More about shamanism

In my last post I wrote that learning to journey in Dreamtime has profoundly influenced my philosophy. It made me reconsider my understanding of reality. My primary shamanic teacher, Michael Harner, described shamanic journeying in Dreamtime as “another reality that you can personally discover.” He said that shamanism is closer to science than religion, because it’s empirical – based on direct experience. If Dreamtime is “real,” this has implications for science in particular and philosophy in general.

Nowhere in his writings does Shakespeare use the word science in its modern sense. Science is a branch of philosophy, and in Shakespeare’s time what we call science was called philosophy. So, his famous quote about reality, translated into modern English, would read, “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your science.” I agree. Science is very good at what it’s good  at, but it’s only one of several lenses we can look through to examine phenomena. Science can tell us things about consciousness, but it can’t definitively explain what consciousness is. That’s why we have another branch of philosophy called metaphysics.

What is “real” can’t be determined objectively, without taking consciousness into account. The term “altered state of consciousness” presupposes that there’s a standard, or ordinary, state of consciousness. I’ve come to believe that there is a range of “ordinary” states of consciousness. Our mental state while solving a math problem, meditating, playing a musical instrument, debating, or dancing are all examples of ordinary states of consciousness. But there are other states of consciousness that only some people experience in their lifetimes, either by ingesting mind-altering substances, or by engaging in activities or practices that induce non-ordinary states of awareness. Some of these are sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, prolonged pain, pranayama breathing, prolonged prayer or chanting, shamanic journeying, and vision quests.

William James, “the father of American psychology” wrote in Varieties of Religious Experience, “Our normal waking consciousness . . . is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it . . . there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. . . . No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. . . . At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.”

I believe that everybody wears cultural blinders of some kind, depending on what they were raised to believe, or their rejection of what they were raised to believe. As I’ve written in previous posts, none of us can escape living in a “reality tunnel” – a mental map of reality – although we may convert from one reality tunnel (e.g. Irish Catholic, Amish, Inuit, Mormon, atheist Bohemian, gay activist, political revolutionary, etc.) to another, one or more times in our lives. I reject the idea that there is any belief system that is objectively and demonstrably superior to all others. That’s why I consider myself to be a “guerrilla ontologist” – agnostic about most things.

There are some reports in shamanic lore of shared hallucinations/visions – like several people reporting having seen the identical sequence of spirit animals presenting themselves around the ceremonial fire in the sacred circle, after a ceremony involving the ingestion of vision-inducing substances. Michael Harner told the story of taking a vision-inducing drug in the Amazon, under the supervision of a local shaman. When he later told the shaman that he’d encountered lizard-like creatures who had told him that they were the true rulers of the  universe, the shaman laughed and said, “Oh, they’re always saying that!”

The implications of this worldview are radical in light of the common belief in Western society that there’s only one reality, which we can all apprehend and comprehend: consensus reality. It addresses a central question in espistemology – how do we know what’s real? We all have to believe in some fundamental premises (e.g. is there a God?) that undergird our worldviews and life choices. We can be rigid or fluid, dogmatic or agnostic, when it comes to interpreting the evidence of our senses. I agree with Saint Augustine, who said that we must believe in order that we may know, and know in order that we may believe.

According to shamanic lore, spirit animals (shamanic allies) inhabit a different plane of existence than our own normal reality, and have knowledge to impart to shamans about healing and magic. What shamans receive from the allies they bond with in Dreamtime and bring back to the waking world with them is sacred knowledge and personal power. What the spirit animal gets in return is the experience of seeing our world through the shaman’s eyes.

Dr. Harner did a lot in his lifetime to teach people about ancient shamanic traditions, and to keep shamanic studies alive in this country and in other countries around the world. You can learn more at the website of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, at http://www.shamanism.org.

 

Shamanism

Most of what I know about shamanism I learned from Dr. Michael Harner, an internationally renowned anthropologist and author – and a practicing shaman, himself. I’d read his book, The Way of the Shaman: A Guide to Power and Healing. I was just embarking on a career as a psychotherapist, working in rural Alabama, when I learned that Dr. Harner would be presenting a one-day shamanic training workshop in Birmingham. I signed up right away, and that one day has had a profound influence on my philosophy.

