build day by day. Paradoxically, the built self often presents itself as something we’ve discovered. There is, I believe, an archetype of Self that holds an image and presents a path to wholeness. That’s part of what confuses the issue. More on that in Hypothesis 2.

But let’s start with birth.

We’re born a bag of parts: psychological tendencies (e.g., introversion and extroversion), talents, capacities, physical strengths, and so on. The parts may or may not work well together. They’re often tied to specific gene configurations inherited from possibly quite different parents and can often head in quite different directions. Further, the inherited traits may or may not harmonize with other family members. Beyond that, as our world expands, they may or may not fit into our culture.

I suspect almost all of us have suffered from one mismatch or another. That might be what binds us together.

Here’s what it’s like to >not< be a bag of parts. David Sloan Wilson describes the water slider spider’s well-honed behavioral instincts in his anti-Randian novel, Atlas Hugged:

Amazingly, the legs also serve as an organ of perception. A struggling terrestrial insect creates ripples that spread over the surface of the water. When the ripples reach a water strider, they cause its legs to bob up and down. The flexing joints trigger nerve signals to the brain, which then instructs the leg muscles to move in just the right way to skate over to the prey and suck out its juices with its mouth shaped like a hypodermic needle. If a trout were to attempt to capture a strider from below, like Bruce the shark captured the woman in the opening scene of the movie Jaws, then it would create a bulge on the surface of the water. This causes the leg joints of the strider to flex in a different way, which results in the strider leaping out of the way like a trampoline artist. In this fashion, every event relevant to the survival and reproduction of the strider that results in a disturbance of the water surface is perceived by the legs and interpreted by the brain to prompt the right behavioral response.

Would that it were so easy!

To open up space for learning and culture, the lock-step glue that holds the water slider’s responses together has to be relaxed. Heir to millions of years of evolution, our instinctual impulses remain, but they are much transformed into inherited schema for behavior and cognition. Some knee-jerk reflexes are still there, of course, but most of our behavior is entwined with learning; hence, the knee-jerk component had to open up into fuzzier structures in most cases. We have an instinct, for example, to learn language(s)…an instinct that fades through adolescence. But the instinct is language agnostic and opens up to allow children to learn the language(s) they’re born into.

Given where we each start, a more or less unified self that doesn’t undermine itself or head off in multiple directions simultaneously, and that fits more or less into the culture (or effectively resists it) is a significant and often difficult accomplishment!

Tibetian Mandala, public domain

Hypothesis 2: this then requires a system that seeks to knit the parts back together.

So why, then, don’t we simply fly off in all directions or, more frequently, come to a complete gear-grinding halt?

I’m not totally comfortable with the wide range of things that get called archetypes, but I think, at the very least, one of Carl Jung’s archetypes is clearly active–the one he calls the Self.

The Self is, quite specifically, an evolved function of the psyche that continually works to knit the parts of us together.

Jung has quite a bit to say about how the Self archetype functions. It is, above all, an abstract but compelling guiding image. It can present itself as a timeless mandala of divine beings or show us our nature as globes of light. If you ask the Self about itself, it will tell you it is timeless and indestructible. And in a very real sense, it is; it’s certainly transpersonal and not an individual invention.

Wholeness remains as a guiding ‘imago’ (Jung’a term), always aiming at an expanded state of being. But we’re doing the work, having the experiences–and are never the Self archetype itself. That is a process, not a thing, and it brings together aspects of ourselves, some known, some unknown, some consciously developed, some synthesized in the dark of the unconscious.

Traditional image

More later this week. These posts are supposed to be bite-sized, and this is getting long. I’ll look at Hypothesis 3 and 4 then.

Thanks for reading!

Practical Mysticism #004: Holy Shit!

Concerning the move from ‘religious experience’ to religion.

