Sunday, July 6, 2008

Crisis on the Planet of the Hairless Apes (Part VII): The Mystical Brainworld

. . . the spirit is the life of the body seen from within, and the body the outward manifestation of the life of the spirit--the two being really one. . . .

C.G. Jung

[I am indebted to my nephew Scott for the conversations that led to this post.]

Some of you may wonder why I would want to discuss spirituality on the same level as I have ideology and intelligence. Surely that is a tangent and has less to do with The Crisis than, say, technology? Why isn’t this just a side issue? But those of you who have lived long and have perhaps followed a spiritual path for years may know that the spiritual poverty and hunger in Euro-american-aussie society is part and parcel to the materialist cultures we inherited from our parents and our culture history. One cannot have the one (extreme materialism) without the other (spiritual poverty) at the cultural level. And I do NOT mean by "poverty of spirit" what Christian theologians sometimes mean – the opposite of blind faith in a deity or supernatural hero figure. [If you want have a more complete understanding of what I will be saying, first read Sam Mackintosh's blog, posts #33-36.]

As usual, we have to go back to beginnings, because words come with all sorts of unintended meanings. The word spirit derives from the proto-Indo-European term, "to blow." The Latin spiritus means "soul, vigor, breath." These ancient terms referred to the animating force in organisms. The word soul of course predates Christianity and Islam and referred as well to the "spiritual and emotional part of a person," or what animates living beings. Our ancient forebearers, like so many other traditional peoples on the planet, noticed that when people and other critters die, they stop breathing. It is only a small leap to the interpretation that their breath "has left them." The breath (soul, spirit) "passes on." There is an interesting early connotation of "soul" with "sea" – many people perceive that the individual’s breath (spirit) comes from and returns to the sea of air. The traditional Navajo believes that our spirit is that bit of the Holy Wind that moves within us and animates us, comes and goes from the body, and upon death returns to the one great Holy Wind from which it has never been apart. It is also not lost on people that one cannot see the breath or wind, for it is invisible, yet it causes things to move, as with frosty breath, leaves moving in breezes or dust columns in whirlwinds. And some peoples reverse the causation in breathing – we are not breathing, we are being breathed into – literally "inspired." Implied in even this level of folk understanding is the view that we are motivated by a force that is invisible to us, and that we are an inextricable part of that force. A bit of that force enters us at conception or at birth and leaves us at death – perhaps even causes our birth and death.

There are of course more complex and esoteric views of spirit. A particular spiritual path may include some form of meditation and contemplation at its methodological core. Through contemplation of the inner self, one can bring to bear all the powers of observation and comprehension we modern materialists normally expend in our explorations of external reality. In the olden days, contemplatives used to speak about "a turning in the seat of consciousness," which could well refer to what I am talking about. This is a profound shift in curiosity and question toward the nature of one’s inner being. Small wonder then that in such traditions of inner exploration that people develop more complex models of "spirit," and that such people come to understand external reality in a different way than do materialists. What I want to do here is explore the spiritual dimensions of The Crisis – if for no other reason, because this piece of the puzzle will shed light on why we Euro-american-aussie materialist/capitalist types experience the alienation we do from nature, and have such a devil of a time understanding the simple truth that when we rape and pillage Mother Earth, we are doing violence to ourselves.


When our BS group began writing about the brain and consciousness, we recognized that there are experiences that few people in our own societies have, but which inform the world views and self-views of peoples in other societies. We chose then to call these special types of experience "phases of consciousness." We experience phases of consciousness of course – one is perhaps drunk and then sober, one is awake and then asleep (and maybe dreaming), one is "high" and then one "crashes." Phases of consciousness, we reasoned, are recurrent, recognized and labeled by folks. At about the same time the psychologist Charlie Tart was thinking about the same kinds of stuff and he chose to use the term "states" of consciousness. We had considered the term "state," but concluded that it was too static and rigid. I still think it is too static, but, well, his term caught on and ours did not, so what we have done in more recent years is refer to states of consciousness and to alternative states of consciousness (or ASC, changing Tart’s term from "altered" to "alternative") while retaining the more anthropological perspective that Tart’s "altered" implies something unusual or abnormal about the state when such a state may be perfectly normal in another society. For instance, people who have good recall and elevated awareness while dreaming are said to be "lucid dreamers" by western psychologists – an unusual, but learn-able, skill in our society. But of course lucidity of dreaming is commonplace among Aussie Aborigines (and many other peoples) who consider dreaming as a state when they connect most intimately with the spiritual realm, and can move around without being glued to the physical body.