I tend to trust science when it’s done right, and tend to be skeptical when it comes to unproven supernatural or psychic explanations for things. But, as I’ve written about in previous posts, I’m ultimately an agnostic about most things. I tend to think in terms of probabilities, rather than certainties. But I’ve experienced some things that I consider real, that exist outside of the scientific paradigm. Shamanic “journeying” is one of them. Dr. Harner  was the founder of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies. He died earlier this year.

What initially drew me to explore shamanic practice was Harner’s contention that there was a core shamanism that existed in every known pre-literate, “primitive” culture. The similarities between shamanic practices, whether in the Americas, Siberia, Africa, Australia, etc. suggested that they existed and endured because they were effective as a means of healing. The shaman’s lore shouldn’t be dismissed as primitive, superstitious nonsense.

Think about the stereotypes of the “witchdoctor” or “medicine man” in popular culture. They paint their faces and bodies, they beat drums and dance to the drumbeat, they shake rattles, they sing or chant. Sometimes they eat or smoke sacred substances. There’s some truth behind these clichés. In many so-called primitive cultures, shamans have acquired detailed knowledge of natural substances that induce altered states of consciousness (ASCs). Shamans also know methods of inducing ASCs without using drugs. ASCs, or visionary mental states, are an integral component of shamanic practice.

Michael Harner taught me and a few other apprentice shamans to achieve what he called the shamanic state of consciousness (SSC), without having to ingest consciousness altering substances. He taught us that certain drumming resonances and rhythms can induce a “visionary” altered state of consciousness that enables you to journey in the eternal realm of Dreamtime, and encounter spirit allies. In most cultures that I’m aware of, these allies take the form of animals; in others, they manifest as ancestors.

Dreamtime has been regarded as an alternate reality in many ancient, pre-literate cultures for millennia, all over the world. The methods for entering Dreamtime seem to me to be universal. Certain kinds of shamanic wisdom are obtained by ingesting sacred substances such as peyote, psilocybin, and ayahuasca; but none of my experiences of shamanic journeying involved taking any drugs. On one level, I took a workshop taught by an anthropologist. On another level, a shaman taught me how to alter my consciousness and journey to, and in, a realm outside of ordinary consciousness. Just as there is no way to adequately describe how “psychedelic” consciousness is different from ordinary states of consciousness to a person who has never taken a hallucinogen, you have to experience the SSC to understand what it’s like.

Harner primarily used drumming to induce the SSC in workshop participants, and had an experienced drummer as an assistant.  He first had us dance to a slow drumbeat, eyes half-closed in a dimly lit room, instructing us to lie down on our backs and cover our eyes when we started to feel “heavy.” When the drumbeat became faster, he told us to remember and visualize someplace in our experience that symbolized entry into the “lower world” of our unconscious – a cave mouth or a hole in the ground – and to enter it. He had encouraged us to explore this other reality we would emerge into after passing through a tunnel. He had coached us on interacting with certain spirit animals we might encounter, binding them to us when we felt a connection, and bringing them back with us when we returned to ordinary consciousness. Animals that looked hostile or bared their teeth should be avoided.

Shamanic journeying is a vivid visual experience of walking, running or flying in a colorful world containing forests, meadows, streams, lakes, chasms and mountains. It’s different from dreams, meditation, guided fantasy or hypnotic trance. This world is inhabited by spirit animals, or allies as they are known in some traditions. The first task we were given in the workshop was to seek out our totem animal spirits – a bird, a fox, a bear, whatever -and, if possible (if it agreed to come),  bring it back with us after the drummer changed rhythms, signaling that it was time to return to the waking world.

