On Sunday, I was joined by the mystic, scholar, and storyteller Sera Beak for a dialogue we titled “Only Partnering With Our Divine Soul Will Heal Our World”.
Sera brought both depth and vulnerability to our dialog in a way that led to a beautiful exploration of the particular, emerging, approach to soul work that she is championing—that of understanding soul work as a rare, profound transformative relationship to a deep, divine aspect of our own selves—and understanding soul work as proceeding out of a heartfelt invitation to our soul natures to come alive and guide us.
I started by asking what Sera means by “soul.” After all, it’s a term that has been used in myriad ways by religious and non-religious alike over the centuries. Sera sees the soul as an emanation of the Godhead or Goddesshead of one’s own being. Her experience of the soul is that it is the aspect of our Distinct Divine Being that incarnates over and over again and has multiple experiences and expressions in the universe. This relationship with her soul is sacred and dynamic and has become the fundamental practice of her life because it directly connects her with her Goddesshead and allows Her human incarnation.
Sera says that this is a deep and rather rare relationship that most people simply aren’t even aware is possible. Even most longtime spiritual practitioners haven’t consecrated this precious relationship with their soul. In fact, few people even seek it out. She describes a time in her own life when she too was without this relationship. She became aware of this during a transformational conversation with the renowned Jungian Marion Woodman, the first person Sera recognized as having truly incarnated her soul. In Marion’s profound soul-incarnated presence, Sera had the heartbreaking realization that despite all her spiritual studies and beliefs about the importance of the soul, in truth, she was disconnected from her soul and had lost her soul somewhere along her spiritual journey.
This paradigm-shattering epiphany began what Sera calls her “red night of the soul.” And even though she had a successful career as a spiritual teacher and was a published writer and recognized voice for her generation of practitioners, she was, in her words, a “spirit addict,” manifesting all the symptoms of spiritual bypassing, chasing after external teachings and traditions and yet never pausing to really listen to her soul.
And yet she says, her Soul had sent messages to her from childhood (which she says is the case with many of us), reaching out to her through dreams, art, nature, synchronicities, and dancing, none of which is emphasized in classic spiritual practice. So in the midst of all her seeking and immersion in spiritual traditions, when she tried to connect her Soul experience in a tradition, she came up empty-handed. Sera says, “I thought I must just be a narcissistic western woman, so I doubted myself, and ‘my lady’ (she calls her soul “my red lady”) and because I couldn’t see our relationship reflected outside of me in our world.”
Sera began to consciously nurture a relationship with her Soul. She pulled away from the world so that she might release the paradigms and practices that she’d absorbed. She described the process as “rigorous, humbling and terrifying. Even strange.”
It involved saying no to many things that made sense, and saying yes to some things that made no sense. It required her to wake up not just to the beauty and the delight of this sacred relationship with her soul, but also the horror of overriding, disregarding, and generally mistreating the sacred dimension of her own being all throughout her life.
I asked Sera if there were specific practices (or non-practices) that we can engage in to start to cultivate this relationship with our soul. She suggested in the beginning, making a real, honest and heartfelt invitation to your soul to “turn up its volume.” Authenticity is key. This cannot be a goal-oriented effort; after all you need to see if this reality is really in alignment with you. (It won’t happen authentically merely because you want it to be so). So she suggests you begin noticing the ache, and the yearning that every single one of us has because we are disconnected from our soul, from our sacredness. Not even a transcendent connection to God, Goddess and/or the Divine can fill the soul ache. And it is from that heartache that you extend the invitation to your Soul to become more present and active in your awareness, body and ordinary life.
Then she suggests you start paying attention. You’ll see things in your dreams and feel things in your body. Begin journaling, noticing, reflecting. Make it a continual daily practice to honor the fact that your Soul is trying to press more into your reality. And treat it like any important new relationship, and create time for it. Invite your soul for tea or for a walk. And treat it with real respect.
I asked about how such an intimate, internal and subjective soul work can really help us to serve our world and to respond to the state of our world. Sera reflected upon what Martin Luther King and Gandhi called Soul Force (or “Satyagraha.”) When we make this subjective linkup, there’s a natural influx of soul force into our body, and a direct connection is made between the human and the divine. We are actually able to hold and radiate much more life-force and Divinity when this Soul connection is flowing.
