When we train our minds to expand consciousness
In my two blogs ‘Initiation Renaissance In Our Pandemic Times‘ and ‘Wu Wei‘, I wrote about a subjective, yet universally accessible dimension of reality that opens up like wakefulness emerging from a dream, when we train our minds to expand consciousness through successive stages of depth and integration, all the way to the realization of the transcendental emptiness of Being. We take this journey because it allows us to unleash our full human potential for wisdom as defined by peace and equanimity independent of circumstance, including respect and love for all human beings, all living creatures, the universe as we know it and oneself. The question I want to address here, is why transcendence and emptiness of Being are experienced and manifest in our actions as love? Why is the universe fundamentally benevolent, when science tells us that it is just energy meaninglessly and randomly flowing according to certain physical laws without rhyme, reason or purpose, clumping, exploding and vanishing haphazardly here, there, and everywhere? To address this question I first want to explore truth.
Let’s begin with the question of what truth is. Philosophy has whole libraries filled with tomes written about this topic. I am not going to review that, but instead, propose a few poignant definitions that serve our purpose. One definition I like comes from my teacher Northrop Frye: It is what keeps coming back and hits you over the head the more you try to ignore it. Psychoanalytically that would be the return of the repressed. Another way would be to say that it is what still stands and continues to define people’s view of reality after it has been repeatedly refuted. Or, truth has something to do with the primary human concerns that satiety is better than hunger, pleasure better than pain, love better than hate, wealth better than poverty, and freedom better than bondage. Finally, and quite simply, truth is agreement with fact or reality as more narrowly defined in terms of what exists without lies.
Truth and reality
Truth and reality overlap, but are not exactly the same. Lying, deception, and delusion, all opposites of truth, are sad aspects of human reality. The truth is that humans can lie, while the content of their lies is an aspect of reality, but not of truth. Practically though, we cannot build our lives on lies, deception, and delusion without toxic consequences. To simplify, we can, therefore, discard the aspect of reality that is a distorted human construction from our understanding of reality, except for the purpose of recognizing it when it appears. Reality and truth then become for all intents and purposes synonymous. If so, can we humans share a universally accepted reality that has a common ring of truth for all? I will try to show that this is indeed possible, but only if we train ourselves to mobilize higher human faculties we often keep dormant, thus missing out on discovering the awe-inspiring vastness of life in a mysterious universe.
The universality of truth
Are you familiar with the famous elephant of reality and the blind men trying to describe it? One man touches the tusks and says reality is like a battering ram, another touches his ears and insists reality is like a cabbage leaf. One touches his legs and argues it is like a tree trunk; another the end of his tail and believes it is like a brush, and yet another man touches his trunk convinced reality is like a snake, and so on. Everyone has a clear sensory experience of a part of the elephant and for each individual, the elephant is clearly what the senses tell him it is. The problem is that each individual has blinders on and does not check what his colleagues experience. The result is a tower of Bable situation, in which we not only disagree on what the truth is, but hold on tightly to our opinions and cannot communicate nor hear each other. The truth becomes ‘what I see as truth’, from which follows that ‘whatever you think is the truth must be false and misguided’. It would appear that discovering a universally valid truth is a hopeless endeavor and that truth is locked in the tiny bubble of human subjectivity.
The Tower Of Babel, Peter Brueghel the Elder, 1563
Limitations of the senses and scientific objectivity
Let’s establish a few facts first, in order to better understand what follows. Like all animals, we take in reality through our senses, which register reality through the restricted dimension of their unique architecture. For example, the eye is able to register electromagnetic waves in the range of 400-700nm. What’s beyond, ultraviolet or infrared is invisible. In other words, we are naturally limited to seeing the world in a very particular human way that is very different from a bat’s, for example. However, given our unique conceptual brainpower with its ability to imagine what does not exist, we developed mind mechanisms, including mathematics, with which we can measure and experiment, invent and create in such a way as to develop extensive knowledge of the physical world beyond what our senses can pick up. So we know all about subatomic particles, molecules, black holes, the probable origin of the universe, cells, and X-rays without being able to have a direct experience of them. In short, our inherently biased and limited view of reality is expanded by our reasoning faculties beyond what the senses are able to register to include vast swaths of the collectively verifiable physical reality around us that is not accessible through the senses.
