PhilosophyCenter PhilosophyCenter | Musings
PhilosophyCenter | Musings

Infinity Under Our Feet

Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real.
| Neils Bohr

Infinity Under Our Feet

Many years ago, I drove out west to see the Grand Canyon. I remember standing in front of a trail sign atop a wooden post with a diagram of the immediate view across the gorge and some text noting that the rocky prominence on the other side, despite appearances and the sort of spatial assumptions one would make based on more familiar distances, is three miles away. As the sun arcs across the sky, striations of purple, orange, and red rise and fall among shadows that seem to elongate and vanish into the rock face like ghosts. At its deepest point, the floor of the canyon is a mile straight down. Here, the earth seems extraterrestrial.

When I ventured within twenty meters of the abyss, I began to feel the gravitational tide. More than cautionary, it felt primal. There are places where stocky guard rails stand between visitors snapping vacation pictures and the craggy nothingness beyond, but the thing is so massive, most of it is open and accessible to the few intrepid souls who are determined to get a closer look. Despite the almost neurological aversion I was feeling, I walked well back from the rim until I found a rock jutting out over the chasm and made up my mind that I would venture out and sit there while my daughter captured the moment with her camera. Through sheer force of will, I inched my way onto the rock holding my breath and sat, cross-legged. My daughter took the shot, and when we came upon it later, we saw that I was leaning backward some thirty degrees. It left me wondering how astronauts feel on a spacewalk in that moment when they look up and behold the cosmic expanse hanging before them, and if they have the sense that they might fall into it at any moment. Gazing at that photo of myself, sitting on that rock with every survival nerve in me firing to resist the vertiginous pull of nothingness, I thought of the Mohawk high-steel workers who had constructed the World Trade Center, and I wondered what they had coursing through their veins that allowed them to move about blithely on open girders hundreds of feet in the air with infinity under their feet as though they were taking a stroll down Fifth Avenue.

It’s not just at the dizzying edge of the Grand Canyon or on the high-wire skeletons of skyscrapers that the reliable foothold of terra firma suddenly falls away. There are other kinds of abysses, and philosophy is no stranger to them. Ontology, for example, the branch of philosophy that examines the nature not of particular beings but of being itself, begins with the strange question, “Why are there things rather than nothing?” It is an oceanic question of incalculable depth, one that pulls us toward nothingness as the primordial void out of which the whole universe arises into existence each moment. The new physics has come to the same conclusion, viz., that the so-called objective world around us, at the most intimate levels of matter, disperses into a gossamer realm of phantom entities flashing in and out of existence, neither wave nor particle, and more like a dream than a machine. Beyond that realm is a vast, perhaps infinite field of energy best described as “zero.”

Zero. Infinity. Nothingness. The same delimiting value shows up in epistemology, the branch of philosophy that deals with theories of knowledge—with how we know things, what it means to know, verifiability and falsifiability, and so on. Here, too, we see that all of our knowing is nothing more than an approximation, a collection of assumptions and suppositions laid out along a tenuous rope bridge suspended over a chasm of mystery that may be unraveled at any moment by the next discovery. Perhaps this is why when Chaerephon approached the Delphic Oracle and asked if there was anyone wiser than Socrates, the Pythia replied, “No one is wiser,” yet Socrates’s wisdom lay in his knowing he had none. Today, one can hardly find this depth of humility. Experts abound in every field, promoting their educated guesswork as absolute truth, and in this posturing, we have lost far more than we have gained. As William James writes in The Will to Believe:

We may talk of the empiricist way and of the absolutist way of believing in truth. The absolutists in this matter say that we not only can attain to knowing truth, but we can know when we have attained to knowing it; while the empiricists think that although we may attain it, we cannot infallibly know when. To know is one thing, and to know for certain that we know is another.

Socratic humility—which means never forgetting that our knowledge is subject to error and thus revision—is essential to philosophical self-work, the liberating of belief from constricted states of false opinion and contradiction, and the expansion of awareness that allows it to embrace greater, ever more encompassing truths. There is little that hinders the process more than the hubristic assumption that our conclusions are infallible, which places us in danger of losing our balance and falling from a great height.