Then service to the world is not about anything we’re “supposed to” do; it’s not any kind of mission-driven obligation. Sera says we Souls are, by our very nature, here in service. Making a difference, healing the world, healing ourselves and others—these are the Soul’s natural joys and expressions.
I found this conversation with Sera illuminating, speaking to many core questions that I’ve been investigating in a very touching, catalytic and beautiful way. I hope you will listen in and enjoy!
On Sunday, I was joined by Jay Michaelson for a scintillating, deep, and passionate dialog entitled “Evolving Dharma—and Evolving Practitioners”.
At the beginning of our conversation I asked Jay about the “panentheist” vision at the heart of his earlier book, Everything Is God.
The most common, quick definition of panentheism is that it sees the Divine as “both immanent and transcendent”, or as Jay put it, “both everything and nothing.” (Or should those words be capitalized: “both Everything and Nothing”? And what is the meaning and significance of the distinction between the capitalized and the small-case “E” and “N”?)
Jay began his spiritual journey as a Jewish-American steeped in the sophistication of contemporary scientific humanist culture, so he turned to the riches of his own tradition and did deep study and practice of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism. He also experimented with various other practices, including Sufi and shamanic practices, before more recently devoting himself to serious Buddhist meditative practice, mostly in the Theravadin tradition. His new book, Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment tells the story of that most recent leg of his journey.
Thus, comparing our experiences as two contemporary mystics, we pushed into the dispositional differences between us.
I spoke for what Jay calls “the additive path”, which leads to astonished grateful recognition of the luminous Mystery of every moment of existence.
Jay spoke for what he calls “the subtractive path”, which “sees through” and deconstructs all beliefs, ideas and attitudes, even those that are born in high meditative states, leading to radical simplicity and peace.
This was not a debate but an exploration, always in a spirit, as Jay put it, “of radical pluralism and ecumenism”.
Jay pointed out the closeness of “Everything and Nothing” and “everything and nothing” but also the clear distinction between them.
He described his experiences of ecstatic recognition of the Divine, mostly expressed through his panentheist Jewish practice, and his experience of the jhanas, the blissful states of concentrated meditation in the Theravadin path. In the first, he interpreted these states to be a direct experience of the Divine nature of existence; in the second, he interpreted very similar states as simply being states of mind, to which he didn’t need to attach any significance.
So I asked, “Isn’t something important lost?” Most of us take up the path with a serious intention to be free of suffering. It sounded to me like Jay was back in the same mundane ordinariness, changed now only by a focused mind and acceptance of experience that confers lucid, agnostic simplicity. Looking at this from the place of my panentheist realization—grateful, delighted apprehension of the radiant transcendental beneficent Mystery that pervades and transcends me and everything—it seems reductive, spare, spartan, and unattractive.
Jay and I leaned in to this inquiry of whether something is lost and clarified the bottom line behind his intuition: because high states come and go, Jay feels freed up by a realization of a peace that rests on absolutely no ideas or feelings—it is far more robust, enduring, and therefore, frees him more completely from suffering.
But he took pains not to frame this as a debate in which we were arguing over which realization was “better” (the kind of thing over which wars have been fought and incredible suffering has been inflicted.) Jay prefers to frame it as a matter of style, soul-character, or karma. He feels that we’re all brothers and sisters, each needing to discover what vehicle can lead us to freedom, wisdom, compassion, and joy. Even in the midst of his attraction to the unadorned simple freedom of Theravadin realization he sometimes feels attracted to practices that are more juicy and ecstatic.
But he loves staying with bare experience, free of interpretations. Why call it “consciousness coming to know itself”? According to Jay (and Theravadin practice) that’s an interpretive layer that’s being placed on top of the naked experience.
So at the end his position is this: the rigor of the discipline of attention and the release into free awareness conferred by his Theravadin mindfulness and concentration practice frees him up radically. He finds himself resting in a simple ground of awareness that presumes nothing and that’s completely compatible with contemporary rational agnosticism. There, he’s able to rest with unthreatened ease, believing in and depending on no assumptions, not thinking his experience is anything significant—in fact nothing more than the consequence of the awakening of wisdom, compassion and joy into his individual life. In this, there’s radical depth of peace and confidence available to him via this “subtractive dharma” (which persistently subtracts beliefs, interpretations, significance, etc.)
