The mystery of consciousness

In this post I’m going to depart from my usual subject matter to explore something related to psychology, but belonging more to the study of philosophy. Somewhere down the road in this blog I intend to explore topics not directly related to psychotherapy, such as the effects of language on consciousness, the traps of language, and even what “is” is.

Psychology is a relatively young science. Some of the earliest psychologists thought that consciousness should be the primary focus of psychology; but it can’t be observed and measured. Behavior can, so psychology is now understood as the study of human behavior. Consciousness clearly exists in the universe, or I wouldn’t have written this and you wouldn’t be reading it.

Although consciousness is self-evident, science can’t account for it, and it’s relegated to the realm of metaphysics. American psychologist and philosopher William James (who had experimented with the effects of nitrous oxide and ether on consciousness) had this observation: “Our normal waking consciousness . . . is but one special type of  consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, 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. How to regard them is the question . . . . At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.”

James clearly believed that the mystery of consciousness is a vital piece of the cosmic puzzle. But I need to comment on his phrase, “Our normal waking consciousness.” The whole notion of the term “altered states of consciousness” rests on the assumption that there’s a standard, or normal, state of waking consciousness – which I don’t think is the case. To my way of thinking there’s a spectrum of  “normal” states of consciousness (SOCs). I’m in one SOC when I’m engaged in a debate, another when I’m solving a math problem, another when I’m absorbed in a story, and yet another when I’m dancing. All of these are normal states of waking consciousness. This range of normal experiences can be altered in profound ways by drugs, meditative practices, symptoms of mental illness, and other life experiences.

I’ve already written about ways to change your experiences by changing the way you think. But before I expand on non-drug consciousness alteration, I need to be candid about my own psychedelic experiences. (I actually met both Dr. Humphrey Osmond, who coined the term “psychedelic,” and Dr. Timothy Leary, the high priest of LSD.) It’s not my intention to promote the use of psychedelic substances to anyone, but I do think more research needs to be done on their therapeutic use. There are many factors to be considered before taking a psychedelic drug, including the possibility of mental illness, dosage and purity of the substance, as well as one’s mental set and the setting in which the drug is taken.

I haven’t taken a psychedelic drug in years, but in my hippie days I “tripped” many times – mostly on LSD, but also on peyote and psilocybin mushrooms. I’ve never had a “bad trip,” and I believe that my philosophy has benefitted from having experienced SOCs so discontinuous with my “normal” experience that I can’t find words to do them justice. In psychedelic consciousness both perception and cognition are altered in a way that’s unimaginable without experiencing it first-hand. Almost all of my trips had a strong spiritual element, unattached to any specific religious tradition. Especially on high dosages, I felt a oneness-with-the-universe that’s beyond description.

I may never get answers to all of my questions about consciousness, but it’s my Grail Quest. Some books have helped me along the way. After reading William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, I went on to read Daniel Goleman’s Varieties of Meditative Experience and Masters and Houston’s Varieties of Psychedelic Experience. I’ve also read much of Varieties of Anomalous Experience, published by the American Psychological Association, which explores the scientific literature on such purported phenomena as near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, hallucinations, lucid dreams, mysticism, “psychic abilities,” and reincarnation. All of these books explore aspects of consciousness, and I recommend them all to any readers who share my fascination with the topic. The best book I’ve ever read on the psychedelic experience was Alan Watts’ The Joyous Cosmology.

What consciousness “is” depends on who you ask. Some philosophers have a materialist frame of reference and view consciousness as a byproduct, or epiphenomenon, of biological existence. From an evolutionary perspective, consciousness arose in complex organisms, allowing them to detect and avoid threats in their environments, enhancing their odds of survival. Science favors a materialist viewpoint. Philosophers with an idealist frame of reference view consciousness as a (or the) fundamental underpinning of the cosmos, or as the cosmic glue that holds everything together – much like The Force in the Star Wars movies. Many religions have an idealist frame. For instance, Hinduism holds that the material world is an illusion – the veil of maya that hides the true, non-dual reality of Brahman.

This post will serve as a point of departure for some future posts about the mystery of consciousness. I won’t be blogging next week, as I need to focus on another writing project. I wish you Godspeed and good fortune in the New Year!