Milky Way Galaxy with pointer to our Sun: "you are here"
Image: NASA – public domain – we don’t seem central to pretty much anything

Emergent properties

An ’emergent property’ is something appearing in a system that was not predictable from looking at the individual parts alone. Examples? One could argue that studying oxygen and hydrogen separately would not let you predict the behavior of water. Similarly, it would be hard to predict cellular life from the set of elements created by the Big Bang.

I’m suspicious of how often the term is used, however. It seems, in many cases, to simply be the limit of the predictor’s imagination. “I didn’t see that coming! Ah, emergent property.”

Planning depth

I do, however, have a clear example relevant to this series.

It’s easiest to explain in terms of planning depth.

We think about the consequences of our actions continually. Some of the most complex planning involves our interaction with other people. Social species (elephants, killer whales, ravens, people) typically have bigger brains than other comparable species. This is because social interactions demand some of our highest cognitive capacity.

One way to analyze social interaction is by abstracting it out into a game theory framework of initial action, response, counter-response, etc. and consider each action as a game move. This makes it easier to think through. Planning depth is the number of moves ahead you can think, making assumptions about what your opponent will choose or be forced to do. 

Let’s simplify and say it’s two players in a zero-sum game like chess. Grandmaster chess players have claimed to think 15+ moves ahead. They’ve been accused of lying:-) But certainly, good players can think 3-5 moves ahead. Planning out 5 of your moves in addition to your opponent’s 5 responses and you have a planning depth of 10.

Tools such as calculating calendars (Stonehenge?) and sketches in clay or dirt can extend planning depth beyond what can simply be held in one’s head. All that applies.

Planning depth evolving

At some point during the last .5M years, our evolving planning depth capacity generated a whopper of an emergent property. To see it, we need to back up through the phylogenetic tree to a proto-chimp/human and then move forward. (Genetically, we’re the third chimpanzee, so we can see three divergent evolutionary paths.)

Image: Dave Huth, Creative Commons. https://www.flickr.com/photos/davemedia/6276774712

Our close cousins, pan troglodytes, use tools and have a troop structure. They don’t use stone weapons or fire…both things that a proto-human species developed with a brain 2/3rds the size of ours. I think they can be imagined as a reasonable starting point. Chimps can set up ambushes. Let’s call that a planning depth of three: 1) you stomp around over there; 2) our target will bolt from the bushes in the direction of where I’m hiding; 3) I’ll grab ‘em.  And maybe 4): then we eat it.

Holy shit

The point of all this planning is to keep us and our offspring alive and fed. The deeper the planning depth, the more successful we’d be.

An analysis like “We need to gather acorns in the high country, process them, and carry them out of the hills before it gets too cold. But the weather looks like the pattern of a dry year, so we need to head to the last place trees thrived in a drought rather than somewhere closer!” shows deep planning. (It also demonstrates a good reason to keep old people who remember long patterns around as humans have evolved to do.)

There’s a huge gotcha, however. Somewhere on the path from proto-chimp/human to homo sapiens, we hit the point where the deeping planning depth, evolving to keep us alive and thriving, hits the “Oh shit; we’re all going to die anyway” realization. It’s not a matter of what, just a matter of when.

At that point, we’ve stepped outside the bounds of the survival-based impetus provided by our species’ evolution. We’re now in a conceptual space with no given answers and a brain big enough to worry about such things.

Planning has suddenly become mind-blowing–perhaps even paralyzing–and something new emerges.

Religion

There ain’t no answer. There ain’t gonna be any answer. There never has been an answer. That’s the answer.
– Gertude Stein
(Image: public domain)

I think this is where religions started to evolve…their job is to calm the existential freakout and get us refocused.

Not all approaches are adaptive. There are cults in India that pray to Shiva to open his third eye and destroy the universe. Some Christians hope for an immediate apocalypse (that, hopefully, they’ll refrain from imposing on the rest of us) rather than material thriving.

A recent, highly effective exploration of the problem is found in the work of Nietzsche, who sees meaning as something we posit as an act of will in the face of an uncaring and often cruel universe. He may not have generated the best answer, but he certainly away most of the cruft from the question.