I was not afraid of the cavernous power I felt standing beside the Grand Canyon. I respected it. The hands that had fashioned it, that had brought forth our prolific living planet from nothingness amid a clockwork of other planets in a sea of space too vast to comprehend, also had fashioned me. The immense distances from the rim to the bottom filled me with awe and a new awareness of the immense drawing power of infinity that lies under our feet all the time, even when we’re busy taking the world for granted and thinking that anything at all is ordinary or holding our conclusions with counterfeit certainty. Because our being and our knowledge, along with everything else, are rooted in mystery, dialectical transcendence and change for the better are possible at any moment. With a little humility, the possible becomes probable, and with a bit more, inevitable. The willful ego may cling fiercely to its false opinions, but it is in bowing before the depths of the mystery that we can be made whole, and standing before the sheer heights of existence, discover that we have wings.

25 May, 2020

Deep Truth

The body never lies.
| Martha Graham

Deep Truth

Philosophical counseling examines the client’s belief system, an investigation made more challenging by the fact that beliefs often are not consciously held. Indeed, beliefs that are fully vested show up for us not as mental constructs but as features of reality, and it is for this reason more than any other that they often go unexamined and so, unquestioned. Where these unwitting beliefs are set against us or against certain life principles that operate independently of belief—that is, when they are based either in contradiction or on what Socrates called “false opinion” or “false knowledge,” they produce suffering. Failing to recognize that the cause of that suffering lies within ourselves, we are likely to project it onto others or external conditions, and thus become the victims of our own unawareness.

While the mind is adept at half-truth, rationalization, denial, projection, and other gyrations designed to keep a daunting or painful truth at a safe distance, the body does not lie or equivocate. Its language is the language of sensation, through which it communicates the state of the soul. This is why in philosophical counseling sessions we attend not only to what the client says but also to how he or she says it. Did the narrative pace suddenly pick up or fall away? Was something important shared as an aside? Was there a suggestive moment of hesitation, a passing chuckle, a sigh, an answer offered with a rising inflection? Each of these things is like a message in a bottle that the body tosses onto the roiling sea of the mind’s usually well rehearsed commentary. Often, it contains the key that unlocks the session, and the skillful counselor will be mindful not to let this information slip by unnoticed.

In the Hawaiian kahuna tradition, the body is considered a self in its own right—the “lower” self that among other things, stores all memories and regulates the body’s complex autonomic functioning. While it is in this respect powerful, it also is like a child, unencumbered by logic or reason, impulsive, a repository of often simplistic conclusions that may be sullied by fear, magical thinking, generationally and ancestrally inherited imperatives and prohibitions, stowed emotions, often harsh self-judgment, and many more things that, denied expression, may surface in repetitive patterns of suffering. Using the language of sensation, the body cries out for attention and empathy, but the mind—the “middle self”—is not listening, and is in fact more likely to resist and try to silence the body’s pleas for help than to pause long enough to hear to what the body is saying and offer it the loving attention, understanding, validation, clarification, and reassurance it needs to release its energetic and emotional holdings and return to its natural state of ease.

Sometimes the body’s complaints are literal—embodying the “pain in the neck” co-worker, the need for “breathing room” felt as constriction in the lungs and chest, the chronic fatigue that often follows from giving away our power. Carrying responsibilities that are not rightly ours may manifest as tension in the shoulders and back, and so on. Yet these inner messages also can be exceedingly subtle, indirect, personal, even idiosyncratic such that discerning their meaning requires focused attention and patience. Most importantly, we don’t come to understand the body’s language by interpreting or reading into our physical states and sensations. It is entirely a matter of listening the way one would listen to a distressed child, with interest, kindness, and curiosity. Having heard what the body is telling us, it is then up to us to offer the body what it needs, which invariably comes down to some expression of love, the great healer. And if we have made a practice of not listening to our body, of not hearing what it needs us to hear, of not offering love to the self, then we can only wonder what it is we are offering each other that goes by the name of love.

