Category Archives: Psychology & Consciousness
Here’s Erik Davis, in a recent interview conducted by Jeremy Johnson, briefly discussing the similarities between the respective realms of high weirdness exemplified by Philip K. Dick’s VALIS and Robert Anton Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger. Erik and Jeremy also make some interesting observations about the way the reading of these types of texts can often kick off explosions of bizarre synchronicities and psychic transformations, and thus serve as a kind of involuntary practice of bibliomancy. It’s an effect that I have experienced myself many times, and that I suspect you may have as well, if you find yourself drawn to books like these.
ERIK DAVIS: VALIS is a masterpiece whose power partly lies in its ability to disorient and enchant the reader. I suspect that for readers today it continues to resonate, as our world in many ways has simply become more PhilDickean. I am reminded of Robert Anton Wilson’s idea of “Chapel Perilous”. Wilson had somewhat similar experiences in 1974 — cosmic conspiracies, syncronicities, blasts of insight — and he suggested that there was a stage of the path, a kind of dark night of the soul, where the seeker can’t tell what’s paranoia and what’s reality. There is a surfeit of meaning — after all, there is definitely something like too many synchronicities. Valis is Dick’s Chapel Perilous, and he brings readers along for the ride. Some of them never quite get off. But Chapel Perilous is a place to pass through, not to call home.
. . . JEREMY JOHNSON: Professor Richard Doyle, who recently held a class on Synchcast for P.K.D., warned his students that reading Dick’s novels could induce what he calls an “involutionary” affect — meaning one’s life might start getting taken up by synchronicities and uncanny moments. I know you’ve mentioned in some previous presentations that you have experienced these moments (we might call them P.K.D. moments) where the book seems to become a divinizing tool for bibliomancy.
What do you think is happening here, if anything? And secondly: isn’t it interesting that this phenomenon seems to occur regardless of the perceived value of the text? It seems to happen as readily to a pulp scifi novel as the Bible.
ERIK DAVIS: The specific “occult” practice of bibliomancy is key to PKD. The first time I gave a talk on him, which was my first public lecture back in 1990 or something, I realized I hadn’t prepared an adequate definition of “Gnosticism.” With five minutes to go, people already sitting down, I panicked, and opened the book randomly and my eyes fell precisely on Dick’s pithy definition: “This is Gnosticism. In Gnosticism, man belongs with God against the world and the creator of the world (both of which are crazy, whether they realize it or not).” These sorts of gestures are also made by the characters in many Dick novels, a number of which feature oracular books that are opened to any page, or accessed with other random processes, like the I Ching in The Man in the High Castle. Researchers and scholars know these synchronicities well, however you might think about them, and Dick was very interested in seeding those sorts of connections in his novels. Reading, drawing connections, in a sense is invoking these kinds of uncanny links. For Dick, writing itself is alive.
(For more on Chapel Perilous itself, see here.)
Image courtesy of Dan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
I have sometimes wondered about the reactions of my readers whenever I mention the writings of Eckhart Tolle with approval, as I have done several times. Tolle is a best-selling writer whose books occupy the same general “mind/body/spirit” publishing niche as those of Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, etc. He’s a speaker who has now appeared at Google’s headquarters, the Wisdom 2.0 Conference, and other trendy signature places and events representing the front line of tech culture’s faux fusion with spirituality. He has famously been associated with Oprah Winfrey. (One of the most read posts here at The Teeming Brain, by the way, continues to be “Oprah, Eckhart Tolle, and the fundamentalist hijacking of Christianity.”) The organization that is set up to promote his work puts out a veritably relentless flood of merchandising associated with his books and teachings. All of the marketing markers point toward his being another fluffy new-gen spiritual guru of the kind whose apparent mission is to make money by encouraging the wealthy and the upper middle class to feel good about themselves by exploring their own specialness.
The thing is, he’s more than that. As I and a bunch of other people discovered well over a decade ago when Tolle’s The Power of Now became a grassroots publishing phenomenon at the turn of the millennium, he is a writer and teacher of frankly astonishing power who manages to communicate to a general audience, in exquisitely lucid prose and spoken words, the same nondual spiritual message that was formerly propounded to a much more rarefied audience by the likes of J. Krishnamurti, Ramana Maharshi, and others (and indeed, Tolle has named Krishnamurti and Maharshi as being among his primary influences). Say what you will in criticism of the various directions his “brand” has taken in recent years — and a number of such criticisms, some that I view as valid, have indeed been offered — the man himself appears to be the genuine article, as in someone who experienced a profound spiritual awakening/transformation (arising out of intense personal suffering, by the way) and then found that other people wanted to hear about it, and that he was gifted to convey it in words and personal presence. I sometimes wonder whether, in both sociological and religious or spiritual terms, his presence in modern digital mass media culture, including the various aspects of it that invite criticism, might not represent the arrival of a new guru/anti-guru model that’s valid for the present age.
