Month: August 2022

Why Scientists don’t get consciousness…

I spent twenty years teaching children excluded from school - mostly boys in their early teens - with thick files, police records, and usually a psychiatric diagnosis. As a home tutor supposedly able to teach Design and Technology, I carried a large blue laundry bag full of Technic Lego. Most of my pupils recalled almost nothing from school, and had to be cajoled into taking part in something educational - boys almost universally allowed themselves to be interested in making model cars and robots. I dignified this by making attempts to educate them about gear wheels and centimetres and right angles, all of which had passed them by at school.

Gradually as I became user friendly to the boys - and to their mothers who were all at their wits’ end - they opened up to me. One boy masquerading as a young thug who enjoyed intimidating all the other pupils, told me, ‘Bruce-Man!  You don’t know how angry I am.’ I asked him, ‘Are you afraid of your anger ? He said yes, and coming out from behind his imitation of power melted down into a vulnerable fourteen year old whose father was a thousand miles away in Morocco. 

Another boy, just eight years old had nearly strangled a classmate. After this he could no longer be taught in a pupil referral unit, and I was sent to teach him at home. His mother told me, ‘My son does not have mental health problems!’ I said, ‘Well, we all do’…and asked the boy, ’What sort of animal is your anger ? He said, ‘Its a lion that kills its prey!’ Next week, I said, ’How’s your lion ?’ He said ‘The lion and me  think differently, he goes boo, and I go eek!’  It was a breakthrough for him to dis-identify from the lion and recognise the frightened little boy who went eek, it was trying to protect.

This is mindfulness - directly knowing and seeing for yourself what is going on in consciousness so it is possible to see your reactions and not be blindly identified with them.

Unfortunately, in my experience this is not what happened routinely in the boys’ experience of mental health services. Most of my pupils had been diagnosed after an hour or so by a psychiatrist, and left with labels like ODD (oppositional defiant disorder) or ADHD or depression, and medicated. Boys felt ashamed and judged - feeling like ’divs’, in their language - and believing their reality had been ignored. Instead they felt saddled with an image that made them feel stigmatised and reified.  

 Given that some pupils had terrible home lives - mothers on heroin who cut themselves in front of their son in order to blackmail him to get his Dad home  - who was off with other women - it is not surprising that pupils rarely felt safe enough to tell psychiatrists the truth about their experience. 

I came to realise that the thick files that came with my pupils, were almost entirely useless when it came to really understanding what they had gone through. Psychiatrists and clinical psychologists are dedicated to models of understanding humans which almost entirely rely on attempting to get them to fit into the conventional scientific mode of measuring something through the senses.

Conventional science has been wildly successful at sending rockets to Mars, but I suggest wildly unsuccessful when it comes to helping humans understand themselves.  (In my lifetime humans have gone a long way to destroying the planet they live on, and show very little sign of restraining their greed for fossil fuels)

Why is this ?   Scientists as a result of the ‘Enlightenment’ found a way to throw out subjective assumptions, and rely on Objective data measured through the senses. Unfortunately this lead them to ignore and disavow what could be called the Subjective with a capital S - their very own knowing which allows them to design experiments and see for themselves what their experiments show.

Consciousness has been dubbed the ‘hard’ problem - BUT if we dare to release all the hidden mental assumptions which we absorb from infancy, and with which we are so identified that we completely forget we are looking through them, it is possible to dive into the knowing, and know it by tapping into the direct experience of BEING the knowing. This is a place of the utmost simplicity.

If we are to understand each other, scientists need to recognise how lost we are without an understanding of consciousness, and dare to make a Kuhnian leap into another way of knowing consciousness.

Given we are witnessing the early stages of a psychedelic renaissance, I’d like to recount my own experience of what it takes to dive into consciousness.

In my second year of studying Anthropology at Sussex University in the late 1960’s  I took some LSD. I can remember blinking and swallowing and suddenly discovering the entire universe and I were of one substance. Walking around it was obvious that humans are largely delusional - we believe we are separate entities, and because we are identified with a mental construction  of ourselves, we are constantly estranged from feeling at one with Life, and all too often in contention with each other. 

Reading R.H.Blyth’s marvellous book, ‘Zen and English Literature and Oriental Classics’ I saw that Zen appeared to understand what I had experienced on LSD. My Zen teacher who had had the courage to take LSD herself said my experience was a barrier to seeing the truth and that LSD only ‘inverted the relations between the conscious and the unconscious’. Whether or not this is true the experience gave me a lot of faith. 

 I eventually became a Zen monk and went through the trials of what is called ‘great doubt’. Great doubt means wrestling with all the mental assumptions that usually prevent us from knowing the world as it is.   

