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Consciousness

The future is already here

I think a lot of emotional problems arise from the fact we’re both subjects and objects.

We’re universes of subjective consciousness.

And we’re also material objects – a body. A jumble of atoms thrown together, skin, bones, muscle, blood. And out of this briefly emerges a Me.

Weird. 

We’re also an object in the eyes of others. An image. Jules Evans. He exists out there, beyond Me, in your minds and words. 

Babies are initially pure subjective consciousness.

They don’t know what’s going on, they don’t know where they end and the world begins. It’s a massive trip.

And yet, before they attain language, before they learn their name, before they learn of themselves as a separate being in the world, they know they’re loved.

They feel held by their carers, stroked, and soothed. And they’re know they’re loved and OK.

That’s the basic source of our identity – the ground of our being – before language or self-identity. That basic feeling: ‘you’re OK, you’re loved’.

I was on the Tube this week, and this baby looked at me with its enormous wondering eyes. It was tripping out. And I smiled at it. And it looked at me for a bit, and then smiled back. It had received that response, that affirmation – ‘you’re OK, you’re loved’.

That’s an amazing thing. It’s the sunlight that enables the flower of our self to unfold into the world.

Then gradually children gain a sense of their body. They look at their hands in wonder, and realize they are ‘their’ hands, they can control them.

They learn their name, learn they are a thing in the world. My earliest memory, from when I was two or so, is spelling my name out in magnetic letters on our fridge, and being applauded by my parents. My first literary triumph!

Then we develop a sense of how others perceive us, how we are different to other children, how we stand in the order of things.

We might learn, for example, that our big sister is smarter than us, that our mother seems to prefer our brother. We might learn at school that we have a funny name, or a weird head, that our parents aren’t as rich as others. Some thing is wrong with us.

We embark on a lifelong struggle for love and acceptance, and a lifelong fear of rejection and failure. We rate ourselves against others and constantly try to get higher, to be more loved.

We start to ask ourselves: ‘Who am I? Why am I this self, this body? Why this hair colour, or skin colour, or gender, or sexuality?’

What’s the point of me?

Am I worthwhile? Am I loveable? Am I any good?

Seven and a half billion people on this planet, 7.5 billion universes of sparkling subjective consciousness, and every one of those points of light have asked themselves, at least once, ‘Who am I? What’s the point of me? Am I any good?’

When we feel we are, we can relax and feel ‘I’m OK, I’m alright’, like we’re in the arms of our mother and everything’s OK. Our body goes into a restful, relaxed and contended state.

But sometimes we feel ‘I’m not OK, I’m no good’, and we feel really alone and threatened. Our whole body reacts with stress, our immune system weakens, adrenalin floods our system, or our serotonin levels sink. Some people get stuck in that mode.

Things can go really wrong when we get caught in feedback loops between our subjective consciousness and ourselves as objects in others’ eyes.

Up to 18, I was a mild narcissist. I really enjoyed my reflection in others’ eyes, the feeling of being a pretty amazing human being, relatively speaking.

It led to a feedback loop – the more adulation I got, the more my self-esteem inflated, like an enormous orange balloon.

Then my pride got a knock, and my self-esteem rapidly deflated.

I started to get panic attacks. I would go to a party, and I would suddenly see myself as an imperfect object in others’ eyes.

I would wonder, what happens if I lose it now, if I fall apart mid-conversation. What would that do to my image? Then I would lose it. I was onto something genuine – our opportunities for love and success in this world depend on how others perceive us. That can be scary.

Our subjective consciousness and our body can go into spasms of fear and self-rejection. ‘I am me, and that’s not OK. That’s terrible!’ We close up and clench in fear and self-criticism.

We can be attacked by those dark twins, self-loathing and self-pity.

The sense that my self is basically unacceptable can lead to such a shitty experience of subjective consciousness, people choose to obliterate themselves with intoxicants, or kill themselves to take the pain away. 

Can we free ourselves of our egos and expand into that limitless sky of sparkling subjective consciousness?

