[This continues the book, An Ibis in the Tree, begun on http://cdlaughlin.googlepages.com/anibisinthetree]
CHAPTER SEVEN: Toward a Transpersonal Anthropology
If the joy of living is the most enviable good any of the lower animals can attain to and at least the second-best available to man himself, that implies in both a more general capacity which can only be called “awareness” – something that is different from intelligence as usually defined and not perfectly equated with logic, or insight, or adaptability; also something the salamander has more than the ant has. There is no way of measuring it, and even the psychologist would be for that reason rather loath to take it much into consideration or even to admit that it exists as distinguished from reason, insight, and the rest. That it does exist in human beings, any contemplative man knows from his own experience.
John Wood Krutch, The Great Chain of Life
The central question in biogenetic structuralism all along, it seems to me, has been the question of freedom. That is why this series of lectures is intended as a prolegomenon to a study of freedom. However, entailed in that central question – hidden underneath, as it were, as a foundation, is how we can get to know just how much the mind is involved in constructing the world in which we are bound or free. What are the various ways we can come to know the role of the mind in constituting the shackles of our own bondage? And as I look back on the process by which our group has developed its ideas, it seems that we have given credence primarily to three different windows onto the sphere of our inquiry. I’ve spent a long time talking about at least two of these. The first window is that looking in on neural structures – understanding how the brain as an organ of behaviour and consciousness is organized, how it develops, how, genetically predisposed it is in its organization, how plastic it is relative to adaptation, and so on. The second window onto the sphere is the cross-cultural and cross-species perspective; it’s the sine qua non of good ethnology which implies a good ethology as well, looking for the anlagen of cross-cultural universals among humans.
The third window is the view attained through direct introspection. This is the mind looking directly at itself. And this is the hardest of the windows to incorporate into a science of mind, because of barriers placed in our way by science’s conception of itself. It’s easier now than it was in the early seventies, because the ripples from the fall of the received view of theory construction in science have begun to widen out into mainstream science, and scientists are now starting to realize that science is in a state of crisis, as was predicted by Husserl (1970) in the thirties, and for many of the reasons he forecasted.
Anthropologists find themselves in a unique position, and some are beginning to see that the range of worlds constituted and constitutable by mind is really quite vast. The old logical positivist view that there is one world of perception upon which may be mapped a variety of theories, cultural view in the anthropological sense, doesn’t describe the variety of human experiences we encounter and describe in anthropology. Rather, it makes sense that even perception varies (under neurognostic constraints) from place to place. We return once again to considering the so-called Whorf-Sapir hypothesis: To what extent do language and non-linguistic cultural influences help to form not only how we interpret the world, but how we actually perceive the world? And just as with the other two windows onto the scope of inquiry, a transpersonal perspective sets the stage in the grounding of an ethnographer for the realization of the relativity of worlds, not only cross-culturally, but within his or her own sensorium.
Transpersonalism is a movement in science toward the acknowledgement of the significance of experiences beyond the boundaries of ordinary ego-consciousness (see Tart 1975, Zinberg 1977, Grof 1976, and Laughlin, McManus and Shearer 1984). Roger Walsh and Frances Vaughan in their book Beyond Ego use the term transpersonal to “reflect the reports of people practicing various consciousness disciplines who spoke of experiences of an extension of identity beyond both individuality and personality” (1980:16). There exists a vast range of such experiences. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology lists a number in the preface to each issue: transpersonalism may be said to encompass “transpersonal process, values and states, unitive consciousness, meta-needs, peak experiences, ecstasy, mystical experience, being, essence, bliss, awe, wonder, transcendence of self, spirit, sacralization of every life, oneness, cosmic awareness, cosmic play, individual and species-wide synergy, the theories and practices of meditation, spiritual paths, compassion, transpersonal cooperation, transpersonal realization and actualization, and related concepts, experiences and activities” (quoted from Lee 1980). In a more theoretically satisfying way, Kenneth Ring (1974, 1976), working from the research of Stanislav Grof (1972, 1973), developed a typology of transpersonal experiences, grouping experiences into ever expanding concentric rings from normal waking consciousness in the middle (the most narrow field), through what he terms preconscious, psychodynamic, orthogenic, trans-individual, phylogenetic, extra-terrestrial, and superconsciousness, to Void Consciousness at the periphery (the most expansive field) (1976:127).
As formal disciplines, transpersonal psychology dates to the latter 1960s (Sutich 1968) and transpersonal anthropology to the mid-1970s (see Lee 1980: 2, and Laughlin, McManus and Shearer 1984: 141). Transpersonal anthropology is simply the cross-cultural study of transpersonal experiences (Laughlin, McManus and Shearer 1984). “Transpersonal anthropological research is the investigation of the relationship between consciousness and culture, altered states of mind research, and the inquiry into the integration of mind, culture and personality” (Campbell and Staniford 1978: 28). Although quite recent as a formal discipline, anthropological interest in transpersonal experiences dates back to the nineteenth century and the work of Tylor (1881) who was interested in dreaming and the experiential origins of religion, and Lang (1894, 1897) who was interested in the psychology of the paranormal (see MacDonald 1981, and Laughlin, McManus and Shearer 1984). Andrew Lang was in fact one of the founding members of the Society of Psychical Research, an organization that later counted among its members both Jung and Freud (Langstaff 1978).
Anthropologists have all along recorded data on extraordinary experiences reported by informants as well as religious institutions, and ritual practices associated with such experiences (e.g., Evans-Wentz 1966; David-Neel 1972; see also MacDonald 1981 for a survey). Even so, some researchers have argued that western science does not pay sufficient attention to the importance of such experiences to the study of psychology and culture (e.g., Barnouw 1942; Hufford 1982; Harner 1973; Greely 1975). For example, a number of theorists have suggested that there exist universal structures resulting in similar transpersonal experiences among people from all the world’s cultures (see Lang 1894 and Barnouw 1942, 1946, on psi phenomena; James 1890 on ghosts; Lang 1898 on the universal intuition of a supreme being; Eliade 1965, 1967, on various aspects of religious experience).
A few researchers have even undergone spontaneous transpersonal experiences while in the field. Geoffrey Gorer for instance reported such an experience in his book Africa Dances. He found himself in a large gathering of people that included a famous Dahomeyan shaman. At one point he met the shaman’s gaze: “I felt that for some reason it was necessary for me to meet his gaze and I continued staring at him across a space of about thirty yards til all the surrounding people and the landscape became an indistinct blur and his face seemed preternaturally distinct and as it were detached from his body and nearer to me physically that it was in reality. I wondered whether I was being hypnotized …” (1935: 131).
I have already mentionned the more recent experience had by Bruce Grindal (1983) which occurred to him while attending a Sisala funeral in < xml="true" ns="urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" prefix="st1" namespace="">Ghana in 1967. After undergoing several days of arduous privation involving fasting, loss of sleep, physical ordeal, and the like, Grindal entered a phase of consciousness in which he perceived a corpse come alive and dance and play drums, as well as radiant energy emitting from the corpse and other people attending the rite. According to him, his experience also occurred to some of the Sisala, who also recognized that he had undergone the experience.
However, looking back over the history of the discipline, few anthropological fieldworkers have actually made the effort to evoke alternative phases of consciousness in themselves; this despite evidence that many, if not most, human cultures operate upon a cosmology comprised of multiple realities (Schutz 1945; Eliade 1964), the veridicality of which is commonly verified via experiences in alternative phases of consciousness (Bourguignon 1973; Ehrenwald 1978). We have argued elsewhere that this oversight is not accidental, and in fact is a systematic bias in science born of what we call extremely monophasic consciousness in the enculturation of western observers (see Laughlin, McManus, Rubinstein and Shearer 1985). Despite this bias, a number of fieldworkers have intentionally cultivated alternative phases of consciousness in order to advance their understanding of the culture or phenomenon being researched: these include Coult (n.d.) who explored LSD and attempted in the 1960s to establish a field he called “psychedelic anthropology”; Harner (1973) who worked on hallucinogens and religion; Chagnon’s (1977: 154ff) experiment with hallucinogens, shamanic dance and chanting; and David-Neel’s (1932) work among Tibetan lamas that involved intensive meditation. Some fieldworkers like Katz (1982: 6ff) have reported participating in ritual practices intended to evoke such experiences, without however attaining the intended state (or failing to report it if attained).
The relative paucity of attempts by ethnographers to enter alternative phases of consciousness, and at the same time the seemingly paradoxical interest in such matters, underscores the importance to anthropology of the epistemological issues raised by the transpersonal movement in science (see Laughlin 1984). Among those issues none is more important than the question as to just what constitutes a “public event”.
WHAT IS A PUBLIC EVENT?
Prior to the fall of the received view of science, a clear and formularized distinction was possible between what constituted a public event and what constituted a private event. The existence of objective perception was taken for granted and formed the observational basis of all science. An event was public and of relevance to science if it could be shared by any and all observers. And, as the quote above from Somerhoff implies an event that could not be shared by any and all observers was subjective and of no relevance whatever to science.
However, with the fall of the received view and an increasingly psychological and sociological perspective in the analysis of science, researchers began to show what phenomenologists like Husserl (1970) and Merleau-Ponty (1962) had all along maintained: that there exists a reciprocal feedback relationship between cognition and perception, and between theory construction and observation (see Rubinstein, Laughlin and McManus 1984: Chap. 4). Now explorations of the scientific enterprise began to include the process of observation itself in the scope of their inquiries. Investigators began to ask to what extent does theory as ideology have a controlling influence upon what a scientist can or does see, and of equal importance, what a scientist cannot or does not see.
All of which raised the question anew: how much can we know about consciousness from direct experience – that is, how much can we find out by looking at our own mind through “introspection”? After all, introspection is well known to be fraught with epistemological problems. Jean Piaget notes:
Introspection alone is not enough, because it is both incomplete (it grasps the results of mental processes and not their intimate mechanisms) and distorting (because the subject who introspects is both judge and party, which plays a considerable part in affective states, and even in the cognitive sphere where one’s own philosophy is projected into the introspection).
Jean Piaget (1973: 12)
The all too common tendency in the history of knowledge has been either to uncritically embrace introspection to the exclusion of the dictates of authority or the exercise of empirical rigor, or to reject the evidence of introspection as false, delusional or heretical and uncritically endorse the views of authority or empirical observation. The use of introspection as a source of data in science during this century has been virtually forbidden to researchers in psychology while under the influence of Watsonian, Hull-Spence and Skinnerian behaviourism. As we mentioned when discussing various approaches to the mind-body problem, behaviourism took the extreme position of denying mind altogether. The position was somewhat modified by Skinnerian’s who came to admit data about experience so long as they were reportable. A report is, after all, behaviour! The report itself became the data, and any experiences not reportable were considered out of the limits for psychological research. This was quite a change from the psychology of , say, William James who, writing in the last part of the nineteenth century, found no contradiction at all in combining experimental research with introspective methods, particularly when he was addressing the psychology of religion (James 1902).