And in a way, I said all of that to say this: hey, look, Eckhart is talking about apocalyptic collapse again. I’ve quoted his apocalyptic observations before. Now here’s a new one, appearing in a recent interview for The Huffington Post that was conducted by Arianna Huffington herself (who has headlined with him at the Wisdom 2.0 Conference). I never fail to find it fascinating when he says things like what’s quoted below, because although on one level he might be taken as just another spiritual guru who is barking about the supposed imminent end of the world and possible advent of a new spiritual age involving a forward leap in consciousness, on another he is truly saying something insightful when he links the age-old nondual realization about the fraught relationship between ego and world, self and other, inner and outer — and about the ground reality that encompasses and gives rise to both — to the quite real disruptions that are visibly attending our ongoing journey into formerly unknown realms and configurations of technological, ecological, economic, and sociological reality on a new planetary scale. Which is all to say that I find his words well worth attending to, not least because he offers not a rosy optimism but an honest recognition that we may well fail the challenge:
Collectively, we are at a point where the old — I call it the old, dysfunctional, egoic state of consciousness — has become extremely dangerous. We can go back 100 years ago, which is 1914, when World War I started, and that was the first time humans fully realized how insane warfare was because of all the advances in technology that had happened by that time. Millions upon millions of people died in World War I from chemical warfare, tanks, poison gas, machine guns and all the other clever inventions of the egoic mind. That was the first time we realized the magnitude of the dysfunction in the collective consciousness, as it became amplified by the advances in science and technology.
We have reached a point now where if there’s no shift in consciousness away from the dysfunctional, egoic state that generates all that insanity, then humans would most likely destroy themselves, or at least bring about a complete collapse of civilization. We have arrived at a point of great danger, collectively, but danger also means great opportunity for change. There’s a fundamental universal truth, and that is humans do not change until they reach a point of crisis. That applies not only to individuals, but it also applies to humanity as a whole. It’s only when we reach a state of crisis, the suffering that it produces creates the impetus behind the shift in consciousness. This is the point that we have reached now, and we’ve been moving towards this for the past 100 years. This is why so many people are now ready to undergo that shift.
So this is a very important moment in human history, where there is a possibility of almost a quantum leap in human consciousness. There’s also the possibility, of course, that humans are not going to make it, that the shift won’t happen, in which case there would be a regression in human evolution that could throw us back several thousand years. Hopefully, that’s not going to happen, but it could happen, and even that would not be ultimately tragic, because I believe that consciousness is destined to grow and flower on this planet. I’m fairly confident that it is happening already, but we must not underestimate the gravitational pull, so to speak, of the old, dysfunctional consciousness that is still here and operates, as you can see when you watch the daily news. Most things you see on the daily news are reflections of the old, dysfunctional consciousness, or, rather, unconsciousness. We have reached a very interesting point in human evolution. It’s quite amazing to be alive at this time.
Image by Kyle Hoobin (twitter.com/kylehoobin), via Gregcaletta at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
In my recent post about Jeff Kripal’s article “Visions of the Impossible,” I mentioned that biologist and hardcore skeptical materialist Jerry Coyne published a scathing response to Jeff’s argument soon after it appeared. For those who would like to keep up with the conversation, here’s the heart of Coyne’s response (which, in its full version, shows him offering several direct responses to several long passages that he quotes from Jeff’s piece):
For some reason the Chronicle of Higher Education, a weekly publication that details doings (and available jobs) in American academia, has shown a penchant for bashing science and promoting anti-materialist views. . . . I’m not sure why that is, but I suspect it has something to do with supporting the humanities against the dreaded incursion of science — the bogus disease of “scientism.”
That’s certainly the case with a big new article in the Chronicle, “Visions of the impossible: how ‘fantastic’ stories unlock the nature of consciousness,” by Jeffrey J. Kripal, a professor of religious studies at Rice University in Texas. Given his position, it’s not surprising that Kripal’s piece is an argument about Why There is Something Out There Beyond Science. And although the piece is long, I can summarize its thesis in two sentences (these are my words, not Kripal’s):
“People have had weird experiences, like dreaming in great detail about something happening before it actually does; and because these events can’t be explained by science, the most likely explanation is that they are messages from some non-material realm beyond our ken. If you combine that with science’s complete failure to understand consciousness, we must conclude that naturalism is not sufficient to understand the universe, and that our brains are receiving some sort of ‘transhuman signals.'”
