I finished listening to the 3rd book in Thomas Campbell’s audiobook trilogy – My Big Toe. As so often happens, the concluding arguments offer a neat summation of the overall proposition that would benefit a well-informed reader ahead of reading the book. Campbell suggests that having finished the book, the reader should go back to the beginning and start again. That’s good advice that should be applied often.
Campbell is a physicist and wrote in greater detail than I needed. I understood that, and he admitted that this might be the case for some readers. His wider point is that we have progressed as a culture to the point that we can reframe our notion of spirituality to embrace science as a justifying logic. It is this that I want to reflect on here.
The sticking point
Experience that does not conform to cultural norms is either elevated as a revelation or rejected as a violation of accepted norms. This applies to both religious and scientific experiences and authorities.
What makes Campbell’s work of value is his experience of getting out of his body. In fact, without that experience his work becomes mere speculation rather than interpretative.
Religious experience is generally not, these days, subject to critical analysis and evaluation. I think things were different in the now distant past, but things changed post the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. This established dogma as dominant, thus making obedience and conformity superior to inquiry and empiricism. It was a watershed in our culture’s history.
I want to make a point that mysticism and magic are grounded in experimentation, based on experience. But any such tradition can become bogged down by conformity to old knowledge and old ways. Traditions must be refreshed by inquiry as an act of renewal. The old ever yields to the new in healthy culture. The old isn’t invalidated, just superseded. In effect knowledge is constantly refreshed and what endures is wisdom.
Campbell is one example of ‘religious’ experimentation and inquiry. I have put ‘religious’ in quotes because many readers will have an idea of religion that does not fit here. Religion is, for me, the shared experience of interpreting existential awareness of being in an animate reality and developing behaviours that enhance individual and collective wellbeing. Whether than is done competently is another question. What we call ‘spiritual’ is the individual experience.
I am making this distinction because it saves having to be forced to make an awkward distinction between religion and science. We started using the word ‘science’ around 1884. There’s a useful Wikipedia article on the subject. However, while it acknowledges that ‘science’ goes way back to Ancient Egypt, it ignores the fact that experimentation and the development of disciplined knowledge goes much further back to our ancestors – at least 80,000 years. It also ignores the fact that our ancestors were animists and what we see as paranormal or supernatural were part of a way of knowing that was no less disciplined and experimental – and normal.
Humans are, in essence, scientific in all our activity. We are also disposed to habit and inertia, allowing lore and tradition to become dominant. This is often accompanied with desires for power and prestige. We can and will corrupt inquiry into conformity and comfort.
Campbell, like Robert Monroe, is what amounts a modern religious experimenter. His personal ‘spiritual’ experience has become, via My Big Toe, a shared ‘religious’ experience. But this is true to the old way of focusing on personal experience, method, inquiry, experimentation, and a rejection of any expectation to conform to dogma.
The foundation of experience
Robert Monroe recounts his introduction to out of body experiences in his 1971 book Journeys Out of the Body. He also talks about his experience on YouTube.
This is perhaps the most compelling and credible foundation of experience leading to a radical change in beliefs available to the contemporary reader. There are several reasons for this. Monroe had no spiritual/religious background and was a pragmatic, curious and scientifically minded person. The Monroe Institute has remained, in my view, as a credible ‘neutral’ body.
I should point out that I have no association with the Monroe Institute beyond being on a mailing list for a time.
A few years back I was a regular participant in a forum associated with Skeptiko.com. Skeptiko is a podcast that had a particular focus on near death experiences (NDEs). There was good reason. NDEs had been well-studied by credible researchers. In effect, NDEs are crisis-induced OOBEs.
Skeptiko’s motto was, for a time, ‘Science at the tipping point.’ That made sense. I was attracted by the passion to move beyond materialism and accept the experience-based reports from credible experiencers and witnesses. However, I quit my engagement with Skeptiko when it became apparent that it was not prepared to progress from NDEs to OOBEs. At the time I found this resistance puzzling and frustrating. It seemed like a lost opportunity to progress the conversation with a focus on a scientific approach. I no longer esteem Skeptiko as a source, though I do acknowledge that there is gold to be found in the online back catalogue of shows.
