Category Archives: Consciousness
Enough with the words for now. They’re not getting me anywhere, despite what they claim. (Jan. 2013)
(i) My body functions as a pure mechanism according to the Laws of Nature.
(ii) Yet I know, by incontrovertible direct experience, that I am directing its motions, of which I forsee the effects that may be fateful and all-important, in which case I feel and take full responsibility for them.
The only possible inference from these two facts is that I—I in the widest meaning of the word, that is to say, every conscious mind that has ever said or felt ‘I’—am the person, if any who controls the ‘motion of the atoms’ according to the Laws of Nature.
—Erwin Schrödinger, What is Life?
I spent the day trying to vocalize all of my thoughts—just to see how my mind works. And . . .
I became very aware of my endless inane observations.
They were often followed by commentary like, “Jeez, my mind is full of inane crap.”
Which was sometimes followed by commentary like, “Don’t judge it, just watch it.”
Which was sometimes followed by commentary like, “Who’s watching? Don’t watch. Don’t analyze. Just say it.”
At other times I said, “I wouldn’t have had those thoughts about my thoughts if I were not vocalizing my thoughts.”
Or, “I am remembering all my thoughts much more than I would if I were not vocalizing.”
Sometimes I thought I should stop all these metathoughts about my thoughts and vocalizations. I didn’t always vocalize these thoughts.
I liked to read words out loud every time I saw them.
I noticed more smells, textures and colors than usual.
Sometimes when my mind was silent, I tried to think of something to say and only said “Why is it so difficult and tiring to speak all my thoughts?”
Sometimes when my mind was silent, I said something like, “Was that one of those moments between thoughts which the meditators claim are the moments when your true self is present?” Actually, I was more likely to just think that than to say it.
Sometimes the vocalization of the thought lasted too long, and I had already moved on to a new thought while still vocalizing the old one.
Often I spoke the thought out loud only after I had already spoken it to myself in my mind.
Other times the vocalization was my first awareness of the thought.
Some vocalizations, such as “Ouch” and “Fuck!” came with no real thought attached to them, just a sensation.
When I started thinking about something I wanted to tell somebody or planning what I would do later, I started a long internal monologue but usually forgot to vocalize it.
When I made an effort to vocalize such monologues, I lost interest quickly.
I sometimes thought about how I would write this list. I rarely vocalized those thoughts.
Sometimes I laughed and said, “Sheez, my brain is a random mess.”
I wondered, sometimes aloud and sometimes not, what kinds of thought processes were going on that I still wasn’t aware of.
Luna is from rural Thailand, near the Lao and Cambodian borders. She grew up in the 1970s without electricity, without shoes, without motorized vehicles. Money was rare. It was largely a subsistence life, eating what they grew on the farm and what they could forage (such as mushrooms, frogs, land crabs, lizards, snakes, insects and algae) and building shelters out of whatever materials were on hand. Luna spent her days taking care of ducks and buffalos, carrying water and cooking, planting and harvesting rice and vegetables, and hacking down the forests to create new fields. She never attended school (until her early 30s, when she went to hairdressing school, driving school and four weeks of English classes). Buddhist nuns and her grandmother taught her the basics of writing before she was 12. But she didn’t really learn to read and write until her 20s, when she worked security in Bangkok and had nothing else to do during the long nights in building lobbies and parking lots than to practice her handwriting and hope it would get her a pay raise. She learned basic math when she worked as a bus conductor in her teens.
When I go to Luna’s farm, all I see are nice green fields, pretty trees and some animals. When she looks at that same countryside, she sees all the places where things to eat can be found, endless resources to build and repair things, and a landscape that can be endlessly modified to better suit new crops, animals or human needs. With little more than a machete, she can enter (what to me looks like) an empty field and finish the day with a chicken coop. With the help of a couple of family members, they will finish the day with a small farmhouse. She can start with a cotton plant and a few leaves for dye; and after a few days show me a multi-colored textile with elephant patterns. When she tries to explain the loom to me, and the multiple knotted strings used to produce the pattern, I can only shake my head in despair at ever being able to understand the complexity of it all.