So what

What has this to do with a series on practical mysticism?

Mystical experiences are mind-blowing: at best, transcendent; at worst, shattering (and typically a bit of both.) Religion tries to contain the damage. Religion can support the mystic by providing a framework. It can also try to suppress it as a challenge to its power. Either way, it’s important not to confuse the two.

Next up: I’m going to try and put the pieces explored so far into a general theory of ‘non-ordinary experience’ as a feature of our evolved species.

Thanks for reading. Please let me know your thoughts.

Instinct and Resonance- Practical Mysticism #003

map of the mouth of Tomales Bay

Life flows along the commonplace
– Carl Jung

Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
– Michael Pollen

Despite the American cult of individualism, I have never believed our identity was our idiosyncrasies and, despite my neophile tendencies, I have never believed that something was of value simply because it was new.

On the other hand, I don’t believe something is of value simply because it’s old—unless it’s really really old. That may be a different story.

Here follows a variant on Michael Pollen’s ‘eat what your great-grandmother ate’ test expressed not in a few generations but in tens or hundreds of millennia.

You are reading part of an intellectual wander aimed at building a framework for understanding the continuity between everyday experiences of awe and wonder and the type of ‘mystical’ experiences that are considered outside regular human experience (in my view mistakenly). And for considering the utility of such experiences.

My starting assumption is that this framework needs to address ego, instinct, and what are often termed nonordinary states. I have some theories about each of those. They will hopefully be modified in dialog with you and with the writing process itself.

Thoughts published so far:
Awe Shucks – Practical Mysticism #001
Ego and Awe – Practical Mysticism #002

First up, a bit of personal awe.

The time has come the Walrus said…

Many of you who know me know of my love of grilling oysters and, in particular grilling oysters on the beach. It feels deeply right to me.

Elaine Morgan. (2023, July 3). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elaine_Morgan
Elaine Morgan. 1998. From Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elaine_Morgan

Explaining my theory about why requires a digression.

In an undergraduate course in Feminist Literature, I read Elaine Morgan‘s, The Descent of Woman. This was 50 years ago. I have no clue at this point what Shulamith Firestone wrote about. Time has fuzzed that out. Many of Morgan’s points, however, remain vivid.

Her central argument is that we share a few key odd body traits not with our close cousins, the chimps, but with aquatic mammals. Examples include women’s subcutaneous fat and both genders’ minimal body hair…traits that overlap with dolphins, for example, but not most terrestrial mammals. She believes this argues for some interregnum of seashore or riparian evolution. Women, specifically, were at the leading edge of evolution during this period. (Men’s layer of fat is half the thickness of women’s, and men are typically furrier.)

One reason she stayed fresh in my mind was that ‘real’ anthropologists would remind me of her in occasional snide footnotes or asides. You could almost see the eye rolls. Not that they actually disputed her claims. That would be beneath them. So, irritating certain pros, and ideas I liked: two points in her favor:-).

Jump forward to 2015 or so. Wendy, Griffin, and I are at a lecture on human evolution at the California Academy of Science. It’s being given by Zeresenay Alemseged, Curator and Irvine Chair of Anthropology at the California Academy of Sciences and discoverer of Selam, a remarkably complete Australopithecus fossil skeleton that predates Leakey’s famous Lucy by 120,000 years.

Alemseged is discussing one of the big issues in human evolution: what provided enough calories to allow the step up in brain size between Australopithecus and Homo species. Brains burn a lot of energy. Other primate’s diets could not support a brain of our size. And evolution does not support the sort of look-forward activity that would require some Australopithecus species to decide, “Hey, we need bigger brains, let’s go look for different food.” The calories have to be there already to allow a boot-up mutation to work.

His answer is based on his recent work in what was at one time the coast of South Africa. Shellfish! They’re easy to gather in quantity, can be eaten cooked or raw, and protein is calorie-rich.

Creative Commons license via Wikimedia.
Australopithecus species had stone tools. Homo hablis used fire.

