Mind, Meditation, And The Limits Of Consciousness

The authors of Irreducible Mind claim that psychology when it was invented as a separate discipline, splitting off from philosophy in the nineteenth century, could have gone in two directions. One was to expand the notion of science to include the phenomenon of consciousness which is not directly observable from a second or third person perspective.

The other option was to restrict the study of mind to those things accessible from the traditional scientific practice of the third person perspective. This amounted to brain physiology, which is not terribly enlightening if one is actually interested in thoughts and emotions on the one hand, and to behaviorism on the other. Behaviorism as an adequate account for the totality of human mental functioning was abandoned, for the most part, in the 1950s. Brain physiology is still going strong as the main substance of most introduction to psychology college courses.

Native American chief with psychedelic pattern

Frederick W. H. Myers wrote The Human Personality and Its Survival After Death. The book was published by his wife after he died. The last part of the title, which his wife gave it, probably helped the book remain relatively obscure. Another factor was some confusing and inconsistent nomenclature for different levels of consciousness. Also, Myers’ interest in psychic research is enough to condemn him in many people’s eyes. This dismissal is disappointing.

Myers compares consciousness with the spectrum of light. The implication is that our own individual consciousness is an amalgam of a selection of aspects of consciousness from this full range of possible mental capabilities. Myers conjectures that different mental abilities are needed and prized in different social, cultural and environmental circumstances. Thus there is a kind of quasi-evolutionary selection of the fittest. Abilities may be gained and lost as circumstances change. Some aspects of consciousness may be pre-rational; others post-rational.

When the tsunami struck in the Indian Ocean in 2004, many animals fled to higher ground before the tsunami was visible and before humans had any idea what was going on. In some cases, people followed the running animals and thus saved their own lives. We don’t know how the animals knew that disaster was about to strike, but they did. We can speculate that since we are animals too, at some point in the past we may have been able to detect that disaster was about to strike and known what to do about it. However, as we have gotten further from nature and modify our environments to suit ourselves, this ability may have not been as necessary and was no longer selected.

In many jobs today, it is necessary to be what psychologists call ‘formal operational.’ This means, as I am using the term, having the ability to think abstractly and to be able to, in some cases, to describe the thought processes by which one arrives at a conclusion. People from oral cultures are not formal operational and so, for instance, cannot answer the question following the two next statements. There are no camels in Germany. Dresden is in Germany. Are there any camels in Dresden? People living in oral cultures apparently are unhappy with the abstract nature of this kind of thinking and keep asking things like ‘But how do we know there are no camels in Germany? Or, reply, ‘Don’t ask me. I’ve never been to Dresden.’ They are not stupid. They are just very much into the concrete. This knife with its particular properties, not so much ‘knives.’

Apparently only ten percent of Americans are formal operational. However, jobs like being a professor, or computer programmer, lawyer, etc., require this ability. Conversely, many do not. As many as twenty percent of Americans are functionally illiterate, being unable to deal with the requirements of everyday life, understand the articles in a newspaper, or to read a bus timetable.

The idea is that we will often work hard to acquire the abilities that we need in order to succeed. Some abilities are simply not needed or not appreciated in particular contexts. Being formal operational could in some circumstances, rather than getting you a job, or promoted, get you killed.

In the movie Troy, a soothsayer in the Trojan camp is depicted as saying that he saw an eagle flying with a snake in its mouth. The soothsayer goes on to say that the eagle can be thought of as the Trojans and the snake as the Greeks, hence now is a propitious time for the Trojans to launch an assault. Hector, played by Eric Bana, is depicted as, to exaggerate a little, rolling his eyes and gesticulating with his arms and pooh-poohing the whole idea as ridiculous. Basically, Hector is suggesting that while the analogy between the Trojans and the Greeks and the eagle and snake may be very poetic and even morale boosting, (actually he doesn’t even make these potentially conciliatory concessions) there is no relevant and thus no rational connection between an eagle getting lucky in its search for lunch and the chances of the Trojans defeating the Greeks at this particular time.

The anachronism of Hector’s response is unintentionally hilarious. Hector’s attitude is very twenty first century, the soothsayers’ more appropriate to one thousand BC. If Hector was indeed so rational and voiced his opinion in that manner, he would be declared blasphemous and probably stoned to death, or whatever the favored method of execution would have been at that time.

In the opposite direction, if someone now were to suddenly find himself in a Native American tribal context from seven hundred years ago, much of his book learning would probably be redundant and his skills in hunting would be sub par. His powers of observation might be deficient and his manual dexterity would be inadequate. People who have found themselves alone on a desert island have reported a heightening of their senses as they struggle to find food and shelter; they will be attempting to access abilities that normally lie dormant or undeveloped in the context to which they are used.

The problem is that merely developing human mental capacities for the purposes of social success and survival is not terribly exciting. It leaves much of human potential untapped. Abraham Maslow invented the term ‘self-actualization’ for the notion of realizing one’s full human potential. Admittedly, this is a luxury. As Maslow suggests it can only take place once more basic needs are met. But as a goal in life it certainly seems more characteristically human or at least humane than merely trying to satisfy animal needs or trying to climb the social ladder for prestige.

Mozart was said to have composed without corrections and all parts simultaneously, more as though he were transcribing than engaging in an effortful activity. This sort of creative ability seems superhuman. Mozart was certainly tapping into abilities only rarely accessed by other human beings. Likewise, hypnosis can bring about mind over matter effects that seem spooky or supernatural. For instance, telling someone under hypnosis that they are being touched with a red hot poker or burning cigarette. In some cases, a blister has formed on the skin of the hypnotized subject though they have only been touched with a normally harmless finger or pencil. We have no conscious ability to form blisters by merely trying, and yet under hypnosis blisters form. There are other recorded examples of the indentations from a rope forming on the wrists of a man who merely believed, while hypnotized, that his wrists were bound. Again, if you asked someone in a ‘normal’ state of mind to form these indentations voluntarily, they could not do it.

If one combines Myers’ notion of the spectrum of consciousness with Maslow’s idea of self-actualization, then one seems to have a potentially inspiring and liberating idea of human potential.

I have many motivations for practicing Zen meditation. One of them is connected to this Myers/Maslow notion. Meditation has been described by the Abbott of the Zen Center of Syracuse as a reset button; a back to square one; an antidote to habit. It is certainly supposed to be an exercise in awareness and is obviously an exploration of consciousness. Meditation can have utilitarian purposes. But they go beyond mere survival and don’t seem obviously related to societal success. At its most grandiose, meditation is an attempt at enlightenment. As such it’s a leap into the unknown. It seems to offer the promise of surprises, of potentially tapping into capacities of consciousness that are only described by mystics.

There is a song by The Clean called ‘Anything Could Happen.’ While not a great song, the title is appealing and it sums up for me the promise of Myer’s notion of the spectrum of consciousness, Maslow’s idea of self-actualization beyond the prosaic and the practice of meditation seem to offer.

Anything could happen
And it could be right now
And the choice is yours
To make it worthwhile
Anything could happen
And it could be right now
And the choice is yours
So make it worthwhile

Richard-Cocks2Richard Cocks teaches philosophy with key interests in ethics, metaphysics and consciousness from Platonic, Christian and Buddhist perspectives, with an especial interest in canonical works of Western Civ.