Mindfulness and meditation

Mindfulness has become a buzzword, not only in psychotherapy, but in the mass media. Mindfulness is when you “stop and smell the roses.” Some people are making a lot of money marketing mindfulness training, but learning to practice it costs nothing beyond an investment of your time. An age-old Asian aphorism is that the mind is like a drunken monkey bitten by a scorpion. One of the benefits of this time investment is learning to tame your monkey mind.

Fritz Perls said that past and future are fictions: our lives are spent exclusively in the here-and-now. Buddhism teaches that all suffering arises from attachments, and in that regard it correlates to cognitive behavioral therapy. Self-talk is like a constant mental radio broadcast that most people don’t know how to turn off, as much as they might wish to sometimes. In my career I’ve had many clients who lived their lives in thrall to their frequent or constant irrational thoughts. Learning meditation gives you a way to turn off the mental radio at will.

Mindfulness is a kind of meditation that’s always available to us. It doesn’t require silence, or sitting in the lotus position, or chanting, or concentrating on a mandala, or doing yoga breathing – although all of these practices are valid methods  for learning to meditate.  Mindfulness simply means getting out of your head and being fully present in the here-and-now, the only time there is, without letting your mind wander and without making judgments.

Before I specifically get into mindfulness further, I’ll first share my understanding of meditation in general. I learned to meditate in grad school, and found that there are many methods for learning to stay in a meditative state of consciousness, some of which I listed above. I’ve experienced two distinct levels of meditation. I started out with what I call single-pointed meditation, which means learning to focus on a single thing – a candle flame in a darkened room, a mantra (chant), focusing on your breathing to the exclusion of all other thought. Unrelated thoughts will inevitably intrude, but with practice you can learn to ignore them, let them go, and return your focus to the single point. At first it’s a balancing act, like walking a mental tightrope. When you first realize that you’ve achieved a meditative state, you think “I’m meditating!”, but the instant you think that, you’re not – you’re thinking again. With sufficient practice you can lengthen the time you stay in the meditative state, and develop confidence in your ability to meditate whenever you choose to.

Once I’d learned to stay focused on one thing exclusively, without letting my mind wander to other things, I was able to move on to a new level of meditation – pure awareness. I learned that it’s possible to be awake and aware, without being aware of any thing. Learning to suspend object-consciousness and judgement is a liberation. You can tame your monkey mind, turn off the mental radio. The silence is golden. It’s a distinct state of consciousness that teaches you what thinking cannot teach. It calms the body and the mind.

Mindfulness is a kind of single-pointed meditative state. You can be mindful while performing a task, taking a walk, taking a bath, having a conversation, doing Tai Chi, or standing in a crowd. You can be mindful of your self-talk. Mindfulness means staying focused on your here-and-now experience, to the exclusion of extraneous thoughts and without making judgments like good/bad, beautiful/ugly, or right/wrong.

Many times in public I’ve played a mindful game with myself, a game that teaches me things about my ordinary (non-mindful) consciousness and my monkey  mind. Normally when I’m in public, people-watching, I’m constantly categorizing and judging and speculating about all the people I see: whether or not I find them attractive, whether they’re fat or thin, graceful or clumsy, whether  they seem smart or dumb, likeable or unlikeable, etc.  Sometimes when I catch myself making these instant evaluations, I decide to play “the Buddha game.” I mindfully suspend my monkey mind and imagine that everybody I see is a Buddha – perfect, God in disguise. Just as I believe that meditation has changed my ordinary consciousness over time, I believe that playing the Buddha game has helped me to be less judgmental and more compassionate.

Mindfulness training is at the core of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), a highly effective therapy developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan to treat people who meet the diagnostic criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder. While she was devising the core strategies of DBT, Dr. Linehan studied meditation with a Catholic priest in a contemplative order and with a zen master. The people for whom DBT was designed tend to be extremely judgmental (of themselves and others) and emotionally volatile. Dr. Linehan became convinced that practicing mindfulness would help them to find balance in their deeply conflicted lives. Having co-led DBT skills training groups and seeing first-hand the effectiveness of mindfulness training, I believe that it’s beneficial for mentally ill people with other diagnoses, too. But as I’ve said many times, you don’t have to be sick to get better. Mindfulness is a learnable practice that can improve your life, if you invest some time in it.