Most religions say we can transcend our selves. We can shift beyond ‘me’ and find a Something More – God, Buddha-mind, the Logos, Atman, Gaia, cosmic consciousness, humanitarianism, the happiness of all sentient beings. Something More.

But here’s the rub. We can seek to transcend ourselves in ways that are self-hating and self-negating.

When I was at university, and fairly miserable, I attended meditation classes. But it did me no good. I was trying to meditate myself out of existence.

My ego-mind was so painful, like a floor scattered with broken glass, that I thought if I kept really really still, I would feel no pain, because ‘I’ would disappear.

It would work for a few minutes, then something would happen and I would step on broken glass again.

Any form of transcendence can really be an attempt to obliterate the hated self. You can throw yourself into humanitarianism, a good cause which you pursue in a desperate way, because you’re not OK, you’re not alright, you don’t deserve to exist. So you try to prove you’re worthwhile human being. 

This elderly Zen monk gave a talk in February, where he said if you want to open up to the limitless experience of consciousness, the way to do it is not to try to deny or obliterate yourself, but to open to the limitless experience of consciousness through self-acceptance and self-compassion.

Yes, even you, with all your flaws. Even crap old you, with your stained teeth, your fat bum, your flabby arms, your crappy clothes, your rubbish job, your disastrous romantic life. Even you mate. Even you!

This old monk – I swear to you, he exists – this monk who had spent his whole life meditating and studying, summed up all he’d learnt with the words: ‘You’re OK. You’re alright. You’re loved.’

Loved by who or what?

Some people feel they are loved by God. The love of God is the ground of their being.

There are religious traditions and practices dedicated to developing this sense of love – Sufism, Methodism, metta meditation in Buddhism, bhakti traditions like Hari Krishna in Hinduism.

The essence of God is love, focus on that image, that experience, and let your soul be transformed in its warm light.

That’s pretty nice, I like those religions of the heart. But not everyone can believe in some higher loving power.

Your partner loves you. Your family loves you. The love of the family has become more and more important as belief in God has declined. We look for The One who will accept us and complete us. Finally! 

That’s what these recent match.com adverts promised us – self-acceptance through the other. 

(These adverts have been widely mocked and pastiched by the way – here are some examples)

It’s a pretty big ask to expect someone us to completely and unconditionally love you all through your life. You change, your partner changes, there will be times they don’t even like you, let alone love you. Your kids leave home. Your parents have their own stuff going on.

But it’s OK. Your therapist loves you. You can turn to your therapist for unconditional love.

But they don’t really, do they? Their love costs by the minute.

The most important thing, the one thing that will definitely be with you through your entire life, is your subjective consciousness. Your attitude to yourself.

If there is a God, you experience IT through your subjective consciousness. If the love of another person changes you, it is through your subjective consciousness. It’s all right there, in you, now.

We can practice being kind to ourselves. Right now, we can try to accept ourselves in our all rubbishness. 

I try and end my morning meditation saying to myself ‘I’m OK, I’m alright, even with all my flaws and imperfections. I’m fine as I am. I’ll continue to grow and hopefully become a better person, but I’m also fine as I am.’

I can be very self-critical and unkind to myself, so this is a good practice. In physical terms, it switches me from threat-mode to soothing-relaxing-mode. My consciousness doesn’t shut up in fear, it relaxes and opens up.

And I try to direct my compassion out too. ‘I vow to be kind to myself and to others. To help all beings be free from suffering and realize our true natures’.

There are other compassion practices one can do – I’ve put some links below.

We are imperfect, limited beings, and we are limitless universes of sparkling consciousness. That’s what Buddhism teaches – and other religions are not far off. We are imperfect wounded egos in imperfect mortal bodies. But we’re also enlightened and perfect already!

Isn’t that weird? You’re already divine! On some dimension of reality, you’re already there. We’re already there. This is a great day! Our higher future selves are up there looking down on us in compassion, applauding us, and cheering us on. Reach up and give the future enlightened you a high five. The future is already here.

*****

Here are some links about compassion-focused therapy.

Here is the website of the Compassionate Mind foundation, set up by the psychologist Paul Gilbert.

Here’s a good introductory article about compassion-focused therapy.