Jay turned it around, acknowledging that Mahaya and Vajraya Buddhists think this is deficient. They would say, hey, you’re surrounded by luminous awareness and you refuse to pick your head up and look directly at the obvious implication of your experience—that the consciousness looking out through your eyes is not just yours but universal consciousness.
But according to Jay, there’s room for both views in an evolving dharma. For the individual, “It comes down to which practice works best for your particular hunger? We come to practice because of suffering. If there’s a different skillful means that leads to the end of suffering, then by all means, pursue it.”
I found this quite satisfying, and it took me in two directions. One was to acknowledge Jay for his confession of appreciation for fullness, for my tears of amazed gratitude at the exalted holiness of existence. Because of this I felt like I was speaking with a fellow, with a brother.
That led me to appreciate the implications of his acknowledging that his experience may evolve across the course of his life of practice. Is it a richer journey if it freely moves from one to another point of view regarding this and perhaps other paradoxically profound polarities? Why would it be richer? Because in moving freely, it is implicitly locating itself in a bigger reality than any of those perspectives—in a universal, non-rigid, non-exclusive spirituality. Perhaps we can commit ourselves fully to our current path on the journey, but with a transformed disposition because we feel free to reexamine that commitment, and perhaps to move into other practices and realizations, appreciating that a fixation on particular dharmic “truths” will tend to calcify and limit us, knowing that the aliveness and infinite possibility of the present moment are the very essence of the Tao.
Jay agreed, distinguishing this from mere postmodern relativism. He said in fact, “That’s our contribution as Westerners. I’m not an orthodox believer in any of the traditions in which I’ve practiced. What’s interesting about dharma is that it is evolving. This is one of the ways in which Western dharma is building on the traditions it has received. We’re interested to really “get” and “inhabit” the many worldviews that populate our world.”
We went on from here to explore what is lost and gained by each approach, each “part” of the “whole body of enlightenment”.
Then we looked more specifically at additional topics:
—The cultural transformation being worked by the mainstreaming and scientific legitimization of yoga and meditation
—The values and problems of our postmodern sampling and mixing of our different identities
—The pluses and minuses of sampling and mixing of different paths and practices
—The pitfalls of working with a strong teacher or Guru—and the pitfalls of not doing so!
I hope our dialogue will clarify your practice and enlarge your appreciation of what’s involved in the evolution of dharma and practice. Please listen in and enjoy!
On Sunday, I was joined by Kenneth Folk for a rich and timely dialog entitled “Awakening is Possible, But So What? — A Pragmatic Approach to Intersubjective Awakening.”
Kenneth Folk considers himself a “ruthlessly unsentimental” and pragmatic dharma teacher. This is because he is willing to toss anything out, including the Buddha, if at any point he doesn’t find those teachings really helpful. His dialog was especially timely, as mindfulness is rapidly gaining mainstream acceptance: both intellectually through the confluence of Buddhism, neuroscience and psychotherapy, and culturally through the embrace of pop culture and the corporate world, especially the tech sector, including gatherings like Wisdom 2.0 and Google’s “Search Inside Yourself” classes.
In observing the development of “mainstream mindfulness”, my sense is that much of it is simply a popularization of beginning practices—which is not necessarily a bad thing! There is a tremendous practical value in applying practice to cultivating everyday well-being.
But there is another pragmatic stream that’s fiercely rational and agnostic and also rigorously avoids metaphysical presumptions that I find much more interesting. It’s grounded in deeper sustained meditative practice and is experimenting in actively evolving dharma in various ways, including intersubjective practice and awakening. I see Kenneth Folk as one of the most interesting voices in this influential edge of evolving dharma.
He is passionate about demythologizing the process of awakening, which he defines as “the ability to see experience as process in real time.” One of his most radical assertions is that awakening is not only possible, but it’s possible for almost everyone, a kind of democratization of enlightenment. And as a pragmatist, he points to his own awakening and ongoing experience as proof of this.
I resonated on one level, but I also asked, as did one of our listeners, whether or not Kenneth was trivializing or “watering down” awakening, or simply disregarding the most profound kind of awakening by referring to his own experience. After all, the traditional view of awakening is that it is rare and world-shaking, opening us to higher human capacities and enabling people to operate at a whole different level.
Kenneth responded that rather than a rarified or exalted state, awakening is actually a point on the continuum of human development. He says that 2500 years ago the people around the historical Buddha were “popping like popcorn” with awakening. The traditional texts describe thousands of “arhats” around the Buddha. So, he says, it follows that now we are capable of doing what was done 2500 ago. Strip away the hagiography and mythology, what he calls the “cartoon saint” image of enlightenment, and awakening becomes a predictable stage of human development.
