Quantum Physics and The Expanding Horizon (A Guide Beyond Woo..)

 

The unknown holds a peculiar fascination for us. It is what drives us forward to discover more and more about the world around and within us, and it is also always just beyond the horizon of what is known that human beings tend to imagine as the domain of the supernatural. Though the horizon is ever expanding this tendency remains strong.

{Note: This is Part 2 of Chapter 3 from The Embodied Sacred: The Postmodern Tapestry… Here is Part 1, andYou’ll find excerpts from other chapters all over this blog}

Sometimes, as among many of the indigenous South African people I knew as a child who built their beds up an extra two feet off the ground for fear of a murderous dwarf called the tokolosh, the supernatural rises up out of the dream landscape into the unknowable darkness of the night, and sometimes it lies just beyond the natural horizon of our waking life. There was a time when it was considered wise to stay on this side of the mountain for fear of the giants who lived on the other side, or of the strangers who looked like us but had strange customs and were surely possessed of some treacherous witchcraft. Just as sailors feared the mythic monsters of the uncharted deep, children imagined fairies and goblins at the bottom of the garden or in the unexplored forest, there must just as surely be a massive creature in the depths of the Loch Ness and a man-beast Yeti in the wilds of the mountains. Likewise it has been natural for us to imagine a creator God gazing down on us from the heavens, from the unexplored expanse of the sky.

Until of course we began to send first airplanes above the clouds and then rockets up into space, beyond even the horizon of the sky itself. Having discovered no fairies in the forest, no Yeti in the mountains, no monster in the Loch Ness (though of course there are some fascinating sea creatures in the great depths) and put airplanes on the wing  —we went up into the heavens to find no deity on a fluffy cloud surrounded by winged harp-playing angels. We even put men on the moon. In fact our understanding of math and physics was also reliable enough in outer space to use the gravity of the moon to slingshot the malfunctioning Apollo 13 spaceship back to earth, landing it within a mile of its predicted spot in the ocean.

But with this new horizon came a new domain for mysterious creatures and magical forces: aliens from outer space. As humanity has evolved our supernatural fantasies have shifted from ancestral and animal spirits, to gods of the hunt, to gods of the harvest, to a god who is the great civic judge in the sky, to as yet unseen or secretly veiled visitors from another galaxy. Now, this is not to say that there may not be other life forms in the universe; but to point out that the popular yet un-evidenced belief that they must be behind everything from crop circles to lights in the sky to livestock mutilation to scary dreams, and already walk among us in disguise as humans is a reiteration of ancient belief in demons and forest spirits.

But scientific discoveries from the early part of the 20th century added a new and fascinating dimension of reality to the conversation, and the still confounding behavior of particles at the quantum level have opened for some a horizon beyond the known at the very heart of the atom itself, and wouldn’t you know it, this is an updated popular candidate for the location of supernatural agency.

The universe is indeed mysterious, and one’s perspective makes an enormous difference on which universe one is contemplating. At the quantum level, the nucleus of an atom is the size of a fly and the space around it as large as a football field. What we perceive as solid matter, say, a brick wall, is at the sub-atomic (or quantum) level, mostly empty space, but it is a fallacy to say that this means a mere shift in mental perspective would make us able to walk a human body through that wall. It also remains a fallacy to say that even 40 years of meditative training could make anyone able to walk through a brick wall. That’s just not how either physics or meditation works.

What a shift in mental perspective can do is allow us to imagine what it might be like to experience reality from another level of magnitude, but literally shifting into that level of magnitude is not something that happens in the mind, nor is it something that is possible for the human body. Our capacity to look through an electron microscope does not actually give us the ability to physically exist inside the world we perceive through that microscope; we still inhabit the reality of our macro-level at which the laws of classical physics operate.

One way to understand this is that the math at the level of quantum physics in some ways revolves around a very tiny number known as the Planck constant. The number is approximately 6.6 x 10 to the minus 27, which basically means there are twenty-seven zeros to the right of the decimal point before you even get to the 6.6.

Any objects larger than this tiny number cancel out the remarkable effects that are seen at the level of the electron, simply because they fundamentally change the nature of the equations. This is precisely the reason why quantum physics is so unique and startling to us… The mind-boggling phenomena found at the quantum level simply do not occur anywhere else!

One of the startling revelations that led to quantum theory was the discovery that light behaved both as a wave and as a particle, depending on what techniques were used to measure it. This revealed that our 19th century concepts of “wave” and “particle” were inadequate, and that at the quantum level, molecules behave in ways that we do not fully understand. It appears that we can measure the same beam of light at two different points along a trajectory in two different ways and have it behave both as wave and as particle. This has led to metaphorical discussion of how the wave “knows” whether we are measuring for one property or another and “behaves” in the way we expect.

