From Rand to Wilber.
How did a right wing, capitalist rationalist turn into a left wing spiritual meditator? The journey is interesting and so I’ve tried to tell the story. I will add chapters as time goes on. I’m not sure what the limit is for this “page” thing, so it may take on a different incarnation in time.
Chapter 1 – The Discovery of Reason and Ayn Rand
While driving through Florida I passed a billboard on I-95 that made me go back and take a second look. The sign simply said, in huge letters, “Who is John Galt?” A few of you may recognise this. A few months ago at one of the TIFF screenings, a young student sitting beside me was buried in Atlas Shrugged, so Ayn Rand can’t be totally passé. In fact, with the upcoming movie and the Tea Partiers holding her up as a cult hero, she may be very much coming back into fashion.
My father introduced me to a lot of (contradictory) philosophies when I was in my early teens. While I don’t know how much I actually understood at the time, his after dinner talks about everything from capitalism to the fourth dimension inarguably left a deep impression on me. One of the first he presented to me was the work of Ayn Rand. I read The Fountainhead when I was about 15 and Atlas Shrugged about a year later. John Galt is the primary character in Atlas Shrugged and the central symbol of Rand’s philosophy. “Who is John Galt?” appears in the novel as a mysterious rallying cry for people dedicated to saving a crumbling American society.
My early and mid teens marked my entrance into the age of reason. I actually don’t remember a lot of what happened before Grade 9, but some time during that year it was like a switch being flipped. I became much more vocal and argumentative, enjoying the art of discussion and often exasperating my teachers with my contrary nature. (Many of my colleagues would argue that little has changed.) As such, I found many things in Rand’s Objectivist philosophy to be appealing and graduated to books of essays such s The Virtue Of Selfishness and Capitalism. Clearly, these readings either fuelled my transition into rationalism (orange level) or perhaps were fuelled by it. Either way, being rational and logical were extremely important to my emerging personality, and so rationalism in the form of Ayn Rand’s ideology dovetailed to become a really solid fit.
From an Integral Psychology point of view, I was emerging from a red or amber (pre-rational) state of mind to an orange (rational) state of mind. The little I recall of that pre-rational state of mind is one that lacked goals. I was a good kid who followed the rules much of the time and didn’t really give much thought to things like religion or philosophical questions. I kept to myself a lot of the time, with little involvement in sports or social activities. I watched a lot of TV. Frankly, it is all a bit of a blur. However, as I said, about mid grade 9 everything changed as I woke up to a world of discussions and logical arguments. I remember being invited to join a discussion group made up of guys who were mostly college students and was often complimented for being able to hold my own with them. Science, reason and capitalism are often associated with this level, so Rand’s approach was almost tailor made for emerging “orange”.
Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism championed the rational and the primacy of self along with the heroic status of the human will. Beauty was something that was man-made, not natural. In Atlas Shrugged, John Galt was a staunch individualist who, like the mythological Atlas, represented the great minds that were holding up the Earth (or its civilization).
In my late teenage years, I briefly had a job working for a company where the owner idealized Rand’s philosophy. It was a food packing plant where train cars full of fruit and vegetables would arrive and would have to be repackaged to sell in supermarkets. The owner had acquired a labour force of Portuguese workers. While the factory was on the outskirts of Toronto, the workers all lived in cheap housing downtown. The owner purchased a bus which would go down and pick up the workers each day and bring them home after work. The catch was that the bus would not return home until the owner wanted it to. Dealing with a perishable product, once a shipment arrived, it needed to be repackaged and sent on as quickly as possible. Sometimes shipments arrived at 7:00 p.m., meaning that work would continue late into the night. The average work day was 12 hours. Workers were paid minimum wage. If any workers had their own transportation, it was made clear to them that overtime was not optional and that anyone not remaining to work late nights would soon be out of a job.
I developed a good understanding of what was happening because the owner took a liking to me once he found out about my interest in Ayn Rand and would often come and talk to me during lunch or break times. He was a young, successful entrepreneur, who, I think, was looking for some acknowledgement for what he was doing. I have no problem imagining that his friends and family probably regarded him as an ogre who was exploiting his workers. I didn’t judge what he was doing when I spoke to him, trying mainly to understand his reasons for working the way he did. I was working to raise money for a trip to Europe, and so the extra hours didn’t really bother me, but during the time I worked there it is fair to say that I had no other life besides the work. No social life was possible; if I had had a family, I would never have seen them unless I brought them along to work as well. His Portuguese workers were grateful to have a job and afraid to complain, but you could see that they felt very constrained by the situation. I got a brief, but first had view of what employment must have been like in the early 1900s when capitalistic Barons were able to coerce workers to whatever conditions they desired, and this not being too far removed from the aristocratic Barons and serfdom. This realization was probably one of the factors that pushed me forward from Rand’s ideology and the orange level.
I emerged into the orange level from a fairly nebulous amber level. I had not been indoctrinated into any religious viewpoint or any particular cultural perspective. My parents were pretty liberal and remained unaffiliated with any kind of religion or ideology. Therefore, my transition to orange was fairly painless. More importantly, it was done without the need to transcend major baggage. I believe that the indoctrinated Christian who transcends into orange will be making a more reluctant and rebellious decision, with much more at stake. To leave behind a traditional religious upbringing is a major act of rebellion. The intensity of that decision has to be fairly forceful and, as a result, the intensity of the atheism or the rationalism that results is also forceful, like the adolescent who has to be more rebellious in order to transcend traditional parents.
The theory of Cognitive Dissonance dictates that a person making this kind of difficult transition will have a much stronger attachment to his/her new level, with a much greater chance of fanaticism developing. This would be fanaticism relating to the supremacy of reason. It is not only religious views that can be dogmatic. Supposedly rational, orange views can be very emotional and fanatical as well. The newly discovered rationalism needs to be fed, often by ridicule of differing views or a belief in logic that strongly excludes and condemns all other views. In hindsight, this would be a good view of Rand’s Objectivism.
Facets of this rationalist world view remain with me to this day. When you transcend a level, you do not necessarily reject it totally. In a healthy transcendence, the old ideas are subsumed by the new ones. There is a stage in the Native American Medicine Wheel in the west which represents taking stock of your ideas, consolidating and separating the good ones from the bad ones before moving on. Development is like a spiralling, ever enlarging circle. As such I still have many views which would be considered conservative and strongly orange. I value achievement and hard work, believing that people need to be able to profit and benefit from those qualities. I believe that society has an elite intelligencia, without which we would likely not be able to maintain civilization. I believe in self reliance and independence, and a social order which allows those qualities to flourish. And I have strong rational standards, viewing the world as a sceptic.
The important lesson came when I realized that rationalism itself was subject to the scrutiny of scepticism.
In high school, I would logically argue the strict rationalist line, but by the end of high school I was beginning to doubt what I found myself saying. I intuitively knew that something was missing from this strictly rationalist view. Part of this was my discomfort with some of the consequences that were unavoidable from this ideology (like the food packing plant); some was a slow introduction of new influences from other sources, and part was definitely the fact that I grew up in the Hippie generation, where these kinds of conservative ideas were not popular with youth. I can remember distinct factions within my school between conservatives and more liberally minded youth. I often bounced back and forth between them, but when I argued or acted on the conservative side, I was often dissatisfied with myself. (On the other hand, what if often saw on the liberal side was irresponsible and irrational.)
Healthy transcendence usually begins with this kind of self-questioning and scepticism. In order to move on, the first thing you have to understand is that there are things that you don’t know.
Chapter 2 – Oupsensky and Gurdjieff
At the same time, my father introduced an entirely different philosophical ideology (model). The work of P.D. Ouspensky and Georges Gurdjieff were intertwined in a book called In Search Of The Miraculous, describing the possible evolution of human psychology. (Actually, the best, brief description of this philosophical discipline can be found in a short book by Ouspensky titled The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution.)
One of Ouspenky’s early books was called A New Model Of The Universe. Here was a model of the universe that was totally different from Rand’s Objectivism. While Rand presented an absolute,… an image of human achievement that had reached its pinnacle…, Ouspenky and Gurdjieff saw human consciousness and cosmology as an evolving continuum.
