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The Physical and the Spiritual:
A Conversation About "How To Get Through the Veil"

Involving Jeanne-Rachel Salomon, Paul Grobstein, and others
Based on a senior thesis in Anthropology at Bryn Mawr College
by Jeanne-Rachel Salomon
Entitled "Towards an Ethnography of Transpersonal Consciousness:
Quantum-Anthropological Enquiry into the Noetic Self of Man"
(May, 2002)

In conversations with Paul, a Professor of Biology at Bryn Mawr College, Jeanne-Rachel expressed some frustration that perspectives familiar and valuable to her seemed not to be admissable within some intellectual/academic contexts. Using her thesis as a foundation, Jeanne-Rachel and Paul decided to see what could be done to encourage greater exchange between communities that tend not to freely communicate. These conversations are the continuing outcome. The include at the moment Getting Started, extracts of the beginning of Jeanne-Rachel's thesis with commentary by Paul, a Pause to Reflect by Paul, and a commentary on both by Anne Dalke. Others are invited and encouraged to contribute through an on-line forum.

Getting Started

(From the Prologue, Abstract, and Introduction of Salomon's thesis, excerpted and with interspersed commentary by Grobstein)
(June, 2002)

" ... I accepted that I had died. With this acceptance and for the duration of my stay there came a total understanding of life's mystery. I sensed the profound difficulties physical existence poses to us, and I felt pity for those going through life on earth, but comprehended also the purpose and beauty of physical life. I was filled with compassion. I desired to assist every living being; I wanted to tell each one about the preciousness of life. From up there I could see how downtrodden and burdened with worry most people are, when existence was meant to be celebrated and enjoyed with wonderment. I saw that people struggled needlessly, and I contemplated on how to get through the veil that separates the physical from the spiritual realm to get across the message that life is just one, albeit important, phase in the mystery of existence ..." Prologue pp 3-4

I share a sense of needless human struggle, a wish that life were more "celebrated and enjoyed with wonderment" by all, and a belief that we could get move closer to such a state by better appreciating that life is part of a larger pattern. And I too think "the veil that separates the physical from the spiritual realm" is in the way of such appreciation. In the present, rather fractured, human scheme of things, those commonalities give us, it seems to me, more than enough to provide a place to start on some shared exploration of ways to deal with things that matter greatly to both of us. Let's see what we can do with that.

There's no assurance, of course, that the upcoming journey will take us both on to the same place. Nor any necessity that it do so. The objectives are only that we learn from each other by walking together a bit, and perhaps leave some notes that will be helpful to others themselves exploring the same terrain. So let's be as open with each other as we can along the way. With that in mind, let me express one concern at the outset: it is my intuition that "a total understanding of life's mystery" is not actually attainable, either now or in the future. The issue here is not, as I hope will become clear as we walk, that there are aspects of what animates life that must forever be unknowable, but rather that life is itself an ongoing exploration within which the effort to understand life is itself a part. For this reason, understanding will itself always create new mysteries, new things to explore and be understood.

"When I dowsed [ancient art of finding/connecting with water, minerals and other objects via the body's kinesthetic energies] one late summer afternoon in 1998 for the layout and final position of the Bryn Mawr College labyrinth, I encountered some difficulties in locating energy leys [beams of energy that flow in straight lines across the land; they usually cross over a dome of water, producing a power center, a characteristic of sacred sites] I suspected of crossing the knoll where the labyrinth was to be built. Disappointed, I paused and looked up; by chance I looked directly into the huge red disk of the setting sun at the horizon. Something in me forcefully addressed Helios: "I can't find these energy leys". To my utter surprise the sun immediately replied: "Why don't you go clockwise?" I started laughing and obediently walked clockwise (unconsciously I had indeed walked counter-clockwise before!) and detected with my dowsing rods the exact position of intersecting energy leys.

Although I was totally surprised at the moment to get an answer from the sun, I was by then familiar with "strange" phenomena, and certainly with the idea of a "conscious" universe. And I had read not only read about the validity of my out-of-body and Near-Death experiences, I had studied with shamans in Ecuador, Peru, and Nepal, and I knew that the ordinary reality of our daily life is just one of many realities that dovetail into one another ..." Prologue, pp 4-5

That's quite a first step. My past does not include "Near-Death experiences" nor study with shamans. And involves mostly "normal" phenomena, where that means, in this case, phenomena common to the experience of many western academic biologists/neurobiologists (which I am). That we had a shared place from which to start this journey now seems to me even more significant. Having reached the wish to do something about the veil along quite different paths suggests the place has important meaning which transcends the idiosyncracies of our respective experiences.