Of course, the use of words like “know” and “behave” when talking about subatomic particles is metaphorical, but we humans love to project anthropomorphic qualities onto the natural world. Part of how and, perhaps why we do this, is that we have the ability to imagine minds without brains. This imaginative ability is one of the foundations of the mind-body dualism that underlies all transcendentalist ideas that seek freedom from the limitations of the natural world. Because consciousness is such a unique phenomenon, and because the brain has evolved to be aware precisely of everything except its own processing, it seems intuitively right to imagine the mind as something distinct from the body. We can then hypothesize about ghosts, heaven and hell, reincarnation, and at what point in embryonic development or dying the soul (as a kind of disembodied, transcendent mind) enters or leaves the body.

This mind-body dualism is one of the intuitive perceptions common to all cultures, and it may be best understood as a side effect of brain evolution. Because the brain is unaware of it’s own functioning, it cannot perceive the undoubtedly complex mechanism by which it generates consciousness . Mind therefore appears to be something distinct from the body. Now of course the experiencing mode of the mind is a special domain of experience. We can dream of life as a butterfly, imagine other worlds, think in abstract mathematical terms, be moved emotionally by music, ponder the meaning of a film or a poem, meditate on compassion for Indonesian bombing victims, and sit in California deeply absorbed in an historical account of 15th century Spain.

This does not mean however that the inward experience of the mind has literal external reality. Nor does it mean that those internal experiences are not related to physical events like synaptic firing, brain chemistry and complex activities involving brain modules that make possible memory, emotion and imagination.

I am taking this detour into a brief discussion of the philosopher’s mind/body problem (more to come on this in Chapter Four) because throughout the history of science, any gap in our understanding of a particular area has immediately been considered by some as proof of supernatural intervention —and belief in supernatural entities requires the ability to imagine consciousness without the embodied biological support that, so far as we know has always accompanied it. The anomalous behavior of electrons at the quantum level is merely the latest loophole though which many try to insert magical thinking and supernatural causality.

Despite claims to the contrary throughout the hugely profitable genre of new age quantum woo, there are simply no grounds for doing so.

Now back to quantum phenomena. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle states that we cannot simultaneously measure the position and velocity of an electron. When we seek to pinpoint where the electron is, quantum theory speaks of clouds of probability that are “collapsed” by the act of measuring.

This is called the “observer effect” – referring to the odd phenomenon that at the quantum level, the act of observing particles affects what is being observed. One explanation could of course be that these particles are very tiny and are pushed around by the tools of observation. To detect an electron, we have to fire a photon at it. Naturally, the act of doing this affects the either (or both) the position or momentum of the electron itself. Another explanation may be that our modes of measurement and/or ways of conceptualizing what is going on at this fascinating level of reality are still inadequate to the task. But both of these explanations fall short of the confounding reality: at the quantum level, particles behave in ways that do not fit with how objects behave at larger levels, period.

Quantum theory was indeed a radical revolution in the world of physics and it resulted in great leaps forward in technology, It gave us transistors, lasers and microchips. Amongst other hard-to-explain quantum phenomena, the observer effect has led to much fun speculation in the world of science fiction story-telling, which has in turn led to popular new age spiritual beliefs about the power of the mind to magically affect or literally “create” reality. This speculative idea has become a central principle in what many think of today as spirituality, and in the popular zeitgeist it has become woven into yoga, meditation and cosmology as if enlightenment entails somehow developing magical control over external reality via a kind of Jedi mind-training.

The flawed central claim in quantum woo is this: if quantum physics says that the act of observation affects the electron’s behavior, and that we cannot with accuracy say exactly where the electron is until we look at it, at which point it appears to show up right where we are looking, then surely this is true of everything else… Therefore we can “create” whichever reality we would like simply by choosing to look at it in the right way, thus “manifesting” the reality we expect. Nice huh? Pity it’s only half true.

The less nice side of the coin is that this belief asserts that people who are having difficulties in their lives and experiencing physical or emotional suffering, poverty or oppression are unwittingly creating this reality by how they are focusing their minds. Again this is a half-truth, or more accurately, an observation that may be true some of the time in certain circumstances. But the main point is that these essentially psychological observations have absolutely nothing to do with quantum physics because external reality is not magically created by consciousness following some imaginary “quantum law.”

It stands to reason of course that everything is made of electrons, and so what is true at the quantum level must be happening in some way at the order of magnitude we experience too. But the jump in reasoning that lands at the place of saying people experience what they expect to experience and are creating their reality supposedly a la the observer effect —and that therefore there are NO victims in the world, and anyone can change anything simply by adjusting their expectations/intentional focus is an enormous, tragic, delusional mistake. It is exactly the same as the walking through walls idea: it simply doesn’t apply at levels of magnitude larger than the quantum level.

The observer effect, much touted in New Age pseudoscience circles as implying that consciousness actually creates reality, tells us more about our inability to conceptualize and measure what goes on at the subatomic level than anything else. It turns out that the term “observer,” which we understandably might think confers a kind of magical power on human consciousness, can equally well refer to a plain old unintentional entirely-lacking-in-consciousness mechanical camera that simply records what the electron is doing.