We can put this to the test easily enough. The next time we feel distress anywhere in the body, instead of taking a pill, we can take a moment to be still along with a few slow, deep breaths, and be present with what we”re feeling. It can help to place a hand gently on the part of the body where the distress is being felt, which serves to bring awareness there and also lets the body know we’re paying attention. Then we simply invite the body to tell us what it’s feeling in its own “words” and see how the body responds. This dialogue doesn’t go through the mind, but is wholly intuitive. There is no “figuring out,” only being-with. Sometimes the response is a shift in the sensation. It may be an insight, an unexpected emotional release, or the awareness of energy moving through the body in a new way as though a blockage has been cleared. This freeing up usually introduces a new sense of well-being, like the calm that settles in the wake of a passing storm.

The great lesson in learning the language of the body isn’t limited to the body. It is the lesson that awareness makes whole. We can, for example, apply this to the larger body of our experience in the world. If we practice being-with events rather than reacting to them, judging them, now chasing them, now pushing them away, and simply bring awareness, we open up a place where they can tell us their story. Problems may seem to dog us—financial setbacks, failed relationships, health issues—only because we have not learned the lesson they are trying desperately to teach us. Because we do not listen, they begin shouting, and the lessons get harder. Simply through the willingness to be-with, to open our awareness and listen, we become students of our life, inwardly and outwardly. In the East, there is a saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” To this we add, “When the student gets the lesson, the teacher disappears.”

30 April, 2020

Above the Storm

The cure for pain is in the pain.
| Rumi

Above the Storm

The Stoics knew that we are susceptible to forces of fate over which we have no control, forces that can change direction like the wind, a case that hardly needs to be made these days. Practically overnight, the pandemic upended the world order, driving us indoors and cutting us off from the life we knew and perhaps took for granted. For now, isolation is the new norm, and while we’re fortunate to have technology that allows us to keep in touch by phone, video chat, and texting, there’s no doubt that many of us are being forced to come to terms with inner demons simply because we now have far fewer distractions, and because the outer situation has stirred up whatever sediment of unexamined belief and pending emotion we may have been carrying.

The other day, my brother shared a meme he’d found online suggesting that the pandemic was the Earth’s way of sending us to our rooms to think things over. So it seems—though thinking is the least of it. Beyond the physical repercussions, the virus has unleashed storms of fear, anxiety, doom thinking, and even loss and grief that at times may seem overwhelming.

In all this, it would be easy to overlook an ancient and profound truth that there is a refuge from the storm—in a sense, above the storm—in the practice of awareness or mindfulness. In this practice, we step back in consciousness and simply observe, noticing what comes up without resistance or judgment. Everything occurs within the medium of our consciousness, but we rarely notice the medium, so mesmerized are we by its contents. It’s a lot like watching beautiful fish swimming in an aquarium but never seeing the water. Through the subtlest shift in attention, we can wake up, as it were, and become aware of awareness itself. This gets us out of the way, allowing us to settle into stillness, and be with, just that.

In the stillness of this being-with, there is a spaciousness within which thoughts, feelings, and sensations naturally arise, almost as though the stillness is a kind of permission. Often these feelings have been pushed down, perhaps for years, even decades, patiently biding their time while we ran about the outer world, busy and distracted, hardly aware that there was so much in us that had gone ignored. Now, having been “sent to our rooms,” we may find these disenfranchised emotions intruding, demanding their moment. The feelings may have little or nothing to do with the current crisis, which somehow has served to bring them to the surface: losses we never grieved, fears we never acknowledged, the countless times we were unwilling to feel sad or lonely or lost.

To turn within and begin paying attention to all this emotional debt—both the principal of the original injury and the accrued interest—brings about a renaissance of self, an energetic freeing up that can wash us clean of the past and return us to the living present relieved of long carried burdens. This is why Rumi says that the cure for the pain is in the pain. One excellent model for doing this inner work is based on the acronym R.A.I.N. First, recognize what the body is saying by paying attention to persistent sensations rather than dismissing them. This amounts to a kind of somatic listening in which we acknowledge that the body actually is speaking in the language of sensation—pain, tenderness, areas of constriction, and so on. Then, allow the experience to be what it is, without judgment, reaction, or resistance. Next, investigate what’s behind the feeling to discern the truth of the trauma that got locked there, along with what the body needs now to release it—often empathy or reassurance. Finally, nurture the body-self by giving it what it needs.