After returning from our first journeys in Dreamtime, we talked about our experiences. All of us apprentice shamans had achieved the SSC, and reported similar experiences of encountering spirit animals in a vivid, colorful world. Some of us had brought back spirit allies we’d encountered. By the end of the workshop we’d made another journey, this time to the “upper world.” I bought a high-fidelity cassette tape of shamanic drumming, so I could continue to journey in the upper and lower worlds on my own. I’ve never claimed to have shamanic healing powers. All I know, through my personal experiences using an ancient technique to enter the SSC and explore Dreamtime, is that there are good reasons for shamanism’s universality in the ancient world, and for its endurance over time.

I’ll write more about shamanism in my next post.

Esalen and the human potential movement

In previous posts I’ve written about humanistic psychology, which has been called the Third Force in modern psychology, after Freudian psychodynamic psychology and Behaviorism. The founders – including Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Fritz Perls, and Rollo May – seeing that psychology was primarily focused on psychopathology, wanted it to also focus on psychological health and personal growth. Esalen Institute, an isolated  retreat on the Pacific coast near Big Sur, California, is considered by many to be the birthplace of humanistic psychology. I’ve wanted to visit Esalen, a retreat center for growth and learning, since my graduate education in a humanistic psychology program. I’ve just returned home from a writing retreat at Esalen, and it felt like a weekend on holy ground.

Esalen Institute was founded by Michael Murphy and Richard Price in 1963. The land on which Esalen is located was owned  by Michael’s family for generations, and the two of them had a vision of a center for holistic learning. The place is called Esalen because for thousands of years the area was the home of the indigenous Esselen people. Accordingly, Esalen is considered sacred land, and is treated with reverence by residents and visitors. It’s isolated, far from any town, and doesn’t have cell phone service or television. There are hot springs down by the rocky shore, and everyone knows that clothing is optional at the baths. When I soaked, naked, in a pool, looking out at the Pacific sunset, I had the sense of participating in an ancient cleansing ritual.

Humanistic psychology has also been called the human potential movement. The only required course in my psychology Masters program was “Human Growth and Potential” – known by the students as “Gro and Po.” Although most of my coursework involved psychotherapy and psychological testing, I could understand why Gro and Po was required. Psychology had to be about more than psychopathology and the remediation of symptoms. Indeed, our equivalent of an “Abnormal Psychology” course was “Unconventional Modes of Experience,” lest there be any stigma regarding “abnormal.”

While psychanalytic theory and Behaviorism were dogmatic and monolithic, humanistic psychology was more like a tree, with many roots and branches. It was holistic in its orientation to the study of human behavior, focusing on mind and body as a unity, and exploring the factors that enhance creativity and enable self-actualization. It was holistic in studying both Eastern and Western philosophies and practices, recognizing the benefits of things such as yoga and Buddhist meditation, long before they became popular. Existentialism and phenomenology also influenced the human potential movement.

From the beginning of the movement, Esalen has been its Mecca. Fritz Perls did a five year residency in the late sixties, leading gestalt therapy seminars. Other eminent persons who influenced the development of humanistic psychology and had Esalen residencies were Gregory Bateson, Joseph Campbell, Ida Rolf, Virginia Satir, Rollo May, and Alan Watts. Today people go there to study massage and body work, wellness and alternative medicine, psychotherapy, meditation, and a variety of other subjects. I went there to work on being a better writer, and came home with my spiritual batteries re-charged.

A lot of what was new and esoteric back in the sixties and seventies has gone mainstream. Among the extra-curricular classes available to students in the psychology graduate program at West Georgia College (now the University of West Georgia) were massage, hatha yoga, zen meditation, clowning, tai kwan do, and vegetarian cooking. The program was allied with the Philosophy Department, and there were opportunities to study existentialism and phenomenology. In my therapy courses, I learned about psychoanalytic theory, behavior modification, client-centered therapy, gestalt therapy, transactional analysis, sex therapy, and trance work. Once I was a working psychotherapist, my therapeutic orientation was existential, and I was very eclectic in terms of therapeutic style and techniques. I consider myself very fortunate to have attended the West Georgia College psychology Masters program.