Contrary to what many New Age teachers have claimed is proven by the anomalies of quantum physics, no matter how well-trained your consciousness is, no matter how well-focused your mental intentions are, your body is not going through that brick wall and you cannot magically make a red Ferrari appear in your driveway, or protect yourself from an impending earthquake just by thinking about. As much as these may be fun and empowering seeming ideas, if anyone really could do these things it would be the biggest news story, ever, period. I mean this would be beyond the biggest deal ever, seriously.

The leap taken from quantum anomalies to magical thinking by so many teachers/authors in the new age marketplace in order to make a quick buck on a cool idea is quite simply not supported by either good science or sound spirituality. It also perpetuates psychological distortions that a healthy spirituality should instead clarify, and creates a giant loophole through which unscrupulous charlatans of all stripes can drive their medicine show wagons.

In correcting some of the fallacies created by misinterpreted quantum physics, misapplied postmodern relativism and the underlying issue of mind/body dualism, it is helpful to bear in mind one central tenant: Not only are the quantum and macro levels different yet related, so too are internal and external reality.

A famous thought-experiment created in correspondence between Albert Einstein and Erwon Schrodinger in 1935 to demonstrate precisely the problem of trying apply quantum phenomena to the everyday macro-level, asked that we imagine a cat in a sealed box containing a vial of poison that had a 50% probability of being broken open as the result of a probabilistic quantum level radioactive reaction that may or may not happen. If the quantum reaction happened the vial of poison would break and the cat would die, but there is a 50% chance that the reaction would not happen, the vial would remain intact and the cat would be peering up at us quite alive when we open the box.

The quantum concept of “superposition” says that sub-atomic particles exist in a probabilistic cloud until they are observed – were this to translate directly into the larger magnitude world of cats and boxes it would mean that Schrodinger’s Cat was both alive and dead, existing in some kind of probabilistic limbo state until the box was opened and the results of the experiment were observed.

The capacity to engage in thought-experiments like the famous one of Schrodinger’s Cat is often mistakenly presented as an actual external truth proven by quantum physics.

While in our minds it may be true that the cat is both alive and dead until we look inside, the reality within the box and in the experience of the cat would obviously be either one or the other, dead or alive – based on what had happened unbeknown to us in the sealed box. This was the point, and he and Einstein agreed on this as a useful thought-experiment for pointing out the relationships between quantum physics and classical physics as we transitioned from the tiny realm of sub-atomics up into the larger magnitude world in which cats are indeed either alive or dead, humans cannot walk through walls, and a cancer may well be eating away at the body even if it is not observed to be doing so.

It is important to add that there are multiple interpretations of such thought-experiments, and the conundrums in quantum physics that they attempt to resolve. It is a complex, baffling, exciting and ultimately unresolved area of theoretical scientific exploration. One interpretation that is also popular with spiritual folks is the “multiple universes theory” first put forward by Hugh Everett, which suggests that each time we look into the box containing Schrodinger’s Cat, two universes come into existence, one in which the cat is dead and one in which it is alive, but we are only able to be aware of the one in which we find ourselves. Though this is a bewilderingly fun idea, it is by definition un-testable and can be filed away with other speculative theories that are neither provable nor disprovable; something like the belief in an invisible pink unicorn, or the assertion that I can levitate at will —but only alone and in a dark room!

Returning to philosophy for a moment, I want to mention two related ideas that may cast additional light on the central problem of incorrectly using quantum physics to support the magical thinking of minds somehow “manifesting” reality. Different from our everyday use of the word, in philosophical language, Idealism is the position that only minds and ideas exist, and that because we can only know reality via our minds, there is no way to prove that anything exists outside of our minds. Idealism suggests that unless things are perceived by minds, they cannot be said to properly exist.

Solipsism goes one step further and proposes that all that exists is my mind —that everything I am experiencing exists only in my mind, including other people and their apparent minds. Any first-year philosophy student (and each of us if we think about it for a minute) can tell you about the problems with Idealism and it’s extreme form, Solipsism. While these philosophical positions are fun and disorienting and have a certain kind of intuitive logic about them, examples like turning on a bathtub or setting the curtains on fire and then leaving the house, or someone else doing either of these things while you are not looking prove the point that there are objects and processes going on in external reality whether minds are aware of them or not. Even if one were to spontaneously develop an infection of the hippocampus, causing complete amnesia right after starting the water or the fire, and no-one else were aware of what you had done, the evidence in the physical world would be undeniable once the house was engulfed in flames or flood. The same is true of an undiagnosed, and therefore not observed by anyone’s consciousness, disease process like cancer.

Likewise, the thought-experiments of theoretical quantum physics are really fascinating and fun; they capture the imagination and help us to ponder the complexity and strangeness of the data that this puzzling and mind-blowing science reveals. But we can also be confused into thinking they are literally true at the macro level, and somehow refute the everyday laws of physics and support a kind of idealistic, solipsistic or magical-thinking based view of reality.

