So, the woman and I were talking about how to reconcile the scientific, rationalist, logical, empirical, skeptical worldview with the spiritual, non-dual, ecstatic, shamanic, buddhist, santeria, magical worldview. And it seems natural to talk about that in terms of my own evolution of thinking on the subject.
As a child, I was a magical thinker. I’m pretty sure all of us were. I believed in portals that opened to another world. I believed in Aslan and the Wardrobe and Sandworms and robots and ghosts and Superman. It seemed obvious that these things existed. You just had to know where to look, and you had to really, really believe, or the magic wouldn’t work.
Then I explored the religious path. I remember very clearly watching television early on a Sunday morning before my parents were awake, four years old and watching some televangelist on a black and white screen and he was telling me I had better accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior right now and I did.
I opened my little four year old heart to Jesus and asked him to save me and told him I would believe in him and be very good and never do anything to disappoint him. And I did it again when I was eleven. Got baptized in the tepid waters of the baptismal font of the First Southern Baptist Church in Burlingame, California, under a painting of the river Jordan and the watchful eye of my Grandmother Janice.
At sixteen I had this friend of mine who was born-again in a serious way. He gave me a big old bible and we used to read it together and we would pray together, but I was already drifting away from that idea of God, and of right and wrong. It seemed like a cartoon for little children to watch. It seemed to me to be fear-based and small-minded and parochial.
So when I got to my junior and senior year in high school I was in Taiwan and I started to read a little bit about buddhism and hinduism and Confucianism and those folks seemed to be on to something with a little more substance. I read the vedas and the bhagavad gita and the tibetan book of the dead and herman hesse’s Siddhartha and I even meditated with my acid-fried swim coach.
In college I explored the whole psychopharmacological approach to enlightenment. After a year and a half I was invited by the administration to explore other opportunities, especially opportunities that might be available in an off-campus setting.
So I joined the Coast Guard and entered a period of seriously grounded-in-the-real-guts-of-the-world study. I disdained religion as a balm for the simple-minded, and philosophy and meditation as an escape for those who were too weak to understand life on the level of bloody-tooth-and-claw. If a boat was on fire and people were burning and jumping into the frozen alaskan sea, you fucking pulled them out of the water and you put out the fire on their boat and you tended their wounds and you towed the smoking hulk back to port where it could be repaired. By hungover ships mechanics and still drunk crewmen. I lived in and relished a world where the sea was implacable and malevolent and utterly, utterly real.
In a way that mere thoughts and fancy ideations never could be.
And I suppose I have inhabited that world almost without pause since I became a police. It is, perhaps, the most intimate and personal relationship that I have with the world. I love it because of its physicality, its immediacy and raw power. Blood and smoke in the air, the wailing of the damaged, the snarls of the evil, the courage and power of the righteous. It is everywhere available for the senses to ascertain, and nowhere hidden, nowhere coy.
But I have yet studied. I have learned my classical, Newtonian physics. I have learned my biology and geology and neurology. I have delved yet more deeply into Buddhism and meditation and yoga and mindfulness. I have explored the mind-body problem. I have learned my quantum mechanics and my string theory and I am comfortable with the paradoxes of the multiverse and black holes and on and on.
And I have had my spiritual education. I have experienced the power of what comes from beyond the known. I have had my own initiation into the path with a heart. I have read Casteneda and believed him literally, then symbolically, then literally again. I have stood witness to events and experiences that tear asunder the veil of rationality and show the whole shebang as a dream, albeit a forceful and persistent one.
So, we come back to the question. How do we reconcile these divergent world-views? Certainly a hard-boiled scientific, rationalist perspective must demand a skeptical approach to magic and spirituality, to the power of meditation and prayer, of wishful thinking and visualization? Surely a magical shamanistic approach must deny the ability of the scientific approach to ever quantify the nature of reality?
Surely the two points of view are irreconcilable?
Well, I’m not certain.
Here’s my provisional take on a way to get these differing views in alignment.