The vestiges of the anti-introspectionist view remain with us, of course – sometimes under the guise of a form of cognitive psychology. For instance, in the process of launching his four hundred-plus page book describing his cognitive theory of mind, P. N. Johnson-Laird dispenses with data from direct introspection in a single sentence: “Introspection is not a direct route to understanding the mind and, as far as we know, there is no such route” (1983: 2). He also dispenses with the necessity of examining the neurosciences by a disappointing bit of doublethink which is quite germane to a consideration of much early anthropological theory. Appealing to a kind of psychological functionalism, he claims that “mental phenomena depend not on the particular constitution of the brain but on how it is functionally organized” (ibid: 448). He is thus free to apply various mechanical metaphors via flow charts and equations without reference to degree of fit between these models and how we know the brain is organized. It is precisely this kind of fragmentation of research and explanation that we would like to counteract in any biogenetic structural account.
In order to avoid any taint of introspectionism, the behaviourist paradigm prescribed experimentation on others rather than upon oneself. But this stricture turned out to be only partially effective as a barrier to more introspective methods in psychology. Many psychological theorists involved in clinical practice nonetheless retained their concern for the larger issues in the study of consciousness. Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Carl Rogers, Karen Horney and many others were developing theories relevant to the study of consciousness grounded upon their own direct experiences and the experiences reported by their clients. Phenomenological psychologists like Maurice Merleau-Ponty who were following in the footsteps of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger also advocated introspective methods. In more recent times the “third force” of humanistic psychology has been finding its way back to the view of psychological methods more commensurate with a sophisticated study of consciousness, as evidenced for example in the writings of Abraham Maslow (Wilson 1972). And currently the “fourth force” of the transpersonal movement in science is having its effects upon the methods used in studying the psychology of consciousness through the writings of people like Charles Tart (1975; also Boucouvalas 1980).
INTROSPECTION AND ANTHROPOLOGY
Anthropology avoided being drawn into the behaviorist paradigm, not because anthropologists are wise sages, but for many of the same reasons as did many clinical psychologists – anthropologists are forced by the circumstances of their trade to take people as they are, rather than as they are contrived to be in unnatural laboratory conditions. The central methodology in ethnographic research is called “participant observation”, a sort of catch-all term that includes a remarkable array of methods from the most rigorous and statistical to the very loose and serendipitous. But the emphasis since the time of Malinowski (around the time of the First World War) has been upon the anthropologist immersing him/herself in an alien ethos and learning from the direct experience of doing so. No only that, but many fieldworkers over the decades have found it useful to compile life histories of informants, thus providing a documentation that is rich in experiential reports from a variety of cultures.
Anthropology has provided a sort of natural history of the human species, and for this reason the anthropological perspective is useful to us because it underscores the more dualistic patterns in western enculturation, and provides a balance of views that can ameliorate the weakness of the ethnocentric bias apparent in much of western science. It is easy to sense this bias when we study how other peoples conceive of consciousness. We often find that their conceptions are encoded in their beliefs about dream-life, in their understanding of what James once called the “stream of consciousness” aspect of experience, in their mythological depiction of the cosmos, and in their beliefs and practices related to healing. Because of this fundamental grounding in the ethnographic enterprise, the cross-cultural perspective will be all pervasive in this book, although it may not become clearly apparent until we discuss alien psychologies, cosmologies and alternative phases of consciousness in later chapters.
As I’ve repeatedly emphasized over the course of these lectures, our is a structuralist perspective. We do endeavour to uncover the underlying structural invariance producing the seeming variance at the level of behaviour, expression and artifact. And we tend to the view that such invariance is due to the common
neurocognitive nature of people everywhere. Thus, when we are dealing with cross-cultural reports of alternative phases of consciousness, our structural invariance presumption takes on a special epistemological significance, and amounts to a strong form of W.T. Stace’s principle of causal indifference:
The principle of causal indifference is this: If X has an alleged mystical experience P1 and Y has an alleged mystical experience P2, and if the phenomenological characteristics of P1 entirely resemble the phenomenological characteristics of P2 so far as can be ascertained from the descriptions given by X and Y, then the two experiences cannot be regarded as being of two different kinds …”
Our methods of cross-cultural comparison must therefore be sensitive to the invariance embedded in the seemingly variant, culture specific, traditional modes of symbolic expression. In short, there is the immediate perception of events, and there is the interpretation of them vis-à-vis traditional symbolism and cosmological understanding (Stace 1960: 31).
The serious examination of the role of conditioned perception in establishing the limits of science has also led to the consideration of state-specific science. Is it possible that the nature of reality being observed is determined to some degree by the phase of consciousness in which the observation takes place (Tart 1975)? Is it not one of the functions of scientific paradigms to limit the range of reality addressed under a paradigm (Rubinstein, Laughlin and McManus 1984: Capt. 4)? If so, then does it not make sense that science in its broadest sense should require scientists to be trained to enter all relevant phases of consciousness so as to observe reality in its greatest breadth?
Certainly, what constitutes a “public” as opposed to “private” event must by implication come under serious question: If an event is readily observable by investigators capable of entering a particular phase of consciousness, even when most scientists are in fact incapable of entering that phase, then does that not constitute a “public” event” And yet from another point of view, are not all observations ultimately “private”; is there not a great deal of training (or enculturation) required before people come to agree upon exactly what reality it is that they are experiencing?
TRANSPERSONALISM AND PHENOMENOLOGY
Now, as we all know, ethology tends to broaden the mind by underscoring the fallacy of ethnocentrism that so abounds in the formulations and research strategies of our sister disciplines. With the realization of a transpersonal perspective, the mind is further broadened by underscoring the relativity of worlds. Moreover, at least the potential exists for an awareness of what Husserl called the transcendental ego. This is the self that produces a world that is desired, and that which has the latent and potential capacity to step back from that world and manipulate it, change it, interpret it in a variety of ways and perhaps even stop it. Let me put this another way: as you penetrate into the scope of inquiry from any direction you will end up in the same place. You will end up with the realization of the essence of mind. This can become apparent from any one of these views, and from any combination of these views, and by reflecting back on the biogenetic structural program it would appear that one view has led my mind to other view in a very systematic way to cover the periphery of the sphere of scope. There are no doubt other possible windows onto that sphere, but it would also appear that these three have been sufficient to carry this mind quite far. We most probably will explore other spheres, though it seems we can get pretty much all we need from any or all of these three windows.
We have decided on a variety of grounds to pay a great deal of attention to Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology. I’d like to go on a bit of a tangent here and reflect a little upon the relationship between transcendental phenomenology and transpersonalism. Whereas the performance of the transcendental reduction undoubtedly and inevitably leads to transpersonal experiences of one sort or another on the part of the practitioner, transpersonalism does not presuppose a transcendental reduction. Experiences like the “old hag” phenomenon, flying shamans, dancing corpses, talking carnivores, and out of body experiences may occur whether or not the subject has ever performed the reduction. That is, the subject undergoing such experiences may (usually will!) carry their culturally loaded, natural theses about the world into the experience and be incapable of bracketing interpretive processes and, thus, of apprehending the pure perceptions given in experience. Indeed, much that interests the transpersonal ethnographer is how such experiences are integrated into an individual’s personality and how the society reacts to and publicly interprets the fact of such experiences. Much of Paul Ricoeur’s (see Rasmussen 1971) hermeneutical anthropology seems to be on about how to do this kind of ethnology.
It is entirely possible that cross-cultural transpersonalism may in time enrich phenomenology; for, because of its rational, philosophical origins, transcendental phenomenology has failed to recognize either the full breadth of experience of which the human sensorium is capable of constituting, or the fact that contemplatives in a variety of different cultures have reported experiences that transcend a merely phenomenal lifeworld. The failure of Husserl to appreciate the importance of Void Consciousness to an evaluation of the reduction is a major criticism I would level at transcendental phenomenology. The occurrence of Void Consciousness, as with the transcendental reduction, results in profound transformation of cognition, thereafter altering the way the practitioner knows self and world (see e.g. Merrell-Wolff 1973).
Transpersonalism, then, in no way presupposes the reduction. It may imply a phenomenology in Ricoeur’s sense, perhaps even in Shutz’s sense of social construction of reality (Schutz and Luckman 1973). However, as we’ve seen, Husserl propounds a methodology for attaining realization of the essences of perception, the universal principles upon which the mind produces the world. This is a level of reduction deeper than is required for an appreciation of a transpersonal anthropology, or even a Shutzian ‘lifeworld’, or a Ricoeurian ‘hermeneutics’. Neither Schutz nor Ricoeur ever really come to question the ‘builder’ itself – that which produces the world, be that world personal or transpersonal, cultural or transcultural.
So, transpersonal science may continue, and to some extent thrive, without being informed by or being founded upon transcendental phenomenology, but sooner or later it will flounder on the rocks of phenomenological naivety, just as Husserl (1970) predicted all of science would one day do so. For, the essences of perception by which transpersonal phenomena are produced in the sensorium are no different than for ego- or culture-bounded phenomena, and the reduction to and appreciation of these principles must effect the nature of the theories and descriptions produced relative to such experiences by a phenomenologically sophisticated transpersonal science. Put in other words, transpersonal science can be just as phenomenologically naïve as non-transpersonal science, and the effects of the naiveté upon theory and description will be quite the same for either. It is obvious on this account that transpersonal anthropology should become aware of the issues involved in transcendental phenomenology. That is not to say that all transpersonalists should or could perform the reduction, anymore than all anthropologists should or could become transpersonalists. At the very least, however, the discipline should become sensitized to its deficiencies relative to the reduction, and should recognize and take good council from the mature contemplatives within its ranks.
Q: So Husserl’s methodology questions the ‘builder’ whereas those of Ricoeur and Schutz don’t?
A: Not to the level of the epoche.
Q: It reminds me of something that the Buddha said …
A: Yes, “I have found you, oh builder, you will build no more”. Husserl is on about the same kind of reduction. The Buddha was not satisfied with an answer to his question (which was essentially the question of freedom from suffering) until he had attained intuitive knowledge of the roots of suffering. This is apodictic knowledge, knowledge that is absolutely certain; there is no argument about it. It’s not the kind of knowledge that is derived through debate, or belief in one point of view rather than another, it is ‘seeing’ and knowing what you ‘see’ in an absolutely certain way.
The word Nirvana literally means ‘to blow out’ – the same as to blow out a candle. What is being blown out? Desire. The Buddha saw that it is the organism’s desire to produce the world that produces the world; that as soon as there is desire there is a whole chain of causality that ultimately produces rebirth, disease, old age and death, and the various forms of suffering: not getting what I want, losing what I’ve got, and so on … all based upon desire. And when the part of the organism that produces desire is blown out like a candle via self-knowledge, then the being is no longer subject (I use this word advisedly!) to the products of desire. Mind you, the realization of desirelessness isn’t a concept, it is a direct experience. When the last desire for the world is blown out – and desire gets very, very subtle, simply the desire for any sensation to arise, or the desire for non-existence to arise – in that instant the mind ‘sees’. The intuitive cognitions that cause the blowing out of the desire also have produced the maturation necessary to ‘see’ the essence of mind simultaneously with the blowing out of the desire. They are two aspects of the same thing. As they say in Northern Buddhist jargon, Nirvana and Sangsara (Sangsara being the world of appearances, the phenomenal world) are one and the same. And from the moment of realization on, one can always ‘see’ the Nirvanic aspect to the phenomenal world, and though one may get sucked into the product of one’s desires again, the knowledge of the essence of mind will just bounce right back. There’s a difference between the realization of the essence of mind and the realization of total Buddahood, where there is no more desire left at all, except perhaps activity out of compassion for other beings. And what a rare human being that is!