Why all this terminological blither? Simple. Peoples on the planet often encourage their individual members to enter and explore ASC using all sorts of (from our cultural perspective) weird and wonderful methods, including sleep deprivation, rituals, ordeals (like, hanging from a limb by hooks in the flesh, running for hours until totally exhausted, and my very favorite, wearing shirts with live hornets sewed into the fabric), repetitive rhythms (drumming, chanting, dancing, whistle-blowing), ingesting psychotropic drugs (ayahuasca, datura, peyote, tobacco), sensory deprivation, meditation, etc. So it is important to be able to talk clearly about this remarkable fact, am I right? In the best study to date, Erica Bourguignon, an anthropologist at Ohio State University, completed a study of ASC cross-culturally. She found that roughly 90% of the 488 societies sampled exhibit institutionalized techniques for evoking trance states of one kind or another. In virtually all of these cases ASC were considered by peoples to be both positive and sacred in nature. These data are so impressive that it has lead scholars to suggest that our species seems to have an inherent drive to alter its state of consciousness in extraordinary ways. The central question is, why? Can it be that they know something we don’t? Consider this: a member of the Native American Church, who use peyote in their rituals, once told anthropologist J.S. Slotkin, "The white man talks about Jesus, we talk to Jesus." Hmmm..... Wonder what that’s all about????

Monophasic and Polyphasic Cultures

Modern Euro-american-aussie cultures tend to be monophasic in their world view – that is, they are cultures that value experiences and knowledge gleaned from only one state of consciousness, namely what we call "normal waking consciousness." Most cultures on the planet, however, as we have seen above, are relatively polyphasic in their world view – they value experiences and knowledge occurring in a variety of SOC, and tend to pay close attention to lucid dreams, trance states, possession states, shamanic journeys, meditation states, visions, etc [keep in mind that this is what WE call these states, not what other peoples call them]. Yet one of the great advantages (and in some contexts disadvantages) of living in modern society is that one may opt-out of the dominant monophasic world view and seek what might be characterized as a path to greater "balance" in self-awareness. In fact many people today follow a variety of spiritual movements ranging from eastern traditions like tai chi, Sufism, and Buddhism, and aboriginal paths such as neoshamanism, the Sundance, the Native American Church (so-called "peyote religion") and the Medicine Wheel, to western European approaches like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Wicca, Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, Jungian analysis and "rave" culture. Some paths are derived from ancient traditions, others from recent innovations, and of course one will find a variety of symbolism, values and procedures appropriate to each. But one thing that all of these movements have in common is that they espouse a polyphasic orientation – they positively value experiences had during discrete ASC which are interpreted in ways that reinforce their respective world views. They all seek wisdom by way of ritual procedures that are designed to evoke ASC, and when these experiences do occur, they are treated as valued sources of information about the self and the normally invisible forces of external reality, which in due course are interpreted according to their belief system.

Hairless apes, being as they are a species of social primate, derive much of their knowledge from their group’s culture, which is in turn filtered through the lenses of their individual interpretive frames. There is an intimate interaction between the shared knowledge made available in the group’s culture, and the knowledge accrued by individuals in the context of their own unique personal histories. The world views of most of the world’s 4,000+ cultures are informed to some extent by neurognosis -- which is to say the inherited, species typical, archetypal knowledge about reality, knowledge that is (so to speak) "wired-into" the infant brainworld, and that includes self-awareness and knowledge of the individual’s own being. As we have seen, societies commonly encourage or require their members to participate in rituals that are designed to evoke ASC, and the interpretation of these extraordinary experiences is at least partially informed by the society’s world view. Because of certain fundamental attributes of ASC, such experiences may operate to minimize the discrepancy between the society’s world view and the nature of reality. In other words, in certain contexts ASC may operate as truers of individual and cultural knowledge. By integrating the experiences had in ASC, cultures are able to maintain a minimal level of realism in the interests of adaptation to an ultimately transcendental reality.

I should quickly point out, however, that not all ASC experiences are necessarily wholesome in this sense. Everything depends upon the social and environmental circumstances attending the experience. There are of course instances where ASC may have the opposite effect -- that of decreasing the accuracy of beliefs relative to reality. But anthropologists have long known that socially important ASC tend to occur within the context of ritual circumstances in which the group is in control of both the conditions leading to extraordinary experiences, and the interpretation of such experiences if and when they do occur -- for example, trances occurring among participants during a Sundance are monitored carefully by shamans. The intent of social control of ASC is to place the socially proper interpretive spin on ASC in the interests of the commonweal. So, you can see that socially sanctioned interpretations tend to be conservative.

What is so characteristic about polyphasic societies is that the experiences had during ASC are never compartmentalized, but rather are integrated into a single, polyphasic world view. We have seen that ASC may operate as truers of a culture’s world view – a process we may call ASC trueing. Of course there are other processes that operate in a similar way to true culture, among them an inherent pragmatism in all social animals with brainworlds that rely upon learning for adaptation. But few of these other mechanisms true knowledge pertaining to both inner and outer reality. Given what appears to be the cross-culturally ubiquitous presence of ASC trueing, one might suspect that the inherent drive to ASC has been with us for a very long time. Indeed, although it would be hard to prove short of owning a time machine, there is reason to suppose that ASC have been important to human society at least back to the beginnings of the Upper Paleolithic, some 35 - 40,000 years ago.

