I recently talked to a lady who was inquiring about the Mindsight Intensive she wanted to join. A comment she made in the course of the conversation piqued my interest and gave me food for reflection. She noticed that in my blogs and other writings I occasionally refer to Jesus, and she concluded that I must have some kind of Christian affiliation she could not relate to. She was very interested in my courses, but would not be interested in sessions about Jesus, because she is agnostic and does not believe in religion, God, a creator or a higher power. Her interest is in consciousness, she said.
What struck me was a subtle, yet pervasive fallacy I encounter frequently with my students. A fallacy is an incorrect argument from either a logical or a rhetorical perspective. Nowhere are fallacies more frequently used than in politics for example, where distortions and outright lies are packaged in a way as to sound logical for the sole purpose of achieving results through communication. Fallacies are also frequent in everyday thinking, as in the case of the lady I talked to, unconsciously created by the complex workings of the brain.
Fallacies lead to misunderstandings and confusions that cause students to get stuck on their journey of self-discovery. As part of our inquiry in mindfulness, they have to be recognized and corrected. In this case, if one is interested in consciousness, then one must be interested in all phenomena and manifestations of consciousness, in all constructions of reality that shape consciousness and can be apprehended by it. The student of consciousness is a student of knowing itself, examining all the ways we claim to come to an awareness of reality, and all the ways we construct views of reality.
By virtue of excluding religion from the purview of her inquiry, this lady may be unwittingly caught in exactly the same kind of dogma and belief she thought she wanted to distance herself from. Instead of the Christian or the religious dogma, she subscribes to the agnostic dogma. Referring to agnosticism as dogma may seem strange if we accept that the agnostic believes it is impossible to know anything about God or the creation of the universe and therefore simply refrains from having any opinion about it. The reason I use the word dogma in this context lies in the fact that this lady wasn’t just saying she has no opinion about Jesus, but that religion was of no interest to her, thus excluding an important facet of consciousness from inquiry. It is an inescapable fact that human consciousness creates stories and beliefs around a protagonist called Jesus, and that these phenomena need to be explored if we want to get to know human consciousness. As students of consciousness, which mindfulness practitioners are, we need to be interested in all phenomena of consciousness, including the rational, the irrational, the logical, the illogical, the dogmatic, the open-minded, the provable and those experiences that are beyond what can be proven, explained or even described. Coming back to my conversation, it may also be that what this lady meant to say is that she was not interested in belief and dogma, but in direct experience. If so, there is still a potential issue to be addressed, because the proper reading of sacred texts such as the Bible has to my mind nothing to do with dogma or belief, and everything to do with the exploration of consciousness and the direct experience it affords us. The challenge consists in how to read sacred texts and properly differentiating their content from the cultural context they arose from. To this aim we need to deal with language modes as expressions of different levels of consciousness as you will see below.
Dogma is a set of beliefs accepted by the members of a group without being questioned or doubted. This set of beliefs forms the basis for the construction of an ideology or belief system, and cannot be changed or discarded without affecting the ideology itself. This is the reason why within a particular dogma questioning is frowned upon and gets you to be burned at the stake. Implied in every dogma is also a tyrannical authority that legislates what is right and wrong. Dogma rests on beliefs, and beliefs are states of mind, in which a person thinks something to be the case, whether there is empirical evidence to prove it or not. You may wonder why beliefs are so rigidly held despite their often flagrant absurdity, and why dialogue with people who hold strong beliefs is virtually impossible. There are likely many ways of answering this question. I will highlight three mechanisms that are relevant within this context.
The first mechanism pertains to how the brain processes beliefs in its main sensory areas, the very same areas where we perceive pain. As surprising as this might seem, belief centers are not located in the flexible intellectual thought-based areas of the frontal cortex. Instead, they are located in the sensory areas that we rely so heavily on to keep us safe. It is through our perception of pain sensation, touch, pressure, position, motion, vibration, temperature, sight, sound, smell and taste that we test reality and decide how to change and adapt for survival. Our beliefs, deeply embedded and embodied in these brain areas that define our concrete reality, define who we are in a very fixed and defined way, and are therefore not easily amenable to exploration and questioning.
The second mechanism already discussed elsewhere, by which rigid belief structures arise, is the objectification of reality into a collection of interacting nouns, coupled with a loss of awareness of the deep dynamic nature of reality as verb. To make a long story short, the problem-solving left brain is for most of us unfortunately not properly integrated into right-brain functioning and therefore quite literally a lose tyrant without checks and balances controlling our lives. Its mode of functioning is to parse reality into bits without noticing context, and then crystallize these bits as conceptual things or objects in our awareness. In addition, contrary to the way the right brain presents reality to our awareness in the form of direct experience, the left brain gone rogue only represents it to us conceptually. Locked into such a controlled, objectifying construction of reality as a virtual world of interacting things or objects, we are incapable of seeing the deeper truth, namely the fact that the perception of things as objects is but a rough, imprecise, disembodied and limited view of reality (although under certain circumstances useful in its own right) that misses the deeper truth of reality as a limitless dynamic field. This comes with a hefty price, the price of a very bad habit, the habit of unnecessary, optional suffering.