Soooo, oysters on the beach, baby! Step aside ‘man the hunter’. Enter proto-people with digging sticks on the shoreline. Elaine Morgan, fuck yeah:-).

(To set a bit of context. Both fire and stone tools predate the appearance of homo sapiens. An ancestor some 2.5M years ago used stone tools and one used fire 1M years ago give or take. All these dates keep getting pushed back. Homo sapiens likely clocks in at a mere .25M years to date.

Connecting it all up, there was an ancestor animal with a brain roughly 2/3rds the size of ours walking erect, using stone tools, cooking on a fire, and consuming shellfish. Likely there were adolescent hominids poking the fire with a stick. Shellfish have remained a high-quality staple for many cultures. The unceded Muwekma Ohlone land in nearby Emeryville contains a shell mound with the remains of millions of shellfish meals consumed over a recent two and half thousand years. )

Instinct?

Okay, evidence-wise, the oyster thing is a bit squishy. My feeling deeply grounded while cooking oysters at the beach…a feeling of ‘being all of one piece’… doesn’t exactly make it at the top of the hard evidence chart. And I’m not even sure how to articulate this within a theory of what’s commonly called instinct.

Let’s try.

I’m starting with a metaphor. In my defense, thinkers such as Thomas Kuhn and George Lakoff have argued that metaphors, despite getting trashed by the likes of Newton and Bacon, can play a central role at the core of the clusters of scientific thinking and evidence that Kuhn termed paradigms. Math and hypothesis testing are key in the mix as well, of course, but both verbal and visual metaphors are important ‘tools to think with’.

My metaphor will be the mouth of a bay.

My friend Martin has warned me that the mouth of bays are particularly dangerous places to boat. You have currents, tides, waves, occasional whirlpools, and abrupt shifts in winds caused by the temperature differential between the waters and the shore. The mouth of Tomales Bay and Drake’s Estero are both good examples. Sometimes they’re relatively placid, and sometimes they’ll kick your ass. Every once in a while, they kill somebody.

You can paddle in a specific direction with knowledge, good equipment, and determination, but sometimes it is much more difficult than others, and if you take your eye off your destination, you can suddenly find yourself somewhere you did not intend to go.

Our typical view of instinct is of something like salmon swimming upstream– a compulsion or drive–which I think limits what we consider when we talk about its impact in humans.

The hormonal/neurotransmitter blend in our internal sea marks the intersection of our bodies and the environment and adds the push of currents and tides to our behavior. We transverse them occasionally wondering how we ended up somewhere.

We can consciously tweak our blood chemistry by, for example, blocking adenosine receptors with caffeine or seeking dopamine hits with a game on our phone. But mostly all this is mostly happening below the surface. Our tide and currents are at play against underwater surfaces that are not typically visible in an easy-to-interpret way. This interacts with built-in and learned schema that helps pattern what might be called raw perception into what we perceive…all that outside consciousness as well.

Something between me, oysters, cooking, and the beach is tweaking how I feel. A hormonal and neural balance is emerging in my inner sea. I contend that this is on a continuum with whatever else human instinct might be.

Side note: other reasons I like the water metaphor are, first, water flows downhill following a natural ‘instinctual’ gradient, and, second, water has depth. Things can be closer or further from consciousness.

More on instinct: positive and negative examples

In order to firm up and challenge this formulation, let’s look at a few more examples. Next post we’ll complicate things further by adding in Jung’s concepts of imago and archetype. Then try and tie it up into a tentative theory of instinct.

Thinking fast and slow

We should at least mention Daniel Kahneman’s fast thinking vs slow thinking. Kahneman describes fast thinking as ‘instinctual and emotive’. That would include knee-jerk responses, but he includes pretty much anything that happens below the surface: perceptual and cognitive biases, the automatic placement of objects in space, and even skills that have achieved automaticity.

Certainly, danger reactions that have to be faster than conscious ‘slow thinking’ can achieve should be termed instinct.