Essentially the theory of Ouspensky and Gurdjieff is that most humans are without independent will. They are no more than machines, processing input stimulus and producing behaviour as output. This is the classic deterministic mode. In Search of the Miraculous presents reality as an interplay of energies, controlled by several simple laws, including the Law of Octaves and the Law of Three. Through exercises that promoted the development of psychological awareness, one could escape that determinism and progress towards true will. Those who acted like machines were said to be “asleep”, while, obviously, those who had developed will power were said to be “awake”. (“Asleep” is what Tom Brown would later call the “mindless gray masses”.) Man was described as being not a single unified personality, but rather a multiplicity of “selves” battling for control of the psyche. (This idea has later been developed by such renowned psychologists as Hal and Susan Stone.) The mechanism of the mind was further described as having a number of functioning centres, each with control over different elements of behaviour. It had an almost computer-like feel to it, long before computers were a common idea.
While this is an esoteric philosophy, it is also one which still has a strong basis in reason. It is almost mathematical, and, indeed, Ouspensky was a famous mathematician before working with Gurdjieff. Therefore, it was not surprising that this world view became appealing to me in my later stages of rational development. It retains the key element of reason, but takes a step beyond the static philosophy of Ayn Rand. I wasn’t satisfied with egocentrism, capitalism and pure empiricism. I couldn’t believe that Rand was the pinnacle. In retrospect, it is clear that this is the first stage of orange rationality turning into green multiple perspectives. Ouspensky’s cosmos was one with sliding hierarchies and a Hegelian interplay of forces, becoming ever more complex as one evolved one’s perspective. In these qualities, it had a very similar nature to Wilber’s Integral theories, although I’ve never seen any connection mentioned.
Most importantly, it introduced the idea of self-improvement and developing awareness as an ongoing process, -an idea which has permeated the rest of my life and has been the driving force behind my various engagements in education and pedagogy. This idea of transcendence was not compatible with Rand’s Objectivism. When reading her books, I’d noticed that her heros were larger than life and her ideas seemed unattainable for most people. She never provided much direction on how to attain these heroic and rather idealistic qualities; Ouspensky and Gurdjieff filled that void.
While Rand’s philosophy was static, this alternative view of the Forth Way was dynamic. It didn’t view humans as heroes, but rather as broken machines that needed to be fixed. And this view agreed far more with my observations of what was going on around me. A typical but observant teenager, I was quick to see the faults in our society and the people around me, along with hypocrisy and ineffectiveness. It was very apparent to me in my teens that humans were very flawed. I realized that we should not be satisfied with the status quo of our human minds, but needed to strive towards improvement and to become more than “the one eyed man in the valley of the blind.”
Ouspensky led to Colin Wilson and his ground-breaking book, The Outsider. Wilson was often called the father of the “New Existentialist” movement. I had looked at the existentialists and found them lacking. They were good at pointing out the problems and asking the questions, but seemed all too content to wallow in their own nihilism. They didn’t seem to have any answers. The Outsider is an examination of people in the depths of existentialist angst who had started to overcome the flaws and inertia of human nature. Often they would do it in a crippled, half-baked way, becoming sensitive but damaged poets and other artists. Wilson looked at the problem and focused on the few who had taken steps to overcome and solve the problem. These people usually exhibited strongly developed faculties of will and awareness. He called them “outsiders”.
Wilson claimed that these people commonly overcame their inertia by simply “making an effort” to be involved in the world. All to often, through my life and currently, I see people suffering from inertia who simply are not making an effort to be involved in life. They are passive and complain a lot about being bored. The more one suffers from inertia, the more intense the involvement has to be. Those who have drifted or sank into melancholy have to kick start the system by making a supreme effort instead of wallowing in a morass of self-despair. It became clear to me that life was about getting off your ass and doing something, and that lesson has served me well.
I was very surprised to learn that Wilson had a great respect for Ouspensky and Gurdjieff, later devoting a full book to each of them. (Up until then, I had thought them to be obscure, unknown authors that my father had pulled from some secret dark corner.) Although I have come to look at a lot of different world views over the course of my life, Gurdjieff and Ouspensky’s Fourth Way philosophy has always been an anchor point. As I said earlier, I believe that it was a precursor to Wilber’s Integral theories and has played a big part in steering me in that direction. It has played a big part in a lot of the psychological and developmental reading I did subsequently, including Millman, Stone, Trungpa and even Carlos Castaneda.
So far we are only talking about my philosophical development up to the age of 19. As you can see, my indoctrination into a variety of world views came early and rapidly. These three distinct models (Rand, Ouspensky and Wilson) had some overlap. All emphasized the fact that human nature could aspire to higher things. All involved a kind of esoteric psychology. All had an elitist streak to them. All (though perhaps less so Wilson) presented their ideas in very rational ways. As a teenager I became very “romantic” (in the classical sense of the word), wanting to find a higher purpose in life. My rational foundation started to look at itself sceptically and from different perspectives. Subjectivity began to impose itself on objectivity.
Similar but different models began to shake up my objective world, propelling me up Wilber’s scale from orange to green, where multiple models and points of view are acknowledged and respected.
Chapter 3 – The Deconstruction of Reality
Rand’s Objectivist philosophy was based entirely on logic and empiricism. If you couldn’t see it, touch it or demonstrate it, then it wasn’t real. Reality was materialistic and deterministic. Our physical reality was all that there was and it operated in predictable ways.
Gurdjieff and Ouspensky’s philosophy of the “Fourth Way” was still based on logic and reason, but the science that it explained was not always empirical. It was a psychology and science of what could be achieved. Mankind was great, not as he was, but in what he could become. Our present state was largely incapable of perceiving the flow of energies and the levels of being which were the building blocks of reality. And yet the whole theory was very scientific and mathematical in nature.
The idea that man was incomplete was furthermore supported by the ideas of Colin Wilson in The Outsider. Wilson paraded the flaws of mankind in a way that resonated with my disillusion with human nature. This was a period of time when we were dealing with the Viet Nam war, the threat of nuclear holocaust and the late 60s music of social rebellion. In my mid and late teenage years, I was unlikely to accept Rand’s heroic man. It didn’t ring true with what I was observing. Man was flawed, -so flawed that he might destroy the planet. The jump from Rand to Ouspensky, fuelled by Wilson, was not hard to understand.
In 1965 I was 12 years old. In 1970 I was 17 years old. Those are important dates, because it puts me square in the middle of the cultural revolution, -the hippie revolution-, of that period. One of the most important new ideas to arise during that period was the idea of consciousness and altered consciousness. Up till then, few people talked about consciousness as something that was subjective. In the mid 50s, Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, wrote a collection of essays called The Doors Of Perception in which he talked about his psychedelic experiences under the influence of hallucinogenic mushrooms. Up till that time, drugs were mostly of the opium and marijuana type, not the kind that evoked hallucinations. It was new ground, soon to be followed by Timothy Leary who advocated the use of mind blowing LSD. With drug experiences came shifts in consciousness. This kind of experimentation with consciousness was very disturbing and threatening to the old-guard conservative orange establishment. But it kicked loose ideas and concepts which were previously unknown.
I didn’t partake in either of these drugs. My personal drug experiences were restricted to a few years of pot use in my early 20s and one crazy night on MDA, of which I can remember nothing, but my friends tell me it was quite interesting. (Unfortunately, this was before video tape.) However, the culture of consciousness was everywhere. Strobe lights and coloured projections were in the clubs and concerts. Movies such as Altered States explored different states of consciousness which could be attained with and without drugs. Even psychological theorists such as R.D. Laing suggested that various forms of schizophrenia were just different states of consciousness which should be respected (which was a clear case of misplaced subjectivism). The cult of subjective consciousness was everywhere. Pure reason was toppled from its pedestal. Perhaps reason and empirical observation were limited and not the only way of looking at things.