Q: I find it hard to believe that there is a state of no desire.
A: If there is desire for existence, then a phenomenal world, however subtle, will arise in the sensorium.
Q: You can’t retreat from the world.
Q2: It’s hard to talk about a space you’ve never been in, you know.
A: Yes, to the ego, but the intuition of Nirvana is present in every being, whether that intuitive knowledge has matured and been realized or not, and the mere hearing of the truth of Nirvana is sufficient in some beings to bring about the final maturation and realization. In other beings the hearing of truth may initiate or further the maturation, although it may take much more time for realization to dawn.
But I really don’t want to debate Nirvana because it’s not compassionate to you in the end; that experience will only arise if you meditate intensively upon the passing away of the world. “You don’t need to be told, you just need to be reminded.” Nirvana is right in front of your eyes, it’s as clear to this mind as is your image. It’s closer to this consciousness than its nose, because after all the nose is just desired. You understand? The essence of mind is always there. Your visual nose disappears at night, right? But Nirvana doesn’t! If one is interested in Nirvana, one should then do the work, and stop the world, so to speak. I can assure you that there is a state of mind in which there is no desire for sensual experience present in the consciousness, and that until that moment the object of consciousness is always the phenomenal object of desire. The object is desired by some part of the being, and at the moment of stream-entry the only object of consciousness is its own essence, that essence being not desire, nor an object of desire. Let me now pass on in silence.
What Husserl was on about was developing a perspective he called transcendental idealism. Most of his critics have never really been able to fathom what exactly he was on about (even his closest students had trouble getting it clear), and this was partly due to his poor ability to communicate. But from what one can reconstruct of his methods, we can see he was involved with a set of procedures for activating the direct experience of transcendental idealism. He was criticized for being solipsistic, which is a sort of mind-only approach to knowledge – there is no world out there, there is only “my mind – a totally erroneous conception of what Husserl was entertaining. Rather he was saying let’s just suspend belief or disbelief in the existence or non-existence of anything that is arising in consciousness, and just take phenomena as they arise, taking the essences of their arising as the object of study.
The procedure for doing this he called establishing the transcendental epoche – epoche being Greek for “bracketing” or “reduction”, and reduction meaning “return to origin”. All three terms mean basically the same thing: the mind putting edges around, brackets around, imposing boundaries upon its own processes, and thus coming to know them and transforming their previously unconscious activities in the constituting of the world. Take for example, the intentional aspect of the noema – what is known in Buddhist psychology as the initial application of mind to the object. This is the initial turning of the mind to the object. Now let’s keep our eyes on this page, and try to get into just the intentional aspect of what is going on right now in your perception. You can willfully direct your eyes to a particular letter or word on the page. Your attention is on the word. Now (without moving your eyes from the word) shift your attention to a sound in your environment (say, an air conditioner or a bird song). Then return your attention to the word. Try to be single-mindedly concentrated on your attention function as you move the attention between objects. What has moved? What happens to the field of awareness when the attention is moved? Now move your attention to the pressure of your body against the chair. Then around to all three objects in sequence. Do you feel the effort involved? A palpable physical effort required to move the attention around.
This is a simple exercise, I grant you, but if you can just pay attention to the intentional aspect of moving the attention from the word to the sound , then to the bum and back to the word, that’s bracketing. It’s a willful revelation of a previously relegated process for the purpose of conscious scrutiny. Assuming you’re totally naïve and have never looked at attention and intention before, nonetheless the process is always operating in consciousness, but it may heretofore have been totally unconscious to you. Because of your conditioning you don’t pay attention to anything but the object. When you start paying attention to the attention element itself, who is paying attention to the attention? Who is watching? Following that question out will lead you to another aspect of mind, and it will move you further and further from the object and toward what Husserl called the transcendental ego – the Watcher. The object has become a transcendental guide, as Husserl called it, because somewhere in the process of bracketing you realize that the movement of attention from one object to the other object totally reorients the consciousness. Like moving the center of a mandala to somewhere else, it all starts falling into place around the new object. But the principles that are operating are the same no matter where you turn your attention, and they are universal to the human mind everywhere. They are essences. This is reduction in the Husserlian sense.
Q: So, in a sense, when we focus on the word and then focus on the sound we are creating conscious brackets which allows us to see that we’re creating brackets all the time. But because we concentrate on the object we don’t see the brackets and only by creating conscious objects of contemplation do we see the process of bracketing, which allows us to go back and look at the process of making objects and brackets. It allows us to see these more or less unconscious processes better.
A: And it’s like an onion – you keep stripping it back until the transcendental ego stands naked, as it were before these now totally reduced functions of mind. There is just the Watcher, watching. It gets enormously complex only if you try to deal with it all simultaneously and intellectually; there are plateaus in the maturation of intuitive knowledge of the self. The most common use of the term epoche in Husserlian phenomenology refers to such plateaus; the mind sort of matures to the point where it knows this about itself, but it has other work yet to do. Then it does that work and knows itself at another level, and keeps going down, level after level.
Q: Ultimately though, what you’re saying is that the mind comes to know itself without brackets?
A: In his later writings, Husserl almost sounds like a Zen master. He was saying of course, there are no brackets, there never were any, because consciousness is one totality. One of its factors is looking for edges to things, and imposing them, but even that is a delusion, for it can impose edges on its own processes. There reaches a point, however, when you don’t have to bracket in the arbitrary sense, there is no bracketing. Well, that really threw his students for a loop. Here he was having them bracket like mad, and then he turns around and teaches there is no bracketing; where are the brackets? And his students would scratch their heads, turn existential, and wander off to write learned tomes about fear and loathing and existence, and all manner of other copouts on the basic project which is simply the mind looking at itself.
Q: So each act of attention is desired right?
A: That isn’t Husserlian, but would be a Buddhist interpretation.
I’m reminded of the process of learning how to ski. If you take a modern ski course you may discover that they play interesting games with you; they drop calling moves by name, they don’t lay concepts on you. You just start skiing and then they get you doing exercises, which you learn later, upon reflection, are little muscle skills and flexibilities that are necessary to bring together and to make possible more complex motions. And they simply move you from one skill to another, building technique, never bracketing and labeling what is in the bracket (e.g., ‘parallel’ as opposed to ‘snowplow’). They are now taught to teach in that way. They stay away from conceptualizing intermediate stages. There is an implicit understanding in modern ski instruction that learning skiing is a single process that begins with beginning and progresses, and at the other end produces Olympic champions. This is not a bad metaphor for what Husserl meant by bracketing. In a sense, bracketing is an arbitrary procedure, in another sense it isn’t because the mind is doing it all the time. He’s using the functions of mind to study itself; it brackets the object to start with, that’s a “word” and not a “table”, we all know and agree on that.
Husserl’s transcendental idealism, it seems to me, is not only fundamental to non-transpersonal science, but is fundamentally prior even to transpersonalism. Some kind of exercise by which mind comes to know how it produces the world is fundamental to carrying a transpersonalism to its ultimate potential as an approach to learning about the nature of mind and the human condition. The potential payoff to humanity of an anthropology that combines the cross-cultural and transpersonal perspectives with phenomenological sophistication is truly awesome!
CHAPTER EIGHT: Meditation and Contemplation
Neither common sense nor science can proceed without departing from the strict consideration of what is actual in experience.
A.N. Whitehead, The Organization of Thought
As I noted at the end of chapter three, it is not easy for most folks to perform the phenomenological reduction, to become mature contemplatives. Personal and cultural conditioning is terribly tenacious. This makes sense if you can see that conditioning is really routinized networking of the billions of cells that have a stake in responding in the same old way. Let’s not kid ourselves, to become a mature contemplative requires nothing less than a fundamental change in the organization at the very cellular level of our being. There must occur a “turning in the seat of “consciousness”; in Tarot symbolism there is a stage of the Hanged Man. This transformation requires dedication and enormous, sustained effort. It also requires a lot of faith in the possibility of maturity and a lot of patience with oneself for falling down and going boom. And most folks need wise guidance, because there are so many wasteful side trips and ego-traps along the way.
In the West a distinction is made between “meditation” and “contemplation”. Meditation, the root if which is the same as for “medicine” and means “middle” or “center”, is the work of calming and centering the energies requisite for attainment of true contemplation. The root of contemplation means “entering the temple”. So the process of meditation leading to contemplation is the work one must do to center and enter the temple-of-mind. I’m not going to try to teach you how to meditate. There are many approaches to meditation from all sorts of traditions, Eastern and Western, as well as aboriginal. Anyhow, you can’t learn to meditate out of a book, although books can certainly feed your meditation. But I can point up some of the principles operating in meditation and that you might care to look for in whatever approach to meditation you select in your own life. I will first offer a short critique of scientific studies of meditation and then suggest a biogenetic structural model of what may occur during the meditative transformation leading to true contemplation.
THE PSYCHOPHYSIOLOGY OF MEDITATION
A great interest in meditation has developed in Western science over the past generation. Indeed, there has been a flurry of research on the topic, but the scientific literature on the physiology of mediation is unfortunately still spotty at best, and downright silly at worst. It is spotty primarily because of the apparent lack of experience in meditation of many researchers, and because of unavailability of a technology appropriate to asking the right questions about meditation. Research is frequently silly and impertinent when it fails to address the naturalistic circumstances of meditation within transitional cultural contexts.
The literature is spotty, for example, when it fails (as it usually does) to distinguish clearly between the great variety of practices available cross-culturally, often generalizing to all meditation traditions from a single tradition (usually TM). It is impertinent, for example, when it fails to note that many meditation traditions quite intentionally set the stage for extraordinary transpersonal experiences – experiences that almost never occur under laboratory conditions and are thus almost impossible to replicate within the unrealistic strictures imposed by current scientific experimentalist paradigms. It is also impertinent when it fails to take into account the monastic lifestyle or lengthy retreat work often presupposed by paths of advanced spiritual development.
Global Relaxation vs. Multi-process Model
However, many of the more extreme shortcomings of scientific research on the physiological and psychological effects of meditation are being corrected, albeit slowly, and there is some useful information available relevant to our topic, and several useful reviews of the literature have been published over the past decade (see Pagano and Warrenburg 1983, Schuman 1980, Davidson 1976, Walsh et al. 1978, Woolfolk 1975, Shapiro 1980, Holmes 1984; for other references to research reviewed here, see Laughlin, Chetelat and Sekar 1985).