Instinct with a positive impact

Despite a shocking lack of research on grilling oysters, there’s a significant body of evidence for a similar activity: getting out into a natural environment.

As an outdoor nerd, I’ve been collecting citations. Here are just a few from my stash that focus on measurable metrics.

1. How the Japanese Practice of “Forest Bathing”—Or Just Hanging Out in the Woods—Can Lower Stress Levels and Fight Disease

… experiments conducted by Japan’s Chiba University found that forest bathing lowered heart rate and blood pressure and brought down levels of cortisol, the stress hormone that can wreak havoc on every system when large amounts circulate through the body. … These findings underscore that spending time in the forest is a medical intervention as well as an aesthetic and spiritual one, something scientists have long observed but haven’t been able to quantify.

2. The Relationship Between Trees and Human Health: Evidence from the Spread of the Emerald Ash BorerAmerican Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2013, Geoffery Donovan et al.

There was an increase in mortality related to cardiovascular and lower-respiratory-tract illness in counties infested with the emerald ash borer. The magnitude of this effect was greater as infestation progressed and in counties with above-average median household income. Across the 15 states in the study area, the borer was associated with an additional 6113 deaths related to illness of the lower respiratory system, and 15,080 cardiovascular-related deaths. [In other words, when the trees went away, health suffered.]

3. In search of features that constitute an “enriched environment” in humans: Associations between geographical properties and brain structure – Nature, 2017, Simone Kuhn et al.

Our results reveal a significant positive association between the coverage of forest and amygdala integrity. We conclude that forests may have salutogenic effects on the integrity of the amygdala.

Brother Francis and Brother Sun, Giovanni Costa, 1878 – if there’s a patron saint of getting outdoors, it would be Francis:-)

Instinct with a negative impact

Regular readers know that I consider our Us vs. Them reaction to be a species of fast thinking with malign impact. (Links here, here, and here; it’s a long story.) Here are a few things more contained.

  1. Ebola Fears Helped The GOP In 2014 Election – Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard, 6/14/2017

Newly published research finds fear of the infectious disease, which was widely in the news in the month before the election, increased voters’ intention to vote Republican. This effect was primarily found in red states, which means the outbreak effectively turned them a deeper shade of red.

“Disease outbreaks may influence voter behavior in two psychologically distinct ways: increased inclination to vote for politically conservative candidates, and increased inclination to conform to popular opinion,” writes a research team led by University of British Columbia psychologist Alec Beall.

For those working on a better class of conspiracy theories, note the Ebola panic faded shortly after the election.

Heightened anxiety makes people more prone to share claims on social media – Psy Post, 3/22/2023
reporting on Believing and sharing misinformation, fact-checks, and accurate information on social media: The role of anxiety during COVID-19, 2021, Isabelle Freiling et al.

A new experimental study found that heightened anxiety makes people more prone to believe in various claims they are exposed to and to share them on social media. This was especially true for Republicans and did not depend on the accuracy or truthfulness of the claim. The study was published in New Media & Society.

Next up

    In part #004, I intend to complicate things considerably.

    We will explore a Jungian view of ‘instinct’. Here we find an unconscious realm populated by ‘imago’ and archetypes and inhabited by dark gods and talking animals. A realm from whence not just impulse but full-blown narratives arrive. A realm of entities that constantly tweak our felt gradients and that can override our everyday self quite dramatically—but that might also contain an instinct for wholeness and healing.

    The driving question that Jung successfully answers: what form did instinct take as hardwired behavior evolved in beings such as ourselves that need room for the huge role of learning and culture?

    Thanks for reading.

    Ego and Awe – Practical Mysticism #002

    Next up – maybe: a dive into awe and the outdoors. What is it about showing up in a natural environment with a human nervous system that has a positive impact? (Or, at least, a positive impact on the human:-)
    – me, part #001

    I guess the key word in that was ‘maybe’:-)

    There are three interconnected concepts that frame up the story I want to tell. In rough terms, they are ego, instinct, and awe. All feel connected to me as ideas circling around something that might be called access to a bigger self. But, also to potential groundings of identity.

