PhilosophyCenter PhilosophyCenter | Musings
PhilosophyCenter | Musings

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.