Geographical and ecological environments
Now, how about different ways reality shows up in our consciousness depending on ecological and geographical factors? With the same senses, we experience reality very differently depending on the environment we live in and by implication, the stories, myths, and cultural envelopes we create are very different from one place to another. A tribe in the middle of the Amazon jungle has very different views on life than the farmers high up in the Swiss Alps. Could they conceivably share the same circle of truth and a common view of reality?
Mindsight and the development of inner clarity
And how about the world of individual subjective experience, the mind and the imagination that gives rise to other cultural phenomena, such as personal views, artistic expression, philosophical and religious beliefs? Some societies do not recognize subjective experience. Each individual is a function of the collective and ‘naturally’ behaves and sees the world as its expression by subsuming the subjective under the collective. In our culture, we must begin with the notion of our organism as an open complex system. When through trauma or other influences this organism is intrapsychically divided into competing parts that do not communicate well with each other, we display physical and psychological symptoms of all kinds, because the organism struggles with entrenched states of chaos and rigidity it has no way of processing towards integration without external help. Non-integrated organismic states make it impossible for the person to see reality clearly, the way looking through a fractured windshield makes it impossible to see the road clearly or a disorganized orchestra with non-communicative players is unable to play a symphony one would want to listen to.
Developing a clear mind through mindsight (remembering that the mind is embodied and includes the heart, the guts, and the whole body) is, therefore, a crucial precondition to seeing the truth. At the level of this step, we already have love emerging: Mindsight can only develop through the combination of focused attention, open awareness, and kind disposition on the basis of strong intention. Daniel Siegel‘s COAL (Curiosity, Openness, Acceptance, and Love as the emerging property of the first three) is a precondition for deep insight and wisdom. In collective societies, in which subjective experience is completely subsumed into the collective mind, it is the medicine man or wise elder of the tribe who is responsible for guiding the individuals between the Scylla of chaos and the Charybdis of rigidity towards an integrated societal functioning. The way he or she does it is no less imbued by the principles of COAL we apply to our own individuality. If it isn’t, the tribe fractures and does not thrive. To summarize then, the development of mindsight through COAL, whether individually or collectively, results in a far less distorted view of reality we can, therefore, all share, because defensive mind mechanisms that lead to distortions of view, experience, reality, and truth by throwing the individual or collective organism into chaos or rigidity, can be relinquished in favor of more integrated, and both intra- and interpersonally attuned connections to reality.
As an example, someone suffering from complex childhood trauma may get triggered by a comment you make, even though your comment is not ill-intentioned, nor aggressive. The person’s reaction is to immediately fall into the childhood survival situation, disconnect from the socially-engaged middle prefrontal cortex (MPC) and experience a brainstem activation in the form of a fight/flight situation. The moment that happens, the person is incapable of attuning, hearing what you really say, repair if necessary, and process the situation from the present perspective where there may be no danger at all, and instead unconsciously projects the childhood trauma onto the present moment. The result is that this person cannot see the truth, nor reality as it is. She can only see a long-gone reality that does not exist anymore, thus distorting what is going on in the present moment.
Mindsight and getting better at reaching integrated states for oneself is not enough to discover the universality of truth. A second ingredient is mindful learning, which Ellen Langer has explored in detail. The essence of mindful learning is to offer learning material in a conditional format rather than as a series of absolute truths. Universal and absolute truth are not the same. Absolute truth is in fact not truth at all, but simply a stubbornly-held rigid opinion about how things are. Mindful learning requires us to keep an open mind about the contexts to which new information can be applied. To foster this openness in a practical way, we use spacious terms such as ‘might’, ‘can be’, ‘could be’, ‘might entail’, ‘may on occasion’, ‘could involve’, ‘may have’, and ‘could have been’, rather than foreclosing ones such as ‘is’, ‘are’, or ‘were’. Mindful learning lets us know what quantum physicists already know from their experiments, that the outcome of our experiences is shaped in part by our own attitude, which shapes the direction of our learning. Mindful learning consists of openness to novelty, alertness to distinctions from which we create categories, sensitivity to different contexts, implicit if not explicit awareness of multiple perspectives, and orientation to the present. This encourages the mind to disentangle itself from premature conclusions, categorizations, and routinized ways of perceiving and thinking.