And what does “seeing experience as process in real time” look like? Kenneth says that because we are constrained by our biology, it is counterproductive to make an enemy of negative emotions and states or to set a fantasy goal of eradicating them. He suggests that a more realistic and higher goal is what he calls “meta-okayness”- a grounded equanimity that is so robust that it can even allow for suffering, anger, and all negative states to arise.
I acknowledged that this description of awakening corresponds with the radical teaching that the highest realization freely coexists with all states of mind and emotion. And I also pointed out that even people who respect and honor the ancient schools often think it’s absurd to put decades of mind/body purification between us and freedom.
Kenneth described his primary method for teaching students to achieve meta-okayness. He calls it “The 3 Speed Transmission”:
1st Gear— What is happening? Objectify experience. This perspective comes from the Mahasi Theravada teaching of noting, objectifying and labeling experience. It begins by objectifying body sensations. If you can name them, you’re not embedded in them. So you notice sensations and note to yourself: “Pressure, tightness, tension, release, coolness, warmth, softness, hardness, tingling, itching, burning, stinging, pulsing, throbbing, seeing, tasting, smelling, hearing.” If I am looking at something, it is not me. Then you objectify the feeling-tone. Are sensations pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral? If you can sit quietly and attentively for five minutes and note pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral every few seconds, you are no longer embedded in that layer of mind. Then you objectify mind states like curiosity, happiness, anxiety, amusement, sadness, joy, anger, frustration, annoyance, irritation, aversion, desire, etc. These mind states are not “you;” we know this because if there is a “you” it is the one who is looking, not what is being looked at. Then you objectify thoughts. You can categorize them: “planning thought, anticipating thought, worrying thought, remembering thought, rehearsing thought, etc. The content of your thoughts is not relevant except to the extent that it helps you to label and therefore objectify them.
2nd Gear— To whom is it happening? Who am I? This perspective is based on the Advaita Vedanta teaching of self-inquiry. In it you notice the apparent subject as an object. You turn the light of attention back on itself. Who knows about this experience? Are you causing this experience in this moment? To whom is this happening?
3rd Gear—Surrender entirely. This experience has already arisen, and it is as it is, so there is nothing to do. Or that you can do. It is what it is, with or without your participation. This does not mean that you must be passive. Surrendering entirely, means surrendering also to activity This is the truly non-dual perspective and awakening.
Kenneth says his students are awakening. His claim is that awakening is not only possible; it doesn’t even have to be rare. But then the question arises: But so what? This is when Kenneth and I arrived at the crux of our dialog—how can awakening impact a world which faces a confluence of complex crises? The possibility of intersubjective awakening becomes a vital consideration. And intersubjective awakening is possible. Ken says that given the fact that there isn’t anybody “in here”, in the individual, to wake up, it’s just a valid to say that a relationship can awaken—there isn’t anybody in there either! Or a culture! But there is something going on as a process, and the group can awaken into shared awareness of that process as that very process.
Our conversation went much further, and I think it makes a valuable contribution to the evolution of dharma and practice. I hope you listen in and enjoy!
On Tuesday, August 13th, I was joined by master conflict mediator & long-time, dear friend, Diane Musho Hamilton for “What Makes Everything Workable? Exploring the Edge of Human Conflict, Communication and Connection.” Together we took a fresh perspective on conflict at all levels, from personal crisis to the global “mega-crisis.”
We launched our dialog with a summary of Diane’s soon-to-be-released book (her first!) Everything Is Workable: A Zen Approach to Conflict Resolution. The title is from a quote from Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, one her teachers, that “whatever arises in the confused mind is regarded as the path, and everything is workable”. So nothing is unworkable, or outside the realm of practice, including conflict.
Everything Is Workable brings together two areas of lifelong engagement for Diane, meditation and mediation. The words “meditation” and “mediation” have the same root and imply bringing two into one; body and mind into one with meditation and disparate views or agendas with mediation. And while meditation is an interior process and mediation is an exterior, inter-subjective process, the book draws upon and integrates techniques and processes from both.
Diane says that to begin engaging conflict as a spiritual or growth practice, we need to step back and determine our conflict “type”. How do we react when conflict arises? Do we run away from conflict? Go around it? Or do we move toward the “heat”?