This view is just the latest variation in a long line of attempts to deny our mortality, imperfection and vulnerability to suffering, injustice, randomness and other forces beyond our control. Spiritual maturity lies in learning to make our peace with these forces while asking ourselves in the words of the old serenity prayer to learn:

The serenity to accept what we cannot change,

The courage to change what we can,

And the wisdom to know the difference…

 

 

The Rock Star and The Swami

Though a tale of lies and deception, this is a true story.

A very famous rock star was dying of cancer. He heard about a holy man, known by his followers as Swamiji, who claimed to be able to commune with the divine realms via a special fire ceremony – and to invoke a miraculous cure. The rock star paid fifty thousand dollars U.S. to Swamiji, who dutifully retired to engage in the ritual ceremony on his behalf. The rock star and his attendants waited anxiously – his cancer was extremely progressed and the doctors said he was not long for this world.

The holy man returned with his news:

Well, I sat for many hours in the fire ceremony and was able to access the Divine Council.

The rock star’s exhausted glassy eyes gleamed in his gaunt and gray face, and his posse drew in closer to him, attentive to Swamiji’s every word.

I asked them to spare your life, to cure your cancer. We meditated deeply together and then discussed your case. It was very powerful…

Two of the rock star’s closest companions began to weep softly kissing his hands and cheeks before turning again to hear what came next.

As I said, it took many hours – eventually, Krishna said yes, Jesus said yes, also Mohammed, but then it was Buddha’s turn, and Buddha – he said no. That is all I can tell you.

A ripple of disappointed consternation went through the room.

 

Buddha said no? But why – isn’t there anything we can do?

 

I could try and find out – but that would take another fire ceremony – and it really drains my energy, so we would need to wait a few days.

Needless to say, another fire ceremony meant another fifty thousand dollars. Perhaps even more apparent, there would be no miraculous cure – not for one or two or fifty thousand more fire ceremonies, if in fact anything like that was even really attempted. The rock star died as the doctors predicted and the holy man went on his way, 50 K the richer, as for the Buddha, well let’s just say he was unavailable for comment at the time of this writing, but I’m saving my pennies for that fire puja hotline.

The irony of course is that the teachings of the Buddha explicitly encourage the letting go of superstitious animal sacrifice, ritual ceremony and petitionary prayer, in favor of a much more psychological approach to self-knowledge: the unglamorous, disciplined practice of diligent meditation on the human condition.

To many outside observers this swami’s unsophisticated and shameless scam would probably seem entirely obvious. Perhaps we would easily be led to wonder just how a supposedly enlightened or even ordinarily ethical person could prey on the desperation of someone sick and dying. But there is one simple truth at the heart of this kind of drama: human beings want to believe, and other human beings are willing to take advantage of this fact.

We want to believe that we can be spared life’s pain, suffering and injustice. We want to believe that we can find the special doorway, the magic spell, the wizard-savior, the unwavering faith, whatever it is that can stand reality on it’s head and grant our egos what they want: eternal life, complete power, special dispensation from the gods themselves, never-ending happiness, immunity from random injustice, a perfect love, miraculous healing, and more often than not, money, and lots of it, please.

The rock star didn’t need money. He had too much. Too many dollars, and too little sense, perhaps. But he had lived a life of privilege, a champagne existence of red carpets, beauty and pleasure, multi-platinum albums, mansions and fancy cars —the kind of life where perhaps the fantasy of money and fame being a ticket to immortality might seem almost plausible.

Apparently, the swami needed money, and he had found a way to get it. Perhaps he told himself this was how the universe provided for him. Perhaps he too had lived a life of privilege. As a holy man he was given a lot of leeway, held in the high esteem granted the chosen few. This can distort one’s sense of reality and one’s place in it, and this can be complicated by having originally come from more disempowered, modest means. Perhaps he even believed he could deliver what he promised. but any way you slice it fifty thousand dollars is quite a price tag!

To speculate further, perhaps as you read this right now the part of your mind that wants so much to believe feels a little conflicted about closing the door on the possibility that this swami, or any swami, or certain rituals might have the power to invoke miracles, manifest the winning lottery numbers, cure disease, curry divine favor or simply make things go the way we want them to on any given day.

Maybe this swami was a charlatan, you might say, but what about the ones who aren’t!? My answer: show me a holy man who isn’t a charlatan and he is probably just a teacher, philosopher or priest simply offering tools for self-development with no special claims of supernatural power. The moment we start to mix money with miracles or supernatural intervention there is bound to be some serious trickery afoot. The larger the sums of money and the more extravagant the miraculous claims, the more certain you can be of the trickery and deception.

Authentic spiritual growth should enable us to see through both these kinds of deceptions and discern what lies at their root within all of us, and then it should give us the tools to deepen a kind of compassionate, self-aware embrace of that ubiquitous and poignantly human existential anxiety.