Getting out of one’s body is a compelling experience once the possibility of self-deception has been eliminated. It opens up possibilities that transgress against materialistic and religious dogma.
The difference between a NDE and an OOBE can be one of clarity. Many NDEers report an experience in the context of one’s belief system, or beliefs more generally. On the other hand, an OOBE is a transition to awareness of an ‘ordinary’ reality that is distinguished by the fact that it is simply not material. Reality extends beyond the material and can be experienced as such in a fairly mundane way – once you get over the fact that being out of one’s body is astonishing.
The belief trap
We have beliefs because we are human, and because they work for us much of the time.
A few months ago, I struggled to write an essay on what a belief is. I have to go back to rewrite the essay because it is a mess. The best I could do was come up with a mixed metaphor. A belief is something you anchor yourself to, and it creates an atmosphere. I still can’t do better than this.
That it is a set of fixed ideas is evident. It is tempting to compare such fixed ideas with ‘objective reality’ – which is our belief set essentially. However, to the extent that ‘objective reality’ is a real thing, it will not conform to our beliefs about it. It will always be other than what we believe. Nobody is objective. The best we can be is aware of our biases and conceits, and be modest in our self-assessments.
Monroe and Campbell both describe a non-physical region to which people, on their physical deaths, gravitate in conformity with their beliefs. This is consistent with NDE reports in which Christians (for example) have a Christian-themed experience. Even materialists, who believe there is nothing after death become trapped in their self-imagined nothingness – until the absurdity of their situation forces a modest confession of their folly.
I recall objecting to my brother-in-law that his idea of heaven would be intolerable. I wanted more than eternal and relentless insipid niceness. We are so often victims of our own naïve idealism. Pervasive niceness eliminates any need for character. It’s not that we want evil in paradise, just not the eradication of the vital dynamic of competition and cooperation. The ideal must surely embrace both. It may not result in what we may think of as ‘nice’ or ‘good’ but it will be at least bearable and prevent boredom. My brother-in-law’s vision of heaven permitted no growth or evolution, just a comatose eternity without respite.
Campbell describes what he calls a ‘belief trap’ in contrast with what might be, relatively speaking, a rational objective awareness of post-mortem existence. I think it important to not mistake the opposite of a ‘belief trap’ for a ‘belief-free’ state of awareness. We can’t avoid having beliefs, but we can avoid being trapped by them.
Here Campbell is clear that what is necessary to avoid a trap is a preparedness to be self-responsible as opposed to seeking a comfortable, and comforting, set of ideas. This is, in effect, a maturation process.
Here I want to quickly explore the idea of ‘initiation’. In a belief system it is about being granted access to otherwise restricted knowledge and practices. In traditional cultures it may be some of that, but it is also a (usually) painful encounter with the hard reality of being a grown up.
An ‘initiation’ is a demarcation between to states of relative awareness and responsibility. It can be little more than a formally sanctioned conceit within a belief system. As such it is usually accompanied by some kind of ceremony to celebrate and affirm the new status. But it may also be the dawning awareness that one is inside a belief trap, and it is time to escape. This time without celebration and embrace by the parent culture.
The point I want to make here is that what can feel like a singular moment of reward for effort can be, in fact, moving deeper into a belief trap. And what can seem like a singular moment of trauma can an act of liberation.
Belief traps are woven by any system of thought, not just religions. Actually, it is important to think of ‘religion’ more as a form of belief than about the content of the belief. The term ‘secular religion’ hints that we are dealing with a system, and not the content.
So, it is useful to think of Campbell’s belief trap as being content focused rather than system related. The ‘trap’ component concerns content (ideas, information, and beliefs) that impedes an individual’s ability to see their reality in a more objective or rational manner.
What kind of experiences count?
Anyone growing up in our culture will be exposed to traditions and beliefs taught formally in schools, in religions, in cultural heritage. Our experiences will vary greatly in content and intensity.