One problem in dispute is whether meditation produces a “unique hypometabolic state” in practitioners. That is, does the practice of meditation – usually “passive” types of meditation like TM – produce a distinct pattern of somatic relaxation not also produced by simple relaxation. Some of the more elaborate claims along this line have proved to be unfounded, or at least have failed to be replicated. Quoting Pagano and Warrenburg:
We regret to report that our search for a unique or dramatic effect directly attributable to meditation thus far has not been successful. In this area many practitioners have made sweeping claims about the effectiveness of their techniques. Frequently, this is based on subjective experience, and often the claims are “shored up” on the basis of “research”. All too often, this research turns out to be not very rigorous – really only of pilot nature. This has been especially true within the TM movement. Our experience has been that when good scientific methodology has been used, the claims made have been extravagant and premature (1983: 203).
Comparable relation effects have been demonstrated for other techniques. Some authorities have argued from this that individuals are capable of a basal level of relaxation (a sort of “floor effect”) attainable through a variety of means: “passive meditation, normal relaxation, progressive relaxation, biofeedback, autogenic training and exercise. Some researchers have reasoned thereby that each of these techniques taps (drives) a singular, generalized “relaxation response”.
Other researchers continue to find distinct physiological differences when comparing meditators to controls along such dimensions as respiration, decreased oxygen consumption and relative increase of cerebral blood flow. Still other researchers have pointed to the distinctiveness of effects of different techniques used in different situations. They argue that decreased arousal is not a singular process, but is rather a complex of processes that may be organized in different ways under different circumstances.
Personality and predisposition factors may have a determinant influence upon success of a particular technique. Research has shown that subjects already measurably high in the capacity for absorbed attention tend to stick with meditation over the long haul. Some authorities distinguish between cognitive and somatic components of anxiety, and compare the effects of physical exercise and meditation upon reports of anxiety. They find that meditators report less cognitive and more physical anxiety, while exercisers report less physical and more cognitive anxiety.
A number of studies have indicated the presence or absence of stressful conditions effects differential somatic reaction by practitioners of various relaxation techniques. Whereas the responses of practitioners of various techniques seem much the same under optimal conditions (thus seeming to support the singular relaxation response model), their responses under a variety of stressful conditions may diverge significantly (thus supporting a more multi-process model).
Excitation vs. Relaxation
Most meditation research has been carried out upon relatively “passive” meditation techniques such as TM and Zen. The trend in the literature is the demonstration of the calming effects of these techniques. In sharp contrast to these findings are those from research on various yogic techniques such as Ananda Marga (a form of Hindu tantric yoga) which show excitation rather than simple relaxation. Some research has found that the more advanced the meditator, the more actively alert he was during meditation as indicated by measures of skin conductance, frequency of GSR responses, heart rate, and EEG sleep scoring. This contrasts with some “passive” meditation research using EEG sleep scoring measures that indicates that “passive” meditators, at least inexperienced ones, often spend some of their time asleep while meditating. Subjects from various Indian yogic traditions reported experiences associated with “good to excellent” meditation sessions that are in keeping with somatic and sensorial arousal.
There exists virtually no scientific research to date on the psychophysiology of meditation systems that utilize visualization or imaging extensively - for example, Tibetan tantric and Japanese Shingon forms of Buddhism. There exists some evidence that both the process and the content of imaging can influence activities of the autonomic nervous system. We may reasonably expect that certain imagery may operate to increase, and other imagery to decrease autonomic arousal.
Attention, Absorption and EEG Theta
Potentially the most important finding in meditation research is ironically one of the least understood. We refer to the observation of increased production of low to high amplitude, low frequency theta activity recorded by EEG from meditators (Zen, TM, Ananda Marga) and practitioners of other relaxation techniques. Researchers found that yogic (“active”) meditators produced more theta power than non-meditators, and that more proficient meditators produce more theta than less proficient meditators. They found that Zen meditators showed continuous theta production, even when eyes were open after the end of the meditation session. It is interesting that an analysis of resonance frequencies of a sample of mantras also gave values within the theta range.
Whereas most meditation researchers seem reluctant to attribute psychological correlates to these activity, there exists some evidence that sustained low amplitude theta is correlated with sustained attention or vigilance. High amplitude theta bursts may well be correlated with the brief, intense absorption states common to meditation. Vigilance of such intensity as to lead to absorption (or what I earlier called hyperintentionality) would seem to be an individual “special trait” already functioning in individuals likely to become long-term meditators. According to one source, subjects benefiting the most in terms of anxiety reduction from TM meditation tended to score highly on a section of a personality test that relates specifically to the capacity for absorption. And there are some studies implicating EEG theta in attention tasks as measured at the frontal lobes.
Psychophysiological research pertaining to peak experiences in meditation is understandably rare. Corby et al. (1978: 574) were fortunate enough to record some measures during a period when a yogi experienced a brief “near-absorption” state:
One expert meditator reported the experience of “having my breathing taken over by the mantra” during the meditation condition, and felt it might represent what she termed a “near-Samadhi” experience. The concurrent respiratory record … showed a pattern of respiratory acceleration with little change in respiratory amplitude followed by cessation of respiration for approximately 100 seconds … a dramatic decrease in skin resistance of approximately 200 kohms preceded the respiratory acceleration.
Visual inspection of the meditation EEG record of this subject disclosed large amounts of high amplitude (up to 100uV) alpha range frequencies and also large amounts of theta range frequencies (up to 150uV). Occasionally there were discrete bursts of theta range frequencies of amplitudes to 300 uV. No particular EEG changes were associated with the “near-Samadhi”event.
This indication of significant autonomic arousal during peak or “ecstatic” experience is in keeping with a few previous reports on yogic practice.
Meditation and Hemispheric Asymmetry
The early hypothesis proposed by Ornstein (1972) and others that meditation shifts predominant processing from left to right lobe, and thus from linguistic-analytic to imaginal-gestalt modes of cognition, has proved to be largely unfounded. Indeed, the prevailing evidence would seem to favour the view that “passive” meditation in general leads to a less asymmetrical, more balanced processing of information and that different types of meditation, and particularly “active” meditations, accompanied as they always are in traditional settings by cosmological beliefs and mythopoeic symbolism, may result indifferent neurocognitive entrainments and thus different experiences (see Davidson 1976: 372 on this point). This will involve variant entrainment of left and right lobe functions, depending upon the tradition, in which the technique is embedded, and the proficiency and psychological makeup of the individual meditator.
One would not really expect a dramatic shift from left to right lobe processing for the meditation techniques usually researched in laboratories. As any mature contemplative knows, progress along the path of meditation involves the dropping away of both conceptualizing and imagery. In fact many techniques encourage disattention to, even active suppression of, both verbal chatter and fantasy. In Zen, for example, the mind is trained to watch without attachment the arising and passing away of whatever enters consciousness. However, in the traditions utilizing visualization practices where concentration is upon an eidetic image, we would reasonably expect to find some evidence for a predominance of right over left lobe processing.
Some research has shown that the nasal cycle (that is, the shift in air flow in both nostrils during breathing) is directly correlated with activity in the cerebral hemispheres as measured by cortical EEG. As the control relations between hemisphere and autonomic system are ipsilateral (same side), rather than contralateral (crossed over), it is possible that greater cerebral efficiency is facilitated by greater sympathetic arousal on the ipsilateral side (increasing air flow) and greater parasympathetic arousal on the contralateral side (decreasing air flow) of the relatively active hemisphere. There is evidence that relative dominance would seem to correlate to some extent with this cycling. It is interesting that yogic traditions recognize the significance of the nasal cycle for balancing the flow of “psychic energy” in consciousness. For example, Tibetan tantric practice specifically suggests waiting to do certain meditations until the breath is flowing equally through both nostrils. In fact, yogis will use simple breathing techniques to assure an equal flow. We may suggest from this that the optimal condition for carrying out some “active” meditations is when both hemispheres are balanced in their activity.
Q: But where does all of this experimental research lead us? I mean, it sounds to me like the difference you mentioned with Emil Menzel’s research with the baboons, like the experiments don’t fit the reality of meditation somehow.
A: Bang on! It is exactly that situation I am pointing up. It should be evident from this very brief survey of the psychophysiology of meditation that the real picture of the world of meditation traditions, some of which are thousands of years old, is far more complex than some early reports led one to believe. Part of the problem is the experimental-naturalistic relationship. Isn’t it always the case that the naturalistic ethnographic description of some phenomenon is discrepant with the available experimental evidence, at least in part? That is the central epistemological fact that makes the doing of participant observation type ethnography important to the human sciences. Among other things, it provides a naturalistic base as context for the evaluation of experimental findings. Another question is, does there exist a model of neurocognitive activity sufficiently complex enough to account for the many and varied phenomena being reported in the literature on meditation traditions? I believe there is such a model, and I believe its implications for the study of freedom is paramount. That is why I’ve held back on it to the end.
TUNING THE ERGOTROPIC AND TROPHOTROPIC SYSTEMS
Following the pioneering work of W.R. Hess (1925, 1957), E. Gellhorn and his associates (Gellhorn 1967, Gellhorn and Loofbourrow 1963, Gellhorn and Kiely 1972) developed a model of the hierarchical integration of somatic, autonomic and higher neural systems which in part accounts for the complex intercausality between activities at every level of processing (see also Lex in d’Aquili et al. 1979, Davidson 1976). The somatic system that controls the distribution and utilization of metabolic energy in the body is conceived as being comprised of two complementary (sometimes antagonistic) systems. One system is called the ergotropic system and the other the trophotropic system. Let me characterize these two systems for you.
The Ergotropic System
The ergotropic system subserves our so-called fight or flight responses; that is the physiological components of our adaptation to desirable or noxious stimuli in the world. Anatomically, the ergotropic system incorporates the functions of the sympathetic nervous system (one half of the autonomic nervous system), certain of the endocrine glands, portions of the reticular activating system in the brain stem, the posterior hypothalamus, and portions of the limbic system and frontal cortex. The principle function of the ergotropic system is the control of short-range, moment-by-moment adaptation to events in the world; in a word, getting food without becoming food. It is designed to come into play when the possibility of responding to stimuli arises. It is so organized as to shunt the body’s energy away from long-range developmental activities and into initiating and carrying out action directed either at acquisition or avoidance of stimuli of interest to the organism. My suspicion is that the prefrontal cortical intentional activities constitute the highest order control process of the ergotropic system. As I mentioned before, prefrontal processes are known to be involved in arousal and attentional mediation relative to the sensorial object.
Under generalized ergotropic arousal, perhaps initiated by prefrontal intentionality, a number of organic responses may be experienced, including shivering, constriction of the surface veins and capillaries (paling of the skin), dilation of the pupils of the eyes, increased heart rate and blood pressure, increased muscle tension, decreased salivation (“dry mouthed”), constriction of the throat, increased rate of respiration, erection of body hair (“hair standing on end”), and desynchronization of cortical EEG patterns (indicating discordant or disharmonic cortical functioning). These responses, all of which subserve adaptation in one way or another, are commonly associated in experience with positive or negative emotion. Objects or events associated with responses will typically be perceived as desirable or undesirable, attractive or repulsive, friendly or hostile, attractive or ugly. The ergotropic system prepares the organism to obtain objects (like food, water or a mate) required for the continued survival of the organism or species, and to avoid objects (like poisons, enemies and predators) dangerous to survival. A fundamental problem in nature is how to eat without being eaten. The ergotropic system in humans is the product of millions of years of selection for responses that solve that problem. It is the ergotropic system that mediates stress relative to events in the world.