So strong is our desire to believe that there might be a way to magically control reality or get the supernatural forces that do so on our sides, that people all over the world and throughout history have associated that kind of belief with “being spiritual.” To this day as someone who writes about and teaches on the subject of spirituality, I experience again and again the look of confusion, disappointment and mistrust on people’s faces when I suggest that spirituality needn’t be about supernatural forces, magical powers or faith in other worlds. That it can be about self-knowledge through practices that cultivate insight, compassion and mind-body integration, an embrace of our psychological vulnerability, an appreciation for scientific method and an acceptance of our existential situation humbly punctuated at the end of this run-on sentence by the inevitability of death.

Lately I have been exploring the following as a definition of authentic, contemporary spirituality: The gradual process of becoming more fluent in the language of the inner life.

What is that language?

Sensation, emotion, dream, longing, desire, poetic metaphor, heightened states of consciousness, awareness of the universal qualities of shadow and light as they arise in our unique subjectivity. Furthermore, spirituality should help us not only to work with both the light-filled nourishment of beauty, compassion and clarity of mind as well as the disowned shadow–material of fear, grief, rage and shame, but it should also help us to keep developing, to keep growing up, to keep relating that inner life in healthy ways with the realities of the outer world.

For the most part though, this is not what we want. In the words of the poet T.S. Elliot: “Mankind cannot tolerate too much reality.” But it may be what we need.

Just hold on a second, you say, what about the power of intention? Doesn’t quantum physics teach us that what we expect is what we get, that in fact at the quantum level thought creates reality? Isn’t this how the perennial truths of mysticism are being proven by science in the new age? Perhaps, you point at me, you’re just part of the old materialist paradigm and are too afraid of the new information. What is “reality” anyway? That’s such an outdated concept.

As discussed above, this is merely the latest and most complex version of how we try to convince ourselves that we can become superhuman, or at the very least that superhuman (or reality bending) forces can be marshaled to whichever cause we have in mind, be it succeeding in our careers, creating world peace or finding a parking spot on Main Street.

The question for the “manifestors” is of course this: just which one of us is it who creates reality with their thoughts?

 

The Manifestation Challenge!

Three believers in mental manifestation leave houses next door to each-other at the same time in the same model Prius on their way to the yoga studio – each visualizing a parking spot right in front of the entrance, which one will get it?

Does it boil down to:

 

  1. A contest of spiritual willpower, or perhaps
  2. A reflection of the good or bad deeds in each of their recent or distant pasts, or does it have to do with
  3. Which one of the drivers has a date with destiny inside the yoga studio because their soul mate is laying down a yoga mat right next to the open spot that awaits their karmic presence?

Maybe one or more of those options makes sense to you –but what if we teleport away from our pleasant preoccupations of privilege and crank the reality of the situation up a few notches, like this:

Three mothers wake up in the morning and pray for their sons. As part of their prayer they each visualize success for his mission, and weep tears of relief as they feel God’s grace and protection. One son is a Christian U.S. Marine serving in Gaza, one is an Israeli soldier who will be transporting a top level enemy combatant (whose Mother may likewise be knelt in prayer, or even sacrificing a goat) to a torture chamber, and one is a Palestinian suicide bomber saying his own prayers as he calmly straps on the explosives he believes are his ticket to paradise. Just like the three cars converging on that lone and coveted Santa Monica parking spot, these three boys will cross paths today with their own agendas… What do the forces of supernatural intervention or mental manifestation have in store? The tricky part is that, just like our yogis, these three boys and their Mothers all believe in the same God, and that he is, in actuality on their side.

So we might ask if the outcome of this new situation has to do with:

  1. Which of the families has the correct interpretation of God’s will, or
  2. Whose cause is actually the most righteous, or
  3. Whose prayers and visualizing abilities are the strongest

The stories change, the local mask of god changes, the specifics of the story we tell ourselves change; be they the new age distortions of quantum physics, the Christian Science doctrine of thought-created-reality, the extremist Muslim position on divine martyrdom, or the gullible belief in Swamiji’s ability to sway the so-called Divine Council of interfaith avatars. But the central theme remains the same.

Humans long to believe that we can get the magical edge, the blessing of the divine, that we can align ourselves with comic purpose and get what we want, and at this level spirituality is no more sophisticated or transformative than the mantra heard at the craps tables in Vegas. The gambler knocks back another shot of bourbon, shakes the dice in his hand as he prepares to fling them across the felt and tilts his head toward the sky.

“Come on, luck be a lady toniiiiight, give me that number seven this time!”

Do the numbers represented by the way the dice fall have to do with:

  1. The gambler’s good or bad deeds in his life so far, or
  2. His mental power collapsing Schrodinger’s wave-function such that he magically magnetizes from the multiple probable universes the version of reality in which the dice land on seven, or
  3. The universe delivering on the promise he saw in all the numerological signs since he bought his plane ticket, rented his car and checked into his hotel suite – all of which carried the number 7.

The truth is more difficult to swallow – yet it sets us free. The answer in all the above cases is of course:

4) None of the above.