It is the nature of materialist cultures to ignore the inner being, and thus disattend ASC that might in non-materialist cultures inform one’s self-understanding. Thus the absence of the trueing effects of socially controlled ASC leaves us vulnerable to an unhealthy imbalance between our comprehension of external reality, and our lack of comprehension of our inner being. It is the nature of materialist cultures to produce unbalanced – as Eric Fromm once put it, "un-sane" – personalities. This is one of the costs of being reared in a monophasic society. We typically only pay attention to our inner life if things have gone wrong in some way – we are having psychological problems that require treatment which might include techniques like "free association" and "dream analysis" to reestablish communication between consciousness and the inner being. Much of what is called "psychopathology" in modern society is caused by the psychological development appropriate to extreme materialism, and as such diagnoses have as much to do with politics and economics as they do with actual symptoms (check out anthropologist Allan Young’s remarkable book, The Harmony of Illusions: Inventing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). The great popularity of various spiritual paths in today’s Euro-american-aussie societies attests to the natural inclination of hairless apes to seek psychological balance. Ironically, it seems like a virtual spiritual smorgasbord out there these days.

The Cycle of Meaning

As we have seen from the start of these posts, everyday experience, regardless of whether in "normal" waking consciousness or in other SOC, is a combination of sensory input and stored meaning. For cultures to control the impact of ASC on members, it must in some way control the process of interpretation, especially in situations where experiences are novel to the spiritual neophyte. With the exception of alcohol and drunkenness, ASC are almost never sought in traditional societies outside the context of socially prescribed and supervised ritual circumstances. The reason for this seems clear enough. Any human experience is open to a multitude of interpretations. The same experience may be seen as negative and destructive in one context and as positive and wholesome in another. Societies that encourage ASC tend to embed these experiences within a socially sanctioned cycle of meaning so as to control both the range of experiences that may occur, and the interpretation of those experiences that do occur. To this end, interpretations are often couched in terms of the society’s world view in such a way that the experiences evoked are understood to confirm and enliven that world view.

A society’s world view is for the most part carried around in the minds of people, which of course permeates their bodies by way of their nervous systems. Individuals often express their world view in the form of stories, songs, aphorisms, mystery plays, and sacred and dramatic (sometimes masked) dances, as well as rituals and other patterned behaviors. In literate societies, these sources may be committed to writing and form a sacred canon and associated actions (like sacred readings). Either way, a world view is expressed and enacted in various kinds of symbolic ways, including art and iconography, ritual, dramatic production, pilgrimage, and so forth. The most powerful expressive aspect is of course ritual performance, and it is within this context that extraordinary states of consciousness are most likely to arise. Rituals may incorporate a variety of ritual drivers such as drumming, hallucinogenic herbs, flickering lights, fasting, fixed concentration, sleep deprivation, painful ordeals, chanting, prolonged dancing, etc. When ASC do occur as a consequence of participation in a ritual, there is almost always a process by which culturally appropriate interpretations are laid-on by elders. These interpretations are derived from and tend to reinforce the efficacy of the world view. For instance, Moroccan folks, upon having really dramatic dreams, may seek advice about the dream’s portend from a professional dream interpreter, and the dream interpreters in turn normally account for the events described to them in terms consistent with the Koran. Some societies consider dreaming as an important resource for the divination of future events – so-called "oneiromancy."

In short, we see that the relationship between a particular world view and the varieties of experience evoked in the context of a society’s various rituals is one that is characterized by a relatively conservative feedback loop – a cycle of meaning – in which the world view is expressed symbolically in ways that give rise to ASC , which in turn are interpreted in terms of the world view. Mind you, this kind of system is a living tradition, not a mechanical contrivance, and that means it is far more flexible than it might appear in any simplistic drawing of mine. In fact this pairing of experience and knowledge allows for change within the world view, and over generations both the experiences that occur and the interpretations associated with them allow for a process of "revitalization." As I have said, cultural knowledge is always to some extent refracted through the lens of individual consciousness -- a consciousness that is always informed though the experiences harvested during the course of life’s trajectory. Indeed, it is often through processes of personalizing cultural knowledge that novel interpretations and experiences arise, and which may, given the appropriate circumstances, serve to transform the existing cultural system.

It is also important to note that the interpretation of experiences had in ASC will be structured, not only in relation to the culture’s world view, but also by the level of cognitive complexity of which the individual participant is capable. Two people having similar experiences may interpret those experiences at widely disparate levels of comprehension. It is often the case that the shamans in a society (Paul Radin’s "philosophers") understand spiritual experiences far more complexly than other participants (Radin’s "men of action") in rituals. There are in fact societies that recognize levels of increasingly complex understanding of "the mysteries" and mythological narratives. And of course in those traditions where the connection between the originating experiences and ideology have been historically severed, it is often the case that the ideology presents in very concrete, non-dynamic expressions.