One aspect of that meaning is the idea that "the ordinary reality of our daily life is just one of many realities". My own path to this conclusion has to do, at least in part, with my explorations of how the brain works. There's an article of mine called Getting It Less Wrong: The Brain's Way which tells the story. The principal point is that the organization of the brain is such that there are always multiple ways to construe the same input, that different brains construe it differently, and that a given brain has the capability to construct different construals. My guess is that there are lots of other paths that lead to the same existence-of-other-realities idea (including an active fantasy life). The tough question is the respective "status" of the various realities. I'm presuming you would assert that there is no reason to "privilege" a single one over all others as "real", and I would similarly make such an assertion from what I know about the brain's workings.

I also share the experience of trying and failing to do a task, and then discovering that the failure can be made right by altering my unconscious presumptions about how to do it. That one can "know" something in different ways is, I suspect, another important aspect of our common starting point. A distinction between unconscious and conscious knowledge will, I think, prove important as well in our conversation.

Here, though, there is also a difference in our experiences that may be important. I have never had the experience of having the sun speak to me in words. Indeed neither "inanimate" entities nor most living ones speak to me in words that I am familiar with; doing so is, in my experience, a characteristic exclusively of human beings. That difference in experience in turn relates to what may be a conceptual difference. I would never speak of a "conscious" universe, in part at least because "speaking in words" is, for me, a rough and ready criterion for consciousness.

It's way too early in the journey to try and look too closely at what underlies what each of us is saying, and certainly to decide how important any differences are. Both will perhaps become clearer as we walk and talk. Differences here may, for example, well be about "words", about what it is to "hear" and "speak", rather than about substance. The other day I was feeling depressed, for no clear reason that I could understand. My daughter and I were at the zoo and visited a walk-in aviary where birds could feed from cups of nectar which we held in our hands. After one bird had landed on my hand and eaten from the cup I realized the sense of depression had lifted. The point is that I fully share a sense that there are entities other than myself from whom I get things valuable to me (and to which I may contribute meaningful things). There are unquestionably fundamental interconnectednesses in the universe (another point of commonality to which I think we'll be coming shortly). However, some interconnectednesses are, in my experience, reflected in words, others wordlessly.

The difference may also have to do with differences in how individual brains work. I suspect that, in humanity as a whole, most people maybe be more like you in hearing "words" from entities other than humans, and so my experience could be regarded as evidence of a hearing impairment (Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind). On the other hand, the same brain arguments that lead me to the conclusion that there are multiple realities also lead me to the conclusion that one cannot take one's internal experience as a certain guide to what is beyond onself ("you cannot look on any such word as closing your quest" William James, Pragmatism and the Meaning of Truth, p 31. What we each get from the sun and birds and other things may be less different than what our brains construct as explanations of having gotten it. This in no way should be taken as a challenge to the legitimacy or importance of internal experience (this, too, I think we'll be coming to, and find ourselves in agreement on). It does, though bear on inferences from it, as, for example, in the case of whether the universe is "conscious", and what meaning one intends to convey (is understood by a listener) when that word is used.

"My thesis concerns itself with transpersonal consciousness and with non-ordinary realities, alas with "strange" phenomena. While consciousness is the agency that expresses and governs our individual Such-ness, indigeous people around the world have always maintained that it is transpersonal as it goes beyond the individual and connects us with all sentient beings and conjoins us with all of nature and with the universe. These people also maintain that other realities exist parallel to the ordinary reality of everyday life and that we can move between them at will.

The aim of my thesis is to encourage Anthropology, whose object of inquiry is anthropos (Greek for "human being") to look into man's subjective states of consciousness on various levels of reality ... Indigeous people ... uncovered valid answers to these questions as they accumulated a rich knowledge body through their forays into other states of consciousness. But to see and understand, western man needs to explore these regions for himself, and describe them in his own language". Abstract pp 6-7

There are some notable exceptions to a generalization that "western man" has neglected to "look into man's subjective states of consciousness". The nineteenth century transcendalists were interested in this area, as was William James, the founder of experimental psychology in the United States. Freud and the psychoanalytic movement certainly represented an engagement with the "subjective". Aldous Huxley, in England, published the Doors to Perception in 1954, and there was, of course, a burst of interest and exploration in "altered states of consciousness" in the 1960's. Antonio Damasio is among contemporary neurobiologists doing serious work on subjectivity (Descartes' Error; The Feeling of What Happens).