The Trophotropic System
The trophotropic system is far less dramatic in its activities, but is nonetheless the system responsible for regulating all the vegetative functions, such as reconstruction and growth of cells, digestion, relaxation, sleep, and so on. Anatomically, the trophotropic system incorporates the functions of the parasympathetic system (the other half of the autonomic nervous system), various endocrine glands, portions of the reticular activating system, the anterior hypothalamus, and portions of the limbic system and frontal cortex. It is the trophotropic system that controls the somatic functions responsible for the long-term well-being, growth and longevity of the organism. This system operates to maintain the optimal internal balance of bodily functions for continued health and development, both of the body and consequently of the mind.
Under the influence of the trophotropic system, a variety of physical and mental responses may be experienced, like warmth and “blushing” at the surface of the body due to release of sympathetic constriction of veins and capillaries, constriction of the pupil of the eye, decreased heart rate and blood pressure, relaxation of tension in the muscles, increased salivation, relaxation of the throat, slowing and deepening of respiration, erection of the penis and clitoris, and synchronization of cortical EEG patterns (indicating harmonized higher cortical functions). Relaxation (reduced arousal) and its concomitants are commonly associated with disinterest in events in the environment (i.e., hypointentionality), or with dispassionate concentration upon some object (i.e., hyperintentionality). Judgments as to the desirability or undesirability of the object are suspended. The relaxed person is typically experiencing a comfortable, warm, womb-like indifference to the environment, or indifference to all save the object of intense concentration. The fundamental function of relaxation is perhaps less obvious than that of ergotropic arousal, but is nonetheless crucial to the survival of the organism. It is mainly during relaxation, and particularly during normal, undisturbed sleep, that the body processes nutrients and uses these to repair and grow. In other words, when the body is not finding food and avoiding becoming food (ergotropic reactivity) it is reconstructing and developing itself (trophotropic reactivity).
The ergotropic and trophotropic systems have often been described as “antagonistic” to each other. This means that the increased activity of the one tends to produce a decreased activity in the other. This is the case because each system is physically designed to inhibit the functioning of the other under most circumstances. If a person gets excited about something (angry, anxious, afraid, lustful, etc.) the ergotropic system not only produces the requisite cognitive, intentional, physiological, emotional and behavioural responses, it also puts a damper (via reciprocal inhibition pathways) on the trophotropic system which was previously subserving digestion and other metabolic activities. Likewise, when a person relaxes (say, after a heavy meal), the trophotropic system actively dampens the activity of the ergotropic system. A summary of the reciprocal functions of the two systems may be studied in Table 1.
The relationship between the two systems would be better described as complementary, rather than antagonistic, for each serves the sort and long range well-being of the organism. It is really a matter of balance of functions, the trophotropic system maintaining the homeostatic balance so necessary for health and growth while the ergotropic system facilitates the moment-to-moment adaptation of the organism to its environment. As such, they are not anatomical mirror images of each other. The “wiring” of the ergotropic system is designed to arouse the entire body for potential response to threat. Under normal conditions, when the ergotropic system is activated, the entire body/mind becomes aroused. By comparison the trophotropic system is “wired” for the fine tuning of organs in relation to each other as the demands of internal maintenance shift and change. Its resources can be activated for one organ or body part, or it can turn on globally as during sleep when the entire skeletal musculature is “turned off”.
The point to emphasize is that whereas the trophotropic system is designed for continuous activity, the ergotropic system is designed for occasional activity. We are “wired” for short, infrequent bursts of adaptive activity interspersed with relatively long durations of rest, recuperation and growth. Prolonged ergotropic reactivity may cause depletion of vital resources stored up by the trophotropic system in various organs, and may cause fatigue, shock body damage, and in extreme cases, death (Selye 1956, Antonovsky 1981)
A Summary of Some Functions of the Trophotropic and Ergotropic Systems
The particular balance or ergotropic and trophotropic activities under particular environmental circumstances is susceptible to learning, and there is evidence that their characteristic balance under stress is established as early as pre- and perinatal life. The learned (conditioned) ergotropic-trophotropic balance relative to any stimulus is called tuning (Gellhorn 1967: 110ff). When we say that someone gets “up-tight around authority figures”, we are referring to a discrete ergotropic-trophotropic tuning relative to people perceived to be in authority. Or when we say that someone “calmed-out when he got a back-rub”, we are referring to a different discrete tuning relative to being stroked.
A change in the characteristic ergotropic-trophotropic balance relative to a stimulus is called retuning (Gellhorn 1967). Events like football games, rock concerts and combat patrols that previously elicited excitement (ergotropic reactivity) may be met after retuning with a relaxed response (trophotropic reactivity). Some theorists have argued that ritual control of ergotropic-trophotropic balance is fundamental to virtually all primitive healing techniques and to the evocation of alternative phases of consciousness (Gellhorn and Kiely 1972, Lex in d’Aquili et al. 1979).
There are a number of ways that ergotropic-trophotropic returning may be accomplished:
1. Rational Mediation. Under certain circumstances the rational faculties mediated by the cerebral components of the two systems may intercede to modify tuning to some extent. A particular emotional response may come to be recognized as inappropriate to a situation, and this knowledge alone may result in some returning. This factor is common to many forms of group therapy.
2. Heightened Awareness. Increased attention to one’s own psychodynamics may result in direct seeing of the cognition producing an ergotropic response. The relevating of the cognition into consciousness may be sufficient to produce a retuning. An example would be cognitive therapy in which techniques are utilized for uncovering the cognitive operations mediating affective disorders.
3. Abreaction. By “reliving” a traumatic event in our past, the characteristic tuning of ergotropic-trophotropic functions may be altered. This is particularly useful in cases where autonomic and limbic responses are linked to images operating unconsciously to ego.
4. Drivers. Lower autonomic systems may be tuned and retuned directly by penetration from external stimuli without necessary intervention of higher ergotropic-trophotropic centers (Gellhorn and Loofbourrow 1963, Lex in d’Aquili et al. 1979). These stimuli are called drivers and may take the form of repetitive stimulation such as drumming, flickering light, chanting (mantra) or sexual intercourse. Drivers may be used in ritual circumstances to bring about simultaneous discharge in both systems (e.g., orgasm) which sets the stage for possible radical retuning of the systems relative to particular stimuli. Such drivers are, by the way, an autonomic example of symbolic penetration.
The first three methods of retuning – rational mediation, heightened awareness and abreaction – tend to operate, so to speak, from the top down (“top down retuning”). The fourth method, the use of drivers, may work from the bottom up (“bottom-up retuning”). That is, the first three tend to require a retning of higher cortical systems before lower limbic and autonomic-endocrine systems follow suit, but the last method operates directly upon lower autonomic-endocrine-somatic systems first, followed by higher centre retuning. Rational mediation is notoriously ineffective when the system has been tuned in association with image-based trauma. Such association (entrainments) are typically established during pre- and perinatal life, or early childhood, when virtually all learning involves autonomic-somatic and imaginal systems, rather than solely higher cortical processing.
BECOMING A MATURE CONTEMPLATIVE
I have gone into all this detail so that you can see that the process of meditation lending to mature contemplation involves many complex activities, and may vary from individual to individual depending upon such patterns of conditioning as culture, gender, presence of traumas, discrete patterns of ergotropic-trophotropic tuning, and so on. Do you have any questions?
Q: Yes. How do you account for the failure of some scientists to catch the difference between meditation of the passive sort and simple relaxation?
A: Well, one senses that there are two kinds of psychologists researching meditation – those who meditate and those who don’t. The difference is quite apparent to a contemplative reading the literature. The non-meditator falls into characteristic errors. For example, some will make no distinction between the variables being measured (say galvanic skin response) and the mindstate of the subject. A contemplative knows that his body can be calmed-out while experiencing low concentration and awareness, and calmed-out with intense concentration and awareness. More than one mindstate can produce the same observable behaviour or measure, you see. The example I am using here is probably the key one, because, from the point of view of attaining the skill of mature contemplation, training the prefrontal intentional processes to intense and undistractable concentration is all-important. This is true whether one utilizes either the more passive techniques such as mantra work, zazen, hatha yoga, breathing meditation, etc., or the more active techniques such as tantric visualization sufi dancing, kundalini yoga, the various martial arts, etc.
The work leading to mature contemplation is said to be like a river flowing to the sea. At first the river is rapid and choppy and you can’t see to the bottom because the view is obscured by the foam. But in time the river slows down and the surface becomes still and one can see more clearly. See what, you may ask. Well, see the structures (rocks and convolutions) on the bottom of the riverbed that produce the perturbations at the surface of the water. The river becomes broader and more till and the surface is less effected by any particular structure on the bottom. Finally, the river reaches its estuary and diffuses and becomes one with the sea. The mind has attained the state characteristic of the beginning stages of true contemplation. In that state the structures have been tamed, the phenomenal formations seen for the illusions they essentially are, and all previously distracting influences for the moment stilled. In that state of mind, one may study anything – any process of mind, any feeling, thought process, image, sensorial invariant, impression, energy happening, anything whatsoever – with total concentration and without reaction. One has entered the temple of mind, the vast space within which the world is constituted for the pure ego, and in which the pure ego may study its handiwork.
Q: You mean this is a series of stages and once you reach the sea you stay there from then on?
A: Of course not! Buddhas may be able to remain in the state of mature contemplation for the rest of their lives, but mere mortals can’t. The mindstate comes and goes. It is a karmic product, the result of requisite conditions that must be present for the mindstate to arise. For the beginner the mindstates will last only a few moments, then it’s back to the river, often a choppy river now because the novel experience of the sea had triggered a barrage of rational thought, which effects the stillness of mind as rocks effect the surface of water. And the banks narrow abruptly because the meditator is conditioned to believe that he must think in order to know. He reacts to the novel experience of absolute stillness by getting all excited and letting chatter become the object of concentration rather than the sea. The mature contemplative knows better, and “better” is knowing that the knowledge that counts is the intuitive knowledge inherent in the conditions that produce the oceanic mindstate in the first place. The mature contemplative can choose either to ripple the stillness with thought or to remain still and watch and let the intuitive faculty mature in the process of watching. My guru once patiently listened to me give a presentation on the brain and consciousness at one of his courses, and then said, “You’ve done a good job of ordering the seaweed, now how about the ocean?”
Once you have experienced the ocean, if only for a moment, you thereafter know what the state of true contemplation is like (see Happold 1964 on this). You are never afterwards confused about whether you are in that state or not. And you know that in order to enter that state and to perfect it you must apply the will and energy necessary to attain it. The choice is yours. No one can do it for you.