The growth happens in conflict when we are able to look with curiosity at our divergent backgrounds, and learn more about each other and our (often unconscious) assumptions. Also, conflict generates “heat” so energy is released as well as life force when we let the conflict percolate, instead of reflexively diffusing it. But this is no mean feat! We need to be able to tolerate the tension in the very wiring of our physical being, ultimately befriending those physical sensations.
I recently wrote a paper for the 3rd annual Integral Theory Conference, Enacting an Integral Revolution: How Can We Have Truly Radical Conversations in a Time of Global Crisis? The paper focused on how human conversations can catalyze a transformative existential confrontation, not just an intellectual discussion. A new kind of radical conversation is needed that transcends, on one hand, apocalyptic fear, and on the other complacent denial. We are the luckiest people who have ever lived, blessed with comfort, mobility, information, a wealth of spiritual practices, personal freedom, and creative possibility; at the same time, we are facing a looming “mega-crisis” composed of multiple simultaneous crises—an enormous natural evolutionary emergency (mass species extinction, global warming, etc.) amidst breakdowns and crises affecting all our human institutions and infrastructures—political, social, economic, educational, healthcare, financial and more.
Diane had read my paper so I asked her to address this idea of a need for another way—of greater seriousness AND greater levity. She responded by saying that in her conflict work, she approaches it as a matter of scale. Working successfully with conflict and crisis on a personal level is a beginning point; we can leverage this success so that it “trickles up” making us grounded and effective in the face of larger crises.
Diane also noted that part of engaging conflict as a spiritual practice is relaxing all sense of dilemma, understanding that in some profound sense, things are going right, because that’s the way that things are going. This doesn’t mean we should sit back and become complacent, but it does offer us intuitive freedom in which the as-yet-unimaginable solution can emerge. The work is to always be available and present so that when the moment arises to take an action we will be ready, attuned and effective.
One of the most dynamic aspects of this dialogue was the counterpoint (you could even call it “creative conflict”) between my passion and Diane’s spaciousness. The two of us showed up expressing very different dispositions, and then found our way to a place of nuanced agreement. But the questioners who showed up pressed us back into that territory, requiring us to revisit and refine it.
After our conversation came to an end, I reflected that we had enacted and refined a creative tension between spaciousness and passion that is profound and fundamental—it’s essential and abiding, and it will only keep enriching the vital conversations we will continue to have. Our crises aren’t going away, and neither is radical okayness. So our conversation dropped me into greater existential depth, a space that can hold both passionate seriousness and spacious humor.
During out dialog we also talked about how there may be two kinds of “higher we” —one characterized by higher intersubjective states, and the other characterized by higher intersubjective structures. (And, as those who know her would expect, Diane also told some very funny stories.) Listen in!
On Sunday, July 7th I was joined by biological anthropologist and neuroscientist Terrence Deacon, for a special extended 2-hour dialogue entitled “The Importance of What’s Missing”.
If you’re interested in exploring the leading edge of evolutionary science and the philosophy of contemporary nondual and evolutionary spirituality, I highly recommend listening in. It’s definitely intellectually sophisticated, but well worth the effort.
For me, the big takeaway was a challenging, powerful and intriguing idea: Maybe emergence itself is even more fundamental than consciousness. And maybe this can serve as the basis for a radical marriage of evolutionary and non-dual spirituality.
Essentially, Deacon suggests a radically new view of evolution, one that he says resolves the subtle errors of both of the most popular views of reality — the mainstream “mechanistic” view that sees consciousness as epiphenomenal — and the “spiritual” view that sees consciousness as “always already” here, and even more fundamental than matter, energy, space and time.
The Importance of What’s Missing
Instead, by noticing how “absence” and “constraint” (“what’s missing”) is even more fundamental than “stuff” (“what’s present”), he has outlined detailed step-by-step scientifically plausible theories of how higher and higher dynamic processes could have developed, and how life could have naturally emerged from dead matter, and how human subjective consciousness could have naturally emerged from life forms with only vegetative sentience. He describes how “homeodynamic” processes can give rise to “morphodynamic” processes that give rise to higher and higher order “teleodynamic” processes. You could call this “radical emergence”.