Still, I think your general point is quite valid and important. By and large, the "subjective", ie the internal experience associated with being, has been neglected in the west, not only in comparison to the attention it has gotten among indigenous peoples but also in comparison to the extensive and systematic explorations that have occured in many eastern cultures (cf. Zen and the Brain by James H. Austin, 1998). Why this has been so is an interesting question. To some extent, it reflects a history of skepticism in the west about whether internal experience is "meaningful" (ie has causal efficacy) and under what circumstances it is or is not admissible as "scientific" observation. My guess is that there is also a deeper "economics" at work. Some cultures (western?) seem to choose to address "the profound difficulties physical existence poses to us" by developing skills to manipulate the physical world outside. Others (indigenous, eastern) seem to opt instead for achieving the same objective by developing sophistication with the internal. My guess is that each has both its virtues and its deficiencies, so there is certainly every reason to encourage not only western anthropologists but also psychologists, neuroscientists, and others to pay more serious attention to the "rich body of knowledge" developed by indigenous peoples. The need to take seriously the "subjective" , to rescue it and assure that it is respected as among the important things to be "made sense of" follows directly from this.

The other issue you raise here is that of "transpersonal consciousness", of consciousness as not only "the agency that expresses and governs our individual Such-ness" but also "goes beyond the individual and connects us with all sentient beings and conjoins us with all of nature and with the universe." There's a brain slant here too which I'd like to develop and see whether we simply use words differently or actually see things differently. Much of what you or I do, much of our "Such-ness" is actually UNconscious; we act "intuitively", frequently without "thought" and often without "awareness". Much of our "Suchness", both how others see us and how we see ourselves, derives/emerges from the unconscious. And, cultural norms notwithstanding, this is a good thing, not a bad one. The unconscious is a distinct set of brain processes which have distinct strengths and abilities (such as the ability to learn to ride a bike, or to "intuit" solutions to complex problems) which consciousness lacks. Moreover, it is responsive to inputs of which consciousness is unaware (certain chemical signals, pheromones, are a recently discovered example). Maybe most importantly, in the present context, unconscious brain processes are almost certainly common to all "sentient" organisms, and provide a basis for exchange of information, for interconnectedness, between ourselves and "all of nature and the universe".

I wonder whether this aspect of how our brains are organized, with somewhat distinct unconscious and conscious parts, might help to clarify the idea of "transpersonal consciousness" and, in so doing, help us get over the possible divergence, noted earlier, on the question of whether the universe is "conscious". A key idea, in my terms, is that "conscioiusness", as humans experience it, is NOT as central to our lives as we think it is. As I said above, much of our behavior occurs in the absence of thought or awareness; we act out of our "Such-ness", learn from interactions with other entities ("animate" and inanimate), and influence them as well as being influenced by them, all without "reflecting on it".

It’s the "reflecting on it", the property of conceiving of ways in which things might be different from how they are, that seems to me the core of "consciousness" (and the reason why language is a "rough and ready" criterion for its existence). We share "Such-ness" and varying degrees of interaction (information-exchange) with all other entities in the universe, but are largely unique (some other animals may have this property) in our capacity to "reflect on/conceive the possibility of other than what is').

What this does is not to deny a great web of interconnectedness, nor our ability to tap into it. Those aspects of "transpersonal consciousness" I'm quite comfortable with. What it does do, however, is to suggest that we may need some word other than consciousness to describe the interconnected web we can tap into. And some adjective other than "conscious" to describe the universe. We are a part of that universe and as a part we contribute characteristics (including "consciousness" to it) but that doesn't mean all elements of it have our particular characteristics or that characteristics so central to our distinctive "Such-ness" are essential elements of the universe as a whole. Maybe we could simply call it the interdependent universe, and speak of information-sharing among all its entities?

This is, in my turn, suggesting a big step and so, as earlier, let's take it for the moment as a sharing of stories along the way rather than something to argue about now, and see what uses it has (or doesn't have) as we keep walking.

We live in a time of transition, where the old paradigm, influenced by the Newtonian/Cartesian mindset, still governs our daily activities and the decisions we make as individuals and as a society, but where the influence of a new paradigm, of a theory that more accurately portrays and explains life's phenomena, begins to inform our ways of thinking and decision-making, and the way we ultimately strive to be. Introduction p 8

Here too, we've got a lot of shared ground. The "Newtonian" mindset, with its "machine-like" presumptions of slow, predictable, and easily regulated change, and of simple cause/effect relations, clearly has some identifiable problems (cf.
On Beyond Newton. And a mindset which conceives of explanations in terms of relatively simple interactions of relatively simple elements does better with many of these problems (cf. Complexity). Similarly, Cartesian dualism, with its separation of body and mind, now appears to be a barrier to recognizing ways of making useful sense of many phenomena (cf Damasio, Descartes' Error). The two aspects of a "paradigm" shift are related, in my perspective at least, in that more and more of what seemed to require "mind" separate from "body" appears to be understandable in terms of the relatively simple interactions of the relatively simple cells which make up the body, of which the brain is an important part.