    (This is not to be confused with the Bigger Us that connects outward to what ML King calls a ‘blessed community.’)

    As per usual, I’m having trouble unbraiding and crisping up my three framing concepts–a great case in point of why it takes me forever to get something written. The issue: crisping up any of these, impacts my understanding and formulation of the others, which in turn, feeds back and alters the starting point. Rinse and repeat. Until I throw in the towel and hit publish.

    Well, I’m going to throw in the towel right off the bat. Brother Skip once told me he was convinced all the bolts were there…but that they were only on hand tight. I like that. I’ve vowed to use the blog to write more casually and let the ideas mature as we go. Hopefully, I’ll get the bolts on hand tight. Lord knows how many more passes it will take from there.

    We’ll start with Ego.

    A good enough theory of ego

    • Starting with ego means we start with the Freuds, Sigmund then Anna. Ego is pretty much defined by its defenses which are mostly a response to unavoidable childhood sexual trauma. An example of an ego defense is projection, i.e., discomfort in one’s unacknowledged dark traits is projected out as dislike or irritation with someone else who seems to exhibit those traits. The unconscious, of course, is where all the scary stuff lives.
    • Jung’s unconscious can be much less fraught than Freud’s. It’s the repository of the excluded, the inferior, and the undeveloped– things you are bad at, ashamed of, etc., and not just trauma. Also, sex isn’t the main driver, and trauma isn’t a given.
    • Jung adds a second big component. The ego creates directable energy and attention by walling off the ebb and flow of unconscious reactions, which can unfocus and distract us. (Look, squirrels!)
    • Further, the paradigm of classical Jungian thought is that this ability not to be taken over by whatever stray impulse arises has been gained relatively recently, i.e., subsequent to us becoming anatomically homo sapiens. Humans accomplished this by developing a psychic structure that provides a barrier against the unconscious. The classic paradigm further states that the barrier mechanisms have become too rigid, and the task now is reconnecting with the unconscious.*1
    • Last, I think I should also throw in a concept that I identify with Buddhism: ego’s fear of annihilation: that white-knuckle fear that makes even a little ego loss or loss of control feel like death.

    Okay, that was a long way around to a ‘good enough’ theory of ego.

    In summary, we have a psychological structure that acts to include things in and exclude other things out (all the things are us, of course); that maintains barriers and defenses to make that happen; and that can too rigid to our detriment.

    Expanded self

    My thesis here is that awe and wonder are a small ‘pop’ that expands our acknowledged self. Something that was ‘outside’ egoland is now ‘inside.’ Further, this same mechanism leads into the mystic, as it were. Or rather, wonder is a bit of the mystic touching down in everyday life.

    We can use Zen koans as an additional example. They pose a problem not solvable with everyday tools and are traditionally solved with a pop that signifies a change in the student, not the correct answer per se.

    Even our well-known ability to solve problems by sleeping on them is relevant. The ego is relaxed to a bit player, more of us is brought to bear, something that was outside is now inside, and the self is just a tiny bit bigger.

    Containers

    It occurs to me now that we need another component if we talking about awe/wonder in the context of the wider sweep of ‘non-ordinary states’*2 and ego. As framed up by our ‘good enough theory of ego’, the core concept is sidestepping the walls ego built. But the ego has a purpose. We need to get past ego without obliterating it or freaking it the fuck out.

    The protocol for psychedelic sessions beginning with Grof and Leary and continuing through contemporary John Hopkins mushroom sessions, is to emphasize set (mental state/expectations) and setting (the physical space and guide.)

    That’s missing a piece I call ‘container.’ In the above, the container is the assumption that your guide is competent and benign. Container is the wider envelope. Sangha can be the container. Growing up in a culture that gives 15-year-olds monastic experience is a container. For me, movement in nature is itself a container, along with community and music.

    Next up (maybe): a good enough theory of instinct.