Unlike mechanists, he doesn’t think we can reduce our subjective experience and selfhood and values to a neurological substrate. Unlike integralists, he doesn’t think that we need to posit that “consciousness goes all the way down” to account for the emergence of sentience, consciousness, conscience, creativity, and inspiration.
He’s suggesting a radically new view, in which what is most fundamental is the potential for “what’s missing” (which he directly compares with the Tao and with Buddhist “emptiness”.) He quotes Verse 11 of the Tao Te Ching:
“Thirty spokes converged at the wheel’s hub to an empty space that makes it useful. Clay is shaped into a vessel, to take advantage of the emptiness it surrounds. Doors and windows are cut into walls of a room so that it can serve some function. Though we must work with what is there, use comes from what is not there.”
This is what enables the emergence of higher and higher order processes—including not just life, not just selfhood, not just sentience, and not just consciousness, but higher and higher orders of consciousness—potentially without limit!
Thus, he describes himself as an “emergentist” (rather than a “mechanist”) even though his theory of emergence does not require any non-material forces.
On one hand he is very respectful of and interested in the emergence of “consciousness”, “selfhood”, and values like goodness and beauty, never treating them as epiphenomena, even saying that the “universe as mechanism” model is “absurdly” inadequate at explaining much of what gives our life meaning. Thus, he brings a much more complex and nuanced way of understanding to the conversation, especially intriguing to me is the way that “what’s missing” may be the key to glimpsing the so-called “ghost in the machine”.
On the other hand, he’s a hard scientist with no interest in untestable evolutionary mechanisms, partaking of the general scientific consensus against perennial concepts like Eros and life-energy, not to mention ether, elan vital, or phlogiston. What he does is apply his encyclopedic knowledge of neurophysiology, neuroanatomy, human evolution, cognitive science, and linguistics in a mainstream scientific and materialistic context, but creatively and with an open mind. He showed respect for my interest in considering the implications of his ideas to evolutionary interiors even though his specialty is to focus attention entirely on evolutionary exteriors.
Entropy, Higher Order and the World Crisis
Deacon is not dogmatic. So our conversation was speculative, scintillating and wide-ranging. In his formulation I encountered a much higher-level materialist conception of the evolution of life and mind than I had previously grappled with.
He sees our current world crisis as an example of a principle he has identified — how higher “teleodynamic” processes (like human beings) begin to interact with each other to produce collective system dynamics (like societies) that can express lower-order entropic “morphodynamic” processes. In this view, we are creating the higher and higher order of evolving human culture by creating greater and greater disorder by burning as much fossil fuel as possible as quickly as possible—changing our atmosphere, climate & weather. On a hopeful note, he asserts that these dynamics often change, interacting to eventually produce higher order (purposive, ordered, and ultimately sustainable) results.
Interestingly, Deacon’s interest focuses directly on one of the most important aspects of contemporary Integral culture—the emergence of a higher order of collective consciousness—the arising of a real, functioning transpersonal collective self and consciousness.
He was most interested in what he saw as the driving motivation of my inquiry—the intention to assist individuals and eventually an important fraction of the world community in reaching a level of consciousness and higher selfhood that’s not yet obviously manifest.
Is Emergence More Fundamental than Consciousness?
He argues that the “panpsychist” view (the view that holds that consciousness pervades all existence and is “always-already-there”) doesn’t help to understand the emergence of unprecedented forms of consciousness. Talking of this in evolutionary terms alone seems to obscure this sense of the emergence of an utterly novel, higher order self and subjectivity. He objects to portraying the evolution of consciousness as the unrolling of involutionary givens, the unfolding and complexification of pre-existing forms. If consciousness is already there in all things, its evolution just comes across as a kind of unfolding, or at most a growth or expansion—not a radical new level of anything.
By analogy, the first appearance of life is a very different sort of process than subsequent evolution of the various living forms. As Deacon insists in his book, life emerged from non-life, it didn’t “evolve” from it. (Emergence involves the appearance of something radically and unpredictably new, as contrasted with evolution, which only involves incremental novelty.) So, analogously, according to Deacon, to really make sense of the emergence of a form of subjective self that has never before been manifest we need to know how self emerges de novo.
An explanation of the emergence of subjective agentive self in a world where it did not previously exist creates a space for this possibility that is more basic than evolution. But if the emergence of a new level of global consciousness is critical at this level, then it must also be critical at lower levels as well – the emergence of teleodynamics from a background entirely lacking these fundamental attributes.