While I was surrounded by this culture, two books in particular presented these ideas to me. The first was The Tao of Physics by Capra. This was the first exposure that I had to quantum physics. Capra described the strange, paradoxical world of sub-atomic physics and compared it to certain eastern spiritual traditions such as Taoism, Buddhism and Hinduism. Once again, my forays into the spiritual and metaphysical world were based on a foundation of physics. The Tao of Physics showed me that even the cutting edge scientists of our time were willing to admit that there were things about reality that didn’t fit logic and classical empiricism. Capra talked about the Heisenburg Uncertainty Principle and the idea of co-determinism in particle theory. You can delve more deeply into these ideas on your own as there are better books on the subject out now, but suffice it to say that scientists were getting results that conflicted strongly with objective reality. Scientists sometimes found that their own empirical observations were dependent on their subjective expectations, or, in other words, their results depended on what they were thinking at the time.
As a result of reading Capra’s book, several years later I took a university course in Taoism which opened my eyes to a whole other type of divine meaning. To me, God was what was taught in church. He was the gray-bearded patriarch who caused floods and turned people into salt. Now, since reading Rand I was a pretty hard nosed atheist, but any theistic notions I had were based on that traditional view of God. In Taoism I learned that a divine, spiritual presence didn’t have to be that traditional figure. God transformed from a HIM to a universal IT of creative energy. While I still wasn’t sold, I found this far more understandable than the fire and brimstone God of the churches. Within the Taoist writings of the Chuang Tsu I discovered a wisdom that was more accessible than what I’d found in the Bible and which I regarded with a strong affinity. Later I found that Albert Einstein believed in something similar. He was not a Taoist, but rather a Deist, who believed that an impersonal but positive, divine energy permeated everything. This was not the God that Rand objected to. Like many atheists today, Rand took the easy route and targeted the superstitious mythology of traditional Christian religions. Rand and modern atheists seldom take on the more subtle spiritual beliefs in their arguments.
Between my introduction to quantum physics and to Taoism (which came together in The Tao Of Physics),I was able to look at reality in a whole new way. Reality is not absolute, but rather qualified. Our human perceptions are limited to a thin slice of all perceptions possible. We cannot perceive outside a narrow band of light or outside a narrow auditory range. We can’t smell the world the way a dog does. The perception of our world is entirely dependent on the limitations of our senses. Other animals perceive differently and it is obvious that there is lots to perceive that is denied us. Hence, reality is not as we see it. Furthermore, quantum physics says that what we sense as solid objects is little more than empty space between atoms, held together by force fields. More modern theories of quantum physics and cosmic reality are even more disassociated from conventional reality, talking about parallel universes and holographic structures. It claims that our minds see a reality that not exactly the true reality (whatever that is) but rather a holographic projection. Our minds project ideas like linear space and time, but that may just a product of our brains and our language.
Let’s just say that between altered consciousness and quantum physics, conventional reality took a pretty big hit.
The second book (or actually, set of books) that strongly influence me at this time were the works of Carlos Castaneda. The first three books by Castaneda were The Teachings of Don Juan, A Separate Reality and Journey To Ixtland. He started as an anthropology student studying the Yaqui Indians of Mexico. His primary contact in the tribe was an old man named Don Juan, who would secretly slip him drugs (mostly mescaline) and lead him on adventures of the mind. As time went on, in the third book Castaneda finally realizes that Don Juan has been training him to be a brujo, or tribal sorcerer. The drug trips were designed to dislodge Castaneda’s sense of reality so that he could enter a ‘separate reality’ in which he could do things that were impossible in this reality. Intermingled with these often humorous drug trips was a narration about the nature of this extended, different reality that could be accessed through altered consciousness.
In the fourth book, Tales of Power, Don Juan, through Castaneda, describes the tonal and the nagual, which for me translated into Ouspensky’s personality and essence, or the idea of nirvana as described in Buddhist or Taoist meditation. This fourth book is, undoubtedly, the best work of the series, but it would be difficult to read without at least preceding it with the third book.
Later, it became questionable as to whether Don Juan ever existed, or whether Castaneda made the whole thing up, but it didn’t matter. His ideas are messy and in retrospect I have a hard time accepting them, largely because the use of drugs and their effects are so drastic. In one of the final books, Castaneda asks Don Juan why he used drugs to push him into altered states if, as it became apparent, it wasn’t necessary. Don Juan’s reply was, “Because you were too stupid for any other method to work.”
But it inspired an idea that has been central to my thinking ever since. Most of the philosophers that I’d been accepting were repeating one central thing; there is an essence of mind that has been covered by the clutter and layers of personality. To rediscover that essence is important to understanding consciousness. The personality is the source of bias and complexity. While reason is good, it is not everything, and perhaps to recapture that essence would be a positive step. Wilson spotlighted the clutter of the mind and its ultimate impact on the psyche. Ouspensky talked openly about personality and essence, and how the trick was to make essence the master. Taoism and meditation spoke about calming the troubled waters of the mind and seeking the simple path. Castaneda presented an ancient culture which had secrets which were lost in the conquests. His tonal and nagual spoke of a core of consciousness from which we’d become detached and with which we needed to become reacquainted.
The use of drugs to achieve this always seemed suspicious to me. Leary had used LSD to help reform prison convicts, but it was part of a carefully planned program. My observation of drug use among acquaintances was not so positive and showed a bunch of kids just flailing around, not knowing what they were doing and often getting into difficulty. Drugs may kick start the mind in looking at alternate consciousness, but it often had many other undesirable side affects. For every one person I saw who had a positive experience with drugs, I saw a dozen who were damaged or just aimless.
Between my first and second year of university I took the leap to leave school for a year and travel through Europe. This experience was my drug trip, propelling me into alternative states of consciousness and forcing me to fully participate in life. Wilson was right. You had to get out there and do something. Sitting at home and getting a cheap thrill of drugs, or getting drunk every weekend was just the lazy way out, and since little effort went into any other part of those lives, little satisfaction came from it.
I see the same danger now from preoccupation with computer games, which might be considered just another type of drug.
CHAPTER 4: NATURAL ATTRACTION
Between my first and second year of university I decided to take a break and travel. It was the best decision I’ve ever made.
For five months, armed with a backpack and a Eurail Pass, I crisscrossed Europe and dabbled in Northern Africa. The stories from those travels would fill a book by themselves, but let me give you a taste:
– Breaking into a castle in Portugal in the dead of night in order to try to recover a lost roll of film.
– Riding to Marakesh on a bus full of chickens and goats.
– Having a hashish addled night in Casablanca where we all went to see a martial arts move in a theatre powered by a hand generator.
– Breaking into the Elvis Presley Fan Club in northern Paris at 3 a.m. in the morning.
– Staying for a week in an old monastery up in the mountains of Mallorca.
– Finagling hundreds of dollars worth of free tickets to the Cannes Film Festival.
– Wandering around aimlessly in a small Austrian town on Easter Weekend and having families take me in off the street to feed me.
– Sitting for hours on a park bench in Vienna, under a statue of Johan Strauss, waiting for a Buddha-like experience, committed to not getting up until I discovered the purpose of my life.
And those are only the ones that I can tell you about. It was a wild time, where I polished up a sense of independence that no one really understood when I returned, and which has stuck with me ever since. The other thing that has stuck with me is a love of travelling. I have a strong need to pull up roots and hit the road. There is a freedom and a break from routine that hits you when you’re travelling. You’re likely to have thoughts that wouldn’t normally come to you; your perspective is usually fresh and out of the daily rut. People often talk about going on a trip and discovering yourself; I can truly say that I did, in fact, do that.
That time spent on a park bench in Vienna was the equivalent of my Vision Quest. The time on the bench was just the culmination. The entire trip was a Vision Quest and those hours were just the crystallization of all the experiences. What I learned in those hours was just the nucleus of what was to follow, but I have remained true to the essence of that illumination. I determined that if one wanted to be a positive force in the universe, one could really only reliably influence as far as one could touch. It was in that inspiration that I found my calling to become a teacher. I don’t think that it really was amoung my goals previous to that point. My grades were good enough that I could realistically go into any field that I wanted. Teaching was the vehicle by which I could be true to my own values. Understand that “teaching” was not just a profession. Anyone who examines my life knows that teaching was the prime directive both in and out of schools. In fact, I often felt that more could be accomplished outside of schools than could in.