That sounds bizarre, especially for a distinguished periodical, but anti-naturalism seems to be replacing postmodernism as the latest way to bash science in academia.
. . . But our brain is not anything like a radio. The information processed in that organ comes not from a transhuman ether replete with other people’s thoughts, but from signals sent from one neuron to another, ultimately deriving from the effect of our physical environment on our senses. If you cut your optic nerves, you go blind; if you cut the auditory nerves, you become deaf. Without such sensory inputs, whose mechanisms we understand well, we simply don’t get information from the spooky channels promoted by Kripal.
When science manages to find reliable evidence for that kind of clairvoyance, I’ll begin to pay attention. Until then, the idea of our brain as a supernatural radio seems like a kind of twentieth-century alchemy—the resort of those whose will to believe outstrips their respect for the facts.
Full article: “Science Is Being Bashed by Academic Who Should Know Better“
(An aside: Is it just me, or in his second paragraph above does Coyne effectively insult and dismiss the entire field of religious studies and all the people who work in it?)
Jeff responded five days later in a second piece for the Chronicle, where he met Coyne’s criticisms head-on with words like these: Read the rest of this entry
From an engaging discussion of Julian Jaynes’ bicameral mind theory by writer and philosophy commentator Jules Evans, at his website Philosophy for Life:
I’m particularly interested in the link between voice-hearing, dissociation and creativity, and in the incidence of voice-hearing among creative individuals like novelists Marilynne Robinson (who occasionally hears a voice inspiring her novels), comedians Graham Linehan and Jonny Vegas (both of whom hear or have heard voices), and musicians like Lady Gaga and David Bowie (the former says she heard voices and started to act them out as personae, while the latter likewise embodied and acted out radically different personalities and has a history of schizophrenia in his family).
Not to mention the dissociative capacity of gifted actors to become other people (Le Carre called Alec Guinness’ ability to become someone else a ‘complete self-enchantment, a controlled schizophrenia’); or all the many poets and song-writers who say their poems came to them from a voice / presence / spirit / muse.
What Jaynes fails to address, I’d suggest, is the value of these ‘vestiges of the bicameral mind’. When we seem to feel or hear messages from the beyond, it’s not just a primitive throwback to Homeric times. These messages sometimes tell us something useful, beautiful and wise, something our ordinary consciousness does not know. They are often sources of moral inspiration or consolation. I’d suggest the right hemisphere is still not entirely accessible to our ordinary consciousness, and there is a value in learning how to access it through things like meditation, trance states or techniques of ecstasy (though of course there are risks as well, particularly if you end up with an inflated or Messianic sense of self).
To go a step further into the mystical, if we do receive inspiration through the right hemisphere, does that mean the origin is definitely purely material or neurochemical? Could we not consider William James’ hypothesis that the right hemisphere / unconscious is the door through which the divine speaks to us? Such has been the suggestion of various spiritual critics of Jaynes’ theory, from Owen Barfield to Philip K. Dick.
Still, the voice-hearing network is fascinating, from a theological perspective, because in some ways it suggests a very modern attitude to the gods. We hear their commands, and yet we don’t have to obey unquestioningly. We relate to them less as a child to their all-powerful father, and more like a friend to their equal, rather like Lyra’s friendship with her daemon, Pantalaimon, in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials. Happiness, then, is eudaimonia: having a friendly daemon to keep one company in life and through death.
Very well, says my daemon, looking over my shoulder as I write. But who made the daemons?
Image: “The Fury of Achilles,” 1737, by Charles-Antoine Coypel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Recently I’ve been in contact with Patrick Harpur, author of, among other excellent books, Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld (which long-time readers of The Teeming Brain, and also readers of my A Course in Daemonic Creativity, will recognize as a canonical title around here). For reasons that I’ll probably explain at some future point, I’m presently poring back over my extensively marked-up copy of this book in search of powerful passages that work well in stand-alone fashion. And a moment ago I accidentally constructed a kind of mental step-stone pathway through the text that consists of three separate passages, one from Chapter 7 (“Seeing Things”), another from the epilogue (“The Golden Chain”), and the final one from Chapter 20 (“Approaching the Otherworld”).
For me, these passages, presented below as three separate paragraphs connected by ellipses, present a complete and coherent message of profound power and importance. If you ponder them slowly, they may do the same for you.