Certainty eliminates the need to pay attention, and without precise attention, we miss the details that reveal reality. Given that the world around us is always in flux, our certainty is an illusion. Mindful learning involves concepts such as intelligent ignorance, flexible thinking, avoidance of premature cognitive commitments, and creative uncertainty. It is neither top-down conceptually averaged and conditioned learning (I miss the uniqueness of this flower I see right now because long ago I created the category ‘flower’ from many different flowers I saw, making it more expedient for me to just project the category on this unique flower I see now), nor bottom-up formlessly creative learning; neither left-brain (linguistics, linearity, logic, literal thinking) nor right-brain (non-verbal, holistic, visuospatial, embodied) learning; it is rather a sideways stance of learning, an orthogonal shift in awareness, where left- and right-brain styles, top-down and bottom-up processing are intertwined, where learners are conditional in how they take in information and uncertainty is a friend. Creative uncertainty strengthens learning and makes the learning experience more enjoyable and accessible to Being beyond doing. With this kind of learning, we are clear about what we know, what we don’t know, and how different perspectives illuminate aspects of reality we may not be able to see ourselves. Again, as previously seen in our discussion of mindsight, this kind of learning comes with an attitude of openness and kindness towards what seems foreign, unintelligible, unknown, or even absurd.
Mindful learning sets the stage for people with mindsight to meaningfully dialogue and hear each other without exclusion or dogmatism, at which point a third ingredient will close the loop that makes it possible for us to rethink the tower of Babel. There is a way of developing a common vocabulary across the different ways and modes of knowing to be able to transcend our limited views and converse about our common reality. It is an approach to knowing about what it means to be human that allows us to draw on all the different disciplines of science and other ways of knowing (art, philosophy, mindsight, jurisprudence, carpentry, etc.); E. O. Wilson calls that consilience. The consilience approach honors subjectivity as much as science. Consilience takes many different ways of pursuing knowledge through science and other means and finds the universal principles that emerge when you see these independent disciplines as a whole. Consilience means finding universal principles across separate ways of knowing.
The combination of mindsight, mindful learning, and consilience integrates not only one’s organism but also one’s relationships with others, thereby making it possible to humbly respect and accept other people’s views as facets of the elephant of reality we are trying to see. Views that are difficult to assimilate do not get rejected but are seen within a larger context. By combining principles from different ways of knowing we are afforded the opportunity to see a larger picture, the whole, or at least as much as possible of the elephant of truth. To rephrase, the deeper our knowledge and understanding of, and our attunement with the human condition is, the more of the elephant of truth can we see and share.
I wish I had Trump as my patient – I would feel more knowledgeable about the psychology of lying. He symbolizes everything that can be wrong in a society, and we should not forget that he can only occupy the post he does when a majority of citizens collude with what is emerging now as a collective psychological madness, which includes ‘pathological lying, habitual and institutionalized corruption, dishonesty, serial groping, casual racism, the glorification of violence, winking to Nazis, laziness, impulsiveness, childish tantrums, bottomless ignorance, vanity, insecurity, vulnerability to flattery, bullying, crudity, indifference to suffering, incompetence, rabid narcissism, chaos in the White House, attacks on America’s allies and support for its foes, contempt for experts and for expertise, for truth and the press, for norms and conventions, for checks and balances, for limited government, for the very rule of law’ (adapted from Andrew Coyne: The virus of Trumpism and his infectious moral failings – Globe and Mail, Saturday, February 8, 2020).
Lies are part of reality, as are deception and delusion, but they are not part of truth. With mindsight, mindful learning, and consilience, developed through learning the technique of kind attentiveness, we learn to discern the difference between distortion and clarity, falsity and veracity, manipulation and guidance, domination and leadership, rhetoric and reason, demagogy and unification. This complex process of reality exploration makes us generally less vulnerable to succumb to lies. The kindly attentive mind has the patience of learning about context through complex analyses from established and trustworthy sources, and not just react emotionally to meaningless social media clips and news flashes. No information, no news, no opinion is unbiased, but there is a difference between bias and lie. The bias prefers certain parts of the elephant of truth, openly admits it, and remains open to other biases. The lie tells a story, either consciously or unconsciously, that distorts or hides the elephant of truth, and is incompatible with it. Most lies are toxic, although some can be skillful and life-affirming, such as a lie that gets you out of a concentration camp.
The healing power of truth and now
Having laid the foundations for seeing truth from a more multifaceted and holistic perspective, we now have to ask ourselves why truth is so important. It is said that the truth shall set you free, but why?