During the summer that I turned 16, a random event changed the course of my life. A friend at school worked at a local day camp which happened to be owned by my Gym teacher. A meeting was arranged between the teacher and me regarding a summer job. I had had no interest in a summer job. It all just kind of happened, very much due to the orchestration by this friend, to whom I will always be indebted. For three years I was a day camp counsellor, and then for three years after that I ran the Camping program which taught wilderness skills and supervised the overnights. Did I know anything about wilderness skills at the time? No. Most days I would pick up the BSA Handbook to learn the knots, lashing or other skills that I would need for the next day. The campers were not demanding. Many of the younger campers ended up just making pudding, with a fair number of pudding fights.
It was during this time at the day camp that I first came into contact with the ideas of Steve Van Matre. He was an outdoor educator, originally from Wisconsin, who released several books, including the original “Acclimatization” and “Acclimatizing”. At the core of Van Matre’s approach were two principal ideas. One was that anything worth doing was worth doing right. He was very particular that there be proper preparation and organization for his programs. They often involved elaborate settings or props. The second idea was that important to foster a love for nature by understanding its complexity and by using awe inspiring activities. People could not be expected to preserve and protect Nature if they didn’t love it. The idea of awareness that went beyond the sensory also permeated his program. It was, I think, the important role of awareness which captured my interest and devotion to the program.
After my six years at the day camp, the Director told me that I had outgrown the setting and that I should consider branching out on my own. What followed was three years of Outdoor Discovery Unlimited, a program that was principally run by myself with a small staff, and which was designed to pay my way through university. (I’m not sure, however, to what extent our meagre profits managed to do that.) The three summers, though, were filled with programs for youth which involved standing camps and canoe trips, all of which depended heavily on Van Matre’s nature awareness program. We waded through swamps and had blindfolded walks through the woods. Our most ambitious programs included hikes in Algonquin, Killarney and even a two week canoe trip to Moosonee.
Why does this merit so much mention here?
My involvement in teaching wilderness skills started as an accident, but what drew me to it was the feeling that it was the right setting for teaching awareness. Many of the ideas I was reading, involving consciousness expansion and awareness building were rooted in nature. Taoism was very much a discipline and philosophy rooted in the wisdom of nature. Nature was seen as being more authentic in comparison with the bustle of the modern world where commercialism, pollution and urban starkness was seen as mind numbing and soul killing. Consciousness seemed to involve the subtraction of distraction, which was more easily accomplished in the wilderness. As I will discuss later, Chaos Theory became an important part of my world view, and nature was much more akin or accessible to Chaos than was the man made world.
There is a quantum physics experiment where a laser emitting a red frequency is fired at increasingly short bursts. The results show that at micro bursts, the frequency of the laser beam varies from red to other colours. The normal red frequency is only dependable when there is enough of the beam present so that variation cancels itself out to produce the accepted, expected frequency. Reality, it seems, is the result of an averaging out of varying probabilities. I remember contemplating that idea while floating in a canoe in the middle of a Killarney lake. My meditation aimed at feeling and encompassing the community of life surrounding me, and I realized that there must be a threshold where the wilderness community was and was not capable of survival. The wilderness had to reach a certain quality and size in order for natural community to exist. Below that threshold, the expression of nature is just trees, plants and isolated animals. Like the laser beam, community is a process of probabilities cancelling each other out to result in a sort of probability consensus. Individual components show great variance, but collect enough components, whether they be photons or organisms and they coalesce into something greater. In this way, chaos theory and evolution may be linked.
I’ve lately come to believe that reality functions the same way. Modern quantum theory postulates that at any given instance an infinite number of choices come into being for the future. Some believe that all of these possibilities move forward, creating a new universe. I prefer to believe that this richness of possibilities cancel each other out, resulting in a single reality that is the probability consensus. The only reason that I prefer that explanation is that the alternative is unimaginable. It also seems the simpler explanation. Should evidence to the contrary arise, I’m happy to change my mind.
Nature is more closely allied to the idea of evolution. More and more I became aware of the role of evolution. In Taoism, the Tao is a positive force which permeates everything in reality. It is not a deity, but just a force. It is the antithesis to entropy, as a force in the universe which moves towards creation rather than destruction. The creation of solar systems and biological evolution is the result of this force. (We’ll discuss later the fact that modern physicists claim it is all possible without any such force.)
Around 1975 I attended a very strange conference sponsored by the university’s computer science department, the Judith Merrill Science Fiction Library, ant the Toronto Buddhist Society. Yes, that’s right; in 1975 such things were possible. The chief guest speaker at the conference was Dr. Rudy Rucker, who was the ideal guest as he was both a science fiction writer and was also a leading developer of Chaos Theory as applied to computer programs. He brought with him the first desk top computer that I’d ever seen. (My university computer science course involved a computer the size of a room which ran on punch cards and had far less computing ability than a dollar store calculator.) The computer ran on floppy disks (the old 5 ½ inch ones), on which he had the first cellular automata programs. These where computer programs that produced graphic representations of Chaos Theory, the most famous and enduring being “The Game Of Life”. In this program a rule was established which dictated whether each pixel on a computer screen would be on (lit) or off (dark) when the screen was repeatedly refreshed. The rule involved a component of randomness, which was supposed to simulate chaos. The result, though, was always a tendency towards order. It demonstrated the emergence of order from chaos.
To me, that indicated that there was an underlying force in the universe which moved towards order, complexity and evolution, -and it seemed to operate on a basic, mathematical level.
The universe was evolving. I didn’t really know what it was evolving towards, but it had an evolutionary component that was consistent with the ideas in Gurdjieff and Ouspensy’s work. Wilson’s Outsider was a product of an evolutionary process that had either stalled or gone astray. I’m sure that was somewhat on my mind when I decided to become a teacher. One way to serve evolution was to teach, and specifically, to teach awareness. Nature, being an outcome of this order out of chaos, became the perfect setting.
To this day I remain an evolutionary. It is at the core of my spiritual beliefs, that a spiritual path involves the furtherance of this evolutionary process, whether it be by influencing society, or one individual at a time. I am driven to provide the experiences necessary for individuals to evolve and grow.
The second thing that I realized in all of this was far more self serving. I realized early on that I was one of Wilson’s Outsiders. The way in which I was coming to view the world was such that there were fewer and fewer people that I could meaningfully communicate with. Friends that I’d grown up with through high school drifted away and became strangers. I knew that if I wanted colleagues and long lasting friends, I’d need to create them. I realize now that this provided at least some of the motivation for my dedication to the youth groups that I’ve instructed. One boy even went as far as to tell me that he thought I was trying to create Outsiders. In reality, I probably was at least partially guilty of that. Most of the best friends I currently have are those who have passed through my instruction. We share a common view of the universe, or at least a common language by which to discuss it. That cannot be said of everyone I’m acquainted with.
While I worked at the day camp I got involved in the Boy Scout organization through some of my colleagues. I was never one for firm rules and uniforms, so it wasn’t long before I’d bent the program to my own philosophy and goals, to the point that, after many years I outgrew that organization much as I had the summer camp. But there have been 40 years worth of youth groups (and still counting) all of which were intended to further this evolutionary agenda. The first 20 years involved a reasonable amount of stumbling along, trying to find the perfect program to act as a vehicle for my goals. That vehicle was discovered about 20 years ago in the approach taken by Tom Brown Jr. and his Tracker School. That was the next big step in my philosophical evolution.
CHAPTER 5 : THE TRACKER
My attraction to Native American philosophy and culture probably originated from three sources in my twenties.
1) As I have mentioned, Taoism is rooted in nature, and is very similar to Native American beliefs.
2) My brief interest in Carlos Castaneda opened a door to Native American mysticism and shamanism, which led to an interest in the Hopi Indians and also to such personalities as Black Elk and Fools Crow.
3) In my university years, I became interested in the works of Dan Millman with such early books as The Way of the Peaceful Warrior. In it, Millman, a young athlete, meets an aged teacher working as a mechanic at a nearby gas station. It has much of the same flavour as Castaneda and Don Juan, but without flights into alternate, drug induced realities. The Peaceful Warrior is much more down to earth and practical. Much of it had to do with self mastery and harnessing of the sub conscious, -and, of course, the old theme of awareness. Millman’s two first books were written as autobiographies and provided a sketchy outline of his ideas and philosophy. A later book, No Ordinary Moments, was a much more concise and thorough treatment of the same material, and became one of the most important books that I’ve read. It is still a foundation for many of the things I believe and teach.