It seems very likely that ALL of the major religions on the planet originated in this way – from transformations of earlier spiritual world views produced by new and dramatic ASC on the part of very charismatic and adept leaders. All too often, the originating experiences have been lost to history and only the stories, texts and institutional values remain. And without access to the originating experiences that gave rise to the founding interpretations, these religions form schisms and factions that argue endlessly about the "true" meaning of the sacred words. The religion may lose its capacity to "revitalize" itself by way of new extraordinary experiences. One need only consider the profoundly transformative impact of the visions of certain mystics upon orthodoxy – like those of St. John of the Cross and St. Margaret Mary Alacoque upon the Catholic Church, or of Handsome Lake upon the religion of the Iroquois – to understand the social role of individual ASC upon society.

Sensate, Idealistic and Ideational Societies

How a society receives information derived from ASC depends upon its dominant values. And the values of society are typically congruous with how people in that society make a living – that is, with its economy. The dominant values in Euro-american-aussie culture devalue and even prohibit members from seeking ASC. Indeed, our nations are virtually schizoid about taking psychoactive drugs, using them by the ton for psychiatric purposes (Prozac nearly rivals aspirin in popularity) and putting people in prison for using them for "entertainment," alternative healing or spiritual purposes. We foster and sometimes value "getting drunk," yet criminalize "getting high." There are deep cultural, historical and political reasons for this attitude toward altering consciousness having to do with maintaining the range of states requisite for the functioning of materialist/capitalist economy. As in so many other ways, the way we handle ASC is aberrant with respect to most other societies on the planet. Let us examine this issue a bit further so as to better understand the relationship between ASC and cultural world view.

Cultures privilege modes of knowing in different ways. Some cultures will emphasize knowing in ways that accord with mythic/mystical modes of knowing, while others will emphasize knowing in the local, empirical sense. And many societies are characterized by systems of knowledge that privilege both modes of knowing to one extent or another. Sociologist Pitirim Sorokin has modeled these distinctions in an interesting and dynamic way. Sorokin has shown that sensate cultures privilege empirical, material ways of knowing external reality over knowing in the spiritual or mythopoeic way. Sensate cultures are interested primarily in the material world of the senses, and do not encourage or foster knowing of the inner being by way of dreams or other esoteric ASC. Thus such cultures produce populations that are off-balance in their understanding of the world and the self. Because they are off-balance, sensate cultures will tend over the course of generations to compensate by swinging back toward a more balanced view in which knowledge derived from the local material mode becomes integrated with knowledge arising from development of a mythopoeic outlook (Sorokin called these idealistic cultures). This compensatory swing toward a greater balance between sensate and idealistic values seems to be happening (albeit in fits and starts) in Euro-american-aussie culture at the present time with an increasing tolerance for mysticism, and with the rise of an enormous variety of New Age cults and spiritual movements. It seems to me that Sam Mackintosh is describing this current oscillation when he speaks of the Immense Transition.

The thing is that cultures never stand still, and the balance struck in one generation between local, empirical and universal, "mystical" ways of knowing may be lost to subsequent generations in the continued swing of the culture toward becoming an ideational culture in which more "mystical" ways of knowing are privileged at the cost of local, empirical, pragmatic ways of knowing. It is in the balanced idealistic and more mystical ideational cultures in which a corpus of mythological tradition forms a living core of knowledge, and in which ASC are often encouraged and even prescribed. But of course, extremely ideational cultures are equally off-balance and the demands of balance eventually require a compensatory swing in the other direction, back toward the middle ground of idealistic culture and eventually back into sensate culture.

From the point of view of folks in an ideational culture, what we in sensate cultures might consider "mystical" knowledge or experience is not mystical at all. It is simply "the way things are." After all, the English word "occult" just means "hidden from view" or "hard to see." When we experience and comprehend the mysteries, they are no longer hidden, and hence no longer "occult." As we have argued, the human brainworld is neurognostically prepared to apprehend the mysteries, but to the extent that we have been enculturated not to do so (for instance, conditioned to ignore our dream life) is perhaps to that extent that we must apply effort and exotic techniques to produce mystical experiences (say, learn to apprehend and interpret our dreams, our meditation experiences or our experiences resulting from twirling around in Sufi dancing). One of the characteristics of a sensate culture is that it will not exhibit a living mythology while a society out on the ideational pole will relate everything of importance back to the culture’s mythological tradition and core symbolism. A member of an ideational culture has the opportunity to be enculturated into the mythological world view by way of the group’s corpus of sacred stories and rituals designed to evoke ASC.

