Friday, October 26, 2012

Glimmerings of Transpersonal Realization

About a month ago Aeon Magazine published this article by science fiction writer Ken MacLeod. In the article, MacLeod describes several experiences that to him seem inexplicable, but which are quite familiar to practicing magicians. We work with these states of consciousness all the time, or least we should if we are being diligent in our practices. MacLeod's accounts are rendered in a matter-of-fact way without the hype of the overly religious or the immediate dismissal of the professional skeptic, and as such they provide good examples of how these experiences feel from a relatively objective perspective - or, at least as objective as is possible when relating inner states of consciousness.

MacLeod groups his experiences into two categories, both of which I would describe as forms of transpersonal realization. The first type is a sense of presence that he has encountered twice, both times when in close contact with nature. The first of these instances happened when he was a child exploring a wild area near his home on the Isle of Lewis.

On at least one, maybe more, of these adventures I became intensely aware of something that rang from the silence, sunlight, solitude, and rock. I can only describe it as a sense of some enormous presence. It was everywhere, like the shimmer of the heat in the air. Maybe I was frightened at first but that passed, and it became something that was just there, like the light.

Not surprisingly for a son of the manse, I had not even the most childish spirituality. I believed what I was told, but as far I was concerned it was all facts about some reality of which I had no personal experience, like Australia. It just didn’t occur to me to attribute this feeling of presence to God, or to any other supernatural agency.

MacLeod goes on to explain that this sense of presence returned a few years later while he was exploring a riverbank in Lochcarron. He also describes a second experience which seems different, but which is in fact related to the first two.

One fine morning, I was walking along a long wide street with a high wall on my left. As usual I was preoccupied with my thoughts. The featurelessness of the wall and street, and the long perspective-lines, may have helped to induce what happened. Out of nowhere, from one step to the next, I was overcome by an astonishment at being me. It was like a second iteration of self-awareness, combined with an odd detachment, as if my mind had stepped back from my personality and wondered how it could possibly be that.

The article's sub-heading alludes to this second experience as "ego transcendence," and I suppose when held up to the psychoanalytic model of the mind that description is apt. However, I have documented the failings of the psychoanalytic method many times on this blog. Much of the confusion that particular model engenders is due to what one of my Vajrayana teachers described as "concretization" - the mistaking of a metaphor for literal fact. I'm further convinced that this is not simply an interpretive error made by the later students of Sigmond Freud, but rather is strongly implied by the psychoanalytic school's popular expositions.

As psychoanalysis is so embedded in our culture, the concretized version of it is easy to envision. It's like a sort of trinity that on the one hand is said to embody the full content of the mind and on the other function like three distinct persons. You probably have seen the old treatment in comedy films where a character is trying to figure out what to do in some difficult situation. An angel then appears on one shoulder and a demon on the other, and the two argue over how the character should proceed. The demon argues that he or she should give in to base instinct, while the angel instead urges prudence and conformity to social norms. In this example, the ego would correspond to the character, the demon to the id, and the angel to the superego.

The problem with this is that it treats the ego as a "thing" in its own right, when really it should more properly be described as a set of boundaries that mark what we perceive as the limits of our awareness. In the Freudian model "ego transcendence" is difficult to model, which is one of the reasons that Carl Jung wound up expanding the model so extensively in order to include experiences generally categorized as mystical. Jung's model, though, suffers from concretization as well, in that a whole new set of concepts are required - dimensions of the ego, shadow, anima/animus, and collective archetypes, all of which are treated as "things" or "persons" in a meaningful sense.

Where both these models fail is that, quite simply, we don't have multiple "persons" running around in our heads. Even cases of so-called multiple personality disorder do not show the level of disintegration and incoherence that such a model would tend to predict. However, if we shift our perspective to the boundaries of our awareness experiences such as MacLeod's make perfect sense. Imagine the personality as a sort of probability function with boundaries that fluctuate from moment to moment. The diagram shown here illustrates this concept. Imagine that the four circles represent different boundary conditions, and the area inside them the field of perceived and integrated awareness.

