Higher States of Consciousness
A short commentary on John Vervaeke’s Awakening from the Meaning Crisis (Episodes 10–12)
The spiritual world knot
The so-called ‘hard problem of consciousness’ has also been called ‘the world knot’. In other words, consciousness appears to be a mystery so deep, a knot so tangled and big, that it may be impossible to unravel its meaning and function. To try to explain something like consciousness has become the equivalent of trying to describe God, as John Vervaeke says in his Awakening to the Meaning Crisis.
On the other hand, everybody has a different idea of what consciousness is. The hard-nosed materialists will tell us that consciousness comes from random material; the spiritualists never tire of telling us that matter is an illusion. In popular culture, consciousness has become what Uwe Pörksen has called a ‘plastic word’. That is: its meaning is so elastic that we can stretch it in any direction to suit our marketing strategy or instrumental purpose.
However, the question of whether consciousness comes from a supernatural creator or random atoms — is not the subject of John Vervaeke’s videos. The hard problem of interest here is a problem of of meaning — the spiritual world knot. The question is: why are we, unlike all other creatures, in search of meaning and assaulted with meaninglessness? And how do we consciously create a meaningful existence?
For a dog every bone has profound meaning — but only the human being will dare to claim that existence is absurd and without meaning. Conversely, only human beings inflate meaning to such outrageous egoic and romantic proportions. Why do we continually swing between eternalistic and nihilistic moods, between romanticism and despair, adoration and loathing? Why do we go to wild extremes in our search for meaning or to demonstrate meaninglessness?
In order to orient ourselves towards meaning we need to train consciousness, to engage in what Vervaeke calls ‘relevance realization’. In deciding what is relevant, consciousness toggles between the general (or the gestalt) and the details (or the particulars) — between solidity and transparency, a narrow and wide perspective, order and chaos, brightness and obscurity. And in all that chaos we need to develop a plausible picture, a meaningful world view.
This means narrowing and selecting information down to the essential, which risks creating a kind of tunnel vision. As one famous experiment shows, a spectator might be so intensely zeroed in on a basketball game, that he or she misses a giant gorilla that walks by. Consciousness is intensely selective, for the good reason is that we can’t handle the infinite amount of information that assaults in every moment.
However, in narrowing down our experience, we lose something of its aliveness. Our representational maps of reality could become prisons, causing us to lose our sense of novelty and wonder. That is why people take psychedelics presumably, or engage in other consciousness expanding activities: to deconstruct limits and boundaries and experience oceanic reality in its raw, unfiltered state. In opening the floodgates of the senses, the danger then becomes a zoom function that is too wide. We could completely lose the boundaries and limits that make us human — become spaced out hippies incapable of any coherence.
The dance between the known and the unknown, order and chaos, experience and innocence, is a dance on the razors edge. It requires wisdom, and a whole ‘ecology of psycho-technologies’ in Vervaekese.
According to Vervaeke we need a proper ‘descriptive’ but also a ‘prescriptive’ theory of higher states of consciousness. The descriptive is easy: in awakening experiences people universally report all kinds of positive states like ‘clarity’, ‘peace’, ‘oneness’, ‘brightness’, ‘aliveness’, ‘energy’ ‘flow’, ‘clairvoyance’, etc. Furthermore, the change occurs not just in certain aspects of life, but is total and systematic. The inner and outer world are transformed completely.
So how do we achieve this? Previously we spoke about mindfulness or other psycho-technologies that lead us into states of ‘pure-consciousness’ or ‘oneness’ culminating in prajna or the non-dual state. But also there are any number of disruptive strategies — a vision quest or fast or long meditation retreat could cause an awakening event. Furthermore, it is also important to point out that a breakthrough is often preceded by a spontaneous breakdown or a crisis. On the other hand, lasting results in the mystical realm are usually achieved through more conscious means and years of practice.
Another characteristic of the mystical experience is the breakdown of ego, or the egocentric view — a ‘decentering’. People suddenly become ‘allocentric’, which means centred on the world rather than themselves. The ‘narcissistic glow’ as Vervaeke puts, is released for a second, a certain ‘self-contraction’ disappears. The ‘super-salience’ of our ego, to use Vervaekese again, becomes less attractive, and the point of reference called ‘self’ falls away.