My guess is that this is not quite the "paradigm shift" you have in mind. Maybe, though, this too will turn out to be a matter of words. Let's again stay with our valuable common ground (a shared belief in a paradigm shift) and leave the issue of exactly what that shift is for future discussion after we've walked on a bit. Again it may turn out there is less difference here than it seems at first glance.

Anthropologists have collected reports from people in cultures that are still in close rapport with all their relations in nature and who have maintained a sense of connectivity with the universe; these reports speak about realities different from the everyday ordinary one. The anthropologist Carlos Castañeda, who was one of the first to enquire into these matters, coined the term "non-ordinary reality" to describe expanded states of consciousness. In non-ordinary reality human beings can e.g. perceive energies normally hidden from view; can converse with plants and animals, or can receive guidance from the spirits of ancestors. Non-ordinary reality appears to be congruent with "quantum" reality as described by physical science. The main characteristic of realities on a non-ordinary, or quantum level is that they are relational. Depending on our participation we are more or less correlated or interwoven in their relational holism. All shamanic knowledge is based on such relational holism. Introduction p 8

I'm very much attracted by "close rapport with nature" and "a sense of connectivity with the universe", both emotionally and intellectually, so here's another piece of our common ground (E.O. Wilson's Biophilia suggests this may be a fairly general human characteristic). Moreover, I see things differently under those conditions, so we can add as well a familiarity with "non-normal" (at least to an urban easterner) realities. The world looks and feels better to me when I am in the mountains or tasting the ocean than when I am in my office or driving to the store. I also wear a small piece of a meteorite around my neck, as a reminder that not only my life but all life on earth is inextricably interconnected with entities and events elsewhere in the universe. An appreciation of the importance of the "relational" is part of our common ground too. A question for future discussion is whether an appreciation of the relational and access to it is accountable for in terms of the brain and its exchanges with other entities of the physical universe or instead requires something in additional.

Two other things to note for further conversation later in the journey. There are "strange" things described by physical scientists working at very small (and very large) scales. And these provide valuable incentives and useful metaphors for reconsidering how we see things at our own intermediate scales. At the same time, I'm less certain than you perhaps are that the ways of thinking developed in those realms are directly relevant to our own, and less certain than you are that they represent some kind of more certain or direct understanding. They too are "stories", created, as the brain does, to make sense of a hypothetical reality with which it inevitably lacks any direct contact (Getting It Less Wrong: The Brain's Way). There are, it seems to me, many experiences at our own more familiar scale which testify more directly to our "connectivity with the universe". And to the importance of recognizing some form of "relational holism".

I (perhaps both of us) will want also, somewhere down the road, to think more about "holism". There is a resonance here to my earlier concern about whether "a total understanding of life's mysteries is attainable". If "holism" is an answer, then it violates my intuition then such is not attainable. And if it is an inviolate, rather than a valuable acknowledgement of complex interconnectedness, then it potentially gets in the way of the inquiry from which new understandings and new questions continuously evolve. The relation between appreciating wholes and the taking them apart to try and understand how they work is a complex one (see Arthur Koestler, Beyond Reductionism and From the Head to the Heart). There are, I think, reciprocal benefits in doing both that we'll come to. They relate fairly closely to the "reflecting on it" capability I attributed to consciousness.

"Western man has in general been trained away from the perception of such knowing, as he has come to trust nearly exclusively his cognitive faculties at the expense of his intuitive capacities. Our rational-logical thinking serves us well in the everyday ordinary reality of life. Not unlike Newtonian mechanical laws though, which govern the gross level of physical matter but cannot explain phenomena on the sub-atomic level, rational-logical thinking is rendered nugatory on the mental-emotional level of our existence.

If I try to compare the Newtonian/Cartesian mindset with a quantum/shamanic mindset, I would define the former as being characterized by a mechanistic worldview that rests on the idea of radical impersonalism. According to this view, the universe is composed of matter, which obeys gravity, and of mind, "the ghost in the machine," (although nobody can explain how matter became conscious). Things move as a result of cause and effect. There reigns a vision of separateness, as in the mind/body duality, "I" versus "Other," or the God outside his Creation.