Because I found Millman’s early books a little incomplete, I did some research into the origin of his ideas which led me to the Huna. The Huna were the shaman of the indigenous Hawaiian natives, who were practically exterminated by western encroachment. An author by the name of Max Freedom Long wrote a series of books about the Huna which claimed that they were the originators of a sacred science that can be found reflected in every religion in the world, including Christianity. Within the Bible, Long claimed, could be found a code which spelled out the knowledge and the teachings of the Huna.
I found that whether or not this is true is of little consequence. I was mostly concerned with the teaching, itself. I wouldn’t go to Long himself to read about Huna, but rather to one of the overview books, or even to Millman’s No Ordinary Moments, which explains it concisely. The crux of the belief is that man’s mind is made up of three parts. One part is the Middle Self, which western psychology would call the Ego. This part is the personality and the part with which we most commonly associate as being “us” or “I”. The second self is the Lower Self, which is largely analogous to our Subconscious. It is a self that operates on an intuitive and instinctive level, monitoring most of our bodily functions and many of our emotions. The third self was the Higher Self, which was not the same as our Superego, but was a higher state of consciousness that was able to access forces beyond our normal experience.
There is a parallel to modern psychology, especially in the role of the subconscious. The Higher Self is more akin to Jung’s views of higher consciousness than Freud’s superego, though. The parallel to the Native American beliefs of the mind are much more direct. The Native Americans believed in a Spirit That Moves Through All Things (remarkably similar to the Tao), and believed that a higher state of human consciousness was able to tap into that energy. This layout of the mind is also extremely similar to that proposed by Ouspensky and Gurdjieff in their psychology, which puts forth seven levels of mind, the first three of which are physical, emotional and intellectual. The ideas of the Middle and Lower Selves were easy enough to understand in modern terms, although Huna teaching offered some interesting insights into the communication and cooperation between the two. The Lower self is independent of the Middle Self, characterized as a young child of about 5 years old in its view of the world. When dealing with the lower self, one is encouraged to treat it as one would a young child in order to be more successful. In other words, it is inlikely to be swayed by rational arguments or philosophical goals. It is more likely to respond to symbols, images and emotions. In fact, the Huna tradition encourages the infusion of emotion and passion to stimulate and access the Lower Self. It regards such emotional energy as a necessary fuel for the actualization of the Lower Self and, in turn, the Higher Self.
As for the Higher Self, this was the road to accessing the Tao that I had been looking for. Within this force of evolution which was the Tao, or the Spirit That Moved Through All Things, or a underlying force of quantum physics, there had to be a point of access. There had to be an alternate or extended reality in which things were possible that we couldn’t comprehend in our “normal” reality. It was both an expansion of awareness to see a bigger picture and also a step forward in evolutionary development, with the two being linked. In the Huna traditions, the Higher Self does not respond to the Middle Self, but only to the Lower Self. Reason is not the language to use here either, but while the Lower Self is pre-rational, the Higher Self is trans-rational (-Integral terms that will be explained more fully in a later chapter-). The important thing here is that the non-rational nature of the Lower and Higher Selves are similar in some respects but very different in others. As we shall see, failure to see that results in some basic confusion which is counter-evolutionary.
Native American Shamanism became a strong interest of mine in my mid 20’s. But it was not until my early 30’s that I encountered Tom Brown and the Tracker School. I was reading a lot of books about Native Philosophy and had actually started a novel centred on Hopi traditions and philosophy. On several occasions I traveled to the Hopi homeland near Four Corners to witness it for myself, although I had no luck at all in accessing any knowledge from locals. The Hopi seemed to be very reclusive, and I really gave them no reason to trust me or confide in me. Never-the-less it was frustrating.
As I worked my way through numerous books on the subject, I eventually came to a book called The Vision by Tom Brown Junior. The Introduction of the book began by saying that there was “a world beyond that of our everyday physical, mental and emotional experiences. It is a world beyond the five senses, and different than the realm of the imagination. It is the world of the unseen and eternal, the world of spirit and vision.”
Tom Brown Jr. was a boy in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey when he met the grandfather of his best friend, Rick. Stalking Wolf is an Apache Elder who was the last of his tribe. Together, for ten years the boys and the old man explore the wilderness of New Jersey (-yes, there is some-), as Stalking Wolf teaches the boys about tracking, nature and spirit. It was a book made for my interests and needs. It combined amazing insights of nature through tracking and survival skills and it had a down-to-earth spiritual side that was accessable. I remember saying at the time, imagine that Castanada’s Don Juan was a kindly old grandfather rather than the ruthless, mocking teacher that he was. This was Tom’s depiction of Stalking Wolf. He wasn’t incapable of playing a joke on the boys or putting them in uncomfortable situations, but it was clear that he was kind and gentle, wanting the boys to succeed. As I neared the end of the book, I clearly remember wishing that there was some way to involve myself more directly with this discipline. It was what I had been yearning for. So it was with considerable surprise that, on the very back page was a ad for the Tracker School run by the author. I wasted no time in sending an application to attend a one week course at the school that summer. In retrospect, it was probably one of the most defining moments of my life.
The second chapter of The Vision is titled “Awareness”, talking about how to use nature and the skills of survival to push awareness to new heights. A bonus was that survival skills are exciting and gave me a new program focus to use with the youth group that I was leading. It turned out to be phenomenally successful, providing authentic adventure, a diverse and full program, along with an overall framework and philosophy that was easy to understand. It was environmentally friendly, promoting a reverence for the Earth. Also, it not only had spiritual depth, but a path by which to access it.
Tom Brown has written seven autobiographical books and another eight field guides to wilderness survival and tracking. Not readily documented in any of these books is an entire discipline of meditation and Native American tradition which Tom teaches in his courses. Once having gone through the Philosophy courses, one can pick out references in the books that are linked to spiritual practices. Tom does describe his vision quests and things like inner vision in the books, but they are dealt with incidentally. In order to actually understand the practice involved, attending the course (or working with someone who has attended) is necessary. The meditations and the practices that go with the overall philosophy need to be practiced to be understood.
I remember reading some books about meditation when I was in university. I clearly remember thinking that it was silly to think that something could be made so just by thinking it. Thinking was a non-physical process that had no consequences in reality. One’s thinking about levitating an object did not cause it to float and there was, I felt, no logical reason for it to do so. And yet there was a foundation prepared within me by my exposure to Quantum Physics and Native American Shamanism which was a fertile ground for Tracker meditations.
At first, I recall being very sceptical. I was willing to suspend judgement for the duration of the course, allowing the benefit of the doubt and applying myself positively. Suffice it to say that there were enough independent verifications in my meditations to be more (though not totally) accepting of the validity of these meditations. In part it was because the structure of the philosophy was so compatable with the philosophies I’d already considered in Millman, the Huna, and Ouspensky.
The Tracker philosophy regarded normal man, living entirely in his Logical Mind, to be unaware and mindless. Awareness could be built around that logical mind, but also came from contact with expanded realities, the first of which was the Sub-Conscious mind. Using meditations, you could access the resources of the sub-conscious and make them available to your Logical Mind. This had to do with memory, self healing and body control, all of which we demonstrated to ourselves and others in our meditations. This part was easy to accept. There was nothing in this that I had not previously encountered in Bio-Feedback programs or Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Nothing mystical needed to be at work here in order for this part to be understandable and true.
However, the next level of meditation assumed the existence of “The Spirit That Moves Through All Things” (TSTMTAT), or alternately called “The Force” because of it’s similarity to that power which is found in the Star Wars movies. This seems kind of farfetched until you realize that Lucas, when making Star Wars, secured the consulting services of a Taoist philosopher to establish the nature of “The Force”. Commercialized and exaggerated as it is, The Force, as depicted in Star Wars, is related to the Taoist force which permeates all things. And this, in turn is very similar to the Native idea of TSTMTAT. And once again this was a concept that I had yearned to understand more closely for a long time.