This liberates the huge amount of energy that is often locked in self-obsession and autobiographical masturbation. A sense of enjoyment is found, which is not some kind of fixated pleasure, but the enjoyment of deep connection to the world. Patterns become somehow transparent in ways that they were not before — a ‘cascade of insight’ arises, to use Vervaeke’s beautiful phrase. In this state, the world becomes saturated with meaning, flow, and fluency.
Ok, so far so good. But can we make a scientifically legitimate and plausible description of the Buddha’s enlightenment as Vervaeke keeps suggesting? I remain resistant to this idea. Can science or Vervaeke’s ‘rational wisdom’ explain such things? Isn’t science just the proverbial ‘pointing a grandmother’s finger at the moon’. I can’t help feeling that the moon will forever elude the finger of science, even if science can tell us a few things about the moon.
Having tea with the Queen
Consciousness is capricious and at the whims of unconscious archetypes and subpersonalities. I can see my ten year old daughter, for instance, in one moment being the ‘bad girl’ rebel who makes a mess of her room, and in the next being the ‘nice girl’ who does the dishes and hugs her parents. Both the freedom loving rebel and the cautious conservative aspects are essential aspects to her character. Sometimes it is hard to tell who she is, the more clever she gets at both conformity and subterfuge. The interplay and the dynamic dialectic between these different aspects is how her adult consciousness grows.
We have to to free ourselves from the matrix (which means mother) or die in utero. The danger of getting old is to become imprisoned within forms and formalities, to lose a certain child-like sense of spontaneity and humour. To counter this it is necessary to maintain a spirit of experimentation with forms. We have to continue to take risks, express unpopular opinions, tell the occasional dirty joke, travel to foreign lands—do anything but get stuck in the static of mechanical consciousness.
On the other hand, we still have to grow up and become disciplined. The danger in our contemporary society, with its narcissistic games of Instagram and Facebook and lack of rites of passages, is an eternally prolonged childhood or adolescence. Moving from one life stage to another can be traumatic, and involves a certain amount of ‘breaking the frame’. The more consciously our rites of passage are, the more the ‘overgrown fat baby’ or the ‘Peter pan syndrome’ strategies to avoid adulthood—are avoided.
The child begins to become conscious by doing things like throwing a spoon around the room. He or she learns by making a lot of mistakes. The adult then learns to use a spoon with elegance. We can’t have tea with the queen without being schooled in special uses of the spoon. But when the adult consciousness gets too uptight and formal, it’s sometimes good to break the frame—to give the queen the middle finger, metaphorically speaking. Becoming conscious is not to be a trained monkey, but to be able to use more complex frames intelligently, and to know when to bend or even abandon those same frames.
The Matrix is a Platonic ‘two worlds mythology’ story, derived from the myth of Plato’s cave. The myth is: most of us are stuck in a cave looking at shadow puppets, in a world of total pretense, like programed beings in a computer simulation. The myth tells us: this world is a land of illusion. The real world is elsewhere. We find the real world by taking off the veils of illusion, or climbing out of the cave. But what on earth is this ‘other world’? Maybe this world contains all worlds.
How to ‘transcend’ the two world mythology and yet preserve the real wisdom of the axial age? This is one of the basic questions of Vervaeke’s series. With the advent of Darwinism, relativity, and quantum mechanics, and the whole modern paradigm, this dualistic world and cosmos doesn’t correspond to our modern experience, Vervaeke is arguing. And what if, outside the matrix/cave is just cold empty space and inside contains the hearth and the sun?
Furthermore, today it would appear that faith and belief aren’t a prerequisite for spiritual experience (were they ever?). In fact, many people without formal religious beliefs have mystical experiences that they don’t necessarily interpreted in the mythopoetic or dogmatic terms of the past. After a mystical experience, people come to conclusions that are often contradictory: some see aliens, some see God, some see a void; some fall into madness and incoherence, others become healed or sane—some get to know Jesus. The types of interpretations of the mystical experience are seemingly endless. But Vervaeke says that interpretations don’t matter so much: it is the actual event of awakening that is of import.
One thing is clear: massive systematic state changes in consciousness have been experienced and attested to by people for centuries, and continue after the so-called ‘death of God’. People who report to have these experiences as adults (about 30 percent of the population according to Vervaeke) report a systematic and radical shift in their inner and outer experiences—of course, there are different degrees and depths to these systematic changes. Are such experiences necessary for a next phase of life? When we stop growing physically, do we start growing on a spiritual level, through quantum leaps of consciousness?