Let’s start with acknowledging that, from an empirical, rationalist viewpoint, our own objective reality is nothing more than a very sophisticated mock-up of what the real reality might be like, that is, a reality that is not filtered and reduced and modified by our own, very limited, sensory apparatus.
I mean, light doesn’t penetrate the skull. Nothing happens inside the bony vault but signals-processing work done by neurons and various combinations of peptides and neurochemicals- there is not a kind of movie screen onto which the signals input from the retinas are displayed for a little man inside the brain to watch.
It’s all biochemical, physiological signals processing.
So, let’s take that as our jumping off point. Next, lets look at how, on the very, very tiny, quantum scale, classical newtonian physics breaks down. A single photon approaches a barrier with two openings and goes through both of them at the same time. A pair of electrons are separated by time and distance and then one of the pair is measured by an observer, either velocity or location, and the other electron immediately collapses into the same state as the observed electron.
Look at varieties of scale, as seen fractally. No difference no matter how vast you scale up or how tiny you scale down. Look at deep time. Imagine, if you can, what fourteen billion years looks like.
I could go on and on.
The point is, the fucking universe is strange as a three-headed goat, and the more you look at it, the stranger it gets.
And think about what’s going on inside us as a species. We’re relative late-comers to the show, but we still have millions of years of evolutionary history packed into our DNA. If you cotton to the idea of the conservation of energy, it’s likely that there are all kinds of evolutionary ghosts riding around in the biochemical soup of our brains.
And now allow me to drag in the theory of the placebo effects. All these studies done that show if you think a certain injection is going to ease your pain, it will. And that if you think you’re being given an inert ingredient and you are really given morphine, the morphine won’t work very well. And if you are not aware that you’re being given anything, it might not work at all.
Meditation. Prayer. Fasting. Homeopathy. Medicine men. Shamans. Yoga. Acupuncture. Trances. Shaker dances. Whirling dervishes. Holding hands. Wishful thinking. Buddhist enlightenment. Psychotropic enlightenment. Ghosts. Ouija boards. Surfing. Sword fighting.
We are trapped by our own conscious minds, by our sensory apparatus and the major-league filtering and modeling that goes on, simply so we can have some kind of coherent experience of what we call objective reality. Vastly more stuff gets filtered out than gets admitted in, and that is of the signals that come in through our very limited sensory apparatus- humongous amounts of data we cannot even access.
Then of the tiny bit of the torrent of stuff that gets through, ninety percent or more of it all gets processed outside the conscious experience.
But it’s all still there, out in the dark and slimy waters of the unconscious.
Here’s how I see it:
These mystical approaches, be they meditation or prayer or magic, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, Satanic, yogic, what have you, they are all every bit as real and necessary as anything else. They allow us, by means of ritual and hard work, to momentarily dismantle the tyranny of the machinery of the conscious mind-
They allow us to interrupt our own dream.
These practices allow us to create a gap through which information that is kept out of awareness by the mechanisms of the conscious reality-creating mind is allowed to penetrate the veil of conscious awareness.
Because it comes from outside the conscious mind, it is interpreted by the conscious mind as something other than itself. But it is not, not really.
And this is why the other than information is always coded in a sociologically congruent way by the conscious mind. Christians see angels and hear the voice of God. Buddhists see Buddha and taste enlightenment. Lakota Sioux see wakan tanka circling round. Physicians think they’re hallucinating, or having a stroke.
The critical point is that this information, this other than information that is accessed by prayer, meditation, fasting, or simple intention, is valid and real.
Or exactly as valid and real as our own vivid and imaginary dream of objective reality imposed upon us by our faulty and limited sensory apparatus and cognitive framework.
Everything is provisional. Everything is fuzzy on a quantum level. Everything is vastly odder and more complex than we are capable of imagining.
I used to think that religion was a child’s way of seeing the world, and for the most part, I still do. I like something with a little more bite and pizzaz. So I lay claim to the structure of Buddhism and the path of meditation and physical yoga. But I keep my eyes open for more. I keep my heart open for magic.
I look for portals to another world.
Our minds are playing a trick on us.
We need to play back if we’re to have any hope at all.