The third mechanism is deeply embedded in our childhood development. As we grow from a young child into preadolscence and adolescence, our capacity for abstraction evolves. Young children are not capable of complex abstract thought differentiation, which is the reason why there is no logical conflict in their minds when they envision Santa Claus fly on a sleigh and descend through the chimney to bring gifts. As we grow older our capacity for abstraction and differentiation of complex thought processes increases, and what seemed conflict-free and logical in the past suddenly poses serious logical problems. In other words, our ability to differentiate complex mind processes from one another and realize different facets of consciousness changes and grows as we age. For different complex reasons I cannot possibly elaborate on here, many people remain stuck in preadolescent ways of thought processing and remain incapable of sophisticated reasoning. The result is an overly concrete, rigid, dissociated view of the world full of conflicting parts, coupled with an unawareness of inconsistencies. Its hallmark is belief and dogma. An example of that is the creationist belief in how the physical universe came into being, which is essentially a version of the Santa Claus story. I am not saying that the physical universe cannot possibly have come into existence through an act of divine creation. I am simply identifying creationism as a rigid dogmatic structure, when it manifests socially in the form of schools that forbid the study of evolution in their curriculum, thus expressing more the anxieties of their proponents than anything worthwhile about truth or reality.
Belief and dogma are therefore always a closed system with an inherently strong feel of being embodied and therefore ‘real’. As such it is by definition rigid and unquestionable. Whether we like it or not, this dogmatic aspect of how we construct reality is an aspect of consciousness we always have to take into consideration when we explore consciousness and our way of using it to live our lives. Belief and its flexible sibling called thought are not easy to distinguish, and they relate to each other as form and formlessness. A tree requires a measure of harmony between form (rigidity) that allows it not to collapse and formlessness (chaos, flexibility) that allows it not to break in the wind. Our consciousness is similar, having to navigate certainty and uncertainty in a healthy balance, otherwise we fall into extremism, the extremes of sloppy ‘anything goes’ thinking or rigidly held beliefs. Nobody can escape beliefs, but when one thinks one can and is not aware of the inherent existence of belief in consciousness, unconscious dissociations occur. In the case of this lady, she thought being agnostic is different from being religious, when in fact she is just as ‘religious’ as believers in religion, just that her ‘religion’ has an abstract tyrant called agnosticism. The way out of this conundrum is to recognize the ubiquitousness of belief, and cultivate an attitude of flexibility and openness towards them that allows one to examine, explore and question them. The moment that is achieved, one is free. In her case, she would be able to explore agnosticism and Jesus as forms of consciousness with the same rigor and intensity.
We have four different direct experience modes and four different language modes. Each experience mode has a preferred language mode. As I have mentioned elsewhere, the four different experience modes are the physical, the psychological, the existential and the spiritual. Physical experience consists of physical sensations and is nonverbal. Psychological experience is verbal and pertains to the coherence of autobiographical narratives. Existential experiences pertain to the arising and vanishing of our sense of self, and spiritual experiences transcend the sense of self to include the nameless nature of spaceless and timeless nondual reality.
We express these different levels of experience through action, a special form of action being language. Both action and language manifest different facets of consciousness in different experience modes. The four different language modes allowing us to access different facets of consciousness and different experience modes are:
1. Unstructured everyday language: It re-presents and expresses a running commentary on life experience. The criterion of truth is unexamined subjective experience.
2. Left-brain descriptive language: It re-presents external reality as being separate from the speaking subject, and gives us objective knowledge into the physical world. The criterion of truth is out there in the physical world – if it corresponds to something physical and concrete in the world, it must be true. The speaking subject is minimally involved. It emphasizes aboutness. Examples are history, biography and science.
3. Left-brain conceptual or dialectic language: It re-presents internal reality as being separate from the speaking subject, but less separate than in description, and gives us knowledge into the psychological world. The criterion of truth is in its internal consistency or coherence – if it sounds logical and well thought out, it must be true. The speaking subject is more intensely involved. It emphasizes aboutness. Examples are psychology, meditation, philosophy.
4. Right-brain metaphorical language: It presents the whole (internal and external) reality as lived by the speaking subject (no subject-object separation) and gives us knowledge about how to live. The criterion of truth is in its efficacy when lived and compelling sense of wisdom. The speaking subject and the objective world he/she lives in manifest as a whole in the here and now. It emphasizes direct experience and wholeness. Examples are myths and metaphors, sacred stories.
The challenge is to become aware which level of experience is being accessed with what language mode. They all express different facets of consciousness that give us clues about the nature of reality. No level of experience is better or worthier of inquiry than any other. They all need to be investigated in an integrated fashion. When we master that, we are not in danger of confusing facets of consciousness, language modes and levels of experience, and we will gain the freedom to access reality in its complex entirety without dissociating any part of it. We will get a glimpse of the whole elephant.
Copyright © 2016 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.