    Thanks for reading! Feel free to share this.

    Feedback

    I had some interesting discussions as a result of the last post in this series…in particular with Paula, my running buddy on much of this whether she’s aware of that or not. Here are some resources as a result.

    footnotes

    *1 – More: this classical Jungian story holds that ego development arose at the same time as the patriarchies and that the ego is experienced as masculine while the excluded is thus seen as feminine This part is a little sketchy in a Joseph Campbell ‘all heroes are male’ sort of way. Both Jung and Campbell use a pattern of myth called the ‘night sea hero’…Jung as a story of individual maturation, and Campbell as a story of cultural advancement. The use of gender here is highly debatable, but, on the other hand, it is easy to argue that patriarchal thinking is a pathology. Might be worth a future discussion.

    *2 – ‘Non-ordinary’ has become the standard description of non-ego-centered mental states. I don’t like it. First, many of these states are more ordinary than assumed…they just don’t have much acknowledgment in our culture. Second, the objective here is to make them ordinary. Third, by most definitions of nonordinary states, there is a very common ordinary one caused by alcohol consumption–which might become less common if a better one came along.

    Awe Shucks – Practical Mysticism #001

    Wikipedia: A peak experience is an altered state of consciousness characterized by euphoria, often achieved by self-actualizing individuals. The concept was originally developed by Abraham Maslow in 1964, who describes peak experiences as “rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect upon the experimenter.” There are several unique characteristics of a peak experience, but each element is perceived together in a holistic manner that creates the moment of reaching one’s full potential.

    Peak Experience

    Back in the early 70s, inspired by Maslow’s work, I was interviewing almost everyone I knew for a psychology research paper. (Psychology was my college major.) I’d read to my ‘subjects’ Maslow’s description of peak experiences, then ask a series of questions about whether they’d had such experiences, how they viewed them, and whether that had led to any noticeable behavioral changes.

    Watch out. Folks will try and convert you at a very vulnerable time: right after you’ve been saved!

    The whole thing was tremendous fun. I had fascinating conversations. Best, I became a go-to person for discussions of intense, weird, and/or transformative experiences.

    One Monday, I received reports from two friends who both attended weekend events that triggered a ‘classic’ white light experience. Their descriptions were pretty much identical: white light, bliss, doubt being lifted, ‘heart strangely warmed.’

    Both had then dedicated themselves to the event organizer’s practice and suggested rather urgently that I check it out!

    The kicker: one had gone to an evangelical Christian rally…one of the early Jesus Freaks events… and the other an event  with the Guru Maharaj Ji.

    My conclusions after all this:

    • Watch out. Folks will try and convert you at a very vulnerable time: right after you’ve been saved!
    • Awe and ‘mystical’ experiences are human birthrights whether you view them as biochemistry or the grace of God or both.
    • But, also, based on reading Maslow and, more so, others like Evelyn Underhill, William James, and Aldous Huxley, there are mystic traditions that can provide some conceptual grounding when the going gets weird. Things often get a bit unhinged otherwise.

    I Fart Therefore I Am

    Quite honestly, I chose the psychology major because it required no courses that met before 1:15 pm. I was very interested in psychology, but this was the heyday of BF Skinner and various flavors of behaviorism, and that’s a lot of what they were teaching. Not all that engaging.

    Luckily the Religion Department was teaching Jung (along with Buddhism and Taoism), and the Philosophy Department included a bit of Freud in the mix along with the opportunity to read folks like Husserl. Both, in other words, studied folks that were asking the type of questions I was asking.

    The questions?

    All were the result of a bit of an identity crisis. My questions started with ‘What is a meaningful grounding for action despite the risk of unintended negative consequences?’ and progressed to ‘How is meaning generated?’ and ‘What’s at the root of needing meaning, anyway?’

    In other words, what is this ‘meaning’ of which you speak:-)?