In my case I was on fire with doubt for some years. I had an awakening where it felt like I literally fell a long way. I think in retrospect it was like a young version of myself had held onto the impressions of Life I took on board from my parents - like holding onto the cards I had been dealt, and the cards falling out of my hands so that I was able to fall into being the mystery. 

I was on retreat with a famous Chinese Zen teacher when this happened, and he was ten feet away. I went up to him, and said ‘I can see!’  ‘See what!’, he retorted. I said ‘My heart is open’. Later in interview he said if I wanted this ratified as enlightenment he’d have to get an interpreter, and I said,’ I don’t want you to put a label on it, and I don’t want to put a label on it either.’ The mystery is self-revealing and immanent and has no need of a label.

Rinzai, the Zen monk who began my tradition of Zen, says, ‘Followers of the Way: the Dharma of the heart has no form and pervades the ten directions. In the eye it is called seeing; in the ear hearing…Fundamentally, it is one light; differentiated it becomes the six senses.’

My experience of the mystery of consciousness is that the separate self we take ourself to be melts into nothing and everything. Usually, we are so deluded by our mental constructions, and so convinced by our perceptions, that we experience the world as made up of separate objects. In reality they are arising and passing back into the mystery. It is as if there is a little boat made of ice called ‘me’, which has to melt to know the water directly.

Of course, It is unlikely that scientists will start meditating ardently, or go through the great doubt, but it is possible to begin to enquire into our experience, without obscuring  it with our preconceived mental agenda and assumptions.  This is tricky, because we  start out already looking through clusters of mental representations we’re identified with.  It takes a sincere heart to pierce through our delusions.

I am following the work of A.H.Almaas here, as a point of departure - his work helps to recognise what he calls basic knowing.  When I do crosswords, I often feel stumped. Precisely in allowing myself to recognise I do not know what the answer is, I can also recognise there is still knowing - knowing I don’t know.  This deeper knowing stripped of all preconceived assumptions is what is called mindfulness in Buddhism.

I believe mindfulness is often not understood so that an attempt is made to be non-judgemental in the present, which is laid over the usual ego structure of a (who I take myself to be) ’me’ in here and a ‘world’ out there.  It takes  a much deeper dive, and more rigorous discrimination of our preconceived assumptions to allow consciousness  to begin to know the immediacy of our experience —be the knowing

 It takes willingness to see what Cynthia Bourgeault, a Christian mystic,  calls the ‘mechanical ego-self puttering along on auto-pilot’, and courage to begin to directly experience what is here in the moment.

It is time to question whether the social sciences and the world of psychology are not largely exercises in the institutionalisation of ignorance, where as psychiatrist RD Laing put it long ago, ‘Man’s being can be seen from different points of view…even the same thing, seen from different points of view, gives rise to two entirely different descriptions,. And the descriptions give rise to two entirely different theories, and the theories give rise to two entirely different  actions.’  This is like the parable of the five blind men and the elephant - each of whom grabbed a part of the elephant and concluded (from the ear) an elephant is like a leaf, (from the tail) it is like a rope, (from the leg) it is like a pillar and so on - but none knew the nature of the elephant itself.

What if this is a consequence of our ignorance of consciousness, and our futile attempt to objectify it from many points of view? 

When your view of reality comes from a more non conceptual place without the usual mental constructions, your perspective on everything changes.

Diving into consciousness and allowing oneself to know it directly and immediately - can mean for example noting my cat lying around with all four legs in the air, appearing to feel without a care in the world, I begin to feel and know a sweet tender appreciation as a direct experience In my heart - knowing love not by separating myself from it, or objectifying it, but by being the love itself. Love knows itself by being itself. Almaas describes the various implicit forms consciousness takes, and in this instance calls this form of love the pink.

 I remember as an Anthropology student, reading Durkheim who believed religion was due to the ‘collective effervescence’ of crowds. Watching England score a  goal against Sweden and feeling and seeing the crowd erupt in joy and a sense of dynamic expansion, I could turn his observation on its head, and see how winning a goal, revives the dynamic unity implicit in consciousness, but the ego takes the credit, so that for a moment England feels on top of things, and with that a sense of confidence and expansion. Consciousness has to be unpeeled from the reified self-representation of ‘England’ to know the sense of expansion and joy directly. 

Perhaps literature has always known this - watching Harrison Ford dare to stand up to a corrupt President in ’Clear and Present Danger’, I feel the stirring of what it takes to speak truth to power - and the uprightness and natural support that goes with this - qualities of the will that are implicit in consciousness.

Consciousness has many such implicit qualities, which can be known only by experiencing them so deeply, that the apparently separate ‘me’ falls away and allows us to know the quality through direct experience. This is not a surrender into the wilderness of subjectivity, but an appreciation of qualities of consciousness which can be discovered by anyone willing to dive into the depths of their own heart.