Our trouble is that we have been brought up with a literal-minded worldview. We demand that objects have only a single identity or meaning. We are educated to see with the eye only, in single vision. When the preternatural breaks in upon us, transforming the profane into something sacred, amazing, we are unequipped for it. Instead of seizing on the vision, reflecting on it — writing poetry, if necessary — we react with fright and panic. Instead of countering like with like — that is, assimilating through imagination the complexity of the image presented to us — we feebly telephone scientists for reassurance. We are told we are only “seeing things” and so we miss the opportunity to grasp that different, daimonic order of reality which lies behind the merely literal.
. . . The tradition which forms the background to this book is hard to describe, because it has no name. We might tentatively call it, for convenience, the daimonic tradition. Although it appears in many disciplines, such as theology, philosophy, psychology, aesthetic theory, and so on, it is not itself a discipline. It is not a body of knowledge or a system of thought. Rather it is a way of knowing and thinking, a way of seeing the world, which poets and visionaries have always possessed but which even they cannot stand outside of or formulate. Thus one cannot be taught the tradition, for example, as part of a university curriculum; one can only be initiated into it. Simply finding it out for oneself can be, like a quest, an act of self-initiation.
. . . Initiation can be thought of as a general term for any daimonic event which realigns our conscious viewpoint of the world, and introduces it to the Otherworld. If we identify ourselves with the rational ego, then the initiation will be — has to be — correspondingly fierce in order to introduce the whole notion of an otherworldly, daimonic reality. Alienated, we have to be — forcibly, if necessary, it seems — alienized. For, from the daimonic standpoint, we as rational egos are aliens while the aliens, the daimons, are part of ourselves. Alienizing means daimonizing: the rational ego is replaced by a daimonic ego which can slip into different shapes, different perspectives — all daimonic but all defining, and being defined by, soul in multifarious ways. Alienizing means being at ease with the aliens because one is an alien oneself.
For reflections on and specific illustrations of this theme in a variety of contexts, I recommend the following items by various Teeming Brain contributors, some of whom offer quite personal accounts of the type of thing Patrick writes about above:
- “Liminality, Synchronicity, and the Walls of Everyday Reality” by Matt Cardin
- “Horror, Meaning, and Madness: Dangers of Lifting the Cosmic Veil” by Matt Cardin
- “Initiation by Nightmare: Cosmic Horror and Chapel Perilous” by Matt Cardin
- “Nightmares: Dark Roads of Creativity and Vulnerability” by Ryan Hurd
- “To Suffer This World or Illuminate Another: On the Meanings and Uses of Horror” by Richard Gavin
- “‘Till immersed in that mighty ocean’: Perils of Awakening in a Universe of Hungry Ghosts” by David Metcalfe
- “Learned Psi: Training to Be Psychic” by Dr. Barry Taff
Thessaly la Force: It struck me when you said we must “trust the peripheral vision of our mind.” It seems like a muscle in your body that you have to develop by training some other part of you.
Marilynne Robinson: One reaches for analogies. I think it’s probably a lot like meditation — which I have never practiced. But from what I understand, it is a capacity that develops itself and that people who practice it successfully have access to aspects of consciousness that they would not otherwise have. They find these large and authoritative experiences. I think that, by the same discipline of introspection, you have access to a much greater part of your awareness than you would otherwise. Things come to mind. Your mind makes selections — this deeper mind — on other terms than your front-office mind. You will remember that once, in some time, in some place, you saw a person standing alone, and their posture suggested to you an enormous narrative around them. And you never spoke to them, you don’t know them, you were never within ten feet of them. But at the same time, you discover that your mind privileges them over something like the Tour d’Eiffel. There’s a very pleasant consequence of that, which is the most ordinary experience can be the most valuable experience. If you’re philosophically attentive you don’t need to seek these things out.
. . . [I]t’s finding access into your life more deeply than you would otherwise. Consider this incredibly brief, incredibly strange experience that we have as this hypersensitive creature on a tiny planet in the middle of somewhere that looks a lot like nowhere. It’s assigning an appropriate value to the uniqueness of our situation and every individual situation.
. . . I think that we have almost taught ourselves to have a cynical view of other people. So much of the scientism that I complain about is this reductionist notion that people are really very small and simple. That their motives, if you were truly aware of them, would not bring them any credit. That’s so ugly. And so inimical to the best of everything we’ve tried to do as a civilization and so consistent with the worst of everything we’ve ever done as a civilization.
MORE: “A Teacher and Her Student“
In the meantime, Disinfo.com has published a partial transcript of a panel that David moderated at the convention. The title is “The Transmedia of Tomorrow: The Art That Lies To Tell The Truth.” The other two panelists are transmedia artist James Curcio and comics scholar and college philosophy instructor Damien Williams. The subject is the relationship between fiction and nonfiction, fact and myth, art and reality, as it runs through the act of storytelling in the modern media milieu. The conversation involves many references to specific cultural texts and prominent people (e.g., comics in general, Firefly, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore).