Which of our yogis gets the parking spot, who meets their future life-partner today, which of the loyal young soldiers in competing service to the ideologies of their tribe get killed, whether or not wealthy rock stars or ordinary poor folks die of cancer, and which of the black spots on those little white cubes are showing face-up after the gambler tosses them onto the craps table —none of these outcomes are affected by supernatural forces or the power of the mind. All of them are the result of multiple variables, blind forces and out of control elements converging, and there is simply no governing power, simple organizing principle, or crack-able code that we can use to sway the odds in our favor.

Period.

Spirituality is simply not a reliable way of garnering otherworldly or psychic intervention in external events, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either very misguided or an out-and-out charlatan, so hold onto your wallet!

Of course we can affect our internal state through practice, sure we can cultivate an open-ness to the moment and an optimism that allows us to see opportunities when they arise and makes others more likely to respond positively to us, provided we are not in a war zone or a dog-eat-dog business negotiation. Of course meditation, attitude and faith deliver some demonstrable mind-body benefit to our immune systems. These kinds of shifts in state are the currency of real spiritual practice – and they do allow us to be in more of a flexible flow with the world around us – and this may indeed make us more effective, and allow us to enjoy the process of being in the moment. But circumstances beyond our control always still play a major role, other people are in fact attempting to manifest their contrary agendas as well, and there are countless forces that have no rational or spiritual meaning exerting their pressure on our lives at all times.

So what to do?

Well, this is not a new predicament – and rather than making bargains, carrying good luck charms or trying to outfox reality with magical thinking, we can get curious about what is underneath all of that activity. This marks a step forward in the inquiry of what spirituality is, and what it isn’t.

Meditating on our existential circumstances, we can see that the powerful need to try and control and explain the unpredictable and uncontrollable aspects of reality is driven by our vulnerable anxiety. Turning with compassion and courage to face that anxiety, we can cultivate a realistic connection to whatever it is in our lives that does create a grounded feeling of safety, support, and being loved, whilst knowing that these things are so precious precisely because they are not automatically guaranteed, and because they are fragile and conditional.

Established in the embrace of that which gives us this realistic sense of love and safety, calm and compassionate courage, we can practice tolerating the unpredictable, changing nature of the world. We can sit in respectful witnessing of the suffering that is happening on the planet at this very moment, like innocent children in circumstances beyond their control, mothers losing sons in battle, victims of poverty, violence and oppression, perhaps even our own moments of trauma and loss.

Over time the spiritual practice of diligently facing the shadows, fortified by a connection to grounded resources can allow us to be more integrated, more honest and more spiritually awake to the world within and around us, and less prone to both the egoic grasping and the predatory opportunism at play in magical thinking and the charlatanism of spiritual con artists.

Hey, that fifty thousand dollars could have been used to build a school, fund an orphanage, get treatment for poor people with curable diseases, or invested in cancer research, perhaps even a program investigating the psychoneuroimmunological efficacy of spiritual practice.

Am I saying that we should try and take religious belief or spiritual consolation away from anyone? Certainly not! I am, however pointing out a powerful insight into the nature of human suffering and existential anxiety and a way of more skillfully dealing with it. I am also saying that in the 21st century we might want to make these kinds of insights part of the conversation in terms of creating viable alternatives for people. Spirituality should address the big questions of the human condition with intelligence, compassion and honesty.

 

Spiritual and Psychological: Why Can’t We Get Along?

Based on the stage information we have been looking at, I feel confident in saying that the threshold of 21st century spirituality is crossed as we develop the ability to interpret spiritual symbols, archetypes and myths in metaphorical ways. Paradoxically, the capacity to think symbolically makes spirituality more relevant and connected to the real world, whilst remaining in literal interpretation dissociates spirituality from reality.

When we enact the inner/outer fallacy that insists on the spiritual symbol as a historic or concrete fact, we confuse the inner world with the outer world, and both suffer as a result.

When we graduate to reading the meaning of the spiritual symbol as a signpost to an interior experience, we can then engage in the practices that allow the experience to arise, and then translate it effectively into the outer world. Practices that shift both our state of consciousness and facilitate growth through stages of development are the key toward navigating the actual interior territory described by the symbolic maps of spirituality.

A mature contemporary spirituality is born of this capacity to differentiate literal from symbolic, outer from inner. It allows us to keep evolving, learning and most importantly – integrating. When we are spiritually integrated, there is no conflict between the rational mind, experiencing body, and spiritual beliefs. There is room for intuition, deep emotion, the ecstatic experiential “energy body,” devotional heart, and creative imagination  —but the relationship between the inner and outer worlds is a sane one, a grounded one.

What do I mean?

Consider literalist Christianity: The world was made in six days, Eve born from Adam’s rib, a talking snake convinced them to eat forbidden fruit and they were cast out of Eden. This is the original sin that all of humanity is born with and must repent. The only way to avoid Hell and go to Heaven after death is to believe in Jesus, God’s only son who was born of a virgin, crucified, rose again on the third day and sits at God’s right hand to judge the living and the dead.