The Force level meditations were more difficult than the Sub-Conscious ones, and more difficult to validate. However, over many years, I’ve not only had many experiences of personal validation, but have seen miraculous things from the youth that I have trained in this method. I do truly believe that there is an energy web outside of ourselves, connecting all things, allowing for synchronistic and co-dependent physical occurrences. I also believe that we are part of that connection, and so can derive output and have input from this energy field. In Huna terms, through meditation one can access the Lower Self (the sub-conscious), which in turn can then access the Higher Self. Reason plays a back seat, -which is the one thing that kind of disturbed me about the whole thing.
Because at heart I was still a rationalist and a sceptic. How does a rationalist justify belief in a “Force” or spiritual energy force existing outside the body and resistant to scientific validation? Well, I would propose the following reasons:
1) It is arrogant for science to assume that just because there is no current way to objectively validate something that it does not exist. Cosmic rays existed long before our ability to prove that they did. Currently, Dark Matter is a theoretical construct that we infer from mathematical models of the universe, but we have never had objective proof. Granted, leaving room for something to exist does not really mean that we can say that it does exist but it allows us to say that there is no reason why it shouldn’t.
2) In Quantum Physics there is plenty of support for a model that will explain the phenomenon of entanglement. This is a strange quantum event where two things happening at a distance are seen to be somewhat co-dependent. Theories that explain this involve holographic universes or underlying spacial constructs which could easily translate into “The Force”.
3) Studies of consciousness and other brain research is seriously considering a quantum model as well. The incredibly complex interaction of billions of neurons may occur on a level more easily described through quantum mechanics or chaos theory. Hence, there may be some kind of bridge between the quantum activities of our brain and the quantum structure of the universe. Even if this is not true
4) Personal experience is subjective, but subjectivity is the nature of consciousness. Science is unable to model consciousness, or measure it, or define it. This is because subjectivity and objectivity are two separate realms, each valid for their own areas, with independent standards for verification, and yet the standards for each don’t work well for the other. The standards for objective reality are summed up in reason and scientific method. The standards for subjective reality are still poorly defined. That doesn’t mean that they can’t exist or won’t be developed. It doesn’t mean that subjectivity means that anything goes in an orgy of relativism. Standards still exist, though different from science, and still poorly developed.
While my innate rationalism protested my work with the Tracker philosophy and meditation, personal experiences and inner vision continued to validate it. Also, operationally, it seemed to be valid. When I used these principles as guidelines for my life and for decisions, it felt right and it worked positively. This may well be one of the subjective standards, -operational validity. If it works in practice and brings things forward in a positive way, then it is a good thing. There was room in my worldview for something beyond reason (trans-rational as opposed to pre-rational), and there was a path that seemed not to be incompatible with reason and seemed to work. And so within this paradox I continued to move forward.
But the paradox still existed, and continued to do so until I encountered a philosophical system and world vie which reconciled the differences. It was a difficult system to understand, but over a number of years I continued to read and ponder the works of Ken Wilber, knowing instinctively that within the Integral Theory was the answer to my paradox.
CHAPTER 6 – THE MAP IS NOT THE LANDSCAPE
Back in my university days, I ended up being assigned a book in a Sociology course called “Being and Education: An Essay in Existential Phenomenology”. On the first night of the course, several hundred people filed into the lecture hall only to have the professor announce the title of the book and assign the first five chapters as reading for the next week. I dutifully went and bought the book and struggled through the first few chapters. The next week less than a dozen people showed up to the class, and the professor adjourned us to an upstairs seminar room which he had apparently reserved in anticipation of the shift in enrolment. You got the feeling that he’d played this game before.
I don’t remember a lot from this book, but one thing at least stuck in my mind and became a centre-piece for my thinking. It introduced me to the idea that “the map is not the landscape”.
The metaphor is a great one. Maps can be used to organize, structure and present information about an area of landscape, but each map can only present certain information from a certain perspective. A topographical map presents information about surface features such as contours, vegetation and human features such as roads and houses. A soil map, alternately, presents information about the mineral and organic nature of the soil. Geological maps would provide information about deep rock structures and mineral deposits. None of these maps are inaccurate. Each one provides a slice of reality from a specific perspective and for a specific purpose. If you were a mineral prospector you’d not find a road map very useful, and if you were a tourist you’d not find a soil map very useful.
And yet, while each map provides you with a look at the landscape from a particular perspective, none can convey the “reality” of the landscape. None can replace the action of actually being in or walking through the landscape.
This is a metaphor for the way in which we view experience, information and reality. Much of our relationship to reality is based on a reality consensus, where our assumptions and inferences about the world around us have a relatively common basis which we use to communicate with each other. The truth is, though, that this so called consensus is not as stable as we’d like to think. There are all kinds of rifts and irregularities in this consensus that lead to misunderstandings and broken communication, -so many, in fact, that it is a miracle that people can communicate at all.
Our maps of reality are the models, assumptions and interpretations that we constantly project on it. Physicists, for example, can view reality from a Newtonian model, to make sense of most things in the world on a more macro scale. This model breaks down, though, when applied to Quantum Physics, where the model (or models, because there are several) has to be different in order to make any sense of scientific results. At the same time, trying to use the Quantum model to make sense of our every day, macro world would be counterproductive.
In looking at personality development, I’ve come across several models, -and being able to think of them as models has enabled me to understand that each has its own particular use and scope, but can’t be regarded as an ultimate. Laban’s theory of personality typing is a very useful method of interpreting behaviour, but is lacking in certain situations. Wilber’s Integral Theory dividing developmental stages along the same lines as Spiral Dynamics, is an effective model.
Stephen Hawking refers to this in The Grand Design as model-dependent realism. He states that “There is no picture- or theory-independent concept of reality. Instead we will adopt a view that we will call model-dependent realism: the idea that a physical theory or world picture is a model (generally of a mathematical nature) and a set of rules that connect the elements of the model to observations. … It might be that to describe the universe, we have to employ different theories in different situations. Each theory may have its own version of reality, but according to model-dependent realism, that is acceptable so long as the theories agree in their predictions whenever they overlap, that is, whenever they can both be applied.” We must apply some standards, or connective rules to a situation when we experience it, in order to make any sense of it or to express it in a meaningful way.
When I teach Tom Brown Jr’s method of meditation, I assume a certain cosmological model which is reflected in the structure of the meditation, which is literally a map. I make that clear when I begin teaching and state that it is just a convenient model of reality and is not the only way of looking at things. Native American’s call this “throwing the blanket”, which means making clear the assumptions and the model being utilized at the beginning of the process. That way we don’t confuse the model with the landscape and realize that it may have certain inherent limitations or biases.
I think that there are many people who teach certain theories or practices, who delude themselves into thinking that theirs is the ultimate interpretation of reality. To recognize model-dependent realism is to avoid this trap. No one map gives the ultimate picture and all (or most) maps provide some form of valid perspective.
There is a danger in this mode of thinking, though. It is the fallacy of ultimate relativism. If everything is just a model, then one can assert any point of view and expect it to be valued. In such thinking, a point of view can’t be criticised because its validity is judged according to its own model, which we’ve said is valid in its own way. In order to better understand this fallacy let’s go back to the idea of map and landscape.
If I want to describe a particular landscape using maps, I have three criteria which I have to abide.
The first is that the map I use is relevant to the purpose and goal which I’m pursuing. As i said before, using a geology map to identify tourist attractions will have limited value. The converse is true as well. Sometimes, once I’ve used the tourist map to give me the information that I want, looking at other maps can provide me with valuable insight. Similarly, using certain world views or models of reality makes more sense in some situations than in others. Comparing world views and models tends to show things in a slightly different light and sometimes pushes the limits of your interpretation of events.
Secondly, the accuracy of the maps is important. Some maps just are plain wrong in that they contain inaccurate information. Similarly, some models are just plain wrong. Creationism, for example, flies against a landslide of scientific examination which just proves it to be plain rubbish. The only way to avoid that conclusion is to completely suspend your common sense (or have it overwhelmed by religious fervour). The map and the model must be able to stand up to an accuracy test. Now, there are times when that is more difficult. Creationism and even Intelligent Design is fairly cut and dry, although there are those whose model of evolution contain a divine motivation which doesn’t contradict any scientific or logical principles (in spite of the fact that it may be without proof).