I feel like a child when I am in the country with Luna. I am totally dependent, totally ignorant, totally incompetent. I am in awe of her talent and intelligence. She can take home a single example of a handbag that she wants to copy—often a complex bag shaped like an owl or a dolphin—replicate it at home and then design a mass-producing system for her and a friend to create hundreds of them with multiple color patterns. She can watch somebody cook something once or twice—whether in India, China or Italy—and then go home and successfully recreate the dish. She can watch somebody paint a new flower design on to her fingernails, and then next time go home and paint it herself. She built most of her concrete and iron home by herself, just by watching how other people worked. Sometimes she hired people to help her, but as often or not ended up doing it herself because they were so incompetent.
When she comes to New York, however, I learn the limits of her skills. She is eternally lost in the city. She can barely make heads or tails of a map. She is more likely than not to take the subway in the wrong direction, even on routes she has already travelled several times. She can’t make sense of computers and their various parts: the system, the applications, the internet, the browsers, the websites. Indeed, she is flummoxed by most electrical appliances (except cell phones). Every time I teach her, it just slips right out of her memory the next minute and her fingers are fumbling again—much like everything she tries to teach me about plants and crafts.
After a few months in New York together, I catch myself thinking that Luna is a bit stupid, a bit uneducated. I teach her things so many times, things that seem obvious to me, but she just can’t remember or figure it out. She can hold great English conversations in Thailand—indeed she can tell stories better than many native English speakers. But in conversations with my friends in New York she is perplexed and awkward—not only in her language skills, but in her complete misjudgment of the proper flow and tone of a conversation.
Fortunately, I can remember the skills and intelligence that I saw in Thailand and quickly repent of my critical judgments. But I am startled by how different a personality can look in a different context. It makes me realize how different intelligences can be; how much they are dependent on situations.
I’ve read somewhere that learning to read at an early age changes the wiring of our brains. We are trained to relate readily to small objects the size of a word, and can understand their intricate relationships. A childhood of reading also trains us to think in terms of abstractions and generalizations. But it leaves us incompetent to read a natural landscape; to anticipate the activities of plants and animals; or to think in holistic terms of a world made up of complexly interwoven particularities. I can believe it.
I often read scientists claiming that IQ tests are effective measures of intelligence and can predict success in life. They argue that high IQ scores correlate with high incomes and job success. Based on this correlation, some of them pooh-pooh the idea of different kinds of intelligences and insist that IQ=ability. But this correlation between IQ scores and job success is completely tautological. The kinds of abstract, paper & screen-based reasoning that can make one succeed on an IQ test (or the SAT or GRE or LSAT) is precisely the kind of skill that makes one successful in school and in modern white-collar jobs. Being good at these kinds of tests helps you get into better schools, and graduating from a better school often gets you a better job and starting salary. So, of course IQ tests can predict success in American and European society; because American society rewards precisely the kinds of abstract, paper-bound skills that are measured by tests. Skills and intelligence in practical construction, in utilizing landscapes, in material creativity are skills that don’t pay (except for a handful of successful artists and decorators). And people with this kind of intelligence are routinely treated with condescension–both in America and in urban Thailand.
I can’t imagine Luna doing well on one of those standardized tests. She’s never seen one in her life, and wouldn’t know where to start (I’ve filled out visa and customs forms with her–even the basic organization of the sheet seems to perplex her). But I will still defer to her intelligence and wisdom on so many things, both practical and emotional. Every now and then, when she is frustrated about some stupidity on my part, she says “You have school. Why you not understand anything?” The answer is easy. “Because nobody learns anything useful in school.”
To be sure, Luna is a bit exceptional. None of her eight siblings (with the possible exception of a sister who lives in Germany) are as smart and talented as she. Part of the reason is that she was the only one to be raised by her grandmother, who taught her a lot. But maybe it is also because she is the only sibling who did not go to school. All of the others had 3-5 years of school. Even though some of them still can’t sign their names, perhaps those few young years of paper-bound abstraction were still enough to eat away at their native, environmental intelligence.
How do we live in this world that science has imagined for us?
For starters, we live on a spinning rock circling around a mid-sized star that is one of 2-400 billion stars in a mid-sized galaxy. Light can travel around our planet in about 0.13 seconds, but would 100,000 years to travel across our galaxy. The closest neighboring galaxy (the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy) is only 25,000 light years away, but most major galaxies are over 2 million years away. In fact, our galaxy is just one of perhaps 200 billion galaxies in the universe, and our sun is just one of about a septillion (1024) stars. The universe is currently about 46 billion light years across, but we will likely never see all of it because it is only 13.7 billion years old and still expanding. There has not been enough time for light to travel even one-third of the way across the universe. Our planet is about 4.5 billion years old—one-third the age of the universe.