The Stoics also understood that in times of adversity, we have the opportunity to rise to the occasion, transcend old limits, and reinvent ourselves. This is done not through an act of will but rather through the willingness to enter the stillness that allows a truth denied to show itself and tell us its story. If we do this, then when the current crisis has passed, we will find ourselves in a world renewed by our inner work, a world in which we don’t need a pandemic to remind us that we’re all connected, and that each moment, each resource, each person, is precious. As always, transformation, like the proverbial journey of a thousand miles, begins under one’s feet.

30 March, 2020

Stillness

Less is more.
| Robert Browning

Stillness

Teens today may chuckle at boomers wistfully recalling better days when we were not all walking around staring into screens, reduced to thumbs and eyeballs, so immersed in texting or streaming or gaming that we are isolated from each other even on a busy street. Those were simpler times when one could watch television without being watched, when privacy had not yet been stolen and trafficked in exchange for petty conveniences, when we were not inundated by thousands of programming choices courtesy of Amazon and Netflix and the rest in a digital whirlwind of distraction designed to induce a feeling of being in control of a life angling out of control. Things more human and less digital had value. The truth was not just something to tie in knots to manipulate public opinion, the word “friend” meant more than a “thumbs up” icon on Facebook, and sharing feelings with loved ones called for more care, time, and attention than it takes to send a smiley face.

What made the “better days” better is that there was so much less of everything we have since allowed to define and overwhelm us: less media, less intrusion of corporate interests into private life, less of the mood of urgency inflicted by the sheer pace of digital technology and the mounting evidence of damage to the planetary ecosystem that has left us at least subliminally aware that we are on a collision course with fate and running out of time. Faster and faster we go, wantonly depleting resources we have made no provision to replace, producing more and more goods while advertising sells consumers on the need for them, learning and practicing impatience and intolerance daily. Viewed in the larger context, the cost of free two-day delivery, it turns out, has been far greater than the price of shipping.

Many of the same young people who would laugh at the nostalgia of their grandparents suffer from unprecedented levels of anxiety, depression, sleep deprivation, pessimism, even cynicism—and not without reason. They can feel that something fundamental has gone missing whether or not they can name it—something that was asphalted over in the reckless acceleration of life and the proliferation of increasingly immersive and therefore increasingly distracting technologies. What is missing is stillness. In stillness, we turn from the man-made world and come home to ourselves and our source. The practice of stillness, whether in formal meditation or a walk in the woods, confers many benefits essential to our well-being: breathing room, the time and focus needed for philosophical self-examination and the cultivation of a balanced and sanguine character, intuitive guidance, ample opportunities to recognize the need for and make course corrections, humility before life as something greater than our will, empathy and fairness in dealing with others, and much more.

There is a wisdom in stillness that transcends human understanding. One discovers it through making stillness a regular and frequent practice, giving it the attention it deserves, being with and exploring it. In stillness, we’re simply aware—breathing, noticing thoughts and feelings and physical impressions but doing nothing about them. After a while, stillness releases us from incessant identification with the world of perception and thought, revealing the expansive identity of awareness itself, the wellspring of all intelligence, creativity, and agency. Hanging out in stillness frees us from being reactive. The spaciousness of awareness spontaneously extends itself to others, and they feel it, and are disarmed and enlivened by it. Stillness returns us to our natural pace, restores and rejuvenates us, clears our vision, and inspires a sense of belonging, direction, and purpose.

For these reasons, I encourage my clients to begin making the practice of stillness part of their daily routine, and watch how life improves. This doesn’t require sitting with eyes closed. In fact, as stillness deepens within the horizon of our experience, it becomes central to who we are—the “I AM” or Oversoul referenced in the world’s ancient spiritual texts that goes with us wherever we go. We may be driving, checking out at the market, talking to a friend, or taking part in a meeting—yet we remain mindful of the medium of still awareness within which the entire universe emerges into actuality and falls away again, like the momentary shapes in the cascading water of a fountain. I have not seen any situation that is not made better simply by remembering to be still. Its agency is unfailing and “past finding out.” By contrast, all human effort and ingenuity are workarounds.