Contemporary concepts like emotional intelligence and positive psychology couldn’t have emerged from Freudian psychodynamic theory or Behaviorism. The humanistic psychology movement created a new paradigm for human growth and potential as a legitimate area of study within the science of psychology. I think that the regard for Freud’s contribution to psychology and psychotherapy will diminish over time, relative to the contributions of humanistic pioneers like Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Fritz Perls, and Milton Erickson.

The concept of emotional intelligence suggests that there are other kinds of intelligence than cognitive intelligence. Accurate empathy and compassion are important factors in human relating, and are deserving of scientific study by students of human behavior. I had initial objections to the whole notion of positive psychology, thinking, “psychology is neither positive nor negative.” But then I came to realize that it’s an outgrowth of the impulses that inspired humanistic psychology. The study of psychological wellness and peak performance, of thriving, of human creativity and the process of self-actualizing, is a legitimate pursuit within the field. Psychodynamic theory and Behaviorism will always have their place in psychology, but they need to be viewed in the context of the psychology of growth and human transformation.

Serious clowning and bozo liberation

This is another philosophical departure from my usual subject matter of psychology, psychotherapy, and human growth – though it’s related to the latter topic. I mostly write about serious topics, but I try to never take myself too seriously. I’m just another flawed human being, and I provide myself with ample opportunities to laugh at myself. It’s part of my personal philosophy, learned to some degree by my history as a clown. Seriously.

I see clowning as one of the sacred arts in the family of mankind. I learned what I know about this art from my onetime friend Greg Smith, master (though amateur) clown, who was a classmate in my psychology graduate program. His clown name was “Cloudly the Clown,” and he taught an informal class with five or six students, as I recall. He made it clear that he took clowning seriously: “This is not just clowning around.” As with most performing arts, it takes discipline and practice to become a good physical clown; but it also takes an understanding of the traditions and vocabularies of clowning – if you’re serious about it.

Like a good martial arts teacher, Greg taught the philosophy of clowning as well as teaching us classic clown moves, funny walks, exaggerated gestures, and the vocabulary of pantomime communication. We started our classes with loosening-up exercises, and practice drills in clown movement and pantomime techniques. Then Cloudly instructed us about the mindset of clowning: how to create your character, and the importance of taking time to get into character before performing. He talked about the symbolic meaning of putting on a new face. Making yourself up was a symbolic death of your ordinary self, and the re-birth of your clown personality.

Greg helped each of us to find the unique clown behind the masks we drew on our faces. Was it a talking clown or a silent clown? Cheerful or sad? Shy, or bold? Clumsy, or physically confident? Victim or trickster? And choosing your clown name was as important as your clown face and clown costume.

The clown I found inside me is named Tyl, after Tyl Eulenspiegel, the trickster from German folklore, the original Merry Prankster. Eulenspiegel translates as “owl mirror” (a reverse reflection of wisdom?), fixing Tyl in the tradition of the wise fool that is found in many cultural mythologies. Tyl is a silent clown, with a childlike delight in small things, and a penchant for mischief. He can be both shy and bold, depending on circumstance. He wears the high white pants of a mime, held up by rainbow suspenders, over a red, white, and blue tee shirt.

While professional clowns often have to stick to choreographed scripts and proven schtick, amateur clowns often get to improvise and play off one another. That’s what I loved about clowning. The role of a clown in a public space is ancient and mythic, and every serious clown has his or her unique persona (ancient Greek for mask) and vocabulary of expression.

By the seventies the stereotype of Bozo the Clown (an early TV personality) had been transcended by “We’re All Bozos on This Bus,” a surreal comedy album by a satirical troupe called the Firesign Theater. We students of Cloudly the Clown identified as bozos, and made silly attempts to organize. We imagined a religion called Bozo Consciousness, with a political arm known as the Bozo Liberation Front. (There were a lot of liberation fronts back then.) Our rallying cry was, “Let your bozo go!” Years later I learned that Robin Williams had made silly attempts to mobilize a Bozo Liberation Front in California; so now I realize that we were just the east coast branch of a tiny movement whose time seemed to have come.