The numbers are just as daunting in the other direction. The vast majority cells, often considered to be the most basic living things, are not visible to our eyes. Our bodies are made up of at least 100 trillion (1014) cells. 90% of these are gut flora, made up of over a thousand species of independent organisms doing much of our metabolic work. An average cell contains about 200 trillion atoms—amounting to about 200 septillion atoms for the entire body (2X1026). If atoms were stars, we would have around 200 universes inside our body. The comparison is not totally absurd, because the universe in our body is just as empty as the universe out there. Each of those atoms is well over 99 percent empty space—and this is only if we imagine that the nucleons have size. If nucleons are made up of quarks which (like electrons and photons) are essentially one dimensional objects that take up no space, then we are virtually empty. And so are the stars and galaxies that make up the universe.
It is one thing to calculate the vast empty spaces. Quite another to understand them. In both directions we really have no idea what we are talking about (well, maybe the mathematicians do, but they still have had little success translating that into a universe we can imagine). On the smaller scale, the fundamental units are impossible to perceive. Subatomic particles sometimes behave like waves, and sometimes like particles. Some people say they are fields. Others depict them as knots in a fabric, or as one-dimensional oscillating strings. If we try to figure out where they are, we can’t see how fast they are going. When we measure how fast they are going, we have no idea where they are. We can only statistically estimate the probability of their turning up within a certain space at a certain time—a statistic that is only meaningful and that only creates solid objects when we have millions and billions of the darn things.
And what does it mean to say the universe in 13.7 billion years old? The speed of light seems like a reliable constant by which to measure distance. That speed does not change relative to how fast we are going (unlike, say, our perception of a flying bird which changes whether we are standing still or in an airplane). But the ‘geometry of space time’ warps around objects of large mass. When you look into a black hole the speed of light slows down. When you look away, it speeds up. Things that move quickly experience time more slowly; and things that move slowly experience time more quickly. A photon will have no experience of time. Yet this is what we use to measure time? What does it mean to quantify the age of the universe when that quantification may have no relevance to substances that make up the universe?
And all of those atoms that make up molecules, cells, bodies and stars of the universe—in other words, that have made up the substance of this account so far—only account for 4% of the entire mass-energy content of the universe. 23% is cold dark matter, and 73% is dark energy. Which seems only like another way of saying that we really have no idea, that our cosmological theories are just wild guesses that have shot wide of the evidence. The incomprehensible numbers are there. Our speculations on them are phantasmagoric.
But what a phantasmagoria it is! Most scientists imagine that the universe began as a point of infinite density and temperature where the current laws of physics did not apply. In the first few seconds after the explosion, matter, energy and the basic laws of physics started to differentiate. Some imagine this universe contains multiple dimensions, at least 11 but possibly as many as 26, most of which are folded up, imperceptible and inhabited by vibrating 1-dimensional strings. Others imagine multiverses that are all the products of different quantum possibilities that were unrealized in this universe—both backwards and forwards in time with nearly infinite permutations. Others have postulated that black holes are the locations of other universes, implying that our universe is just a black hole in yet another universe, and so on and so on. Perhaps all the parts of our universe, or of all the diverse universes, come together in some neurological network that is part of a greater cosmic consciousness—or more likely something else that is entirely incomprehensible to our consciousness. These are the kinds of places where science imagines we live!
Even at more manageable scales of time and space, science leaves us in an ever-changing landscape of uncertain footing. We are just one of a few million species of life on earth (only about 2 million are identified) and of perhaps a few hundred million that have ever existed. The ecosystem we live in is the product of millions of species emerging and changing and going extinct over hundreds of millions of years. Bursts of species production and development often came upon the heels of great disasters. The rise of mammals—and hence us—would never of happened without the extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago, probably as the result of a huge asteroid impact. In the overall development of the global ecosystem, particular species and organisms are but passing phases; symbiotic parts in a much greater system that exists across time.
Some species develop in competition with others, and some in symbiosis or collaboration with others. Overly-adapted species become narrow and unchanging, susceptible to extinction when their ecosystems change. Successful species can often overproduce and destroy their own ecosystem, undermining their own success. A few increasingly complex species like us are the occasionally produced. But if success is to be measured in diversity of species and length of existence, we primates are losers. The world really belongs to the insects, the fungi and, above all, the bacteria.