Here’s an interview with Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg, who’s made loving-kindness meditation the centre of her work.

Here’s a video about how compassion-focused therapy can help people hearing voices or experiencing psychosis.

Is self-compassion the same as self-esteem? And will compassion therapy make the same mistakes as the self-esteem movement in the 1990s? This piece in the Atlantic explores the differences. And this Guardian feature by Will Storr looks at the cult of self-esteem in the 1990s, and how it was oversold.

The return of the Unconscious

the-kraken-existence2

I was driving along a motorway at roughly 70 mph when I realised suddenly that I was not in control. I’d gone somewhere else, and spent the last five minutes or so thinking about my book in some virtual study in my mind. And yet, despite the car being unmanned as it hurtled down the A40, it did not crash. Indeed, it had accelerated, braked, changed lanes. Who was performing these tasks, if not I? Google? No, it was another part of me. A less conscious part of my mind, which can apparently drive…often better than ‘I’ can.

Ah the unconscious. 100 years ago, in 1915, Sigmund Freud triumphantly announced its discovery in his essay ‘The Unconscious’. In fact, he was late to the South Pole – scientists like Pierre Janet,  Wilhelm Wundt, William James and Frederic Myers had been pottering around down there for at least 30 years, and mystics like Augustine had been exploring it for some centuries. But Freud planted his flag with sufficient triumph to claim the credit – he is still credited as ‘the discoverer of the unconscious’ by neuroscientist David Eagleman in his new TV series on the brain.

Freud’s announcement caught the public imagination. It was exciting to think that beneath Victorian respectability lurked an underworld of sex, violence and occult forces. It was also a useful idea for psychologists, helping to explain various non-rational phenomena – dreams, hypnotic states, hysterical or what today we call psychosomatic illnesses, dissociation, creative inspiration, religious experiences, and even possibly paranormal experiences like telepathy and clairvoyance.

As I’ve been researching ecstatic experiences for my next book, I’ve found myself returning to the concept of the unconscious or subliminal self. I’ve been particularly drawn to the research of William James, author of The Varieties of Religious Experience, and a British psychologist called Frederic Myers, who was a key influence on James and on other altered states explorers like Aldous Huxley.

To my mind, Myers and James are still the best theorists of ecstatic experience, which they explain as moments when our conscious ego opens up to the ‘subliminal self’, and we experience a loss of control but also a sense of enhanced energy, power and information rushing up from beyond the ego. The experience of ego-dissolution and the confrontation with the daemonic subconscious can be terrifying, but it can also be healing and inspirational – as Myers put it, anticipating Jung, the subliminal self is both a ‘rubbish dump’ and a ‘treasure trove’.

Frederic Myers' contribution to psychology is only beginning to be appreciated
Myers’ contribution to psychology is only beginning to be appreciated

Myers – following Plotinus – argued that there are multiple programmes of consciousness running at any one time. We have a sort of integrating higher consciousness which can access these different levels, a bit like Leonardo di Caprio getting out of the elevator at different floors of his psyche in Inception. When we fall asleep, for example, have you noticed how it feels not like you begin dreaming, like the start of a movie, but rather that you have entered a theatre where the movie is already running?

Both Myers and James – but particularly Myers – also argued that the subliminal self is not bounded to the body or to the individual ego, but is actually a sort of Greater Mind, connected to other minds, other selves, both living and dead. We are like trees connected to each other by our subliminal roots, in a huge forest that is one organism, although each tree mistakenly thinks it’s separate and alone. When we die, Myers thought, we transition from the limited consciousness of the individual ego to the expanded consciousness of this Greater Mind.

The Kraken awakens

Alas, the idea of the subliminal self sank in the course of 20th century thought. Freudian psychoanalysis was too unempirical, and too sex-obsessed, while James, Myers and Jung were too spiritual. In psychology, depth psychology was displaced by behaviourism, which dismissed consciousness and focused on how humans behaved in response to external stimuli. Analytic philosophy also ignored both subconsciousness and consciousness, focusing instead on logic and language.