The third standard is that some maps are going to be better than others. If I want a tourist map, the one that the waitress drew on the back of the napkin is not as good a map as the one I bought at the drug store. They may both have degrees of accuracy, but one is more comprehensive, understandable and elegant. Models and maps need to be elegant. You look at them and you say, “That looks like it works nicely!” Similarly, models of reality may have greater or lesser degrees of sophistication, including more or less detail, and expressing itself in a more or less elegant manner.
These three things need to be kept in mind when examining the maps of “The map is not the landscape.” But what of examining the landscape itself?
In our analogy, the landscape is the “true reality”, stripped of its models, perspectives and interpretations. Is there even an attainable understanding of a true reality? Hawking would likely say no, if for no other reason than our understanding of “reality” stands to be ever-expanding. We spoke before about the limited nature of our perception and conception of reality. We have perceptual and conceptual limitations, filters and restrictions on our access to “reality”.
I would agree that an understanding of an “ultimate reality” is unattainable. That, however, doesn’t mean that we can’t go looking for it. Like a value in a differential equation, we can approach the answer without ever attaining it. We can be closer or farther away from that “ultimate reality” even if it is forever to be a mystery. How do we get closer? We do it by stripping away the perceptual and conceptual limitations through meditative and contemplative practices.
In his book, Incognito, Eagleman harkens back to German biologist Jacob von Uexkull’s idea of Umwelt to describe the slices of reality that you are able to perceive, conceive and digest. The larger reality is given the term Umgenbung, -which I include mainly because it is fun to say and sounds great in a conversation. It seems to me that one of the principal motivations of meditation and other paths of enlightenment is to bridge the gap between the umwelt and the umgenbun. It is to transcend the limitations of our perception and conception in order to approach a greater understanding of that true reality. One might never get there, but even approaching it provides a view of a bigger world (as it is, at the same time, encompassing more and less), and allows one to view the umwelt from a different and more advantageous perspective. “More advantageous” because it allows you to see the restrictions of your world view, to put them in a larger perspective and to, eventually, transcend them in a positive way. This is a principal goal of the meditation tradition and such practices as Zen Buddhism. Just doing a meditation regularly provides the fabric of this larger perspective and puts you in a position to do other things with it.
Chapter 7 – Why I Am Not An Atheist
The most important post modern spiritual question is simply, “What is the need for any form of God or Spiritual Dimension in light of Reason?” It is a question that demands an answer, and failure to do so means that the world view of the rationalist, being the mechanistic, materialistic, deterministic universe should be accepted by default. Someone who has attained a state of reason has no reasonable grounds to proceed from there to a state of spirituality, whatever this may entail. Or do they?
As with most writing along these lines which I am doing these days, my ideas in this examination will be grounded in Integral Theory and Spiral Dynamics. In this theory, there are various levels of world view which progress on an evolutionary spectrum. To better understand this theory, one can Google Ken Wilber’s theories or refer to the summary that I have tried to provide in the article “Integral Theory and Spiral Dynamics”.
Let me begin by stating that that I consider myself a Rationalist and a Trans-Rationalist.
I am a Rationalist in the sense that I do not believe in most of the ideas of traditional religion. I do not believe in a paternalistic God with a white beard and staff that exists in Heaven. I do not believe in a deity that intervenes in human or world affairs and which responds to prayer (per se). In fact I do not believe in a God or divine being that is sentient in any way that we can understand sentience. I do not believe in a literal Bible, and so have no need to consider Creationism as being a reasonable explanation over Evolution. I do not believe that any denomination or religion has a monopoly on spirituality, or that I need to be saved by accepting Jesus. And I don’t believe that when I die I will be born aloft to a Heaven, with or without angels, harps, wings or available virgins.
I do believe that the Bible is one of many books that contain valuable spiritual, moral and ethical information. However, it is flawed, having been marred and compromised by translation, opportune editing and is grounded in a particular world view relative to the time it was written. It has things in it which are extremely insightful, other things that are metaphorical, and some things that are just plain outdated. (Often the outdated parts are not even presented as “the word of God”, as in the Letters of Paul.) Its dubious editing in the first millennium, where beaurocrats decided which books should be included in the “official version” and which should be excluded (the so-called Gnostic gospels) did much to compromise the integrity of “the word of God”. I do believe that, when not perverted by power hungry zealots, religion can be a good moral compass for many of the masses who have not attained a level of independent moral development, and who would likely be even more barbaric than they seem now if they didn’t have this anchor. Traditional religion has its place. Reason has its place and is right to supersede religious dogma and superstition where warranted. Belief is not a substitute for knowledge. But knowledge is not a substitute for healthy scepticism.)
I do believe that the Big Bang at least satisfactorily explains the beginning of the universe (all-be-it a theory subject to revision and fine tuning) and that evolution explains the development of life (with similar reservations). I do believe in cause and effect, and that scientific method and empiricism are major standards in proving or disproving scientific principles and knowledge.
So, why on Earth would I open the door to any form of potentially superstitious metaphysical or spiritual beliefs? How do I entertain subjective standards or even speculate about things that have no hard, empirical proof and seem to be illogical? One might ask the same question of Newton or Einstein who, not subscribing to traditional religious views, still held the door open for metaphysical and spiritual questions.
If post-modern spirituality no longer occupies itself with prayer, dogma, worship or a God-entity, what is left for it to embody?
The contribution by the rational stage was Humanism, -the attainment of values without God. But many philosophers from Sartre to Nietzsche saw this rational humanism as being adrift on a sea of subjectivism. They were unsure as to how to derive ethical and moral standards along with existential meaning from a nihilistic world devoid of religious prescripts. They saw “the benign indifference of the universe”. Natural Science does not do a good job of providing guidance in this area. Evolution gave rise to Social Darwinism which led to the ego-centric Capitalism of Ayn Rand and company. It didn’t take long for many to determine that this was a woefully inadequate foundation for humanism. Survival of the fittest in society led to exploitation and misery for a large part of the population, which, interestingly, rubbed the intuitive values of many the wrong way. In the beginning of the 20th Century and again in current times we see a small group of elite feel justified in manipulating society in order accumulate unwarranted power, privilege and wealth.
Trans-Rational spirituality has to follow two rules. The first is that it cannot contradict any existing scientific knowledge without providing an equally valid scientific basis. (So Creationism, which snubs its nose at almost every single branch of science, is out.) The second rule is to understand that a theory which does not contradict science is not, by definition, valid. It is just possible. To be valid, it has to provide some sort of evidence or reasonable argument that can substantiate the beliefs and theories. The problem with this is that spirituality is, by nature, subjective as it deals with personal experiences. Perhaps miracles or religious manifestations could be subject to objective verification, but by and large spirituality is an internal process. That puts it at a disadvantage in the scientific world, which only deals with and recognizes external, objective phenomena. And that’s a problem, because a system of thought which excludes a whole area of study by definition is, to my mind, inadequate. By its own standards of logic, scientists should be suspicious when they say, we’re going to ignore this whole area of thought because we’ve decided it doesn’t exist. It’s a bit of a tautology, a self fulfilling situation.
Ken Wilber has solved that problem by establishing an epistemological system where subjectivity and objectivity have their own domains. This part of Integral Theory dealing with the four quadrants, recognises that there is an inner and an outer domain. The dogmatic scientists can insist that the inner, subjective domain is unverifiable and unnecessary, but I think that in order to do so they must abandon some of their own standards.
Take for example the idea of free will. Most materialistic scientists subscribe to the idea of determinism instead of free will. They believe that all things in the world follow the laws of Newtonian physics, and so, like the movement of billiard balls on a pool table, actions can be explained and predicted by analysing the movements and forces that caused them. As such, with a very materialistic and biological view of brain theory, human behaviour is just a result of the influences, forces and conditioning that preceded it. The concept of free will is an illusion.