The second, the quantum/shamanic (or maybe quantum/spiritual) mindset, rests on the cosmic vision of wholeness. This view of life is characterized by indeterminacy, which suggests that reality itself is unfixed, is rather like a maze of possibilities, "where the functioning of our own minds may provide a key to the nature of fundamental reality" (Zohar 1990:28). This insight from quantum physics is mirrored in the Shuar Indians' understanding of "life is as you dream it.1" Instead of separateness, there exists relational holism, because as conscious creatures we are related to everything else in the universe. Here the scientist's question is, "How did consciousness create matter?" Introduction, p 9

Lots of common ground here, some already referred to, some new. I'm struck by the multiple dualisms which you attribute to the "Newtonian/Cartesian mindset", and my own motivation, presumably for different reasons, to also try and eliminate the oppositions (cf The Two Cultures: A Conversation, 11 September, 2001, Thoughts and Forum).. My inclination as a biologist, for example, is very much to think of creation and creator as the same (an evolutionary process in which what is is forever the creator of what becomes, cf Biology 103). Similarly, I have little taste for the mind/body duality, believing the mind to be an expression of the body (largely of the brain; cf. Biology 202).

I have equally little taste for the rational/logical vs mental/emotional dichotomy. Damasio (Descartes' Error; The Feeling of What Happens) makes a strong neurobiological case for the argument that the rational and the emotional are properly thought of as reinforcing rather than oppositional. And there's an incomplete exhibit on Serendip intended to illustrate the interdependence of the intuitive and the analytical The Three Doors of Understanding. A similar argument is made in the educational arena at Loopiness As a Pedagogical Methodology. In each case, the point is that the unconscious/intuitive provides grist for the mill of the conscious/analytic, which in turn creates new material for the unconscious/intuitive, over and over and over. It may even be that the "I" vs. "Other" comes out of this dialectic between two sets of brain processes (cf. The Brain's Images: Co-constructing Reality and the Self). As earlier with the idea of a paradigm shift, I have a hunch that my way of dealing with dualisms may seem different from yours, but let's mark that too for more conversation after we've wandered some more? A shared distaste for particular dualisms is itself enough additional common ground to keep exploring.

In addition to the sense of wholeness/interconnectedness that we've already found in common, you add a new idea in your "quantum/shamanic" mindset: "indeterminacy, which suggests that reality itself is unfixed". This is very much an additional part of our common ground, maybe in some ways the most central part of it (cf Variability in Brain Function and Behavior. A belief in the importance of non-deterministic processes, of "chance", is reflected in Serendip's name, and in many of the exhibits on it (cf. Complexity. Among other things, indeterminacy provides for the capacity to explore (A Voyage of Exploration), to make willfull choices (Free Will), and hence to play a genuinely thoughtful/creative role in the future of the universe of which we are a part. My guess is that this is perhaps the piece of the paradigm shift, however we see it differently in detail, that most interests both of us: a shift from a world view in which humans are simply participants in a pre-established play to one in which we are, at least in part, creators of and responsible for the future ("The universe has lost its center overnight, and woken up to find it has countless centers. So that each can now be seen as the center, or none at all ….Bertold Brecht, The Life of Galileo).

This said, let me hasten to admit that, no matter how much we both appreciate it, there is a difficult technical problem in determining whether any given process, much less the universe as a whole, is or is not deterministic. Quantum physics does not, unfortunately, settle the problem, either in practice or in principle. While it provides an appealing metaphor for indeterminacy (as well as for interconnectedness), it is a story developed to account for things at very small (and very large) scales, and there is reason to wonder whether it is at all relevant at human scales. Moreover, like all science, it is a story : the indeterminacy of quantum physics could itself disappear as new ways of thinking emerge. On the other hand, there is no particular reason, except historical precedent, to tie the idea of indeterminacy to quantum physics. Plenty of day to day phenomena, including the flipping of a coin, seem to reflect processes whose determinacy is no easier to establish than their indeterminacy. And there is good reason to suspect that a substantial indeterminacy is not only part of but essential for a number of biological functions, including immune responses and evolution itself. So, maybe this is a place where you and I are attracted to a particular story, and we have to see what we (and others) can do with it rather than trying to defend it in its own right. Maybe we need to create a story to bring it into being, as William James did ("My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will").

Closely related to the humans as passive observers vs humans as participants issue is that of what you call "radical impersonalism", of matter as distinct from "consciousness, of a world based on "cause and effect" as opposed to one where "life is as you dream it". As implied above and earlier, what I know about the brain strongly indicates that it is indeed not only a reflector but also a shaper of the world (From Genomes to Dreams, Getting It Less Wrong: The Brain's Way; Two Cultures or One?) . What we see, both intuitively and analytically, is inevitably, to one degree or another, a part of the "cause and effect" of the universe. Here too there is a metaphor from quantum physics but also more than enough day to day phenomena at our own level of scale to make it a defensible part of a common story. There is, for example, no doubt that human dreams have markedly impacted (for better or for worse) on the planet earth. And dreams have certainly persistently altered (again for better or for worse) how humans relate to one another and to other entities in the universe.