The West Georgia College chapter of the Bozo Liberation Front put up posters around the campus in the week before April Fools’ Day, inviting all self-aware bozos to show up en costume on this holy day and commit acts of irreverence and jollity. Few students responded, but we happy few showed up as clowns and role-modeled bozo behavior. I ambushed one of my favorite professors with a whipped cream pie in the face. His response was philosophical: “You know, I was just talking to a colleague who has a lot going on in his life right now, and I just said to him, ‘You never know what’s going to happen next.’ And now this.”

It was holy work (or play), and I recommend The Way of the Clown to all who are in touch with their essential bozo nature. It can be cultivated in your own philosophical garden, but thrives when you’re part of a bozo community that realizes life is too serious to always be taken seriously. I think that some truths can only be arrived at by paradox or parody. I’ve written about one of my favorite twentieth century philosophers, Robert Anton Wilson (RAW). He has an episode in the Illuminatus! trilogy where a young woman is instructed by two brilliant philosophers who take opposing views on a wide variety of philosophical propositions – while dressed as clowns. Now, that’s what I call an eclectic education! RAW’s prescription to his fans for what to do after his passing was, “Keep the lasagna flying!” I submit this post in that spirit.

 

The Story of Jumping Mouse, Part 2

For those who may have read Part 1 of this Native American teaching story shortly after I first posted it, you might want to check out the end, as I subsequently added a paragraph. Here’s the conclusion:

On the afternoon of his second day crossing the prairie, much to his  surprise, Jumping Mouse came upon another mouse. It was an old mouse, who was drinking from a stream, and was just as surprised as he. After they’d introduced themselves, he learned that this mouse was from his tribe. They got to talking and the old mouse explained that long ago he, too, had set out on a vision quest; but he’d given up. “I almost got grabbed by an eagle, and I’m too scared to go on, or to go back. There’s all the food and water I need right here, and there are plenty of bushes I can hide under. Look, if you go on you’re likely to end up in an eagle’s belly. Why don’t you just stay here with me, where it’s safe.” Jumping Mouse replied, “Thank you, uncle, but I can’t stay. I have to find the Center of the World, so I’ll just have to take my chances out on the prairie.”

The next day he said goodbye to the old mouse at first light, and went on his way. At mid-morning he came upon the biggest animal he’d ever seen. It was lying on the ground, eyes closed, and its breathing was labored. Jumping Mouse approached the ailing beast, which opened one jaundiced eye. “I’m Jumping Mouse, and I’m on a vision quest. Who are you?” “I’m Buffalo Spirit, and I’m sick unto death. The only cure for what ails me is. . . . the eye of a mouse.” Jumping Mouse didn’t want for this magnificent creature to die, and reasoned that he could get along with just one eye. He told the buffalo that he could have one of his eyes, and by magic the eye flew out of his head and lodged in the buffalo’s heart, curing him.

Buffalo Spirit thanked Jumping Mouse for saving his life, and asked if there was anything he could do in return. “I have to cross the prairie to get to the Center of the World, but I’m scared all the time of getting eaten by an eagle.” “Well, I’m a prairie animal and I can’t protect you all the way, but I can walk all the way to the foothills by sunset, and there’s more cover for you once you’re in the hills. You’ll have to scamper to keep up with me; but as long as you stay beneath me, you’ll be safe from any eagles.” So the two of them set out for the mountains. Jumping Mouse was worried at first that the buffalo might step on him by mistake, but he soon learned that the giant beast was very sure-footed. They reached the foothills at dusk, thanked one another, and went their separate ways.