The proposition that stillness can heal and resolve effortlessly what all effort only seems to make worse may strike us as counterintuitive, but perhaps we can agree that, all things considered, it is worth making the experiment. Human will has led us to the brink of catastrophic conditions—monstrous hurricanes, runaway wildfires and floods, the extinction of whole species, the unleashing of deadly microorganisms, the development of apocalyptic weapons of mass destruction, politically imposed famine, and that is the short list—yet we persist in placing our faith in a way of being that has no future. As we’re still here, we may presume that, at least for now, life has not given up on us. Let us make the most of the opportunity and put down our smartphones long enough to reclaim the only thing that can sustain and guide us—the mysterious stillness that abides within us and all things, that brought us forth out of itself and is ever with us, watching and waiting for us to shake off our sleepwalk and come home to our true nature.

29 February, 2020

Radical Responsibility

Radical Responsibility
Inset: The Broken Pitcher, William-Adolphe Bouguereau

When I was writing the Field Project Course on consciousness-as-cause with the aim of fixing numerous errors in the widely commercialized New Age model, I introduced the concept of “radical responsibility.” According to this idea, we’re responsible for our experience even when it seems to proceed from the choices and actions of others and even when our own choices are “unwitting” (another concept of the Course). Such a claim may seem solipsistic—a term used to describe the philosophical position that “I alone am real,” and that the world, including other people, is my personal dream. Indeed, the Course states that “reality is in the I of the beholder” and that “the world is the self writ large’ in the sense that the only reality we can know is the reality informed by the constructs of our consciousness, most notably, what the Course calls “intentions,” technically defined as those structures of the psyche comprising that with which we identify and that which we take to be real.

Solipsism is a nasty bit of business, the mindset of madness and egomania. One of the first projects I took on as an undergraduate student in philosophy was to work out a disproof of solipsism’s core tenet that “I alone am real,” solely because I found the view to be not only ugly and unsettling but also dangerous in its denial of the reality of others. And while the Course makes many statements that clearly repudiate solipsism and acknowledge the reality of others in their otherness, any student lacking advanced formal training in philosophy could be forgiven for concluding that the Course, like other models of consciousness-as-cause, is ultimately solipsistic.

In cleaning up the New Age mess and developing a curriculum that I knew was more truthful, more mature, deeper, more thorough, and actually capable of delivering on the promise of conscious creating, I didn’t realize that I had grabbed a philosophical tiger by the tail. The question of how the world can be at the same time subjective and objective—that is, an outpicturing of certain structures deep within our consciousness and also objectively “out there,” existing in its own right, independent of us, would require a great deal more than the Course was meant to sort out. It is a project I’ve been working on for the past year in the writing of two books, one now completed, the sequel in the works, that deconstruct the misconceptions and fallacies in the prevailing interpretations of quantum mechanics. The failure of the new physics to explain entanglement, it turns out, is not a scientific problem but a philosophical one—that is, the underlying assumptions about the nature of reality have been off from the beginning leading to flawed reasoning and untrue or contradictory conclusions. Finding a publisher for this two-book project, which as I see it completes the circle that I started drawing when I walked up to the blackboard and presented my disproof of solipsism at university, has been about as challenging, and I think I understand why. The treatment of the material defies categorization. Agents and editors don’t know what to make of it, because while it isn’t science, it deals with scientific matters in a philosophically demanding examination of the correspondence (entanglement) between the self and the world it observes, an issue that lives at the very heart of the new physics but also of philosophy. This is a far cry from the sort of pop nonsense warmed over and served up in “the Secret” and other so-called “law of attraction” come-ons that fail to recognize let alone address the solipsism problem inherent in the idea of consciousness-as-cause, but which, properly packaged, tend to make it onto talk shows and bestseller lists.

While I’m querying agents and publishers, I thought we might start the new year with some food for thought taken from my immersion in this material that suggests a revolutionary approach to solving problems, one that flies in the face of the common (and commonly unexamined) assumptions we make whenever we set about trying to extricate ourselves from some difficulty through the force of our will, only to find that despite our most sincere and diligent efforts, the situation persists.