As we say, the brainworld is born knowing reality in both the unitizing mode of mystical experience and in the particularizing, empirical mode of local adaptation. During its maturation, the brainworld will strive for a resolution of the tension produced by these two ways of knowing. But our brain is a living system of cells, and if the press of environmental and social conditions result in an over-emphasis upon localized adaptational development -- which is a condition that seems endemic to sensate cultures -- the inherent processes of integration will tend to reassert their activities wherever possible. Such compensatory activities may be experienced by the individual as spontaneous "mystical" dreams, visions, spirit possession or entity channeling, and other transpersonal phenomena -- perhaps as Carl Jung taught, a calling to greater attention to the deeper workings of the psyche. In the absence of a corpus of sacred stories, these experiences may produce confusion and uncertainty for the individual having them. A society that supports a sensate culture and which has lost touch with its mythopoeic tradition is awkwardly positioned to guide its people to a way of life in keeping with the more unitary aspects of reality and experience of self. Indeed, spontaneous transpersonal experiences may be greeted by negative sanctions, the individual experiencing these phenomena being perhaps labeled as "crazy," "dangerous," a "kook," a "religious nut," "out of it," and so forth.


We have reached another crucial point in our long and often complex journey to an understanding of The Crisis. It is the point at which we must more fully understand that we are born knowing reality and that knowledge has been trued through the millions of years of our evolution. The point is crucial because it runs counter to the commonsense view in our culture that babies are born with "blank slate" minds into which the society pours knowledge and meaning. Nothing could be further from the case. A baby’s brainworld mediates a fully operating, neurognostically structured, experiencing consciousness who’s nascent models are trued by virtue of its genetic programming. Neurognostic structures develop and if the child is reared in an ideational culture, it will grow into a world view that is compatible with its compliment of deep archetypal structures present in the womb and after birth. These deep structures are reflected in universal properties of a people’s mythology, and what I will call the universal cosmology depicted in mythology. I am not using the "cosmology" in the way we use the term in astrophysics -- which is a whole other discussion. For now, I am not talking about scientific cosmology, but rather the deep structural knowledge of reality with which we are all born. Universal cosmology is a meta-characteristic of how our brain codes reality.

What most folks mean by "myth" is synonymous with "falsehood" – as in, that’s an "urban myth!" And this fact alone indicates how far our sensate culture has come from an ideational society. What I mean by myth and mythology is what anthropologists usually mean – a society’s corpus of sacred stories which comprises a highly symbolic, but coherent description of a people’s origin (their "cosmogamy"), as well as the origins of significant aspects of the environment (animals, food plants, changes in the weather, social roles, institutions, etc.), and sometimes their "eschatology" (or their understanding of the end of things). The stories encode and transmit knowledge about the primal relations in the cosmos upon which the existence and well-being of the people depend. The stories form the primary warp and weave in the fabric of a people’s "field of tropes," a field of interconnected meaning in which each of life’s significant experiences finds a position, much like a patch finds its appropriate place in a quilt.

Myth may do many things for people in their daily lives. For instance, mythology provides a charter for many of the society’s important institutions – it tells people where the institution came from, how it should operate and why it is necessary. Myth can also provide a conventional moral order to be applied to situations faced by people, offer explanations for natural phenomena and catastrophes of various kinds, incorporate formulae for controlling happenings in the world, and operate as a repository for cultural information. But there are two other important functions of myth we need to address here, for we are not just interested in myth as a repository of culture, but rather how myth mediates the relationship between experience and reality. Those two functions are: (1) the transmission of socially important vicarious experience and (2) the co-ordination of individual conceptual systems relative to socially valued experience. Myth is a primary mechanism for developing and maintaining what the great sociologist, Emile Durkheim called the "collective consciousness" fundamental to a people’s religion and world view. Important domains of experience are described in story and transmitted in such a way that the listener lives the experience vicariously (meaning "imaginative or sympathetic participation in the experience of another") through feelings, thoughts and images -- through, say, the imagined adventures of a hero or sacred being. Moreover, the didactic quality of myth makes it possible for people to share the same body of core symbols and the sacred context in which those symbols apply. Everyone more or less agrees that some particularly salient event in real life is an instance of some general force or phenomenon depicted in the stories. For instance, a number of my Navajo friends are convinced that much of the social upheaval being encountered by Navajo people today is due to the failure of the people to conform to certain prescriptions (like keeping winter and summer ceremonies distinct and not overlapping) that are clearly expressed in the sacred stories.

These sacred stories, then, act as theories of proper relations within the world and among people. As Durkheim himself noted, the reality expressed in myth is not just a figment of people’s imagination, but is reality itself imagined – take a moment to reflect on this distinction, for it is absolutely critical! Sociologist Mircea Eliade understood myth as a comment on the human condition generally, and noted that traditional peoples code myth as a "true story" or a story about reality. Both anthropologist Earl Count and theologist Paul Tillich saw mythology as a description of a people’s understanding of "the world as problem" – an expression of the "ultimate concerns" of a society. Social phenomenologist Alfred Schutz went further by suggesting that myth refers to transcendental experience and the boundaries of a people’s comprehension of "multiple realities."