Retuning for Contemplation
You see, there is a lawful relation between willful application of intentionality upon a single appropriate object (the breath, a rose in the heart, a mantra, a patch of light, a crystal, etc.) and the progressive relaxation of the body/mind. I say appropriate object because there are objects, like fire and beasties, you can meditate upon that have the opposite effect. The willful application of intentionality will cause the stilling of the formations, the stilling of the surface of the stream. In other words, concentration upon the object and disattention to competing objects seems to drive (from the top down) the trophotropic system to intensify and to reciprocally inhibit the ergotropic system.
But in actual practice you can run into conflict with the misleading distinction between “passive” and “active” meditations, for if there is repressed material in the psyche, it will express itself in various “active” and even dramatic ways in the mist of “passive” meditation. My suspicion is that enhanced trophotropic activity pulls the energy-rug out from under repressions and allows them to become active within consciousness. It seems likely that repression is an ergotropic activity. It is a common error made by beginning meditators to try and repress their thoughts and fantasies. The attempt to repress excites, rather than calms the system. In the long-run it is important to relevate and watch the repressed materials, for otherwise it operates at an unconscious level in the being, thwarting the healing and centering necessary for contemplation.
Q: Can you say more about the relationship between intentionality and tuning? I don’t quite see the connection. You say it’s lawful.
A: Yes, it is lawful. Let me back up a bit and apply some phenomenology here. I have said that experience arises due to a discrete entrainment of neural systems that are ordered within an essential polarity between prefrontal intentional processes and sensorial impressions. This entrainment is renewed each moment of consciousness. The world is constituted and reconstituted every moment within the sensorial field of dots. The constitution and reconstitution of phenomena is mediated by the moment-by-moment re-entrainment of neural structures mediating the various factors of consciousness. The phenomenal world arises and passes, arises and passes, over and over every moment of consciousness. And in every intermittent epoche of consciousness there is an object intended by the structures constituting the world.
In normal consciousness the object keeps changing every so often, how fast depending upon how interesting the mind finds the object. So, the “space” between every moment of consciousness is a warp between short, epochal phases. If re-entrainment across that warp does not include continuity of knowledge of intent to maintain concentration upon the selected object, then attention to that object may easily flag and another object takes its place. That’s why I have said that the essential feature of awareness is knowledge. Maintenance of awareness in meditation requires this minimal re-entrainment of knowledge-mediating structures across warps. I must keep re-membering what I am on about. I have to keep bringing errant attention back to the object, maybe a thousand times a sit. Yet, every time I bring it back to the object, I strengthen the awareness factor – that is, I literally reinforce the durability of the entrainment requisite for centering. I strengthen the knowledge aspect of awareness so that moment after moment it remains present within the entrainment that mediates the new moment of consciousness. This is why it is important to develop an awareness factor and a mistake to try repressing distractions. “You” aren’t producing the distractions to start with. All “you” can do is exercise maintaining awareness.
The tracking after new objects is an ergotropic process. It keeps the system heated up. As awareness is intentionally entrained upon a new object, it conditions the ergotropic-trophotropic tuning conditioned to that object. Click, click, click! Object follows object, each with its discrete tuning. And then I sit down and apply a willful check to this automatic scanning of the world. I require that the intentional processes stick to one object; in this case, say, an object like a rose that has a naturally calm and positive tuning. (I don’t suppose anyone has a rose phobia, huh?) So, moment after moment, each momentary re-entrainment has rose as its object and knowledge that no other object should be attended.
At first other objects compete for our gaze. “Look at me! Look at me! Pay attention to me!” they clamour. After all, they are being mediated by living cells doing their thing – the thing they have been conditioned to do. If they do succeed in dragging attention to themselves, they penetrate to whatever tuning is conditioned to them. But I have learned to meditate, and as soon as the competing object has drug attention to itself, I gently and without self-rebuke return attention to the rose. After awhile, although the competing objects still clamour for attention and are present to awareness, awareness is too great for them to actually wrench attention from the rose. This is called exercising “bare attention”. This steadfast concentration is possible because the knowledge of what the meditation is about remains present in every moment of consciousness. And a bit later still, concentration upon the object is so intense, all competing objects fall away from awareness. This is samadhi.
Just this side of samadhi is the mindstate most conducive to contemplation. Trained contemplatives meditate until the mind is freed of the clamour of competing objects, and then turn the attention to whatever they wish to study, be that about God or mind. They work to develop this facility, for it is a skill for which it is well worth working. In Husserlian terms, this is realization of the phenomenological reduction. The actual bracketing of the question of the existence and non-existence of phenomena is an experience; it’s not the rational solution to a syllogism. It may begin with rational process, but ratiocination eventually falls away and bracketing is realized in direct experience. When there is no concern with existence/non-existence there is no longer any impetus to react to phenomena. The mind is free to study the phenomenon as “transcendental guide”.
Q: Why then didn’t Husserl teach these Eastern techniques for attaining the reduction?
A: In the first place, Husserl was apparently unaware of Eastern meditative techniques. He hadn’t read any Buddhism or the like. And I’ve yet to find any indication he was involved in the Western mysteries. In the second place, so far as I can tell, Husserl never twigged to the lawful relationship between calming and concentration. He never discovered that one can drop concern with existence/non-existence by concentrating on a single phenomenon to the exclusion of competing phenomena until the concern and reactivity drop away.
The interesting question for me has been why he failed to appreciate the importance of this dharma. My best guess so far is that Husserl was an example of the kind of contemplative they call in Buddhist psychology a “self-awakener”. He had the ability to drop concern with the world of ego-loops and could be effectively self-reflexive without the necessity of calming-out first. He could follow a “dry path”, as they say in the East; could seek insight without retuning – without practicing calming exercises and gaining proficiency in attaining samadhi; the so called “wet path”. Most folks are so attached to the world and their ego-loops that they have to return their energies relative to phenomena. Most have to practice some form of wet path before they are calm enough, concentrated enough and centered enough to drop reacting to the world and to freely access their intuitive function and allow the wisdom aspect to fully mature. All of which, you will surely agree, has a lot to do with the study of freedom.
CHAPTER NINE: The Study of Freedom
… it is only absolute freedom from prejudice, freedom gained through the unsurpassable radicalism of the full transcendental (reduction), that makes possible a true liberation from the traditional temptations; and this is to say that it is only by being in possession of the totality of the subjective sphere, in which man, the communities of men intentionally and internally bound together, and the world in which they live, are themselves included as intentional objects – it is only by being in possession of this totality that one becomes capable of seeing and systematically investigating what we characterized as the “how of manners of giveness”.
Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences
and Transcendental Phenomenology
When I subtitle this series of discourses a prologue to the study of freedom, I am using the phrase advisedly. I explicitly mean to suggest the various biogenetic structural considerations that might be useful in establishing a personal and interpersonal study of freedom. Furthermore, I mean that as far as I can tell, there is no such thing as freedom without study; freedom is study and study may lead to freedom. I mean what Jesus appears to have meant when he said “you will know the truth and that very truth will make you free” (John 8: 32). The liberated state of mind is only attainable as a consequence of individual, effortful self-reflection, self study.
And by “individual” I am not referring to a selfish solipsism. Solipsism and enlightenment are mutually exclusive, for, as Husserl and the other sages-of-the-ages have taught, the inevitable consequence of mature contemplation is the growth of empathy and compassion in the being. That is why so many traditions – indeed the roots of our very language - associate freedom with love. It is lawfully inevitable that the liberated being desires liberation for others. Freeing ourselves isn’t good enough, for in the very process of freeing ourselves we come to know we are inseparably bound up with all there is, with all other beings. It is part of the Bodhisattva vow to forswear final entrance into Nirvana until, as they say, “every blade of grass has become enlightened”.
I am saying that freedom is a characteristic of the state of mind called true contemplation, and that this mindstate may only be attained by self-reflection. And I’m saying that, because the question of freedom has been central to this anthropologist’s researches through the years; much of biogenetic structuralism may be applied to preparing the mind for self-reflection. Biogenetic structuralism for me has become inseparable from the development of a phenomenology that is essentially on about liberation.
WHAT IS FREEDOM?
Q: You are very concerned with freedom, but you really haven’t defined what you mean by the term. There are all kinds of definitions of freedom floating around. You’ve been putting it off all along.
A: Well, in good anthropological fashion, I would wish to move away from a Western ethnocentric version of the concept to one of universal application. Western notions of freedom frequently have to do with individuality and lack of constraints to individual pursuit of material or other goals (see Bergmann’s 1977 book On Being Free, for a survey of Western views of freedom). There has been an exultation of the individual in the West. Carl Jung considered extreme ego development to be the hallmark of the Western psyche.
John Stuart Mill, a British philosopher who published On Liberty in 1859, was very concerned with the rights of the individual and minority groups in society.
But different persons also require different conditions for their spiritual development; and can no more exist healthily in the same moral than all the variety of plants can in the same physical, atmosphere and climate. The same things which are helps to one person toward the cultivation of his higher nature are hindrances to another. The same mode of life is a healthy excitement to one, keeping all his faculties of action and enjoyment in their best order, while to another it is a distracting burden which suspends or crushes all internal life. Such are the differences among human beings in their sources of pleasure, their susceptibilities of pain, and the operation on them of different physical and moral agencies that, unless there is a corresponding diversity in their modes of life, they neither obtain their fair share of happiness, nor grow up to the mental, oral, and aesthetic stature of which their nature is capable.
Mill recognized the potential, even in a democracy for the majority to lord it over minorities, for the group to lord it over individuals. The society has to be governed in such a way that the individual pursuit of happiness and goals is protected from the intrusive views of others. At the same time, the individual has to give up some of the perks of individuality for the commonweal. Stifling other folk’s views to forward your own is a no-no, unless their views are dangerous to you or to society. This fine balance of rights and obligations requires education so that the individual learns to become a member of the “organic” fabric of society. George Grant’s (1985) concern for education in a democratic tradition also reflects this concern.
This is really to say that our understanding of freedom in the best usually revolves around citizenship. After all, the etymological roots of the word “free” go way back and generally mean “dear”; that is, refers to one both who is of the family and who is being generous and loving. The Greek root prays specifically refers to being “mild” and gentle”. In Sanskrit the root priva refers to one who is a friend, who is dear, who is a member of the family and not a slave. The roots in German and Celtic refer to members of the household, rather than slaves. In Old English freedom referred to the state of not being coerced. Likewise, the Latin root of “liberty”, liberi, refers to “children”, or literally one who can be as free as a child in its own home. It also had the association with “generous”. The general sense of meaning that comes down to us is that of being a citizen, rather than a slave – to be free to come and go at will and without hindrance, to exercise full rights of membership in the community, just as in the family, to enjoy immunity from coercion from authority, and to be compassionate.
Exteriorization of Freedom
Q: I’m not sure I see how this definition of freedom is bad. Why isn’t it anthropologically useful to look at freedom in this way?
A: Under some circumstances it may be useful to look at freedom on a citizen-slave continuum. Marxists have made a lot of hay that way. But limiting our understanding of freedom to that continuum requires a distinct exteriorization of the notion of freedom that is quite ethnocentrically coincidental with a materialist point of view. This view of freedom is a fixture of Euro American liberalism, so much a fixture that it is very difficult for Western philosophers and scientists to step outside their “natural attitude” about freedom and come to see more completely the essence of freedom.