Our species has existed on this Earth only 200,000 years: about 0.004444% the age of the planet. We expanded across the planet over the past 70,000 years during a period of enormous climatological swings—changes of 5 to 15 degrees within periods of a couple thousand years. The last 10,000 years of a relatively warm and stable climate is uncommon, but has helped us to flourish even more. The social world as we know it has largely came into being over the past 200 years since the industrial revolution. It has only been in place 0.1% of the entire existence of the human species, hardly a blip. But it has been a significant blip. The human population has increased seven fold to over 7 billion individuals in these two centuries, a rate of expansion far faster than ever before. We are rapidly consuming fuels and minerals that have been residing and brewing in the earth’s crust for millions of years, now depleting them at rates that have not been seen for millions of years. We are also spewing many of these chemicals into the atmosphere and changing the climate—although the warming of the past century is still trivial compared to swings in the past.
Thinking at the scales of science is thinking statistically. This is perhaps the greatest challenge to living in the world that science has imagined for us, because it means thinking in terms of populations and patterns across populations rather than individuals. It is thinking about long term trends; about the likelihood that an electron will be found here and not there; about the tendency of energy to dissipate and of order to decay due to entropy; and about the likelihood of events that may be probable but never inevitable (although, when the sample is large enough, the difference between inevitability and probability becomes vanishingly small). It places humans in much larger contexts that are often beyond our control.
Statistical-type thought includes not only bell curves, probabilities and trends, but power laws, the organization of networks and complex behavior. It is a kind of thought that can show semi-regular patterns but rarely predict specific events. These show regular distributions of large and small events in complex environments; tipping points between disorder and structure; networked conditions in which massive changes in connectivity may have no effect and in which tiny shifts may lead to massive diffusion or cascading failure; patterns that replicate yet always with tiny variations; and complex situations in which all predictions are impossible. Many of these patterns are as applicable to humans as they are to molecules, microbes and sand. Free will or not, when we are considered in large numbers we behave no differently than any other object. The rise and fall of states, stock markets, book sales, journal citations, residential patterns and daily habits, follow these same patterns that shape galaxies, earthquakes, sand hills and the spread of slime molds. Yet individual choices (and chance contingency—the same thing?) may still matter—if they happen to take place in spaces and moments in which cascading failure or the generation of new structures is likely.
These same patterns can create self-organizing systems and emergent behavior. Most forms of organization tend either towards a static stability (think atomic nuclei or rocks) or formless chaos (gas). But at the critical boundary between these two forms—when units interact in the context of a few simple rules or structures—new systems can emerge that are complex, dynamic and self-reproducing. And as these systems themselves begin to interact with each other, some produce new and even more complex systems. Think of quantum particles coming together as atoms, which come together as molecules, to cells, to organisms, to ecosystems, and to human collective learning and self-awareness. At each level, the rules change. To be sure, brains, organisms and ecosystems are ultimately reducible to sub-atomic particles and quantum mechanics (i.e., to inconceivability). But we can never explain the behavior of these new emergent systems through resort to atomic physics. We find new patterns of interaction, new rules, new collective behaviors. And yet certain macro-patterns such as power laws, networking and self-organization itself may still hold across several, or even all levels.
Consciousness is perhaps the most challenging of emergent phenomena. The brain is made up of at least 85 billion neurons. Our thoughts and self-awareness are surely reducible to a dance of firing electric charges. But knowing that tells us nothing. The shifting patterns and reorganizations of those firings, the self-referential loops, the creation of abstractions and categories to guide subsequent firings, the constantly imperfect reproduction of memories and concepts are among the many things that have made an understanding of consciousness totally elusive. How can self-awareness be aware of itself? Some scientists try to cordon consciousness off as a trivial epiphenomenon. And much of it may indeed be an unintended artifact of neuronal developments that evolved for other purposes such as throwing rocks, getting laid, collective hunting or bipedalism. But it has taken on a life of its own. Indeed, consciousness has made science possible in the first place: language, memory, learning, reflection, plans for the future, ego, vanity, critical self-awareness, our ability to transform thought into material action, and the incredible feedback cycle of our mind creating the world which then creates or minds and so on.
