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.

Contemplating a Winter Ritual on New Year’s Eve

Qarrtsiluni

“Qarrtsiluni means something like sitting together in the dark, waiting for something to happen. Inuit word.

I stumbled on the above somewhere on the internet and copied it down. Today, I did a search on the quote so I could give proper attribution. Well, wherever I stole it, I wasn’t alone. Lots of sources used the same wording without attribution.

Perhaps it emerged spontaneously from the darkness in multiple locations.

It resonated in a particular way. What is that about? It sounded like something I’d like to try. Particularly during the deep dark of winter…solstice, new years, somewhen around then. (Interested in trying it?)

Every year in late fall, when things start to get cold, I’m suddenly hungry all the time and simultaneously lethargic. It’s a Norwegian thing, I think. Conserve calories! Plump up! You’re about to spend the next 4 or 5 months holed up in a long house and want to survive the winter. The skinny are doomed!

I think it’s like that. I had a mental image of 8000 generations of ancestors looking up through the trees at cold solstice skies and, over time, assembling rituals and earthworks inspired by the seasons. By doing something similar, I could tap into a tradition stretching back to the beginning of our species. Climate, terrain, cultures, and polities have come and gone, but the night sky has presided over it all. And we must always have looked up in awe.

Stonehenge at sunset by Mastiello, Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License

Nerd

However, being the type of nerd I am, my first question is this: if I’m experiencing some sort of midwinter preset vibe, can I plumb the resonating depth?

My starting point is pretty much always a long view of us as embodied members of a species with an evolutionary history. Our emotions, perceptions, and cognition are not wholly idiosyncratic but of a kind.

We’ve spent most of our quarter of a million years as homo sapiens near the equator. Now that I think of it, a dark, cold solstice mojo would have to have started building when the ice retreated enough to let us move on north into dark, cold winter nights. So it’s really a function of 1) how far north in latitude it’s dark much of a 24-hour cycle, 2) long wave climate cycles, and 3) human migration out of Africa.

First, long nights

Here’s the table.

Latitude (Degrees)Night Length at
Solstice (Hours)
Notes
012.00Equator
1514.00
3016.00
3516.67Tokyo
4017.33San Franciso = 38d, NYC = 40d
4518.00Lascaux Cave, France. Cities in N. America:
https://www.mnmuseumofthems.org/45th/NAmer.html
5018.67Stonehedge, Warsaw
6020.00Oslo, southern most border of
Nunavut, Canada’s Inuit Province
7021.33
8022.67
8523.33Northern reach of Nunavut
9024.00
Northern Latitude, Hours of Darkness, Notes – table by me


The 17.33 hours of darkness here in San Francisco seems plenty long enough, but my relatively recent ancestors lived in even longer darkness.

Second, climate

We are in the Quaternary Glaciation starting 2.5M years ago, in a period commonly called the Ice Age (formally the Last Glacial Period) starting 155k years ago, and having a recent maxima called the Last Glacial Maximum starting 26k years ago and continued until 13k years ago. Ice sheets extended to about the 45th parallel north with ice 2-2.5 miles thick. Miles!.

For reference, homo sapiens, i.e., us, are 250k years old. Ice, we’ve seen it come, and we’ve seen it go.

Fun fact: the weight of all that ice is still felt. Every year some land in coastal Alaska rises over an inch, springing back from being compressed for so long under so much ice. It’s called isostatic rebound.

Third, out of Africa

While it does appear that members of our species migrated out of Africa prior to the Last Glacial Maximum, they didn’t persist. Genetic analysis, particularly of our mitochondria, shows that current human populations all result from the most recent migration out of Africa 70k years ago, perhaps following the retreating ice. This was the wave that survived, mingling with Neadrathals on the way out. We show up in Southern Europe 40k years ago, Denmark 30k years ago, and entered the Americas from the north 20k years ago. All these numbers are estimates and under constant revision as our analytic tools become better and better.

Fun fact. A number of species, including probably a homo species, including possibly homo sapiens, lived through the Last Glacial Maximum in sheltered areas termed Refugia, plural Refugum. I like the word. We may need it again soon. It’s possible that this happened in North America, as well. Give research another 30 years, and we’ll have a much better picture. Lidar and improved methods of genetic analysis are in the process of totally rearranging our view of what’s happened over the last 100,000 years.

Bummer

But bummer. I was hoping for resonance a couple of hundred thousand years deep. It appears I have to settle for only fifty thousand or so! No imagining a great^8000th grandmother looking with awe at the winter night sky through conifers just as I have.

Still, that’s a lot of dark, cold, Solstice nights.

If a generation is 20-30 years in length, then my great^2000th grandparents might have started the process after generations of migration: wondering when it’s going to stop being dark for so long, and, btw, why is it so cold up here?…surviving long winter nights, perhaps popping out from a smoky shelter for a look at the winter sky alight with the aurora borealis, perhaps marking the seasons with wood and stone and starting to use earthworks to chronicle the cycles written in the sky.

Image creative commons from the Store Norske Leksikon

Qarrtsiluni redux

While trying to find the source of my opening quotation, I found the below. It’s the definition of quarrtsiluni I like best. The author doesn’t seem to have any particular qualifications, doesn’t cite any sources, and she could just be making this up. That’s good enough for me.

Qarrtsiluni. Inuit, Iñupiaq / v. / kʌːrʒ.sɪ.luːnɪ / kartz-sih-loo-nih –  Sitting together in the darkness, perhaps expectantly (e.g., waiting for something to happen or to ‘burst forth’); the strange quiet before a momentous event.

The Inuits initially used this to describe their ritual of finding new songs to honor a whale each year. The hunters would go to a special house where no lamps were lit, and would sit there in silence as a group, thinking of beautiful things, anticipating the inspiration which was about to stream into their collective consciousness. And then they made their songs.

Thanks for reading.

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:-)

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