For most people the boundary falls right around the circle marked B the vast majority of the time. When we narrow our focus to concentrate on a particular task or idea, it shifts to A, becoming smaller. Conversely, when we contemplate our surroundings holistically it expands to C. But sometimes, either by chance or in response to a specific spiritual practice, it can jump to D. From the perspective of B, D looks like a larger, all-encompassing consciousness or presence. From the perspective of D, on the other hand, B looks impossibly small and limited.

The last piece is to keep in mind that when we consider these experiences, we are remembering what they felt like and reconstructing many details. What really kills both Freud and Jung's psychoanalytic models is how memory really works. Everything is not stored somewhere and "repressed" whenever you are not consciously aware of it, but rather it truly is gone. It only comes back when your mind deliberately reconstructs it, a sort of extraction process that can change the nature of the experience itself. Your mind can seemingly hold so much information precisely because all it really holds onto are bits and pieces, reconstructing everything else during the recollection process.

So what is a memory of the presence experience? In simplest terms it consists of field B recollecting field D. Similarly, the experience of "ego transcendence" consists of field D recollecting field B. From moment to moment our field of awareness occupies a single set of boundaries, but a jump between B and D is jarring enough when compared to our usual train of recollections that it stands out. Some people infuse these experiences with great emotional significance and find them illuminating or comforting. Others firmly embrace the idea that "they" are B and D must represent God or some supernatural force. But really, it's an expanded form of their own consciousness and awareness. As is stated in Aleister Crowley's Liber OZ, "there is no God but man."

This should not be taken to imply that no level of consciousness beyond D exists, or that what we perceive ourselves to be from moment to moment is all there is to spiritual awakening. It should be self-evident that the former is not true, as technically there's no reason to think that D is a hard limit on realization just because it represents the furthest a particular person has gone. Theoretically D could expand to include the whole of reality, or at least the perception thereof, and it seems to me that a person who has stabilized such a realization could meaningfully be described as a Master of the Temple in Thelemic terms. Similarly, if D represents a sense of self that extends beyond the boundaries of your skin and into the macrocosmic world at large, it would seem to me that the stabilization of that state could be the mark of Adeptship.

Accepting this model of the mind rather than a model that suggests ego exists as a "thing in itself" that is to be overcome strikes me as what the transition between the old and new Aeons in Thelema is all about. The Osiran formula operates by death and rebirth, "dying" to one primary boundary in order to be "reborn" into another. The Horus formula, on the other hand, is that of life and growth, integrating more and more into B so that over time it incrementally approaches D and beyond. This transcends the illusionary catastrophism of the previous formula, and it should come as no surprise (at least to any Thelemite) that the more we understand about psychology and neuroscience, the more the data seems to support the latter formula as the most viable.

Crowley recognized the biggest threat to the Horus formula as well - tribal markers. As we humans evolved from the Great Ape line we share much of the tribalism of our primate cousins. Our concept of "tribe" can be larger and more abstract that that of a chimpanzee because our brains are much larger and more capable of abstract thought, but whether your tribe is a band of ten other individuals or, say, a political party with millions of members, investing our identities in such groups reinforces the boundaries that define the limits of our awareness and makes spiritual realization more difficult. During his life Crowley insisted on being himself regardless of tribes or social conventions. He experimented with alternate identities in order to overcome his investment in the boundaries imposed during his youth, and noted in Magick Without Tears that family, the first tribal marker we experience, is "public enemy number one" to the magician.

As stated in Liber Librae, the book of the balance, "live passionately, think rationally, be thyself." At the same time, unite your awareness ecstatically with all other manifestations of consciousness. This is the path of the mystic and the foundation from which the magician manipulates the forces of nature. The mystery here is a simple one in the context of Hermetic philosophy, the postulate that a value for D exists in which microcosmic consciousness overlaps into the macrocosmic universe and can thus both influence and perceive the course of events at a deeper level than is generally thought possible.
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Anonymous said...

Hi Ananael, I just re-read this post, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The B-D description made a lot of sense, and gave me a concrete idea of some ideas that have been really hard to pin down. Did you come up with that yourself? Either way, thanks for writing this, it was really quite helpful.

Scott Stenwick said...

Thanks! I'm glad to hear that you found it useful. The B-D explanation is my own, though it builds on Aleister Crowley's idea of the formula of Horus as life and growth versus that of Osiris as death and rebirth. It also is informed by material from a number of other sources, including Ken Wilber and Ervin Laszlo.