We have already seen that access to truth requires certain attributes that hinge on being consistent with reality and fact: Focused attention, open awareness, kind disposition, strong intention, humility, honesty, and integrity. As the etymology of the word ‘integrity’ reveals, integration is at the core of truth. Integration is the process by which the parts of a system link together without losing their differentiated uniqueness, and like in a dance of two connected individuals, give rise to a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts. Where there is integration, integrity, and an easy relationship to truth, in other words, a resonance with facts, whether we like them or not, our organism does not need to tense up, create reality-distorting defenses and fight against itself. Little energy gets wasted in defensiveness and having to then deal with the toxic consequences of it on the organism and its environment. Once we see what is true and real, however painful it may be, we gain the freedom of choice for potential corrective actions. This is also what it means to access the present moment, the now. We only assume to have such freedom but really don’t when we are caught in deception and the distortions of mind constructions outside the now. Deception is like having a termite-infested basement with a locked basement door. While the foundations are slowly eroding and eventually leading to collapse, we blissfully pretend that everything is fine and are terribly surprised the day the roof collapses on us. When we challenge ourselves to see the truth and open the basement door, we sure do not feel good about discovering the termite mess. However, this pain corresponds to the clarity of seeing the truth and gives us the opportunity to address the termite problem. It is the essence of what it means to be here now. Action based on truth keeps us grounded in what’s real, which is what’s now, and a clear vision of reality sets us free by giving us the freedom to act skilfully in accordance with context and circumstance. We don’t end up meeting surprises coming from truth distortions, such as when castles built in the air collapse. Bad neighborhoods are only in the mind’s constructions, and the present is a much more benevolent place. As Hamlet said: “Nothing is either good or bad, only thinking makes it so.”
So truth reveals itself through integration, and integration happens now, leading to a sense of peace and well-being, which in turn engenders trust by calming our reptilian fight/flight/freeze systems and connecting us to ourselves and each other through attunement. That open connectivity between most or all parts of who we are means that nothing real gets excluded from consciousness. Confidence arises that no locked basement doors impede access to hidden catastrophes, and the trust that grows on this basis allows the elements of COAL we trained all along to grow, including the emerging property of love, however difficult reality might be. Through truth, we thus discover love and vice versa. The simple act of facing truth and reality, which inevitably requires attention and COAL, is an act of love. The simple surrender to the universe ‘as it is’ is an act of love. All acts of love bring peace and equanimity in a very deep way. This is why transcendence and emptiness, the result of reality and truth having been revealed at their deepest level, are pure love, and this is why in vernacular parlance or New Age rhapsody people keep proclaiming the benefits of discovering the universe’s benevolence. It is not the universe that is benevolent, for it is first and foremost awe-inspiring, frighteningly gigantic with brute power and endlessly fascinating. What’s benevolent is the present moment in comparison to the mind’s constructions; our new, mindful way of meeting our human experience unencumbered by resistance as the unfolding universe becoming conscious of itself. Our sheer existence becomes love in action in the form of transcendental Being.
3. A LETTER FROM PAUL TO THE CORINTHIANS
It is fascinating to find in the Bible of all places, a passage that could have been written with Interpersonal Neurobiology in mind. I insert my comments in red throughout the text:
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. Non-attachment, no rope burn.
5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Non-attachment, no rope burn.
6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. Truth at the root of love.
7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Fosters the processes of integration.
8 Love never fails. Because it is beyond the problem-solving mind. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; love tethers us to the present moment away from future preoccupations; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; love is beyond what’s conceptually graspable and words; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. Love is the highest form of knowledge beyond left-brain rationalizations.
9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part,
10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. The conceptual mind parses reality and cannot see context and wholeness.
11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.
12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. When caught in left-brain reasoning we are caught in virtual conceptual reality and only see the menu, never the meal. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. Left and right brain balance is essential to see the whole elephant of truth, and thereby fully know oneself.
13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. This means that when we clearly see the ways and laws of the unfolding universe, which we are a manifestation of, hopes for the future become tangible knowledge in the present and we appreciate reality’s hidden complexities as the most obvious foundations of wisdom. But the greatest of these is love, because it is the emerging property of such clarity of view allowing us to roam freely and easily in life’s marketplace as manifestations of the transcendental emptiness of Being.
Copyright © 2020 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.