Now Jumping Mouse knew first-hand what mountains are, and he was excited. It took most of two days, mostly uphill, for him to reach the mountain pass. He felt sure that he’d find what he sought on the other side of the mountains.  But just short of the pass, he began to hear a mournful howling. When he got there he saw a wolf –  a creature that he’d normally run from. But this wolf looked pitiful and quite harmless. He seemed to be confused. “Hello cousin, my name’s Jumping Mouse, and I’m on a vision quest.”  “I’m. . .I’m. . . I used to know who I am, but I seem to have forgotten my nature.”  “I’m pretty sure you’re a wolf.” The wolf stood up and comprehension returned to his eyes. “You’re right, I’m a wolf.” He howled again, but this time it wasn’t a mournful sound. “My name is Wolf Spirit, and I. . . I. . . what did you say I was?” Jumping Mouse told him again, and once again he acted like a proud, strong wolf. But, again, his memory failed him, and he just looked sad and confused.

Jumping Mouse thought, Uh oh! He has a different kind of illness than Buffalo Spirit, but if he doesn’t know his nature, he’ll starve to death. I can’t let that happen. He said to the wolf, “It seems that there’s strong magic in the weak eyes of a mouse. If you need my other eye to get your memory back, you can have it.” And by magic his other eye flew out of his head and into the wolf’s heart, healing him. Now Jumping Mouse was scared. He was blind in the presence of a hungry wolf. “Please don’t eat me!”

Wolf Spirit reassured him. “Of course I won’t eat you; I owe you my life! How can I help you on your vision quest?” “Well, I’m blind now. Can you guide me to the Center of the World, and protect me from the eagles?”  “I’ll serve as your eyes and take you there. And don’t worry – eagles don’t mess with me!”  The next morning the two of them set out together and started downhill, with the wolf giving instructions. Jumping Mouse couldn’t see it, but Wolf Spirit described a beautiful circular valley, ringed by mountains. In the center of the valley was a round lake. By noon they’d reached the edge of the lake. “I don’t like leaving you here, alone and blind, but I have to rejoin my pack. You can find nuts and berry bushes with your sense of smell, and you can stay hidden from eagles most of the time.” Wolf Spirit thanked Jumping Mouse again and took his leave.

Jumping Mouse was at the Center of the World, but he was  blind! For most of the afternoon, he stayed hidden as he foraged, but as the day wore on, he became very thirsty. He would be visible from the air as he drank, so he knew he’d have to be quick. He ran from the shade of the bushes and slaked his thirst at the rim of the lake. But as he drank, he heard the beating of wings overhead, louder and louder. Just as he turned to run, he felt the eagle’s talons grab him, and he felt himself being lifted higher and higher into the air. He was terrified, knowing he was about to be eaten! And then some very strange things happened.

In a flash, his vision returned – only it was sharper than it had ever been! And the pain abruptly disappeared! It almost seemed that the beating wings were his own – that he was flying! Studying the lake with his new-found eyes, he saw someone he knew. Prince of Waters sat on a lily pad beneath him. Jumping Mouse wanted to talk to the shaman who’d re-named him, and with that thought he descended, landing on the shore near his teacher. “Prince of Waters, I’m so glad to see you! The strangest thing just happened! See, I was blind and an eagle grabbed me! And then suddenly I could see again – only better! And it felt like I was flying! What’s happening to me?”

Prince of Waters replied, “When we first met, I saw that you were curious and brave. When you rose to my challenge, I gave you a new name. Now I know that you are also tenacious and have a generous  spirit. You have passed many tests on your vision quest, so it is again time for a new name. You are no longer Jumping Mouse. Your new name is Eagle.”

 

When I tell this story to children, I preface it by explaining that in pre-literate cultures, storytelling is how the tribal culture (customs, values, etc.) is passed on from generation to generation. Then, after the story, I usually ask what it taught. The children usually get that it depicts curiosity, valor, tenacity and generosity as virtues. Sometimes one or more of them grasps the central metaphor of the story, without being told: In order to see with the vision of an eagle, you first have to stop looking at the world through the eyes of a mouse.

Agnosticism and certainty, Part 2

In philosophy, ontology is the study of being or existence. A relevant subject of inquiry within this major branch of metaphysics is the meaning of life. Many philosophers have tackled the question of life’s meaning, under the assumption that life must mean something. Religions provide maps for life’s meaning: you’re here to obey and serve God – however defined by Holy Scripture. Those who aren’t traditionally religious have to look in other directions to discover life’s meaning(s).