Joseph Campbell, who perhaps has given myth more thought than any other scholar of our age, recognized the problem societies face in assuring that each member’s consciousness develops in a way that maintains a collective accuracy in depicting reality:

"Thus a mythology is a control system, on the one hand framing its community to accord with an intuited order of nature and, on the other hand, by means of its symbolic pedagogic rites, conducting individuals through the ineluctable psychophysiological stages of transformation of a human lifetime – birth, childhood and adolescence, age, old age, and the release of death – in unbroken accord simultaneously with the requirements of this world and the rapture of participation in a manner of being beyond time. ...Their effect, therefore, is to wake the intellect to realizations equivalent to those of the insights that produce them." (Campbell 1986:20)

Campbell also suggested that universal mythic themes may operate as innate "releasing mechanisms" for archetypal structures in the depths of the human psyche (he was very Jungian in this respect). Mythic elements, operating as metaphors, are images that may be more effective than naturally occurring phenomena for triggering the development of latent, inherent, neurocognitive structures in the human brain. The society’s mythic system may be organized in a unique way so that it activates, and causes development of constellations of neurocognitive models of appropriate types. For instance, hero myths may operate as initiators. The imagery penetrates to the depths of the psyche and activates and potentiates development of those psychological faculties valued by the society (like the persistent, unsatisfiable greed for more and better appropriate to the "American Dream"). By manipulating the motifs and elements of myth, a society may orchestrate deep psychic development requisite to psychological growth along certain lines. These become the "collective consciousness" of a particular people – a collective understanding that is keyed to both the local and global reality within which people are embedded.


Mountains are symbols, like pyramids, of man’s attempt to know God. Mountains are symbolic meeting places between the mundane and spiritual world.

Alan Hovhaness

We can see now that our consciousness of reality is trued by both myth and experience, and the latter may be either direct or vicarious. It is through ritual activation of ASC that experience comes to reiterate and reinforce the truth of totality and connectedness among all things in the world, and among people who are inextricably embedded in and dependent upon this universal entanglement for their survival. All spiritual paths lead to and through this truth. The truth of interdependence is experienced and reified in every generation within ideational and idealistic cultures. But the tenuous ritualized link between the mythic narratives and direct individual experience is broached during the process of producing a sensate culture – with its inevitable monophasic world view (and particularly its epistemology). The sacred stories become, if they survive at all, merely a corpus of amusing "just-so" stories. This leaves people vulnerable to the delusions of a separation between the empirical ego and everything and everybody else, and between the people (or the culture) and nature. The psyche becomes unbalanced (in Eric Fromm’s sense, "un-sane"). Spiritually unawakened people tend to be shallow, out of touch with the primordial (neurognostic) wisdom of not just their elders, but more importantly of untold millennia of neural evolution. The truth of connectedness and interdependence of all things lies dormant and undeveloped within the psyche of sensate peoples. Such people are hence vulnerable to psychological alienation and a spiritual thirst for "in-depth" meaning in their lives that can inform the existential "matters of ultimate concern" facing each of us: why am I here, where did I come from, what is my purpose in the scheme of things, why do I feel alone, why do I suffer, why must I die and what happens after death?

An Aside: The Perils of Finding a Spiritual Path

This does not mean however that people raised in sensate societies are spiritually dead. Far from it. Rather, from the perspective of truing consciousness to reality, they are simply unbalanced in their development. They have the same brain as people raised in more spiritually aware, polyphasic societies, and they live in the same real world. But their compliment of primordially truing, "mystically" charged neural models remain dormant. Yet these models may be potentiated and developed under the right conditions (a la Joe Campbell’s comment above). Typical of an extremely sensate society, there are enumerable teachings available in our societies today to exploit this thirst for spiritual awakening. Some paths are ancient, tried and true teachings, while others are re-discovered or new teachings. And of course, many people are left vulnerable by their inability to distinguish the genuine path from the false path, the true teacher from the charlatan. Ironically, there is more information available to the neophyte spiritual practitioner now than at any time in history, what with the Internet, TV, magazines and other media. If you are interested, read some articles on the Internet, like this one.

If you are a beginner – a spiritual neophyte – then as you seek a spiritual path, pay close attention to how the leaders of a cult or teaching live their own lives – pay less attention to how they rationalize their lifestyle, and more attention to what they do. As Jesus reputedly put it, "by their fruits shall ye know them." Do they get rich playing the guru role? Are they sexually kinky or promiscuous? (I know of one young "guru" type who spread HIV among his followers because he thought he was so pure that his semen was purified. Right. By their fruits shall ye know them...) Do they drive around in fancy, expensive cars? Are they physical or psychological bullies? Do they take undo personal advantage of the spiritual naivete and gullibility of their followers? Do they seem to get off on telling people what to do, on having people groveling in front of them, on exercising power over people? Do they claim to be deities? All of these things can be tipoffs to narcissistic personalty types who are in the spiritual awakening game for their own aggrandizement. Avoid them like the plague. Remember Charlie’s Law of Inevitable Perversion: namely, if an occupation can be defined in such a way as to fulfill perverted needs, it will draw perverted people like bees to honey. Any occupation that places a person in control of other people WILL draw power-trippers. Any occupation that places children under the control of an adult will inevitably draw pedaphiles. Any occupation that allows the use of physical force against other people WILL draw sadists. A word to the wise, then...