Let's see … we've found lots in common so far, including a shared story in which there is room for humans to dream and, in so doing, to play a role in exploring the "maze of possibilities" which is the "unfixed reality" of the whole of which we are parts. That's a pretty solid foundation to again take on some possible differences? I'm struck by your suggestion that the "Newtonian/Cartesian" mindset provides no explanation of how "matter becomes conscious" and by the inverse "Quantum/Shamanic" question "how does consciousness create matter?" There is a dualism there, of course, of the kind we both would like to do away with. Actually two dualisms. Let's take them one at a time.

Does matter create consciousness, or is it the other way around? Here I want to return to an earlier conversation, about "consciousness", and use it to try and rephrase the question. Consciousness, in the sense of "reflecting on" seems to be a distinctive property of matter organized in a particular way; if the organization of the brain is correspondingly disturbed in particular ways, the property disappears. What does not, however, disappear is "interacting Such-ness". So how about we change "consciousness" to "organization" and reconsider the questions as "does matter create organization" or does "organization create matter"? This is an old philosophical issue that has appeared under many dualistic guises. Maybe we could settle it by asserting that distinguishing matter and organization is a trick that the brain has used to try and make sense of things in ways it is used to (a building and an architect, a universe and a creator) rather than a "real" dichotomy? We talked earlier about humans (organized matter, to a biologist; perhaps the same as Such-ness)) as both participants in and shapers of the future (itself organized matter to a scientist; Such-ness). Could we perhaps do away with the matter/organization dualism by simply accepting that there is organized matter (Such-ness) which begats organized matter, richly, fruitfully, continuously and somewhat upnredictably but with no architect or designer? Then our puzzling questions would become a much simpler one …. "Does interacting suchness create interacting suchness or is it the other way around?" … and the simple answer would be both. This would seem to be the message of evolutionary biology, of complexity theory, and increasingly of cosmological science. My guess is that it is the core of the indigenous message as well (and of that of some eastern cultures. By refusing the dualism, we buy ourselves (and other entities in the universe) quite significant freedom and agency.

The other opposition we might like to try and eliminate is the "Newtonian/Cartesian" versus "Quantum/Shamanic" one. And with it, perhaps, the rational versus intuitive one as well. Just as organization and matter are inevitably interconnected, so too I suspect are the rational and the intuitive. As I've talked a bit about earlier, they are both aspects of one entity, the brain … and they work best together, each having its own "Suchness" and each interacting with/depending on the other. Different cultures may, at different times, give priority to one or the other but each of us as individuals is free to redress any imbalances, and to make common cause with other individuals in doing so.

The late visionary thinker Willis Harman echoed the Shuar Indians' belief when he said, "By deliberately changing the internal image of reality, people can change the world" (Harman 1998:viii). With this statement Harman highlights the role that consciousness plays in daily reality, a role that shamans have always known about and that quantum physics confirms. "We are living through one of the most fundamental shifts in history," observed Harman, "a change in the actual belief structure of Western society. No economic, political, or military power can compare with the power of a change of mind." Introduction p 9

The features of the new cosmological map of indeterminism that scientists are now drawing, turn out to be remarkably similar to those of the indigenous cosmos, and, these features belong to the very same territory that native cultures around the globe have explored for thousands of years: the realm of multiple realities. Introduction p 11

I present in my thesis a multi-told tale of finding and testing reality via the two different mentalities available to us – the rational-logical and the mystical one. For this purpose I will look at various topics such as Dreams, Near-Death-Experience, Shamanic Practices, Entheogens,3 Meditation and also at Dimethyltryptamine (DMT)- Research as it has relevance for Near-Death and entheogenic experiences. I shall present the significance of these topics in human experience cross-culturally. In addition I will argue for the importance of taking the insights gained from such endeavors at face value, as they not only represent wisdom about nature's phenomenon that has been painstakingly collected by various cultures over millennia, and as such documents man's sensible stance towards nature and himself as part of it, but also provide Western culture with a more comprehensive understanding of existence. Introduction p 13

"More generally, science and humanity can both be perfectly healthy without [an unreasonable assertion] of the "objective reality of science". Indeed, both can probably be healthier without it, since the phrase triggers an appropriate but unnecessary deep suspicion of and hostility toward science from non-scientists, who quite legitimately challenge the claim that scientists have privileged access to understanding and reality. Many of us don't make that claim, and would be more than happy to meet our colleagues, scientific and otherwise, in the various netherworlds none of us have yet well explored, to do what science is really about (and humanity needs): increasing the range and number of observations being made sense of, by all of us. TwoCultures