This paradigm of radical emergence, according to Deacon, is the essence of a truly creative universe. It is also the necessary essence of the subjective emergence that is consciousness; of coming into being de novo every second.
I responded to this by speaking from my own experience. I have directly observed and validated non-separate consciousness. In high meditative states, I have been present as the non-separate conscious self-recognizing nature of existence, what Tibetans call rigpa. In this I am “being being being itself” conscious and complete.
If I take on the implications of Deacon’s ideas, and “try them on for size” presuming them to be true, it suggests a subtle shift of emphasis. It suggests that the direct awakening that I’ve interpreted as a validation of a panpsychist view might actually validate emergence.
Maybe in our conversations about dharma we confer a “misplaced concreteness” on consciousness. Maybe the emptiness of being itself is as if “pregnant” with what I know as consciousness, and thus can be said (as all the great traditions do) to be “of the nature of consciousness”, but nothing like what we know and recognize as consciousness. Maybe the inherent nature of being is a fecund emptiness, inherently emergent with the qualities of awareness and luminosity. Maybe in high meditative states we are being that infinite potentiality itself.
Thus, if I for a moment presume that Deacon is not only right but that there’s a deep dharmic truth in his findings, maybe emergence is more fundamental than consciousness—the bottom-line is not a thing but an emptiness, which is also the propensity for an infinite creativity to arise out of being.
Putting this to the mystical test — asking how it stacks up subjectively — it seems to merit more research. If one takes this to be true, one is opened to infinite Wonder—exactly as it is if we presume the universality of consciousness. If we awaken as our nature we awaken into an emptiness that is infinitely capable of producing ever-increasing depth and consciousness—even a depth of consciousness unimaginable. Since this is a basis for potent religio-spiritual awe and radical presence, I am intrigued.
There is another way of internalizing the mystical implications of Deacon’s theories of emergence, however. In this view we acknowledge that what we can recognize as consciousness only emerges after vast evolutionary eons out of the ground of emergent emptiness. But instead of completely abandoning a panpsychist perspective, we simply acknowledge that the “proto-sentience” of matter and the “vegetative sentience” of lower life forms cannot account for the miracles of the emergence of the kind of consciousness we recognize and value in our own experience. This view amounts to a kind of “soft panpsychism” that harmonizes with both radical emergence and our millennia-old mystical philosophical wisdom.
In either case, however, Deacon’s “radical emergentism” points us to the infinite fecundity of emptiness (“what’s missing”) rather than the generative power of consciousness (“what’s here”) — a shift of emphasis that seems subtle but which might have significant implications.
For one thing, Deacon suggested that it can be the basis for healing the Cartesian divide between science and spirit and C.P. Snow’s “two cultures”, and reuniting our streams of discourse that focus on interiors vs. exteriors. This hard scientist seemed intrigued by the potential for us to eventually participate ecstatically in our inner and outer lives while thinking with scientific rigor (albeit non-reductively) about it all as a seamless unity.
Transhumanism and Spiritual Machines
Our dialog covered other topics too. One point that was particularly intriguing was when a listener asked about Ray Kurzweil’s ideas about uploading his consciousness into a smarter-than-human silicone-based intelligence.
Deacon thinks the idea that we can upload our consciousness into silicon is silly, at least in the way it’s so often described. He says we need to distinguish carefully between machine intelligence and machine subjectivity. Computers as we know them now are unconscious. “There’s nobody home.” There are very deep processes through which subjectivity and self emerge.
He said, however, that it is true that the particular substrate we call a brain is not necessarily absolutely essential. There should be other ways to develop teleodynamic processes with real interior subjectivity. If we begin to create real subjective interiority in robots or other human simulations by learning to mimic how brains work, even if we don’t know what we’re doing, Deacon thinks we could eventually produce machines with real interiority.
The less we understand it the more likely we are to exploit their capacity for suffering, and thus produce moral horrors. He warns that the prospect is both exciting and frightening. He points out that, historically, humanity has not done so well when controlling the lives of creatures (animal or human) that suffer.
He is more positively interested in the kind of transhumanism that involves greater and greater linkage with machines. Could we produce a higher-order integration between biological subjectivity and silicon subjectivity? He doesn’t think it’s impossible. But he cautions that it will raise fundamental moral questions.
Here I have summarized only a few of my favorite topics in what was a wide-ranging conversation. I invite you to tune in here and experience it for yourself!