We come from a tradition the historical roots of which are firmly planted in feudalism. So quite naturally it makes inherent sense for us to speak of freedom as meaning freedom from coercion and constraint, and freedom of choice among alternative goals. We are conditioned to see freedom in its negative (“freedom from …”) and positive (freedom to …”) aspect relative to choice and action. Bertrand Russell defined freedom as “absence of obstacles to the realization of desires”. This is very Western, don’t you see? What about freedom from desire? Freedom from goals? Freedom to be and become in a natural, non-goal-directed way? That doesn’t think so easily in the West, does it? If the be-all-and-end-all of freedom is greater choice of alternatives, then a consumer of the Bay which is full of thousands of items is freer than a consumer at a shop in China displaying 15 items. One sage I know has said “Freedom is knowing all the alternatives and doing none of them”.
Discussions of freedom in the West get bogged down in consideration of external conditions, like education (rather than self-study). Somehow we have to be educated before we can be free. Education is something the society does to us, whereas self-study is something we do for and within ourselves. Contrast J.S. Mill’s notions of freedom with the story of Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch of China. Hui Neng was an illiterate wood-cutter who, according to tradition, came to full awakening when he heard a monk chant the Diamond Sutra. After he became the Sixth Patriarch people would come to him and ask him to interpret this or that text and he would say “I can’t read, so read it to me and I’ll give you an interpretation”. The point is, the sort of freedom they’re on about in Eastern cultures does not necessarily require education.
Q: Is there no correspondence between Western and Eastern views of freedom?
A: Of course there is! As George Grant describes so well, there is an archetypal basis (a Platonic essence) to the intuition of freedom of all peoples. But the historical and environmental conditions influencing a society will distort that society’s view about freedom in a characteristic way. A society that holds a class of human beings as chattel as ours once did will tend to see freedom relative to slavery. A society that has never known slavery won’t. Euro American liberal tradition at its best reached the transcultural wisdom which sees the inherent bondage of point of view. As Grant notes, the genius of that liberalism is in placing human rights before view; rights as archetypally fundamental and existentially prior to points of view about rights and morals and what is good. Freedom from point of view is transcultural, as Western as it is Eastern. But attainment of mindstates informed from realization of level of freedom is rare, as rare in the East as it is in the West. Human beings are transculturally trapped by their points of view.
But we in the West tend to exteriorize our perspective on freedom; this is our central error. This is the error that distorts our conditioning and causes us to range in our understanding of freedom on a perpetual polarity between optimal choice and helplessness. Freedom is somehow bestowed upon us by virtue of our status as citizens; it is not attained by dint of self-study. And, of course, if you look closely at our child-raising practices, it is obvious we are conditioned more towards the helplessness pole than the optimal choice pole. We can’t do anything for ourselves. We have to rely on the “experts”. Even the “experts” rely on “experts”. We need to heal, we go to healing “experts”. We need to eat, we go to the cooking “experts”. We need shelter, we go to shelter-building “experts”, and so on. Planned helplessness. You want to become free? Take Freedom 100 from the freedom “expert”. Now, consider the Zen koan “If you see the Buddha on the road kill him!”.
Q: So what you’re saying is that we need to interiorize our view of freedom.
A: We need to move our understanding in that direction, yes. We don’t necessarily have to move East to do so. After all, there are folks like Paul Ricoeur (in Freedom and Nature) who see that freedom begins with the dialogue within the being between the voluntary and the involuntary. The quaint notion that freedom begins and ends with rational choice is so naïve as to be silly. Any mature description of freedom, be it Eastern, Western or aboriginal, begins with awareness of necessity, of causality, of karma (see e.g., Bergmann 1977). The really interesting accounts of freedom are grounded in the phenomenology of the ego: to what extent am I aware of the processes of being that constitute “me” and “the world”? To the extent that “I” am not aware of these processes, to that extent I am unfree. With the interiorization of the search for freedom comes a concomitant shift from concern with goals and external activity to concern with the phenomenology of need and desire. The impetus becomes one of uncovering unconscious drives and manipulations encountered in the depths of my being. It was Malinowski that taught anthropologists that cultures arise to fulfill needs felt by human beings. He saw that there are basic biological needs like hunger and need for shelter and health that are prior to culture and universal to all humans, and that there are needs that culture itself generates and then either satisfies or doesn’t satisfy, like the need for entertainment or the yearly winter jaunts to Florida.
Time, Process and Freedom
Abraham Maslow (1968) saw human beings as manifesting a hierarchy of needs beginning with the most basic needs and culminating with the need for transcendental (or “peak” experience). The most interesting thing about Maslow’s view is that his scheme is developmental. Beings must satisfy the lower level needs before the higher level needs begin to mature. So someone who is chronologically sick or starving or anxious about success cannot expend much energy pursuing “higher” insights into the nature of the mind. The developmental perspective makes the question of freedom more complex and more interesting, particularly when you realize that development generally refers to the growth or maturation of some structure that is already in place. Development always begins with structure – there is already at least a rudimentary structure present before a function can occur and develop. By the way, this is a key tenet of biogenetic structuralism as I see it.
The question of freedom cannot be addressed apart from the question of time – time used here in three processual senses: ontogenetic (developmental), sociocultural (historical) and evolutionary (ahistorical). The failure to recognize the temporal or processual aspect of the problem of freedom has often led to unfortunate misunderstandings. For example, Neitzche’s notion of the perfectibility of human beings towards freedom, motivated by der Wille zur Macht (the will to power, or control), is commonly misinterpreted as a fully formed given (gegeben), rather than as a developmental potential (aufgegeben) that may or may not be realized in the life of any individual. Moreover, the sociocultural conditions conducive to optimal development of freedom may or may not be operative in the enculturative environment of an individual. In this sense, history may encourage or discourage the development of freedom in a society’s members. Yet no individual, regardless of sociocultural conditions, may attain a level of ontogenetic maturation beyond the genetically constrained limits of his or her phenotype, or of the human species. The freedom we may actualize is, in a sense, already potentially there in the possible development of the “seed” of our zygote. Thus freedom simultaneously involves the evolutionary species potential actualized in the individual zygotic potential (the ahistorical, by temporal sense of freedom), the sociocultural and environmental conditions effecting the growing individual (the historically temporal sense of freedom), and the internal maturational processes of the individual (the developmentally temporal sense of freedom).
Considering the temporal aspects of freedom in this way may help shed some light on why thinkers like George Grant (1985) have found it difficult to reconcile the historical and ahistorical aspects of liberty, for the two perspectives are frequently dichotomized in Western philosophy. On the one hand the ancient Greek conception of liberty, which Grant would like to apply to an understanding of English-speaking liberal tradition, would seem to be one of realizing an eternal Platonic ideal, of perfecting a goal already present in the potential scheme of things. On the other hand, there have been historical events like the writings of Rousseau, the drafting of the American constitution, and the development of technological bureaucracy that profoundly influence the realization of freedom by individuals in any age. And Grant has seen – in my opinion far better than some of his critics would allow – the potential conflict that can arise between inherent archetypal potential for justice and the drift of historical processes.
Grant is certainly not the first to see this conflict, this tension that can exist between historical and ahistorical processes. This is actually the social manifestation of the tension inherent in organic life between the twin imperatives: growth and adaptation (see Piaget 1971). Nietzsche understood this conflict well, and this led to his virulent contempt for society and the culture of the masses. An understanding of this tension permeates all of the Buddha’s teachings where dropping attachment to the world is seen as preparatory for living the “noble life” of the true contemplative. Look at his carefully considered descriptions of the differences between the life of the householder and the life of the monk. In deciding to drop the “worldly” life of a householder and become a “non-worldly” monk, there is the explicit recognition that an individual is opting to shift willfully directed energy away from culturally (historically) conditioned activities and towards those activities conducive to cognitive and spiritual maturation.
Actually the worldly/non-worldly distinction is inaccurate. Monks are in a sense more worldly in that they are supposed to be studying the factors of the mind that produce phenomenon, attachment and suffering.
Cognized and Operational Freedom
One productive way to view this tension between historical and ahistorical processes is to remember the distinction between operational freedom and cognized freedom. Operational freedom is the freeing that’s going on all the time in the being and the factors actually hindering that unfoldment. Cognized freedom is how we code those processes, how we model them. You can see, can’t you, that your conception of freedom can actually hinder the optimization of operational freedom and thus constitute an operational block to freedom. Suppose I code myself as totally free because I am a citizen of a democratic state. What incentive is there for me to my civil activities to drop into myself and pursue greater freedom via the wisdom eye? Mind you, the pursuit of freedom may go on anyway, unconscious to this ego, for the drive to mature is an organic imperative. But you can see that my view might stand as a barrier to full participation of all the parts of this being in its overall growth.
Cognized freedom is like cognized anything, it is a partial view. We see freedom from a horizon just as we see a table from a horizon, or sex from a horizon, or our mother from a horizon. Operational freedom is, however, a transcendental process; there is always more to know about freedom that we can realize. There is an infinity of points of view possible about freedom. Small wonder then that so many teachings on about optimizing freedom in the course of spiritual development suggest dropping all our ideas about freedom and just let it unfold under the most conducive possible conditions. But most folks can’t completely drop their intellection about things. Better then to help them restructure their views about freedom in such a way that their individual cognized freedom facilitates, rather than thwarts the operational freedom unfolding in their being.
REALIZATION OF TRANSCENDENT FREEDOM
To remind you once again, biogenetic structuralism is for me centered on the question of freedom, so like many quests inside and outside of science, biogenetic structuralism has produced reams of words which from my view, have all been struggles to come to grips with a single question. Now if this sounds strange to you, you might recall Jean Piaget’s entire career was centered on a single question which he came to in his twenties and was still working on some sixty years later when he died in his eighties. Fifty-odd books, thousands of articles, all on one question that that was: “How do we know?” Similarly, as far as my role in formulating biogenetic structuralism is concerned, the driving question in the whole project was, and still is, an exploration of freedom. The question put in a negative way is “Why am I not free?” Or, alternatively stated, “what are the limits to my freedom?” or, “why am I in bondage?” or, what are the principles that produce the cage in which this consciousness now finds itself?” Inevitably this question involves the problem of the limits to knowledge. It also involves the question of the limits to the production of the world before these eyes.
Engels put it nicely: “Freedom is the knowledge of necessity”. Engels reflected the ideas of the young Karl Marx, his great friend and mentor, who wrote in his earlier works all about how consciousness relates to wage-slavery in an industrial society. He was particularly on about the concept of alienation, which literally means that something is taken away. The young Marx was basically concerned with freeing consciousness to enjoy the fullest possible creative life. If that is a major human goal, why then do so few of us realize it? Is there some kind of lawful, structured sociological process involved in the alienation of the means to freedom from this consciousness? The Christian tradition implies as much: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free”. This implies that freedom entailed knowledge, and that knowledge somehow entails the possibility of freedom. But who has taken the knowledge away? Who keeps me from rediscovering it?