A Pause to Reflect


That's been a long ramble, and it is of course only part of your thesis and at best a sketch of some of my reactions to selected parts of it. At the same time, it seems to me to have given us enough to establish some remarkable similarities in the stories we want to tell, particularly given the differences in their origins. And to reflect an inclination to give credence to each others stories as relevant to the development of our own. And to point to some differences in the stories from which we might both learn.
Here's the similarities, as I see them. We both would like, for ourselves and others, a world in which humans are less "burdened with worry" and freer to appreciate existence as something "to be celebrated and enjoyed with wonderment". We both believe that this could be achieved by shedding some dualisms characteristic of much of modern western thinking, in ways pointed to by indigenous (and some eastern)cultures as well as by aspects of modern science. The key points, as I see them, are

1 - the need to give up an anthropocentric self/other distinction: all entities in the universe have their distinctive Such-ness, and all are interdependent

2 - the need to give up a sharp real/imaginary distinction; things can valuably be seen in different ways; there are "multiple realities"

3 - the need to give up strict definitions of right/wrong; the universe, and all in it (ourselves included) is not a machine playing out a particular symphony but rather an indeterminate exploration involving a continual trying out of themes and variations

4 - the need to see both the objective and the subjective as important contributors to that exploration

This is, I say again, no little agreement. We are both, it seems to me, suggesting that humans will be happier if they see themselves as meaningful explorers, sharing that exploration with the rest of the universe. In these terms, humans acquire a sense of meaning/agency. To do that, however, they must also be willing to give up the various ways that they have in the past used to try and assure their own sense of security and privileged place in the universe. To persuade/help humans to move in this direction is no little task, and we should as best we can make common cause with each other and others to move toward achieving it.

For that, as well as for their intrinsic interest, it is worth trying to be as clear as possible about whatever differences there seem to be in our stories. The issue here is not of course "rightness" and "wrongness" (see above) but rather whether there is a need for two stories or whether one will serve, whether there are differences between the two stories that make a difference and, if so, what different purposes the two stories serve in addition to their similar ones.

And so the differences, as I see them (at the moment). In general, my story tries to do away with the last dualism, by largely eliminating the "veil that separates the physical from the spiritual realm". There is, in my story, continuously evolving and interacting organized matter ("Such-ness"). One form of such matter, the brain, has evolved in such a way as to become capable of reflecting on itself and on the entities with which it shares the universe. Having done so, it retains its connectedness as and with "Such-ness" but also acquires the capability to tell a new "rational/analytic" kind of story, one with dualities and simple cause/effect relationships, and the like. The two capabilities are vested in distinct parts of the brain and the two parts are differently dominant in different cultures and at different times. In western culture we might identify one part (the unconscious) with the "spiritual" and the other part (the conscious) with the rational/analytical. In fact, it is all "physical", in the sense of "evolving organized matter" as discussed earlier. And so the need is largely to further evolve that matter (the brain) in such a way as to facilitate communication and trust between the two parts of the brain (in and between individuals).

It would be inappropriate of me to try and summarize your story, but my sense is it retains more of a distinction between the physical and the spiritual, that the brain plays substantially less of a role in it, that we have differences over the meaning of consciousness, and, perhaps most importantly, differences over the significance and role of consciousness as you use the term which, I suspect, plays in your story a greater informing and organizing role for the universe than it does in mine. Maybe I can focus the next conversation along our walk by posing three questions your story raises in my mind:

1. Is there anything in the universe other than matter constantly shaping and reshaping itself? If so, what function does such a thing serve? Perhaps a better question is what difference would it make if it were absent?

2. Other than brains (human and perhaps some other organisms) is there anything in the universe that "reflects on/conceives of things as other than they are"? If so, what function does it serve? Again, perhaps better, what difference would it make if it were absent?

3. Are humans capable of forms of connectedness, with each other and other entities in the universe, in addition to those mediated by the brain/nervous system? What functions do they serve? What differences would it make if they were absent?

These are honestly questions, not challenges. It may well be that, after more talking, we'll discover that we are in fact using different words for the same thing. It may equally well be that sharing the stories will lead to changes in one or the other … or to the finding of a third story deriving from both. And, of course, it may be that the stories, despite their similarities, turn out as well to fulfill some different functions. Let's find out, along the path I've sketched or any other that you prefer. And perhaps invite others to add their own stories/commentaries?

