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Mind, Introspection, Self-knowledge and the "External" World:
In part one I introduced the idea of introspection as an important path to knowledge. Knowledge not only about ourselves but about the world we experience. Self-exploration as a path to understanding the true nature of the mind, the canvas where all our experience takes place and through which knowledge is obtained. Introspection can also allow us to transcend boundaries, and where we place the boundary between ourselves and what we perceive as the external world inevitably determines the type of knowledge that we gain. Rupert Spira beautifully explains why the science of mind can be seen as the ultimate path to knowledge. He says:
“The mind’s knowledge of whatever it knows or perceives is only ever as good as its knowledge of itself. Whether the world that the mind experiences exists outside of itself – as some people believe – or whether the world that the mind experiences exists within itself – as everyone in fact experiences – in both cases, the mind’s knowledge of that world can only ever be as good as its knowledge of itself. And therefore, the highest endeavour that a mind can ever embark on is an investigation into its own essential nature. As such, the ultimate science is the science of mind” ~ Rupert Spira
The science of the mind, the science of the self, the science of consciousness…. Could the mystic’s path be the only route beyond the limits to which science and philosophy can take us, the only possible path to the Ultimate? But what is the mystic’s path? And what are mystical insights?
Mystical Insights, the Perennial Philosophy and Transcendence:
Mystical insights can be defined as an expression of knowledge or inner wisdom, usually reached through an altered state of consciousness, which can be achieved via meditation, fasting or the use of psychedelics for instance. Sometimes, mystical experiences can occur spontaneously, seemingly out of nowhere. A mystical insight is a direct experience of transcendence, of going beyond what was previously known, of experiencing reality beyond previously held boundaries. The sense of identity and sense of self expands. The self experiences itself from a less constrained, more fluid perspective than it does in an ordinary state of consciousness.
But how can we make sense of this knowledge gained by the mystic? Are there any common elements in all mystical experiences?
Aldous Huxley coined the term Perennial Philosophy, to describe the transcendental essence present in all mystical traditions, the common core in their teachings, based on certain elements shared in most mystical experiences. We are talking about knowledge gained through introspection, about subjective individual experiences which contain some common elements shared by mystics of all times.
One of my favourite physicists – Erwin Schrödinger – was very interested in mysticism. When referring to Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy, he wrote:
“Aldous Huxley published a precious volume which he called The Perennial Philosophy. It is an anthology from the mystics of the most various periods and the most various peoples. Open it where you will and you will find many beautiful utterances of a similar kind. You are struck by the miraculous agreement between humans of a different race, different religion knowing nothing about each other’s existence, separated by centuries and millennia, and by the greatest distances that there are on our globe.”
Mind & Matter
So what exactly is this knowledge gained by the mystic? Where does it come from? And how is it gained? It certainly does not seem to come from the senses or from rational thinking… Let’s explore the ideas of consciousness, transcendence and self-knowledge from the perspective of the Perennial Philosophy, that is, viewing consciousness, the self and our sense of identity as a hierarchy of ever-expanding spheres, or dimensional levels, in line with the circles or spheres analogy I used when talking about Godel’s theorem, or the Flatland analogy Carl Sagan used in his video.
All formulations of the Perennial Philosophy posit a hierarchic chain of consciousness, or we could say a hierarchic chain of perspectives (points of view, ways of experiencing, or identities of the self) where the self journeys from the lowest, most fragmentary level, to the highest level, the source, which includes all other levels within. Any lower level can be seen as an aspect of a higher level… and each level transcends, but also includes, all lower levels. As we move to higher levels, the more holistic and less fragmentary the perspective becomes. The levels are not separated or discrete, but mutually interpenetrating and interconnected. Some argue that the self’s journey is about transcending previous levels of existence and, eventually, perceive all levels from the highest or most inclusive perspective and, from there… realise that there were no real levels, separations or boundaries in the first place.
In the words of transpersonal psychologist and philosopher Ken Wilber: “The self eventually disidentifies with its present structure so as to identify with the next higher-order emergent structure. […] we say that the self detaches itself from its exclusive identification with that lower structure. It doesn’t throw the structure away, it simply no longer exclusively identifies with it. […] it transcends that structure […] and can thus operate on that lower structure using the tools of the newly emergent structure.”
So assuming new information and hence new knowledge becomes available when transcending the structure of a lower level, what metaphor can we use to explain the obfuscation of this information, the limitations of our awareness, of our knowledge, from the perspective of the lower level? Let’s say I have a mystical experience, I enter an altered state which sends me to a level of consciousness that transcends my ordinary, everyday waking consciousness. I then have access to ways of understanding, ways of experiencing myself – ways of experiencing reality – that my little ego hadn’t even fathomed before. The question is… why is this information not usually accessible to me when I am in the kitchen frying some eggs or in my car driving to the supermarket?