    Quite honestly the Western classic, ‘I think therefore I am’ seemed like a particularly lame place to start building an answer. My counter-example, probably cribbed from somewhere, is why not ‘I fart therefore I am.’ Or any one of a near-endless set of parallel formulations.

    Very long story made very short, I ended up with, ‘There is awareness therefore I am’. Thinking has no special privilege. But where does this realization get us?

    Awe and ‘mystical’ experiences are human birthrights…

    First, if you take awareness instead of thinking as the irreducible root of further philosophy, the project shifts towards something Hindu philosophers and their offspring, followers of the Buddha, have been working on for a few millennia in both abstract and concrete terms. (Husserl ends up starting somewhere similar but lacks the millennia of subsequent development.) There are a whole lot of systems of thought to scaffold up from there…but again, where does that get us?

    Second, that is where awe comes in. My answer is that there needs to be something in awareness itself, rather than in some configuration of ideas about awareness, that can make it a ground for meaning. Awe adds an emotional, some would say spiritual component.

    This is a good stopping point. These blog posts are intended to be short. There’s a lot more that could be said, but I’ll save that for future articles. I do have a long discussion of what I believe are the underlying dynamics of awe and its bigger sisters on Medium.

    Cheap Awe

    Scientific third-party research was sparked by Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ and, in large part, debunked it–particularly as a hierarchy where some needs have to be met in order to enable others. Research on peaks, on the other hand, languished along with research into psychedelics. Both are now undergoing a reboot. A major influence in the study of awe is UC Berkeley’s Dacher Keltner and his Greater Good Science Center. (See The Science of Awe, 2018.)

    This story, “Awe might be our most undervalued emotion. Here’s how to help children find it”, from the Washington Post is actually a primer on accessing the experience regardless of age.

    Awe and nature are my jam. Here’s a formula that works for me.

    • Go outside in nature. A tree-lined street might do.
    • Walk around.
    • Pay attention. Try not to daydream too much; that’s the tough part:-)

    Even if you don’t trip over into awe, it’s good for you.

    Science’s Newest Miracle Drug Is Free

    Next up – maybe: a dive into awe and the outdoors. What is it about showing up in a natural environment with a human nervous system that has a positive impact? (Or, at least, a positive impact on the human:-)

    To get longer articles every other month or so, Subscribe on Medium.

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    Thanks for reading!

    Summer 2022 Newletter

    • What follows are free links to recent writing and an excerpt from the most recent. I’m very happy with how it evolved, btw. 

    But first, a note about Medium:

    • Subscribe good; Follow bad.
    • If you Subscribe then you’ll get a few paragraphs and a link when I hit publish. If that hasn’t happened blame Follow

    Links

    After a few years of wallowing in the problems, I’m starting to see the vague outline of solutions. That starts with this one:

    We Need a Bigger Boat:
    Add a Bigger Us to the Long Now and a Wider Here

    Jaws — PR Photo & “Great white shark” by Gussy (Luke) is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

    Longer Now, Wider Here, Bigger Us

    The Concept

    In 2003, Brian Eno explained the insight behind the name of the Long Now Foundation.

    After noting that he liked to move around, see the shops, and meet people in any neighborhood he lived in, he described going to a house-warming party in New York in the late ’70s.

    The taxi delivered him to an address in a bad neighborhood. He suspected he was at the wrong address until, arriving at the top floor, he found himself in a “multi-million dollar palace.” He asked the host if she liked the neighborhood? The reply: “Oh, the neighborhood? Well, that’s outside.”

    Read More

    Hope it’s okay if I’ve added a few of you to my quarterly newsletter. I’ve very much appreciate the feedback you all have been providing.
    Thanks for reading!

    Al



    I Want to Testify: Science and Religion are Incompatible. I Believe Them Both

    Science and Religion. You can apply one, the other, or both to guide action. But as views of the universe, they contradict.

    Someone created the universe. Or Someone didn’t.

    How to resolve the contradiction?

    I don’t. Continue reading I Want to Testify: Science and Religion are Incompatible. I Believe Them Both

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