Have you noticed that certain problems follow you wherever you go? Change cities, jobs, relationships—as though the problem knew where you were going and got there ahead of you, ready to stir up the same trouble all over again. These patterns of experience often run deeper than we know. While the most aware and given to self-work may have concluded that they originate in childhood dramas and traumas, they actually may be intergenerational, perhaps even ancestral patterns encoded in our DNA and passed down from time immemorial. Seeking expression, these ancient themes project themselves onto the screen of spacetime where they recreate the same suffering again and again, like captive ghosts rattling the same chains, for that is all they can do until they are released. Thus, while we think we’re making choices, we are like puppets manipulated by unconscious forces over which we have no control, except in those rare moments when we wake up as though from a dream, and glimpse the truth—that we’re battling some intractable foe that attacks us not from “out there” but from within, a foe that has grabbed us and will not let us go.

Our reality, then, is a house of mirrors, a mysterious and subtle system of reflections arranged to show us the deeper currents of ourselves. Engaging these reflections directly is futile, yet this is what we do when we attempt to impose our will upon the world or upon others. Neither the world nor others have any choice about how they show up for us because they are under the orders of the contradictions and false assumptions we inherited and carry and therefore must express. Our predicament is like that of a dreamer who dreams he’s fighting a monster that he can neither defeat nor escape. He may try a hundred tactics, but as it is his dream, he is only fighting himself. The way out is discovered when the dreamer awakens and realizes that his problem was a fiction, a construct of his sleeping consciousness, and that he was never in any real danger.

When we’re dreaming of monsters in our sleep, we are as a rule not aware that we could choose simply to wake up and “solve” the problem by relocating to the more inclusive, transcendent awareness of the waking state. In the same way, it can seem nearly impossible to “wake up” within the waking dream and break the cycle that perpetuates our “reincarnation” into the same problematic situation again and again. What would “waking up” even be when the dream is the waking dream?

The ancients knew the way. We begin to wake up when we stop allowing ourselves to be drawn into trying to force solutions through our will, and instead, simply practice witnessing—noticing what’s going on, watching, listening, but without reaction, judgment, or other involvement of the critical mind. This is the essence of Stoic wisdom, a practice also found in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism as well as various shamanic traditions east and west. Practicing detached awareness is the key to transcendence and disentanglement from the world’s relentless reflections, which as we have noted originate in the depths of the self. Interrupting the compulsive engagements of the entangled mind by stepping out of the world-drama onto the high ground of the witness interrupts the outpictured problem at its source.

This idea that we have within us the freedom to expand rather than constrict, to suspend the impetus of our ancestral inheritance even for a moment, makes sense of the idea that we are “radically responsible,” and to this extent, reveals the validity of qualified solipsism. In this choice to practice awareness rather than give ourselves once again to the turbulence of past patterns, we possess a key that can solve any problem we may find our world reflecting. It is simply not the key we were looking for, not the key we were expecting as we struggled to impose our will upon a world that has no power to save us or even respond to us at that level. The monster in the dream is not defeated by an act of courage or ingenuity or perseverance. It is defeated by our waking up. A dialectical shift in consciousness is required, and that is all that is required.

We are suggesting here that we can solve problems by doing nothing at all about them, provided that by “doing nothing” we mean practicing awareness. This is by no means a passive thing. Awareness is inherently alert, mindful, attentive, curious, responsive, and steady—like the ancient Stoics who cultivated their character regardless of the machinations of fate. There is no doubt that even relentless problems can shift spontaneously when we do, and it is helpful to remember that the most intimidating reflections are just that and nothing more. Practicing awareness clears the backlog of pain, contradiction, and fear-based belief that we all carry to some extent and keep dreaming into reality. In this new year, let us resolve to awaken in the waking dream and begin to explore the amazing correspondence between our inner and outer life, and the transformative power of accepting radical responsibility and getting our will out of the way.

24 January, 2020

Initiations

So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloudshadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall.
| Rainer Maria Rilke

Initiations

One of the most remarkable shifts we see in philosophical counseling sessions is the surfacing of seemingly independent forces in the psyche that call for a redefinition of self and reality. These forces do not ask our permission, but erupt with determination, purpose, and formidable if not unstoppable power when their hour comes ’round. They may arise from what Jung calls the “shadow,” from parts of us long denied or never acknowledged, from experiences of early trauma locked away in neural memory, or perhaps from even deeper regions of consciousness that extend beyond the local self we take ourselves to be. Outwardly, these intense internal transitions show up as external crisis situations that overwhelm us, demanding that we abandon beliefs and assumptions about reality and our relation to it that no longer work. Usually, clients struggling in the throes of this sort of foundering an old identity come to counseling in flight from it, but soon learn there is no escaping whatever is happening to them, that as the Borg of Star Trek Next Generation put it, “resistance is futile.” Whatever has their life by the throat is done waiting. Something bigger than their will has taken over. Like it or not, they are being initiated.