Commentary by Anne Dalke
Department of English and Program in Feminist and Gender Studies

4 July 2002

I have worked with both Jeanne-Rachel (who took Bryn Mawr’s first-year writing course w/ me in 1996-97) and with Paul (with whom I’ve collaborated more recently on several projects), so it was doubly a delight for me to be invited to listen in on their conversation, both to see them recognize (and to admire their shared recognition) the provocative/productive links between their very different pictures of the world....and for the limbs they provide for me to crawl out on, and go exploring on my own....which I’d like to begin sketching out here.

I learned a lot from this conversation, and want to say thanks for, and celebrate in particular, the notion of "Such-ness" (rich, evocative phrase!), the concept of "organized matter, begetting organized matter, richly, fruitfully, continuously and unpredictably," and the idea that "what is is forever the creator of what becomes."

I’m not a scientist, but I am an academic and a Quaker who has struggled for years @ the intersection of intellectual and spiritual ways of knowing. In Teaching to Learn/Learning to Teach, for instance, I explore "what seems to me an incongruity (an incompatibility? an irrationality? certainly a marked tension) between the articulate speech which academic work values and the silence of Quaker worship, that reminds me so often of the miseries and mysteries of life better apprehended when we refrain from speech."

What struck me most in Paul and Jeanne-Rachel’s interlinears is the way in which they highlight another version of this tension: that while the experiential unconscious work of religious life can nurture a sense of interconnection, the self-reflective conscious work of academics accentuates a sense of separation between the self and the world it observes. If indeed, as Paul claims, "much of our ‘Such-ness’ is actually Unconscious," and it is those "unconscious brain processes...[which] provide a basis for...interconnectedness, between ourselves and ‘all of nature and the universe,’" then the insistence on our capacity to "reflect on/conceive the possibility of other than what is" (which, Paul maintains, is largely unique to humans), will exacerbate the sense that all of us, as knowers and seekers, are separate from life’s larger patterns.

If humans are naturally reflective, then academics are just professionalizing and systemizing what all of us do anyway: thinking about what is happening to us. I’m realizing anew, from overhearing this conversation, that in doing so we repeatedly intervene in and interrupt the more assured sense of interconnection that can emerge in the sort of religious explorations that Jeanne-Rachel has been both experiencing and studying so extensively.

No wonder so many academics are so unhappy!

My question now, of course, is whether there might not be ways to both "experience unconsciously" and "reflect consciously" on that experience, without reinforcing the pronounced sense of division, separation and abandonment that both Jeanne-Rachel’s work and Paul’s response seek to overcome. Does an insistence on the "distinctive Such-ness" of each of us prevent us from seeing our interdependence? Or is it rather precisely that distinctiveness which makes us valuable to, and so interdependent on, one another?

The image that brought me to confront this question was Paul’s description of the meteorite which he wears as a reminder that "all life on earth is inextricably interconnected with entities and events elsewhere in the universe....An appreciation of the importance of the relational...." What struck me most about this talisman of "interconnection," of course, was its cataclysmic quality: when a meteor and the earth come together, the juxtaposition is inevitably a violent one. But it is also (as Stephen Jay Gould, among others, has observed (The Structure of Evolutionary Theory ) inevitably a productive one, because in the process of destruction, space is created for new connections to emerge.

Further questions raised by the conversation I’d like to see addressed:

--what reasons are there to wonder whether what quantum physics tells us about indeterminacy is relevant at human scales?
--whether most scientists (contra most religionists)--even if they acknowledge that things can valuably be seen in different ways"--don’t still hold to the notion of some things as distinctly "real"
--when/where do we have direct contact (w/ ANY realm?)
--why is it more productive to think that "the ‘I’ vs. ‘Other’ comes out of this dialectic between two sets of brain processes," rather than vice-versa? what is gained/lost by making the bi-partite brain the "foundational" story? or, in Paul’s terms, what "function" does that story serve, what difference would it make if it were absent?

I’d like also to propose dissolving the binary between being "simply participants in a pre-established play" and being "responsible co-creators of the future," to posit an understanding of our selves as co-creating a common story, not just (as Paul says a little dismissively) "to assure our own sense of security in the universe," but rather to provide the framework for creating new shared (or, at the very least, sharable) stories --as this conversation most assuredly has done. Thank you both!

The rationale for this conversation is indeed very much to tell stories so that we can see to what extent we can and want to create shareable ones. And not only for a small number of particular people but for many. Your stories and thoughts are important to this process. Leave them in our physical and spiritual conversation forum area, where you can, if you want, also arrange to keep up with this conversation.

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