Remember also that there is no such thing as a single spiritual path that has all the answers, or that is right for everyone. Trust your instincts. The whole point is to awaken and that is a process of self-empowerment. Most people I suspect will intuitively know when a path is right for them. You will be comfortable with the people and with the practices. Also remember Charlie’s Principle of Multiple Interpretations: namely, that there is no such thing as an experience that admits of one and only one interpretation. Recall the cycle of meaning. All paths to spiritual awakening of which I am aware have a core set of techniques and practices, and these give rise very predictably to a certain range of ASC. And they will tend to interpret these ASC according to tradition. Remember, you are under no obligation to buy into any one path’s interpretation of your experience. Be especially wary of interpretive frames that are DIS-empowering – that are interpreted in such a way as you become bound by role or status to the teaching or teacher. Many cults out there are designed to entrap members into a system of higher and higher teachings, each subsequent level (and perhaps requisite courses) requiring more money and commitment – a sort of spiritual pyramid scheme.

It has been my impression for years that eastern traditions of spiritual awakening are often poorly designed to deal with the typically neurotic, unbalanced, "un-sane" sensate personality type. Yes, there are eastern teachings pertaining to balancing the personality. There are Buddhist meditation practices for instance that are assigned to people that may be considered unbalanced according to eastern lights. The overly greedy person might be told to meditate on death and impermanence – might even be told to stake out and observe the decay of corpses in a charnel ground. But these eastern spiritual psychologies do not seem to understand neurosis – that is, the existence of an unconscious, anxiety-ridden, infantile, and often traumatized sub-personality that stands as a serious barrier to advanced personal development. If you sense that you are getting nowhere in your spiritual path, despite considerable effort, and are experiencing intense negative emotions inappropriate to your circumstances, then perhaps you need to begin your spiritual work with therapy to deal with the emotional blocks in your being. You can always return to your chosen spiritual path after dealing with your issues and healing yourself. End of the aside! Let’s get back to the main point of all this...

The Spiritual Brain

Spirituality then is the process of getting in touch with our primordial Self. It is the process of truing-up our consciousness to the reality of both our being and the world. Each of our brains is "wired" to know the truth of totality, and this truth can be directly experienced in an instant of insight, given the right conditions. Our brainworld is inherently mystical. My late friend Gene d’Aquili liked to call this the apprehension and realization of Absolute Unitary Being (AUB for short; see link at the right of the post). First the direct experience of absorption into the All, followed almost immediately by the comprehension of the meaning of the experience. Please note however that the experience of AUB may or may not come as the result of mature contemplation, and is also not necessarily related to the systems thought level of cognition. Indeed, the experience may occur spontaneously, and may lead to a total alteration of one’s life, for it is always transpersonal and thus will bring the delusion of the empirical ego, and its sense of alienation into question. One consequence of this experience and realization of AUB may be that reality becomes transformed in our experience and comprehension as cosmos – one comprehends onself to be but a scintilla of consciousness in a timeless, boundless sea of energy in which every star in every galaxy is implicated within one’s consciousness and visa versa. There is no separation between Self and cosmos, for separation is as unnatural as it is impossible.

There are many techniques one may try to "invite" the realization of totality. One of the simplest methods I learned from my friend, Tarchin Hearn. One meditates upon one’s breathing while gazing at a bush or tree or even a single leaf, and as one breaths out one is aware of breathing for the plant, and as one breaths in one is aware that the plant is breathing for one’s self. That’s all there is to the meditation. Out breath "I’m breathing for the plant," in breath "the plant is breathing for me." Do it and see what happens.

Another meditation I invented for myself is a bit more complicated and works very fast for me. But I don’t really know how efficacious it will be for you. Try it and see. One meditates in a park, or somewhere else outside where there are both other people and nature. One becomes aware of one’s own sphere of consciousness – that "radiant sphere" sitting atop one’s shoulders – and how it "puffs-out" to incorporate all the other people and the plants and animals and ground and sky and so forth. And then one shifts one’s awareness ever so slightly to imagine that each and every person and other animal in one’s puffed-out consciousness is also experiencing a puffed-out consciousness that likewise includes you and everything else within sight or hearing. And then alternate between contemplating the puffed-out nature of one’s sphere of awareness and then the same puffed-out sphere of awareness going on in everybody else’s head. That’s it, that’s all. Just keep that alternation going and see what happens.