Sadly, Western civilization makes no provision for rites of passage from one stage of life to another. From studying tribal societies, however, we know that such initiations typically involve a wounding—perhaps a knife cut to the thigh or the knocking out of a tooth. The wounding acknowledges that the transition between identities is difficult and painful—the skin of self is not shed easily. But the containment of all this in ritual makes it far more accessible than it is for those of us in the West who sooner or later and without warning are likely to find ourselves abducted by inner forces that we cannot understand, violent forces that hold out no guarantee of a new identity as they systematically tear down the old one. The Sufis say that from conception to birth, the new human passes through 7,000 veils—3,500 losing the divine attributes and 3,500 taking on the earthly ones, and that the parent should always hold the infant when it cries, because it is remembering. Every subsequent birth in the course of a life has its contractions, its loss of a familiar and reassuring reality, its death of self and resurrection in a greater self.

As Jung pointed out, these reincarnations are not something we do; rather, they do us. At such times, there is only one wise direction to take: nonresistance. As a friend of mine once told me, “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.” What can be almost impossible to see heading into the turbulence of initiation is that there is a new and unimagined integration waiting on the other side to receive us. Death is always only half the story.

This is all well and good, until the flames are at the door. Then what—especially if we don’t have even the consolation of ritual to sustain us? A little reframing here can go a long way. The wisdom of Hawaiian shamanism, known in the West as Huna, tells us that there are four levels of reality: physical/rational, energetic/connection, symbolic/meaning, and mystical/oneness. At each level, respectively, awareness expands, taking in aspects of reality that the less expanded levels consider either incredible or crazy if they consider them at all. Each more expanded level conserves the less expanded ones, so that no aspect of self or reality is lost as we evolve. That said, the transitions can be bumpy to say the least, and more so as awareness expands.

At the physical/rational level, reality is engaged and understood in terms consistent with Newtonian physics and Aristotelian logic. As separateness rules here, we experience ourselves as separate from the world and from each other. The mind at this level operates rationally, analyzing (literally “dissecting”) things in order to conceptualize and categorize them. At the energetic/connection level, consciousness expands beyond the strictly physical/rational realm to take into account the quality of its interactions and transactions with others. At this level, for example, we might recognize that someone who is presenting an angry affect actually is deeply sad, or that someone offering a favor is not to be trusted. Energetic/connection awareness requires an empathic receptivity that goes beyond sensory data and reason, one that takes context and intention into account. Philosophical counselors, psychotherapists, and others in the helping profession typically operate at this reality level and may go beyond it to incorporate symbolic/meaning awareness, as well. Logotherapy, dream analysis, shamanism and phenomenology are some examples of reality models and methods that recognize and work with symbols and meaning as microcosms of reality. A shaman, for example, may work directly with a symbol in order to treat the condition it represents. Philosophical counseling also may work at the level of meaning to help clients reframe their experience, step clear of contradiction, and dialectically transcend suffering. Finally, at the most expanded level of reality, mystical/oneness, awareness expands to include the whole of existence. This is the experience of nirvana, satori, the true Self, the universal wave function—it goes by many names, all of them necessarily inadequate, since language is limited to duality and logic. Mystics, yogis, and shamans embody this awareness, which in spiritual texts is likened to reunion with the divine and associated with liberation from suffering.

The hidden currents of the psyche that flow along the continuum of these levels of reality carry us with them. In the transition from one to the other, we may feel as though it is reality itself that we are losing—which is why just knowing that there are other levels than the one we’ve always assumed can be more than a little reassuring and even can provide us with a place to stand for the time being. Every life has its initiations, its deaths and rebirths. Like physical birth, death itself may be an initiation into greater life. When it seems that all is lost, when nothing makes sense, and everything we thought we knew no longer works, we can still trust that life knows what it’s doing, and that the hands that fashioned us and our world will see us through.

30 November, 2019