One cannot hold these beliefs as literally true and be spiritually integrated… So fragmentation and compartmentalization occurs.

Consider literalist New Age spirituality: Everything you think about manifests in your reality, so it’s important to think only positive thoughts. Everyone creates their own reality by magnetizing experience to themselves. There are no victims and we are all getting exactly what we deserve based on both past-life karma and the content of our consciousness. Negative experiences are merely lessons that show you how to go beyond judgment and make better intentional choices. Enlightened beings incarnate on the planet or are channeled through mediums to teach us this lesson. Astrology can help you to see these destined patterns at play in your life – it is all written in the stars because everything in the universe is connected. Prophecy from ancient times predicts either the end of the world or a radical shift in our evolution as our DNA re-wires, the polar caps reverse their charge, a doorway into another dimension opens, aliens land or the Age of Aquarius ushers in an era of light and love.

Chances are good that if you are reading this book, the first example is less appealing than the second example. I want to point out that the two have much more in common than we might think. Both commit the category error or inner/outer fallacy. In the case of religious literalism it is easier to see. This is partially because it is from another time and culture, and so it holds less power over us psychologically and we have a little more distance on the ideas. In order to maintain belief in the creation story, talking snakes and magic apples, virgin birth and resurrection, we have to create a compartment in which to hold our spirituality separate from our experience of reality. Part of us knows that none of these things are possible in the real world. This is where “faith” comes in. Literalist Christians have faith that even though these details are impossible, they are true and believing them is the key to both having a spiritual life and being saved from suffering and eternal damnation.

From the graduated perspective, if we stay with the part of us that knows these details cannot be literally true, if we bring that rational intelligence into contact with the spiritual material, then we can reconcile the apparent contradiction, via metaphorical interpretation.

Again it appears paradoxical. Some will say: well on the one hand you are saying not to compartmentalize, but then you insist there is a difference between the inner and the outer worlds..

Precisely! The inner and outer worlds are different, but related. The connecting relationship has to do with metaphor, symbol, intuition, and insight —the capacity to interpret meaning.

Here’s the Key: The narrow scientific mistake is to deny the inner world altogether because it cannot be literally true. The mirror image spiritual mistake is to insist on the literalism and so overlook the inner world and create a special compartment in which we unreasonably believe the inner symbol as external fact.

So let’s look at the New Age literalism, which for many of us will be harder to deconstruct.

To start, I think it is useful to remember that when we see any beliefs that might be distorting reality, it is most likely a kind of psychological defense against something we are afraid to face. In the case of literalist religion, we have seen that a central concern is what happens after death. Death is something we are afraid to face, and the feeling that we will be punished or rewarded after death is an externalization of our moral anxiety. We struggle internally with the conflict between our survival instincts, aggression, lust and greed on the one hand and our empathic desire to treat others as we would like to be treated on the other, as well as our healthy self-serving and socially conditioned understanding that the group survives and prospers if we act correctly.

Literalist faith gives us the story that death is not the end, but displaces our fear of death being terrible into the threat that it will be if we don’t behave well – and if you don’t have faith. It then says that if you behave well, and even if you don’t behave well, but ask forgiveness and believe in the Lord who rose from the dead so that we might live eternally, then your reward will be delivered.

So instead of an interior symbolism about say, death and rebirth as a spiritual process of growth, healing and awakening, we have an inner/outer fallacy in which a set of literal propositions are to be believed on no evidence and made the center of one’s worldview; the very “meaning” one ascribes to life itself.

Of course, this kind of meaning serves a purpose. It is both a soothing psychological defense and a way of creating necessary social cohesion. It also creates a fertile ground for manipulation by religious, economic and political power, because it makes rational analysis, critical thinking and questioning of unreasonable propositions into taboo activities now associated with the fear of death that lurks powerfully behind the soothing defense.

From this situation we see doctrines like the divine right of kings – which said that royalty (and thus also peasantry) has been handed down from God, or the Protestant work ethic – which said that poor people who are good, humble and work hard in this life for little reward, have a great reward awaiting them in Heaven. The logic was that the nobility of the middle ages deserved both their power and wealth by divine decree and to struggle against this in any way was to go against God.

We see the same relationship between socioec0nomic status and supposed divine order in the East  via the metaphysical formulation in which we supposedly reincarnate at different levels of the caste system based on previous karma, and have a duty to therefore live out that dharma.

In popular spirituality, we find the idea of reincarnation very pleasing. Who wouldn’t? Death is not the end, we transition merely from one body to another, learning lessons and becoming gradually more enlightened until the final meaning of life is revealed and we graduate to a merging with the infinite ocean of consciousness as god-realized souls. Our intuitive ability to imagine a mind or soul separate from the body is also at play here in the ways we have already discussed, so we get both the pleasing negation of death as the end of conscious experiencing and the intuitive feeling of transcendental “rightness.” There is, however, more to think about regarding the cultural context of reincarnation as a doctrine from Hindu-Buddhist religion.