And the fascination-quotient is high, as indicated by these three represenative quotes from each participant. Note that they are here excerpted piecemeal from different parts of the conversation. In other words, they don’t represent a sequential exchange of ideas, but rather a cherry-picked selection of highlights.
DAVID METCALFE: In experiencing something like DragonCon, from the vantage point of covering it for the media, I find it really interesting that often the fantasy elements overtake any real life connections. It’s been rather surreal to be sitting at the hotel bar watching coverage of Syria, while people are eagerly searching for cosplayers to snap pictures of. To be honest it’s a bit eerie, as there is a great opportunity to use the energy garnered from these kinds of events to really speak to our current social conditions, with the interactive storytelling being a place where alternate solutions and dialogues can occur as vibrant thought experiments. I’m not sure how often this happens, however.
DAMIEN WILLIAMS: One of the things I try to teach my students, every semester, is that their perception is manipulated by narrative framing techniques, and to get them to recognize, understand, and utilize them, so that they won’t ever unwittingly fall prey to someone else’s myths. That includes teachers and politicians, alike, because the whole experience of politics — and by that I mean American politics, because I just don’t know enough about any other country — is a story sold to people to get them to buy into a system that then continues to sell them stories. Whether these stories bear any resemblance to “reality” doesn’t really matter; what matters, instead, is whether the stories motivate, animate, and compel the populace to believe in the narrator.
JAMES CURCIO: I think the very ideas of ‘fiction’ vs ‘nonfiction,’ or myth as untruth are major barriers in creating honest mythic work. Myths don’t begin as “myths”. They begin as something that genuinely speaks to us. Narratives directly affect our nervous system. . . .
The myth, as media, is alchemy. In simple terms, alchemy was supposedly about turning lead to gold, right? Or, in general, the transmutation of matter. So people often look at it as a sort of rudimentary, or ill-conceived attempt at chemistry. But instead, the “matter” is the self. I think one of Jung’s biggest contributions was this one insight: that alchemy — and the occult as well — pertains to the psyche. So if you look at it that way, you can immediately see two sides: as a creator, you conduct alchemy through media and transmute your personal experience, both psychologically and by turning it from private to public experience. On the flip side, as a so-called audience member, when you engage with media, it’s not nearly as passive as it seems on the surface. When you look at two frames of a sequential story — a comic — your brain is inventing the motion, and on a larger scale, the narrative. When you read a story, you are transmuting symbols into life. Carl Sagan, in his Cosmos series, said something like, “Books break the shackles of time — proof that humans can work magic.” I think that’s true in a very real way.
The first appears at Pacific Standard and comes from the pen of independent journalist Brandon Sneed. Its title gets right to the point: “The Muse: True Inspiration or Total Nonsense?” It was published on August 23, and its accompanying teaser states the writer’s conclusion in a nutshell: “Your muse might actually be real, but it doesn’t descend from the heavens. Instead, it’s sitting inside your skull.” The article itself shows Mr. Sneed summarizing the concept of the muse in its ancient and modern guises, with references to and quotations from Homer, Ray Bradbury, and Steven Pressfield, and then observing that there is a running disagreement among many modern-day writers, some of whom subscribe to something like a belief in a real muse and others of whom dismiss such an idea in favor of an approach based on hard work and professional discipline.
In the end, Mr. Sneed comes down on the side of the too-simplistic and too-hasty conclusion summarized at the outset. Don’t misunderstand me: the article itself is interesting and worth reading, and it attempts some minor nuance by giving a pro forma acknowledgement that the “real muse” idea can’t be absolutely ruled out in principle. But Mr. Sneed comes down too easily, automatically, and unquestioningly on the side of a reductionist brain-based theory of creativity (and also consciousness itself) for my taste. This position always begs an infinite number of questions and drains away the power — not to mention the reality — of the mystery inherent in the fact of being alive and awake.
The second such article — meaning the second one that I encountered; it was actually published two days earlier, on August 21 — comes from literary author Laura Valeri, from her self-titled blog. The article’s title is “The Biology of Writing (Or Not Writing) Creatively,” and the subject is this very same disagreement between two different creative-theoretical camps. She terms them (quite effectively, in my view) “Behaviorists” and “Daemonicists,” and then uses this distinction as preface to a succinct and able exploration of the biology of creativity, with brief comments on the “flow” state, aphasia (the inability to write), epilepsy, depression, the structure of the brain, neuroscience, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s now-legendary TED Talk on the “classical” experience of creative inspiration by a muse or genius. Read the rest of this entry