As I’ve said, so far as the Buddha’s teaching is concerned, freedom is considered relative to suffering, to the struggle for existence. The freedom that matters is the freedom from suffering which requires the freedom from desire. He said there is suffering, suffering is caused by desire, there is also the cessation of suffering and that occurs if and only if desire is extinguished. Whether or not you go along with that view, his notion of freedom was entailed in knowledge of dharmas (laws). Freedom stems from knowledge of the way it is. That’s the route to freedom, the clear seeing of how the mind constructs its own chains, its own jail cell. This being must come to see that it creates mind-loops that recur in response to events in the world. Consciousness is like a complex juke box. It mints its own repertoire of records and then gets stuck playing the same selections over and over when the right buttons are pushed. Freedom is increased in the being when the consciousness begins to identify with the juke box, but not the sides. It sees it can mint new sides, change the discs, and broaden the repertoire.
In terms of biogenetic structuralism, freedom requires the knowledge of neurognosis, which is our key concept just as dharma is for Buddhism. Our claim is that neurognosis is present from the retina in, and from the cortex out, the whole structure of the nervous system has inherent in it ranges of plasticity and limits to that plasticity that manifest themselves in development. The major application, so far as we can see at this point, is to produce a paradigm in science that appreciates the truth of Jung’s claim that there is active and passive individuation. Consciousness does grow, does mature, and does so according to the laws inherent in its very nature. But the growth usually occurs in a way unconscious to the empirical ego which consciously produces in the process of adaptation. When the ego becomes actively involved in its own individuation, the process results in a qualitatively different human being down the road. As I’ve said, from our point of view, one can only really speak of unconscious relative to some particular network, and if you can imagine that ego is a set of habitual entrainments that are conscious to itself, obviously there are other networks operating in the being unconscious to that ego.
Q: Sort of like the ego is the centre of gravity of what is conscious and then in Jungian terms the self can be the centre of gravity of the whole system, and as consciousness moves to different places or gets changes, so the centre of gravity – a sort of symbol of consciousness – can change too.
A: Sure. But our project would go further than Jung’s. We would produce a paradigm that leads to the appreciation of an application of science to optimizing active individuation in each and every human being. Jung, by no stretch of the imagination, ever came to the phenomenological reduction. It is quite clear from his writings that he never appreciated the ultimate potential of the transcendental phenomenology. Jung certainly speaks more eloquently than any Western psychological theorist to the possibilities of a transpersonalism in one’s own personal life, but he never asked questions that led him to the essences of mind; to dots or anything beyond dots. He was a physician and looked at the fragments of the being and the growth and integration of those fragments at the most gross level of the ego, shadow, anima, animus, archetypal symbols, that sort of thing, and wasn’t looking at the much more subtle levels of perception that Husserl was dealing with. So far as I can tell, the essential nature of phenomenal perception was not his question.
AN IBIS IN THE TREE
As mentioned earlier, I have come to the conclusion that a transcendental phenomenology is fundamental to the whole biogenetic structural project. I could go on at length about why I think that by reference to my own personal contemplative work. However, all I can do in a summary way is to say that I have seen certain things about the way this mind works and am persuaded in an unequivocal way that knowledge of those functions of mind is absolutely necessary to resolve apparent paradoxes in modern science, and furthermore, that there is no other way of removing those paradoxes. Ignorance of the way the mind works produces a pitfall, a trap that is repeatedly fallen into, generation after generation. Ultimately, biogenetic structuralism implies the necessity of a phenomenological reduction and the production in the scientific community – let us be realistic here – of at least a small cadre of individuals who come to realize their transcendental nature. I tend to call that part of the being the Watcher, or after the title of this series of lectures, the ibis in the tree. The scarlet ibis appears in the symbolism of the Star card in the esoteric Tarot:
The bird on the bush is a scarlet ibis. This is the Egyptian bird sacred to Hermes, the Magician. Its long bill is a natural fish-hook. Perched on a tree which represents the human brain and nervous system, it symbolizes the act of bringing intellectual activity, or the thought-process, to rest by concentration. We have to stop thinking in order to mediate properly, and when we stop thinking Truth unveils herself to us.
(Case 1975: 171)
I think the best that we can do is persuade some scientists (1) that performing the phenomenological reduction is both spiritually worthwhile and productive to a deeper understanding of the processes inherent in science, and (2) to become sensitized to phenomenological issues even though most scientists cannot (for a variety of reasons) become mature contemplatives.
What then is the byproduct of the production of ibis in the tree, of a Watcher, of a transcendental ego, in some scientists? Certain knowledge about the phenomenological essences as a foundation for all science. There’s theory, there’s fact and there are essences. Husserl argued that knowledge of the essences is not like knowledge of facts. The latter can be argued about, the former cannot be. Essences are the way the mind works, the way it is as apprehended by a mind that is intuitively mature enough to grasp the way it is.
Why should this be so important to the maturation of anthropology and of science in general? Why is it so important to have an ibis in the tree? Because it seems to me the best that science can do for the species and the planet is to engender freedom; to free humanity in all the various ways that we have suggested freedom can be. This is freedom to participate in the evolution of Homo gestalt. Generally speaking, freedom is the unfettered perfection of becoming; to become the greatest that one can become. Freedom is the neurocognitive equipment, the opportunity, the guidance, the resources to go for the great instead of the small. And we will have that choice; the potential of that choice is the only freedom there is in our own real lives. We aren’t talking about political movements here, or grand ideologies, we are talking about the organism taking charge of its own maturation and optimizing what it can become. We’re not saying in what direction – you may end up on the stage of the Bolshoi Ballet, skiing the powder in the Alps, a philosopher or a garbage man of immense wisdom.
Perhaps the wisest words I have ever heard in this life were said by a poet who wrote: “In humanity the universe becomes aware of itself”. In a certain sense that might as well be the question that I have asked all these years: “Why am I not free?” This quote implies its own ever-unfolding answer – like Wheeler’s (1983) little cosmogram of a self-reflective universe. He drew a “U” with an eyeball on the left side looking at the right side, with the top right of the “U” implying the big bang and the body of the “U” the process of evolution. The curve of the “U” implies reduction, a turning back of the universe upon itself in a massive willful and conscious reflection.
Biogenetic structuralism offers evidence that the best we can do in our lifetimes, the best that science can do as a social institution is proceed to know and through knowing aid the society and all its members to be and become free. We are to become freer and freer in order to know more and more, to know more and more in order to become freer and freer. Two sides of the same coin. Self-reflection takes a lot of guts and can be very painful, but it can be very joyous and, as I say freeing; and intellect has its role when properly applied – a role that cannot be fully appreciated unless and until one completes some form of reduction. It is very “in” these days in new age circles to put down intellect. This is very foolish and naïve, for intellect can be honed into an extremely precise tool in service of the awakening. This means, among other things that one needs to be able to drop intellecting when required. Like any precision tool when misapplied, it is disastrous and often dangerous to the growth of the being.
Now, reflecting back upon these lectures, do you have any questions that could push us just a little bit further?
Q: Bateson sets up a criterion of mind that makes mind eminent in systems of communication, and in the world, in any ecology; what are the neurognostic pathways that would account for the evolution of those things? Are they reflective or metaphors of evolution?
A: I think Bateson (1972, 1979) appreciated, probably more than most anthropologists, the nature of systems, or what in more esoteric teachings might be called, at the experiential level, totality. In Husserl there is the realization that there is a unity to consciousness in the context of which separation of anything from anything else is but an artifact of cognition – unconscious bracketing in this sense, discrimination that may or may not lead to fragmentation. So Bateson is in keeping with many of these traditions in revealing the totality of experience and consciousness. However, he strikes me as naïve with respect to either neurophysiology or transcendental phenomenology. His project does not result in the production of either a transcendental idealism in which you stop making assertions about the nature of existence outside the mind, or a neuroanthropology in which you track causality from cortex out through the feet and through sidewalks and in through the eyes to cortex. The nature of the causality of course changes from the feet or fingertips in, as opposed to from feet or fingertips out.
Anyhow, Bateson fuzzes off – the world is all somehow magically mind. Well, it is and it isn’t; it depends on whether you’re talking about the operational environment or the cognized environment. If it’s the cognized cane arising in the sensorium of the observer, or the blind man using it, then of course it is all mind; if the cane is dropped and the blind man walks on and there is no observer, no being for whom there is a cane arising in consciousness, the Buddha would remain silent; Husserl would say you haven’t performed the transcendental reduction yet, so don’t worry about it; and biogenetic structuralism really isn’t interested in the cane “out there”, it’s interested in how this brain works. Unless the cane is a transcendental guide – an object before consciousness – which is really being constituted between the ears, it is of no interest. Not of no interest in any ultimate sense, but rather of no interest until we have produced a mind that can distinguish clearly what exactly it is looking at.
Q: You have to be able to say “that’s unknowable”; it’s important to say that.
A: That’s what Kant said, but Husserl would argue that Kant went wrong. Kant’s making assertions about the noumenal world, without really ever seeing how his own mind is operating. The transcendentalism in Husserl is a radical transcendentalism, far more radical than that of Kant, or even William James. You see, science has presumed we have to understand “out there” first – work on levers, inclined planes, black holes and stuff like that. The reason that science has been led so astray is that it has worked beautifully, to a point. But it is a limited success. Science has unconsciously profited from eons of evolution of a nervous system in favour of an adaptive isomorphism with the operational environment, so, quite naturally, when that nervous system starts studying the operational environment it is going to get relatively isomorphic models going, certainly isomorphic enough to produce florescent lights and atom bombs. But that course of study will inevitably reach a point at which it fails to account for the brain’s own role in the process of inquiry. Because it has been staring out of the eyes and not treating the object as a transcendental guide to discovering its own nature, from the eyes inward. Science will thus inevitably come up against a mountain of apparent paradox, as physics has already done, as one science after another is doing, and as mathematics, philosophy, perhaps even theology seem to be doing. It is more and more obvious that it is time to stop and look inward and ask “Who is the builder of this world we have been watching for so long?” That’s the point we are now rapidly approaching in the evolution of science.
Q: So how does one affect this reduction? How do you separate the unexplained, the explained, and the unexplainable?
A: One can become comfortable with the dynamic limits of knowledge. C.S. Pierce taught us (1) that all knowledge is fallible, (2) that the role of knowledge is to produce questions as a guide to further inquiry, and (3) that what is important in science is the production of the inquiring mind itself, and not any particular fact or theory the mind comes up with. Science is the institutional eyeball staring back at the universe, as a part of itself. My vision of the history of the entire universe is a huge cosmic cycle with a band at one end and a “ah-ha” at the other end; there is a bang, which is a cosmic event, and then there is the evolution of reflection of what which is produced in the cosmic event. The reflection absorbs more and more of the universe into itself and then there is nothing but the eyeball left, and that is the “ah-ha””. That is possibly the only point at which the entire universe is absorbed into the act of total knowledge, and the “ah-ha” may be the advent of the next big bang. On this account, we are surely God evolving!
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