One of the central tenets of existentialism suggests that every philosopher who has attempted to identify the meaning of life has been on a wild goose chase. Existentialism posits that there is no objective meaning “out there” for us to apprehend and comprehend. If we apprehend meaning in our lives, it’s a meaning that we’ve created and superimposed on an intrinsically meaningless and absurd world.

As a young man I studied both existentialism and zen Buddhism. I was drawn to both philosophies, as their study made me look at the world in new ways. But, having abandoned the comfort of religious certainty, I initially saw a bleakness in both philosophies. In a world without intrinsic meaning, you have to grit your teeth and, like Sisyphus, just keep on truckin’, as if  there were meaning in your persistence.

I no longer perceive the bleakness I once saw in existentialism and zen. Reading books – fiction and non-fiction – by Robert Anton Wilson (RAW) helped me to think my way through my existential dilemma. I eventually reasoned  that if you’re not wedded to a philosophy that provides meaning to your life, that frees you to find/create your own meanings. Play with it! This is my understanding of what guerrilla ontology means. My life is  an endless Grail Quest for knowledge, and that journey provides all of the meaning I need to keep on sweating with Sisyphus.

RAW introduced me to the principle :”The map is not the territory,” which I’ve written about in a previous post. Nobody’s mental map  (we all have them) is identical to what it depicts, and yet we often confuse the two. Wilson wrote that “all ideas are partly true, partly false, and partly meaningless – including this one.” He coined the term guerrilla ontology to describe “the basic technique of all my books. . . . an attempt to break down conditioned associations – to look at the world in a new way, with many models (maps) and no one model elevated to The Truth. . . . My goal is to try to get people into a state of generalized agnosticism – not agnosticism about God alone, but agnosticism about everything.” Sometimes he purposefully and effectively used words to create cognitive dissonance, knowing a little initial confusion (fnord) can provoke you to think in new ways.

Wilson also introduced me to the concept of reality tunnels, saying that we all live in one at any given time. Reality tunnels are our circumstance- and culture-bound , lived -in mental constructs (maps) of what the world is and how we should behave. Irish Catholic reality tunnels differ in some significant ways from Italian Catholic reality tunnels. There are Inuit  reality tunnels, gypsy reality tunnels, suburban family reality tunnels, Sumo wrestler reality tunnels, etc. One can switch reality tunnels one or more times in one’s lifetime, if one’s life circumstances change. An Amish boy raised in a rural Amish community, shunned because he was gay, is likely to live in a significantly different reality tunnel after a year of living in Greenwich Village. I grew up in a military reality tunnel, but at age 25 I moved to a post-hippie psychology graduate school reality tunnel, with totally different customs and rules. The point is that we are all co-creators of our respective realities.

RAW made fun of the whole notion of “normality.” The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) offered money to anyone who could prove e.s.p. or another psychic phenomenon. Wilson ridiculed them by establishing the Committee for the Surrealistic Investigation of Claims of the Normal (CSICON) and offering a reward to anyone who could establish the existence of a normal day, a normal dog, a normal sunset, etc.

Wilson was a friend of LSD guru Timothy Leary and a spiritual heir  to the legacy of the Merry Pranksters. His thinking was broad and deep; but he often used humor as a teaching tool and never took himself too seriously. He remains, through his writing, my primary role model for universal agnosticism. You can learn more about him at rawilson.com. (The site has some great links.) If you want to read something by him, there’s no better starting point than the Illuminatus! trilogy, which I still consider the ultimate conspiracy novel. I’ve read it at least three times, and plan to read it again sometime. If you want to check out his non-fiction, I recommend The Cosmic Trigger or Right Where You Are Sitting Now.