Some scientists say that if we can understand the evolutionary contexts that created certain behaviors we can better understand moral behavior and make effective policies in the present. But this does not capture the constant change and plasticity of our brains. Neurons change and rewire according to our interactions with the environment. Epigenetic rules create certain structures and rules that may then produce an enormous variety of behaviors and body shapes, depending on how they interacts with other epigenetic rules, with the environment, with our parents, and with social norms. There is a nearly infinite variety of possible outcomes. And yet all those variations only happen within certain constraints—be they genetic, cultural or environmental. An even greater number of possibilities will not happen.
At even more mundane levels—such as the social and material world created by our species over the past 200 years—things are no less incredible and fantastic. We can ride in huge metal tubes that fly in the sky. We are surrounded by an invisible world of radio, television and telephone waves that can, at our mere pleasure and bidding, take form as sound and image in little plastic boxes. We can manipulate atoms (even if we can’t really understand them) into huge bombs and electricity-creating reactors. We can make incredibly complex information channeling machines at microscopic levels. And we continue to poke optimistically into the complexity of our bodies, our food, our environments and our own creations—sometimes successfully and sometimes not. But always with no real idea about where it will lead in the end, despite all the project proposals, grant applications and business plans that we write to claim that we do.
In sum, science has imagined and even begun to create a world beyond our wildest dreams: more amazing than Buddhist hells and Islamic paradises; more inconceivable than Shiva’s cosmic dance and the kalpas; more bizarre than Star Trek or Star Wars; and more miraculous than the unnatural events that take place in our nightly dreams (which are yet another mundane event about which he have almost no comprehension). It is a landscape of inconceivable sizes; of constant flux and incredible stability; of patterned behavior and complex unpredictability; of endless monotony and unimaginable possibilities; of random events and statistical regularities. The scientific vision can even make the most mundane habits of our daily life—smell, riding a bicycle in traffic, thinking about the events of the day, feeling happy, colors—seem utterly mysterious and incomprehensible both in their massive complexity and in our fundamental failure to understand the basic components. Enlightenment, salvation, realization, mystical revelation, understanding, progress, love: they are all trivial in the face of this vision.
Science even gives us a radical vision of death—just dust and decay; the inevitable victory of the second law of thermodynamics as our atoms and energies dissipate into the cosmic soup. The currently popular model for the fate of the universe follows this trajectory to its bitter end. The endless expansion of the universe and dissolution of all matter until lasts for about 1032 years until we have a universe made up of black holes and nothingness. Then, after a much longer time that dwarfs this initial 1032 years, even the black holes will evaporate and all we will have is an endless, sterile universe of incredibly dispersed neutronic matter. The constant production of complexity seems to conflict with the inexorable workings of this entropy. But even complexity is just a way to more rapidly disperse energy. The more complex something it is, the more energy it consumes, the more fragile it is, and the more likely it is to self-destruct and disperse energy more rapidly. That includes us.
If we accept this universal vision of entropy, shouldn’t our aim be to just ignite those warheads and disperse that energy as quickly as possible? Or perhaps a few more generations of stability is necessary so that we can get the ability to blow the whole darn rock to pieces, not just the atmosphere. But even that will barely register at the scale of the universe, the equivalent of brushing off a couple of skin cells. Nature cares little about us, and there is little we can do to catch her attention.
But science neither embraces nor confronts its own inhuman visions. When it turns towards the human condition, it digs in the heels and spews out platitudes of human spirit and the value of human life. It tries to help us live longer, develop sustainability, halt destruction, promote progress, and protect those ephemeral things which we have accumulated over the recent few decades (goals that are not even consistent with each other). It circles the wagons against the inexorability of change and destruction, refuses to face up to our trivial and ephemeral place in the universe, tries to deny its own vision of death, and treats humans as something outside the relentless processes of this phantasmagorical universe. Even science’s self-justifications about the thrill and nobility of understanding are just platitudes to feed our egos and vanity, and our sense of specialness.
It could be argued that this very obsession with self and self-preservation is precisely the proper activity of organisms of our scale that makes natural selection so effective. But natural selection also shows that any incredibly successful species (such as ours) will soon overreach, and that the evolutionary success of particular species has nothing necessarily to do with progress or increasing complexity. And at the same time we still believe that somehow, with our consciousness, we have escaped the laws of nature—that by our concerted action on the world we can evade our natural fate. But even if we accept this obsession with mere self-preservation as the way things are—is this the extent of the meaning or the good life that the scientific vision has wrought for us?