Brain as "whirlpool" or "filter" theories:
Perhaps, as some have suggested, the answer is that these apparent boundaries of existence are useful, that they are an effective evolutionary tool. Perhaps self-awareness carries with it an inevitable side effect: a temporary sense of separation, illusory boundaries created through a series of self-referential loops. Maybe self-awareness and a sense of separation are evolutionary useful strategies, invaluable mechanisms for the universe to know itself. They can be seen as a way of focusing, a way for the Universe to learn about its parts from within. Hence we could say that, in general, we tend to operate from within particular self-referential spheres of existence, whose apparent boundaries tend to limit our focus or awareness to a particular sphere only and the spheres within it.
For example, Henri Bergson, a French philosopher born in 1859, used the metaphor of the filter or reducing valve as a way to explain the brain’s function. I like how Aldous Huxley explains it in his book “The Doors of Perception”. He states:
“Reflecting on my experience, I find myself agreeing with the eminent Cambridge philosopher, Dr C. D. Broad, ‘that we should do well to consider much more seriously than we have hitherto been inclined to do the type of theory which Bergson put forward in connection with memory and sense perception. The suggestion is that the function of the brain and nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative and not productive. Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe. The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful.’ According to such a theory, each one of us is potentially Mind at Large. But in so far as we are animals, our business is at all costs to survive. To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funnelled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet.”
Aldous Huxley, “The Doors of Perception”
Bernardo Kastrup, author of “Meaning in Absurdity” and “Why Materialism is Baloney”, further expands on this idea from a more idealistic perspective. He says:
“The brain filter theory is not recent. It’s at least 100 years old. It started even before Henry Bergson, who was the first person to really elaborate on this in the late 1800s. But the idea there is that consciousness is a fundamental property of nature, maybe the one property of nature that’s irreducible, unbound, not subject to space-time limitations. […] But how can consciousness filter itself? That seems to be a self-referential contradiction. I try to come up with a couple of metaphors.
One of them is the metaphor of a whirlpool in a stream of water. If you go to a stream and you see a whirlpool, you can localize it. You can delineate its boundaries; you can point at it and say, “There is a whirlpool.” It is very concrete, it’s very defined. There is no question about how palpable and material it is. At the same time, there’s nothing to the whirlpool but water. It’s just made of water and yet it localizes water in a sort of loopy trajectory that sort of limits and filters down, if you will, limits the water molecules to a specific circular trajectory. It doesn’t allow those molecules to traverse the entire stream. That’s a kind of localisation mechanism, a kind of filtering-down mechanism in which water localizes itself in a whirlpool.
Could the brain be exactly such a thing? Could the brain be – as anything else according to Idealism – just a figment in consciousness, just an image in consciousness, and yet, as an image, represent a process through which consciousness localizes itself, just like water localizes itself in a whirlpool? If that is the case, saying that the brain generates mind is as absurd as saying that a whirlpool generates water.” Bernardo Kastrup
Religious studies scholar Huston Smith explains this concept using the metaphor of a one-way mirror. Imagine the apparent divisions or boundaries between levels or spheres of consciousness as one-way mirrors. When we look up from below, we only see the reflection of the level we now occupy. But when we look down from above, the mirrors are completely transparent, like glass. As we journey through the levels, there is a dissolution of boundaries, and on the highest plane, all mirrors are removed, there is no more bouncing back and forth but complete transparency.
Fragmentation, Transcendence & Wholeness:
Mirrors, whirlpools, filters… The core idea behind these concepts is pretty much the same: the self divides itself into parts which become localised self-referential feedback loops through which the self can learn about itself. In other words, by first limiting its perspective, by confining itself to the unique perspective of the individual localised parts, then journeying from the perspective of the individual parts back to the perspective of whole, and doing this back and forth, again and again, transitioning between perspectives, over and over, the self can truly gain knowledge about itself, learn and hence grow and evolve. Think of it as an effective evolutionary tool. From wholeness to fragmentation. From fragmentation to wholeness. Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat. Gaining new knowledge, learning, growing, evolving.
I like how Ken Wilber explains this idea of fragmentation and wholeness and the idea that the self can only properly operate on a lower level once it has learnt to transcend that level and integrate it to a higher level, viewing it from a wider perspective. For instance, let’s look at the example of infant development. In its first stages of development, the child sees itself as undifferentiated from its physical environment, and from its mother. In other words, the child starts operating from a framework of wholeness. It is not until the child learns to differentiate, fragment its sense of self into parts and consequently transcend those parts, that is, it is not until the child perceives itself as something different and separate but, paradoxically, at the same time larger than the physical environment that the child can start to move objects in a coordinate fashion. For as long as the child identifies itself with its surroundings without having differentiated himself first, it cannot successfully operate on them. The child goes from wholeness, to fragmentation or separation, then transcendence then integration of this separation to a higher level. Only then can the child use its body to move objects by using its will.