And yet, what could be more empirically unsound? Empiricism is one of the foundations of scientific method. We trust what we can observe and measure. But, who in our society does not experience the feeling of free will? Only the insane. The vast majority of people, including determinists, move through life with the assumption of free will. They all have an inner experience of it, a subjective confirmation that choices and decisions are a routine part of life. If you are a scientific determinist you claim that this, for every sane human on Earth, is an illusion, denying the most basic and the most repeatable empirical observation and conclusion that you could possible ask for. Would it not be a far simpler conclusion, in accordance with the scientific principle of looking for the simplest answer, to accept that free will exists and that we just do not, as yet, have a satisfactory explanation and understanding of it.
In this way we see the connection between the subjective and the objective. This is the argument in favour of Wilber’s inner and outer perspectives. It provides a new area of reasonable study that is not hobbled by science’s insistence on objective, physically verifiable evidence. How do you provide physical evidence if what you are studying is non-physical? Science has sidestepped this question by denying the non-physical.
So, what then are the beliefs that I hold which place me outside the domain of the atheist?
While I do not believe in a traditional, sentient God, I do believe in a force within the Universe which is creative and a influence towards evolution. The Big Bang created something from nothing, and while there may be mathematical models and contrived scientific explanations, the fact that something arose from nothing when there was no need for this to happen is still a striking fact. It was an act of creation, and while it was not done with the wave of a God’s hand over a period of seven days, it was still creation. And it didn’t stop there. From a mess of subatomic and atomic particles, hydrogen formed and coalesced into stars, which then went through tremendous changes, births and deaths, to produce heavier atoms and more complex matter. Interstellar dust became planets. On at least one of these planets a chemical soup brewed and unbrewed and brewed again until organic compounds were formed. These same organic compounds can be found floating among the stars. And one day, through the perfect mixture of events, after a near infinite number of tries, a chemical structure arose that had the ability to sustain its organization and reproduce itself. Life was born. From Physics to Chemistry and now to Biology and the principles of Evolution, energy and matter have journeyed towards greater and greater levels of complexity, and consciousness. Each of the sciences has all of the theories necessary to explain every part of this. We’ve been successful in describing the mechanics of every stage, and I don’t quarrel with the basic explanations. One can believe that and still find the journey wondrous. As Ken Wilber has said, “Mud evolved and eventually wrote poetry.” I would go further and say, “Nothingness evolved and eventually wrote poetry.”
So I believe that there is a force in the universe which is predisposed towards evolution and complexity. It is like the antithesis of Entropy, the universal law that has everything moving towards less complexity.
The evolution of consciousness is also obvious, especially from the moment which life appeared to the present. When you look at the continuum of consciousness, and even when you look at the continuum of human consciousness, you realize that we can’t be at the end of the journey. We’re standing on a developmental line that will undoubtedly continue in its evolution, as long as we don’t do something to abruptly destroy it. If we do, however, the Universe will just start over and try a different experiment, combining complex structures in different ways. But when I feel grateful and give thanks to that force for creating such beauty in the world, am I giving gratitude to a law of nature or to some sort of sentience? My feeling is that it is something in between, -what the Native Americans called the Great Mystery, or what is also called the Tao. There is a feeling of reverence towards it. There is a feeling that one can flow with it and prosper, or against it and suffer. There is a feeling that it can be touched in meditation.
Is there any kind of Will behind this? If there is, it would be so far beyond our comprehension that it is meaningless to contemplate it. Some people believe that the Universe is trying, through the consciousness it creates, to become self conscious in its own way. It is an interesting thought, and one that I might even find very elegant, but again, such a process would be so far beyond our comprehension that it is meaningless. What I do believe though is that this evolutionary force is an imperative from which a sense of values may be derived. It is a real force which can be tapped into through some form of consciousness.
This brings me to my second belief. Being in the middle of this continuum, and beginning to understand some very unusual theories about the nature of the cosmos when viewed through Quantum Theory, it is clear that we exist in a word that has a transcendent reality. By that I mean that the reality in which we live our lives (which itself is not as much a consensus as we would like to think) is limited both perceptually and conceptually. There’s more to it than what is obvious. It is likely that the nature of reality can be understood to be radically different from what we perceive as normal. I don’t want to say “true reality” because I’m not sure that there is any such thing. Stephan Hawkings Model Dependent Reality Theory states that we can only really understand reality from a particular perspective or paradigm. Or, as the old phenomenological axiom states, “The map is not the landscape.” It’s like looking at a complex object. From any particular angle you can only see a part of it. Shift your location and it is different. Reality may be like that. By shifting perspectives or models, one can come to be conscious of different aspects of and forms of reality.
That’s not to say that every model is equally viable. Certainly saying that other realities are possible does not give you a blank cheque to envision any kind of reality. But the existence of perceptions beyond the normal, -paranormal, if you will-, must be entertained. This, to me, leads to two thoughts. The first is that the scientific, materialistic model is innately flawed. Not only is it possible that there are things that fall outside of that paradigm, but it is probable. Again, what those are is a matter for further contemplation and verification, -although it may not be verification using scientific method and double blind studies.
So, I believe that meditation can bring you to altered states of consciousness where it is heightened and where the things that you feel about your relationship with the cosmos are valid. I believe that meditation can reach beyond the limitations of traditional reality to accomplish things that are, by definition, paranormal. The question then becomes, how does one validate those things.
And this leads me to a third belief. I believe that this evolutionary force or energy runs through and connects all things. Even in saying this I am succumbing to a very conventional way of looking at space and time. Perhaps that is all wrong. Perhaps the connection is holographic or some other structure that is beyond our understanding. I’ve seen quantum theories about the structure of the universe which state that everything we perceive is a reflection of a reality that exists on a different plane or dimension, harkening back to Plato’s theories about ultimate forms. Whatever the mechanism, the idea that all living things are connected (and, in fact, all things in general) seems to be what Jung would call an archtypical idea. It’s a metaphysical concept which appears in countless traditions and even modern spiritual schools. As the man said to the hot dog vendor, “Make me one with everything.” The goal of many meditation disciplines is to expand your awareness to everything and nothing. Trans-Rational or Post-Modern spiritualism is directed inwards in transcendence. Transcending what? Some of it is transcending inner “demons”, but part is also transcending the limitations that our world view, perspectives, filters and limitations put on our experience of reality. “You don’t see the world as it is. You see it as you are.” It is to make the world a bigger place, more inclusive, more far reaching and, ultimately, more in tune with that evolutionary energy.
The fact that so many people in history, in so many places in the world, have taken the same steps towards that same goals and described the same results is a form of validation. It can’t be tested with classical scientific methodology, but it is empirical and it is repeated, and that’s all you can really expect from a subjective phenomenon.
The essence of Integral Theory, because it has to recognize both the objective and the subjective, is substantiated by surveying countless other observations and theories. The idea of discrete levels of evolution and the quadrant theory of all phenomenon put forth by Wilber is based on many other well documented studies, all of which seem to replicate the same general ideas. It acknowledges both the subjective and the objective, although both must be validated by a justifiable framework and epistemology. Subjective phenomenon are validated by how they relate to the whole and by repeated verification on a variety of experiences. The benefits of meditation are subjective and don’t rest on verification by empirical science, (although the effects of meditation can be measured in the objective world).
Does this make me a Theist as opposed to an Atheist? I don’t believe in an all powerful, omniscient God, but I do believe in an omnipresent force which transcends our reality and which pushes us in an evolutionary direction. I believe that one can tap into that force on a level that can impact our reality. I believe that there is a universal love connected to this force, and while it might be benignly indifferent it can provide guidance and inspiration at the same time. The energy of creativity is a powerful force. I’m not sure if that qualifies as Theism or not. It’s probably a difficult distinction because it is trans-rational as opposed to pre-rational, while the theism/atheism distinction came into being as a comparison of rational and pre-rational ways of thinking. What I’m proposing goes one step beyond that and so perhaps falls outside of the distinction.
One example of this is the symbol of the Medicine Wheel, which is clearly a metaphorical expression of evolutionary and creative energy. It is the symbol of a process.
Whatever I am, though, I don’t think that it is an atheist.