Agnosticism and certainty, Part 1

I’ve described this blog as a psychology blog, with a side of philosophy. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that explores the nature of knowledge, and how we know what we know. When it comes to religion, what true believers (whether Christian, Muslim, whatever) often claim to know, I see as beliefs, because they can’t be proven to non-believers. Faith is an important thing, and I respect people of faith on the whole. But, to me, faith in a belief is different than true knowledge. You may want to read my previous philosophical post, “It’s only Monday if you think it is,” for added context.

I was “properly churched” by my Christian parents throughout my childhood, but it didn’t take. I went through a brief spell of arrogant atheism as a young man, where I was convinced that people of faith were simply not thinking as rigorously as I was. But I was humbled when I read John Milton’s Paradise Lost and realized that people smarter than me believe in God. When I call myself an agnostic, I simply mean that there are a lot of things I don’t know. I tend to distrust the words of anyone who claims to know things that can’t be proven, such as the existence of an afterlife. I’m not just agnostic in religious matters, I’m agnostic about a lot of things – even some  of the claims made regarding science.

Just as I find it arrogant for a true believer in this or that religion to tell me that they know what I need to believe in, I also find it arrogant for an atheist to assert personal knowledge that God doesn’t exist. If I ask a believer for the source of their authority, they’re likely to refer me to a book that they believe has all the answers. If I ask atheists how they know for certain that God is simply a myth, they’re likely to claim that people of faith have all been indoctrinated, and that there’s no hard evidence to support their beliefs. I’ve heard an atheist claim that agnostics are just atheists who lack conviction, but I’m living proof to the contrary. I’m strongly convinced of a lot of things. But I’m also very comfortable with saying “I don’t know.” It’s a whole different philosophical frame than religious or anti-religious convictions.

Confucius wrote, “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” Voltaire  wrote, “Doubt is not a very agreeable state, but certainty is a ridiculous one.” The Buddha is said to have said, “Doubt everything and find your own light.” I’m intelligent, well-educated and well-read, but what I know is finite, and always will be. What I don’t know is vast, endless. I believe, with Confucius, that this attitude is the beginning of  wisdom. It’s what I described in a story in a previous post as continually “emptying the cup,” so that it can be re-filled. I’ve become very comfortable with ambiguity, shades of gray.

I think that a lot of people confuse opinion and fact. I try to rigorously organize my beliefs in this manner: what I know I know (my knowledge), what I think I know (my opinions), and what I don’t know (my vast ignorance). Instead of thinking dualistically – either this is true or that is true – I tend to  think in terms of probabilities. It’s highly probable to the point of almost-certainty that the sun will rise tomorrow. It’s highly improbable (to me) that Jesus arose from the dead after three days and ascended into the heavens. But I don’t have the authority to claim sure knowledge

Back to epistemology: there’s no absolute definition of knowledge. St. Augustine wrote, “Man must know in order that he may believe; he must believe in order that he may know.” We all believe in premises (i.e. there is/may be/ isn’t a God),upon which we establish our values and opinions. Nobody can justly claim absolute authority for their belief system, although many try to. I believe in the merits of the scientific method, but I also believe that science has its limits. I’ve known scientists to whom science is a religion. I believe that science is a finely-ground lens that’s very good at examining some things – but not everything. Science can’t tell us what life is, or consciousness. It’s a branch of philosophy, as is metaphysics. Each has its own appropriate subjects for study and its own methodologies of exploration.

The key to certainty in the study of epistemology is authority. I know of nobody who has the authority to tell me what I should believe about matters metaphysical or theological – although, as a philosopher, I might be up for a discussion. When someone asks me if I believe in God, my usual response is “Define God.” All I’m saying here is that this is part of my personal philosophy; I’m not suggesting that everyone should (God forbid!) think like me.

I’ll conclude this post with a few introductory words about one of my favorite twentieth century philosophers, Robert Anton Wilson. He’s best known for his fictional  Illuminatus! trilogy (which he co-wrote with Robert Shea), but wrote many non-fiction books of philosophy and satire as well. He’s the funniest philosopher I know of. Reading Wilson reassured me that there are other universal agnostics out there, and taught me everything I know about guerrilla ontology. More about that in my next post.