The ‘higher’ state of adult cannot be understood by the ‘lower’ state of childhood — in the same way enlightenment cannot be conceived of by an ordinary schmuck. If you are a teenager, it's hard to really understand what it means to be an adult. If you are living in the Matrix how do you explain to people trapped inside that their world is mechanical, programmed and unreal? Therefore it is not surprising that we see these higher states of consciousness with skepticism, especially if we have no taste of such states ourselves. And such experiences do not offer any scientific proof.
So how do we explain states of higher consciousness with our modern demand for rationality and coherence, and after the death of faith and belief? After all, mysticism is by definition about ‘mystery’ and can’t be described or circumscribed through our puny human rationality. But Vervaeke tells us we need to expand our definition of both mysticism and what it means to be rational.
The Palace of Wisdom and The Autodidact
Vervaeke tells us that even though ‘higher consciousness’ experiences are universal and timeless, they have to be framed in a way a modern person can understand. He proposes something he calls a ‘continuity hypothesis’. Is this a replacement for the ‘two worlds hypothesis’, corresponding to our more modern ideas of ‘emergence’?
In in any case, full enlightenment is preceded by smaller, more incremental steps—a gradual path. When we do something with optimal grace and skill, it is like a smaller particle of enlightenment, but on the same continuum as the larger enlightenment explosion. At one point there may be massive and total systematic change but this is preceded by incremental change. The point is: enlightenment might not be a massive jump from one world to another, but a reconciliation of gradual steps punctuated by sudden insight.
In the beginning we are tricked by the ‘supersalience’ of ego. Maturity is achieved by recognizing the bullshit of what our ego desires. We need to learn that our impulsive need for ice cream, cocaine, orgasm — won’t necessarily lead to real enjoyment or wisdom. However, we are destined to swirth around in mechanical patterns of addiction and habit until we are tired of the whole pornographic game. This is what the buddhists calls ‘fatigue with samsara’.
There is also the necessity for error on the path to enlightenment: a dialectic between wisdom and salience, error and truth, idiocy and wisdom. For instance, the ‘supersalience’ bullshit of mainstream media may lead a person to a deeper level of truth telling. Drinking too much might lead to: first despair, then recovery, and then illumination. Failure and error, when nurtured in consciousness, can lead to wisdom. Blake put it best: ‘If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise’.
Becoming an adult involves the progressive transcendence of egocentricity. Vervaeke continually points out the danger of being an autodidact here — higher states can be a trap if they are pursued in an individualist fashion. That is why community and sangha are key to this radical de-centering process, which is fundamentally participatory rather than individualist. Love is about transcending individuality in a profound sense. And being an adult is all about deepening our love, which is, in Vervaeke’s beautiful phrase— perhaps gleaned from Heidegger— ‘a mutually accelerating disclosure’.
The danger of being autodidactic, spiritually speaking, is the danger of remaining stuck on a certain childish level of development, of a certain narcissistic enclosure. One can take a lot of LSD for instance and become a kind of ‘superchild’, who mistakes dramatic interior experiences for real wisdom. One can make a lot of Noise, Vervaeke points out, but that is not improvisation jazz — we can’t finger paint and call ourselves Picasso.
First we need traditions and communities to cultivate skill and wisdom. A healthy institution, at its best, would help us to become a plausible truth teller: trustworthy, creative, and elegant in our expression of the truth. Feedback from the community helps us be elegant in a way we cannot be in the isolation and deserts of our own ego. Therefore, good institutions, teams, tribes, sanghas, are key in avoiding error, bias, and irrationality, and inelegance. Swirling around in a void could be suicidal.
Note: This is not a summary of Vervakeke’s ideas, but a discursive exploration. In other words, I have scattered my own insights and examples among his. I may not be always representing his ideas fully or accurately, but I am doing my best to add something to the conversation, rather that just repeat what he has already said. My apologies in advance to the good professor if I get something wrong here. I’m open to correction.
Others essay in this series:
The Man, The Lion, and The Monster
Higher States of Consciousness
Christ and Gnosis
Science and the Death of the Universe
Metanoia — A change of heart
Understanding the Meta-Crisis
Religion and Horror
The Religion of No Religion
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