To be sure, this phantasmagoric vision is easy to ignore. I completely forget it every time I talk to my daughter, have sex with my lover, suffer a back spasm, enjoy a good laugh or live in a nightly dream. For better or worse, we live within the pains and pleasures of our curious, fearful, innovative and repetitive consciousness, feelings and sensations. How can we make these daily experiences fit with this vision of this universe that science has created, other than just denying and ignoring it?
We probably can’t do it as individuals. We can surely give it a shot with psychedelic drugs and yogic or spiritual exercises—or maybe even math. These things can give us experiences that at least feel like we have somehow engaged with the boundlessness of the universe. But I suspect that the most significant way forward to better entangle our self-concerns with the nature of the universe can only be undertaken by the species as a whole, by blending ours strongest emergent qualities—our consciousness and our massive collective learning—into new kinds of complex systems. We can take our great collective skill in manipulating the physical world and use it to work on our consciousness. We can go beyond merely manipulating our environment to creating human-technology hybrids, genetic and physical self-modification, biological machines, expanded trans-human networking and greater trans-species symbiosis. In other words, we can develop a consciousness able to change the foundations of its own functioning, and perhaps create new, unimagined ways of being. It will be reckless (from the perspective our local, ego-centric concerns) and who knows where it will end. But not knowing where it will end is the whole point of any emergent system. Perhaps it can help us return vitality to “dark” energy and matter, perceive the constraints of time and space differently, experience those folded dimensions and quantum uncertainty, see the universe as something other than the dualism of matter and energy—and perhaps even learn to stand outside consciousness. Most likely, it will bring us (them? it? those?) face-to-face with some new self-referential mystery that we once again won’t have the faintest idea how to confront.
I’ve done Zen and Vipassana (Theravada Buddhist) meditation. More recently I’ve also tried the tantric breath and sex exercises. I’m going to stick with the latter.
I’ve been attracted to Zen and Theravada for a long time—since my teens. Its sparse and focused aesthetic appealed to my puritan tendencies. No complicated metaphysics, no need for gods, no demands to be faithful or dogmatic—just practical exercises and enigmatic statements. A few pointless rituals, genealogies and guru worship have accumulated around it. But the direct, bare-bones teachings are still easy to perceive underneath. It is an Appolonic approach to enlightenment: Rational, steady, refined and distanced.
I liked Zen and Vipassana because it was just like I behaved anyway: intellectual, self-disciplined, out of touch with my emotions and sensuality. The endless hours of sitting, the ‘stillness’, the ‘witnessing’ of thoughts and emotions—not all that much different from years in the archives and library. But I know people who have been sitting for years and years (in both zendos and archives) and don’t seem any the better for it. In fact, they sometimes seem the worse for it, getting arrogant and competitive about how long they can sit.
It’s also incredibly hard for me. I just can’t shut off or merely observe that chattering mind. One way that history is clearly not like Zen, is that history training works to deeply entangle our egos with our thoughts. We can ‘witness’ the thoughts and feelings of others, but not our own. Our thoughts are our careers, our lives, our glory, our selves. And we never ‘witness’ our feelings. Instead we ignore and deny them, crushing them into warped little balls of neurotic tics and immaturities. For me, a meditation practice that resembles historical practice in so many ways is not the way to overcome my ego’s attachments to my thoughts. This is the way that I built that attachment.
And I can’t help but think that all the sitting is just a method of social control—something that was overemphasized as Buddhism became institutionalized and respectable. This is even more true in the West, where Buddhist meditation is mostly touted as a method of stress reduction. Something to make us moderate, build equanimity, help us accommodate to life’s routines and go back to work.
In contrast, tantric exercises try to harness desires and facilitate the flow of energies through the body as the vehicle to enlightenment. My chattering mind shuts up as I watch the energy flowing inside and out; feel my body distorting, tearing, melting and crumbling; feel the effects of the exercises on orgasm and touch; it keeps me on track. It helps me to see that there is much more than the limited experiences of my rational mind. During the day, I often stop to watch my breathing, feel the energies, notice the colors, feel the textures. It is a dose of stress reduction to be sure—but also reminding me that there is something other than that world of daily concerns and vanity that I have lived in for so long. On the surface tantra seems a Dionysian approach to enlightenment: Channelling desire and fomenting mental effects. But in practice it feels more polytheistic, recognizing the great diversity of forms.