Cultures tend to be all-embracing, offering members a complete package of ideas, values, and beliefs. This is true, regardless of size. However what works for a small tribal community will be less and less effective as the community grows in size and complexity. Today a western culture is so diverse that what constitutes shared values and beliefs can be contestable and demands for conformity can be confined to institutions and sub-communities (religious, cultural, historic, intellectual, political, or geographic).
Discontent with what is perceived to be a belief trap may be triggered by many things. A friend described to me how she abandoned her religion after being sexually molested by a pastor. Another simply found the assertions made by priests to be intellectually and morally unpalatable.
We will all have our individual triggers that initiate our revolt against the belief traps that surrounded us, and maybe even have held us captive for a long time.
I had grown up with a steady stream of non-ordinary experiences that made adherence to my family’s religion impossible, and compliance with materialistic science unthinkable. But I found no refuge in alternatives. Over decades I found and sampled other ways of knowing. All lacked what I had loved my whole life – a scientific foundation. Although my non-ordinary experiences have been a definitive part of my life, I was also a science nut from early on. An inability to be passionate (and competent in) about maths cruelled any hope of science being a grown-up ambition for me. Still, I had a passion for reasoned inquiry.
Encountering an offense against reason and/or justice is experience enough to trigger a revolt against the belief trap.
But what is spirituality?
We have out of habit couched talk of spirituality in religious terms and, in so doing, have done ourselves a disservice. The religious have tried to put a proprietary stamp on the human spirit.
Monroe and Campbell have compellingly demonstrated that not only do we exist independent of our physical bodies, we persist in some form well beyond the death of those physical bodies. We have, it is asserted, a nature of consciousness inherent in that enduring presence. We can argue about what it may be called according to belief systems, but it is safe to assert that it is generally fine to call it the human spirit.
We can define spirituality as that which pertains to that enduring presence as it expresses through our physical and post-physical existence.
We can then consider that such a theme embraces religion, psychology, values and morality, intellect, rational thought, all the sciences, beliefs, passions, and instincts. In fact, anything that we embrace under the notion of being human – and in whatever mix and proportion may be expressed.
In western culture religion crafted a distinction that enabled those who saw themselves as virtuous to separate themselves from those they thought were not. This was no moral divide, but one predicated upon commitment and obedience to dogma – the greatest of all belief traps.
This led to us believing that spirituality was about being obedient and conforming to beliefs – as values and ideas – rather than the experience of being human. At a deeper level, spirituality is essentially about the evolution of consciousness, human or not. But for the moment our focus is on the human experience.
Knowing that we, as conscious beings, exist and persist beyond our physical bodies is foundational knowledge that can frame how we see being human. For some it arises from direct experience. For many it remains necessary to receive and evaluate reports from experiencers.
It has ever been thus for us. We either know directly or we trust reports from those who know directly. However, we so often find ourselves reliant upon, and hence vulnerable to, those who have no direct knowledge. They have only lore and dogma and opinion so often tarted up as authority.
The possibility and risk of deception and error is always present. There is a difference, however, between being a child who cannot evaluate what is told to them, and an adult who can develop the ability to discern and evaluate. Some do that well, and others do not. There are, then, two spiritual paths for adults – one is operating within a belief trap because there is no capacity (thus far) to employ effective evaluation and discernment that can facilitate escape beyond the trap. The other path begins when discernment is activated and discontent with the status quo kicks in.
It is said that the ancient mystery schools of ancient Greece taught that great mystery that humans persisted beyond physical death. The central mystery of Christianity was that of life beyond physical death – though ultimately distorted into a dogma trap that captured, rather than liberated, those who accepted the idea.
This idea has been present in human consciousness since humans began, but it was incomprehensible to the many for whom the experience of being human in physical form was their essential experience. Now the potential of post-material reality has become potent and crucial in moderating human behaviour – in the physical and the non-physical dimensions.
As we move away from dogma and toward experience and reason we are reforming our culture and our way of knowing.