Yet in the last two decades, the subliminal self has shown signs of re-surfacing. From around the late 80s, cognitive psychologists began to explore how much of our thinking happens subliminally and automatically, from memory to arithmetic to stimulus-interpretation. The ‘cognitive unconscious’ does a lot of our thinking for us, making rapid calculations based on heuristics or biases which we’re not aware of. Our conscious thinking is driven by ‘core beliefs’ or ‘schema’ which frame our experience of reality and guide our interpretations.

The subconscious plays a central role in what is today the dominant consensus about consciousness – the ‘global workspace theory’ , developed by neuroscientist Bernard Baars in the 1990s and now broadly accepted by other consciousness researchers like Dennett, Edelman, Damasio and Tonioni.

Baars argues that there are multiple programmes running in the brain at any one time outside of conscious awareness, and consciousness selectivity focuses and integrates the information coming from these programmes. He compares consciousness to a beam of light on a stage – there is a great deal of activity taking place in the darkness of the theatre, and the light moves around, picking up action and bringing it into focus and significance.

To use a computer metaphor, our mind is continuously running programmes, and our conscious awareness is limited, so there is a sort of queue for tasks to come to consciousness when action is required. For example, we are dreaming, and we faintly hear our alarm going off, and integrate it into the dream. But as it goes on and perhaps gets louder, it rises up the queue of tasks, and eventually we shift from the interior focus of dreaming to the exterior-focus of waking consciousness.

So how does global workspace theory fit with the older theory of the subliminal self, as found in Myers and James? Is there a place within it for the more exotic and interesting phenomena which these psychologists explored – dreams, visions, trips, religious experiences, contemplative states and so on?

I think there is. Take the example of psychedelic experiences. We know from recent research that trips destabilise the functioning of various cognitive programmes, leading to a flood of usually subliminal interior information into consciousness. It is as if the house lights were suddenly switched on in the theatre of the mind, and scripts that normally run unconsciously in the background become apparent. That means we can intervene and change unconscious or automatic scripts – overcoming deep-seated fears or addictions, for example.

In contemplative states, we can train our mind so that the faint beam of attentive consciousness becomes stronger and broader –  this also enables us to become aware of unconscious elements in the darkness of the theatre, like props on stage that we keep bumping into, and to intervene, move them around, or even remove them if necessary.

Through training, we can expand the light in the theatre of our mind, use more of the theatre. I think of the memory-training techniques practiced by Roman philosophers, medieval monks and Renaissance magi, in which adepts imagine a ‘mind palace’ and then use imagery to store vast amounts of information. A friend of mine, Ed Cooke, taught himself this technique when he was in his 20s and became the world memory champion. He once memorised the entirety of Paradise Lost. Here’s an interview with him by Tim Ferris.

This talk of ‘cognitive unconscious’ and ‘information-integration’ makes it all sound quite rational and computational. In fact, cognitive psychologists recognise that much unconscious and automatic thinking and information-integration happens through images and metaphors. Again, this was an insight first put forward by Myers, who spoke of the ‘mythopoetic’ language of the subliminal self. We can examine this mythopoetic realm through the microscope of psychedelic experience – the world of the trip, like the dream-world, is a sort of movie theatre, in which information is presented as lurid shlock B-movie adventure.

By the by, global workspace theory was in the news last week, when a new study discovered that subliminal or unconscious thinking shows up as similar to conscious thinking in brain scans. Again, this supports Myers and James’ idea that ‘unconscious thinking’ is not actually entirely unconscious. Instead, there are multiple programmes running at the same time, at different levels of consciousness. You are here reading, but you’re also still dreaming. And beneath it all, your heart is in continuous communication with the Divine. That’s what Plotinus thought anyway.

What global workspace theory doesn’t do, of course, is explain what consciousness is, as opposed to what it does. What is this thing which we can expand, stretch, focus, alter, send out like ectoplasm, send racing to the moon and back, and stretch across time and space? How does it relate to play? How does it relate to love? Global workspace theory, lets face it, doesn’t sound much fun, and one obvious characteristic of consciousness in both children and mammals is it loves to play. And so I put forward to you my own theory of consciousness: Global Fun-House. You heard it here first.