Some tantric practitioners say that it is the faster route to enlightenment. But it is also a trickier and more dangerous one, throwing up many temptations and diversions along the way. I can see that all the mental and sensual experiences that are so helpful now for me can become an obstacle, a distraction on the way to clear perception.
It especially hard to wade through all the neo-tantra that pervades the west. All the promises of greater intimacy and better orgasms and bliss—nice therapy, but I want more than that. Not to mention that tantra can be really expensive, too. And so many of the people involved are New Age flakes who drive me nuts. To be sure, neo-tantra often delivers on the promises of better orgasms and intimacy. That stuff is fine and helpful, but I am after more than that. I want not only bliss and better social functioning. I want to open my mind to what it has never perceived before, perhaps even enlightenment.
The less sexualized tantra associated with Tibetan Buddhism and white tantra aren’t much better. They are often obsessed with social bonding, gurus, incessant dharma talks, helping the environment, special interest discussion groups , social justice, and how to make meditation into a practical part of your life. I’m much more drawn to the rich symbolism of Tibetan tantra than I was in my puritan Zen days. But the p.c. and self-help platitudes make me lose interest quickly. (So far, I like the Ipsalu Tantra exercises–they are straightforward and effective, good focus on spiritual development, with a minimum of rhetoric and promises. We’ll see.)
And yes, I guess a lot of it is about the sex. My desire is not going away, so I may as well try to use it. I’ve spent the first half of my life in classrooms and libraries—with good professional results complemented by lousy personal ones (including lots of lust but no ability to do anything with it). I can’t see that spending the second half of my life sitting quietly would do me any better. With tantra, even if I do not reach enlightenment at least I will have enjoyed myself along the way.
“We do not regard it as pathologically deviant to explore a jungle or climb Mount Everest. We are far more out of touch with even the nearest approaches of the infinite reaches of inner space than we now are with the reaches of outer space. We respect the voyager, the explorer, the climber, the space man. It makes far more sense to me as a valid project–indeed, as a desperately and urgently required project for our time–to explore the inner space and time of consciousness. . . . We are so out of touch with this realm that many people can now argue seriously that it does not exist. Small wonder that it is perilous indeed to explore such a lost realm. The situation I am suggesting is precisely as though we had all had almost total lack of any knowledge whatever of what we call the outer world. What would happen if some of us then started to see, hear, touch, smell, taste things? We would hardly be more confused than the person who first has vague intimations of, and then moves into, inner space and time.”
–R.D. Laing, Politics of Experience
“In a world where education is predominantly verbal, highly educated people find it all but impossible to pay serious attention to anything but words and notions. There is always money for, there are always doctorates in, the learned foolery of research into what, for scholars, is the all-important problem: Who influenced whom to say what when? Even in this age of technology the verbal humanities are honored. The non-verbal humanities, the arts of being directly aware of the given facts of our existence, are almost completely ignored. A catalogue, a bibliography, a definitive edition of a third-rate versifier’s ipissima verba, a stupendous index to end all indexes—any genuinely Alexandrian project is sure of approval and financial support. But when it comes to finding out how you and I, our children and grandchildren, may become more perceptive, more intensely aware of inward and outward reality, more open to the Spirit, less apt, by psychological malpractices, to make ourselves physically ill, and more capable of controlling our own autonomic nervous system—when it comes to any form of non-verbal education more fundamental (and more likely to be of some practical use) than Swedish drill, no really respectable person in any really respectable university or church will do anything about it. Verbalists are suspicious of the non-verbal; rationalists fear the given, non-rational fact; intellectuals feel that ‘what we perceive by the eye (or in any other way) is foreign to us as such and need not impress us deeply.’ Besides, this matter of education in the non-verbal humanities will not fit into any established pigeon-holes. It is not religion, not neurology, not gymnastics, not morality or civics, not even experimental psychology. This being so the subject is, for academic and ecclesiastical purposes, non-existent and may safely be ignored altogether or left, with a patronizing smile, to those whom the Pharisees of verbal orthodoxy call cranks, quacks, charlatans and un qualified amateurs.”
–Aldous Huxley, Doors of Perception