I find it fascinating how all of these concepts relate to the way a mother and a child talk about themselves with each other. Have you noticed that a mother and a small child often speak to each other in the 3rd person? Personally, I still find myself telling my 6-year-old son things like “Mummy is cooking dinner now sweet pea, and she would really appreciate it if Dylan cleared this mess now”. Why do I do that? I keep wondering… It seems to me like an attempt to emphasise the difference between the “I” and the “You” or you could say, between one part of the self and another part of the self, in a way that feels much easier to understand for the child. We objectify the fragmented parts of the self in a more obvious manner, we symbolise them in the 3rd person, as objects, to make more sense of the fact that mother and child are now operating as separate entities. I’ll come back to this in part 3, when I talk about one of my psychedelic experiences. It is actually quite fascinating to witness how not only one’s sense of self but also the symbolism used to refer to the parts of the self dramatically change as one moves to a different sphere of consciousness.
And of course, this idea of moving from wholeness, to fragmentation, to transcendence, to integration… it applies to all stages of psychological and spiritual development, in adult life as well. From identification with the ego, to acknowledging our Shadow self, to integration of the Shadow… and so on.
I like how Wilber explains the concept of the seer not being able to quite see itself in its wholeness. He states…
“At each level of development, one cannot totally see the seer. No observing structure can observe itself observing. One uses the structures of that level as something… to perceive and translate the world – but one cannot perceive and translate those structures themselves, not totally. That can only occur from a higher level.”
For example, we can look at the ego as a particular structure, a particular point of view of the self. And we can look at it as a useful evolutionary tool which can be transcended and eventually integrated within a larger structure. However, the ego should not be seen as a mistake, but simply as a self-referential, localised point of awareness which has an important function; it has its advantages and – like any other finite structure – it also has its limitations.
The Ego and its Important Function:
Rupert Spira explains why the ego is not a mistake. He says…
“The ego is just a limitation on our true nature. […] Awareness – knowingly and willingly – limits itself in order to assume the form of the finite mind, around whom the ego revolves […] in order to make real a part of its infinite potential. So… it is a kind of sacrifice. Consciousness gives birth to the world within itself and then it loses itself in that world. In other words, it becomes an ego in that world, and then has to extricate itself from its own creativity. So it’s not a mistake; it’s ignorant but not in a pejorative sense. It’s ignorant but not stupid. It’s ignorant in the sense that it does require the ignoring of consciousness’ own being; consciousness must overlook or fall asleep to itself and as a result rise in the form of the finite mind. […] So don’t see the ego as something bad, something wrong, something that shouldn’t have happened. […] See it more as a temporary limitation on your true nature that you have freely assumed in order to bring the world into apparent existence, and that you are equally free at any moment to retrace your steps as an apparent ego to discover your true nature.”
So… if the ego has its own function, its own reason to exist, neither attempting to dissolve it nor making it our enemy by constantly vilifying it will help us in our spiritual journey. But how can we make the ego our best friend? Well, perhaps the answer is simply that we need to understand it better. A deeper understanding of the ego can come by transcending the egoic framework of reference and then integrating it into a higher structure of consciousness. This is where Western psychology has something to say and can be of great help. We can transcend the ego through integration of ego and the Shadow self into an expanded sense of identity, into a larger sense of self. We can expand our sense of “I” by including more elements into the personal self than were previously recognised.
By transcending the ego, the ego is seen as just a small part of the self rather than being the total self. In this way, the ego can become an object of observation which can be better understood precisely because now it can be observed from the outside, as it were, and be recognised as a part of the self which interacts with other existing parts of the self, such as the Shadow, which previously we had not been consciously aware of. In other words, the seer can now see its former sense of self as just a part of a larger observing self, it can see parts of itself from a higher level structure, from a higher sphere of consciousness. And this is what brings new information, the possibility of new knowledge and a deeper understanding, and hence the possibility of personal and spiritual growth.
Wrapping it all up: Gödel, Incompleteness, Object, Subject, Transcendence:
Ok… so we’ve reached the end of Part 2. I’d like to finish this video by quoting Norman Friedman, and in particular, the paragraph which inspired me to make this series of videos. I think it pretty much summarises all the ideas covered so far in part 1 and 2 – including Gödel. Here it goes…
“Gödel's theorem can also be understood from a self-referencing point of view. If anything is to see itself, it must literally cut itself in two. One part becomes the object and the other part the viewer. The portion called the viewer is not part of the object to be viewed and as a result is not seen. The total self is then incompletely described. To overcome this problem, the total entity must be seen 'outside' itself or from a wider context. In essence, the original total self must be transcended. As one can see, this method is never-ending; the requirement for transcendence goes on indefinitely because a portion is always missing. Knowledge is never complete, so we end up with an infinite hierarchy of levels. As the French artist and writer Jean Cocteau phrased it, 'There are mysteries within the mystery, gods above gods…That's what is called infinity.'”
~ Norman Friedman, Bridging Science and Spirit