In this traditional belief system, each person is said to have a “dharma;” a duty, station, or path in life, and that dharma is the result of their past-life karma. In other words, you are where you are in this life because of your actions in your past lives. The spiritual principle here is as-above-so-below. Whatever is true on the earth is a reflection of the heavens. Sounds nice, right? But in practical terms we should remember that the doctrine of reincarnation is closely related to the caste system in India —which is a kind of spiritual/political cousin of the divine right of kings and the Protestant work ethic, in that this family of beliefs conveniently perpetuate privilege and discourage any change in the divinely ordained status quo.

Under the caste system, which still exists to some extent today, people are defined by birth as belonging to one of several different castes or orders of social stratification, with the Brahmins on top and the Dalits or “untouchables” on the bottom. When someone from any of the higher castes comes in contact with an untouchable they are considered polluted spiritually and must perform ritual bathing to cleanse themselves. The untouchables are third class citizens whose lot in life is to do the work that non-one else wants. What determines your caste? Birth status – your ethnic identity and economic circumstance define your place in the world. Under this belief, your birth status is of course not random or an indicator of a socio-political system that may or may not be fair – it is said to be an indicator of your past life karma, which decides the path you must travel in this life in order to keep growing spiritually. Rock the boat and you are not only going against the social order, but also against the divine order. Remember: as above, so below.

So, as in the other examples, the religious idea combines with (and is used in the service of) a political and economic power structure that just so happens to privilege those who have the greatest wealth as being somehow closer to the divine.

Of course, even though the history of the West is so characterized by a deep suspicion of unjust power, this idea of spiritual privilege crops up in the success and wealth focused aspects of the contemporary New Age movement. Watching the mega-selling New Age DVD The Secret gives one the impression that the sole purpose of spiritual life is to learn how to single-pointedly focus on attaining wealth in a way that magically compels “the universe” to give it to you. In this ideology, wealth, health and happiness are not a reflection of your past lives, but of your current thoughts. It combines a thoroughly Capitalist notion of upward mobility and personal achievement with magical thinking circa the 19th century Christian Science movement of Mary Baker Eddy.

Here’s the chilling point: what this synthesis boils down to is that everything that happens in your life, good or bad, is the result of the thoughts you have “put out into the universe” coming back to you as if they were an order you placed from a spiritual catalog. Therefore if you want riches, merely focus your mind on it and it will magically appear, if you want to end the war in Iraq, protesting it only reinforces the energy… Rather you should ignore it and focus on the good things you want to create. If you are being oppressed in any way, you are at the most essential level creating the experience yourself and are ultimately responsible for thinking your way out of that reality.

I should add that this idea does carry a somewhat insightful invitation to personal responsibility and hints at a willingness to see how our conditioned perceptions, be they social or psychological, affect our lives, but the complete negation of circumstance, randomness, injustice, victimization and real world cause-and-effect is a tell-tale sign that we have another fantasy-based defense structure masquerading as spiritual system on our hands. Half-truths are often more harmful than outright falsehoods.

The new age belief system gives conscious intention all the power and influence. This is usually a flatland model of both the psyche and it’s interactions with the outside world. Why? Well, because it postulates thoughts as being ultimately primary to external reality.

This is problematic for two reasons.

The first is that there are many phenomena that are in no way dependent on our thoughts about them. If a magnitude nine earth-quake were to erupt as you are reading this sentence it would surely not be the product of yours or anyone else’s thoughts or intentions (nor the result of me writing these words) – rather it would have to do with tectonic plates that are moved by other forces entirely. The insistence that things like earth-quakes, terrorist attacks, car accidents, terminal illness and childhood traumas are all absolutely the product of either some intention or some inherently benevolent karmic force that is operating ultimately for “the good” may be best understood in psychological terms. Perhaps a basic lack of tolerance for uncertainty and the realities of suffering, randomness and injustice is at play here – a lack of tolerance that can drive a pretty powerful reality-distorting level of denial.

The second is that though to an important extent our perceptions do shape our experience, and we do often sabotage ourselves and repetitively carry out ingrained psychological patterns, these dynamics play out at the level of the unconscious mind, not at the level of intentionality. A spiritual practice with depth allows us to bring those unconscious dynamics into awareness instead of buying into an unrealistic and extreme fantasy about the “power of intention.”

The point here is that in a way, our intentions come from our egos, even when the ego is attempting to act spiritual! The tricky motivations behind our actions, especially the ones that are tip-offs about where we need to grow and heal are usually unconscious, and we make them conscious through a process of inquiry —not through the sheer force of willing ourselves to act from a preconceived spiritual belief system.

The overemphasis of the power of intention is often also underpinned by a Manichean spiritual perspective, circa ancient Iran – one that casts us as heroic figures (“light-workers”) fighting against evil by choosing to be good. What might be more effective is to instead of look deeper into our own darkness —the areas within us that, via so-called “negative emotions” call out for healing and compassionate understanding.

Remember the ironic old proverb: the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

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