If and when the experience of AUB occurs, how one interprets it is another question. One may only comprehend an experience to the maximum level of their cognitive capacity. If a person is capable of systems thought, then their understanding of the world and their place in it may come to resemble something like a "deep ecology." The entanglement of everything with everything else will inform all their thoughts and understandings. A person with a more concrete intelligence may just become more religious and perhaps more fervent in their belief system. Or perhaps they may conclude they have been "born again," or become vulnerable to conversion into one or another interpretive frame that makes pre-digested sense of the experience. Same experience, different interpretations. Whatever the case, the mystical brainworld has strived to true itself to its primordial awareness of entanglement. Individuals undergoing this experience and its cognitive and emotional sequelae have taken a giant step back from the understanding of the world typical of materialistic, sensate culture. The eye is at least partially turned inward to the source of self-revelation and awakening. How far one may travel along this new course is an empirical question and depends upon many factors. It is said that "many are called, but few are chosen." This may refer in part to the arduous hurdles one may face in following a spiritual path in a sensate society.

If one is clever about it, one may establish in one’s own development a balance of view typical of ideational societies, a balance of mystical and materialist views that will stand as a corrective to any appeal from either the sensate or the idealistic poles. This is the standpoint most productive of balanced comprehension and penetration into the heart of The Crisis. This balance is a dynamic one, and hard to hold, for the mid-point shifts and changes over time and situation. Veer to either extreme and one will lose sight of the core problem of The Crisis, and fall into the error of certainty. On one side the shallowness of materialist orientation, on the other the fervency and cognitive dullness of true believer-hood and ideology. Imagine you are traversing a knife-sharp ridge leading to the summit of a mountain. This is the only path you can take if you hope to stand on the summit and see to the other side. On either hand there are chasms that will suck you down below and distort and hide your path. It makes no difference whether you are climbing the mountain alone or roped in a line with a guide and fellow climbers – you must tread each and every step along the way by dint of your own insight and effort. Only when you stand upon the summit, mid-way between the chasms of distortion and delusion, can you hope to see The Crisis most clearly. And even when you comprehend The Crisis, I cannot tell you what you should or will do about it, if anything. That is for you to ponder. In a sense, it is now in the dialog between you and your Mother Earth that your decisions will be made.

We have at long last reached the point in these discourses that I can deal with The Crisis directly. I want to thank you for your patience. All the essential elements have been discussed, and I feel certain that many of you will have already seen to the heart of the matter. But I still want to describe The Crisis as I see it, and in so doing perhaps prod you all into both clearer reflection and the sense of urgency I feel. As a preparation for this next discussion, may I suggest a bit of homework? Easy and pleasant homework. Go to the link over to the right and watch the 20 minute video called the "Story of Stuff." This is important to my presentation, for I want us to start out on the same page. I will have some things to say about this really quite brilliant video, and they won’t make sense unless you have watched it.



Bourguignon, Erika, 1973. Religion, Altered States of Consciousness, and Social Change. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press.

Bourguignon, Erika and Thomas L. Evascu,1977. "Altered States of Consciousness within a General Evolutionary Perspective: A Holocultural Analysis." Behavior Science Research 12(3):197-216.

Campbell, Joseph, 1959. The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology. New York: Viking.

Campbell, Joseph, 1986. The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion. New York: Harper.

Devall, W. and G. Sessions, 2001. Deep Ecology: Living As if Nature Mattered. Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith.

Dobkin de Rios, Marlene, 1984. Hallucinogens: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. [Written by one of the real experts on drugs and ASC cross-culturally.]

Forman, Robert K.C., ed., 1998. The Innate Capacity: Mysticism, Psychology, and Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [The propensity for ASC is inherent in our genetics and our brainworld.]

Laughlin, Charles D. and C. Jason Throop, 2001. "Imagination and Reality: On the Relations Between Myth, Consciousness, and the Quantum Sea." Zygon 36(4):709_736. [Jason and I develop these notions further in this paper, and relate "universal cosmology" to the world according to quantum physics.]

Pinker, Steven, 2003. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin. [A brilliant and very readable analysis of the false notion of baby brainworlds being informational "blank slates."]

Slotkin, J.S. , 1958. "The Peyote Way." in Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach (first edition), ed. By William A. Lessa and Evon Z. Vogt. Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson and Company, pp. 482-486.

Sorokin, Pitirim A., 1957. Social and Cultural Dynamics. Boston: Porter Sargent Publisher.

Sorokin, Pitirim A., 1962. Society, Culture, and Personality. New York: Cooper Square Publishers.

Tart, Charles, 1975. States of Consciousness. New York: Dutton. [Invented the term "altered states of consciousness."]

Winkelman, Michael, 2000. Shamanism: The Neural Ecology of Consciousness and Healing. Westport CT: Bergin & Garvey. [The best single source on shamanism and ASC.]

Young, Allan, 1997. The Harmony of Illusions: Inventing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. [An anthropologists analyses the social and economic factors involved in inventing diagnoses.]

Young, David and Jean_Guy Goulet, eds., 1994. Being Changed by Cross_Cultural Encounters: The Anthropology of Extraordinary Experience. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press. [Articles written by anthros who report their own ASC while in the field, including yours truly.]

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