Consciousness in Action: The Power of Beauty, Love and Courage in a Violent Time by Andrew Beath




Varieties of Conscious Perception: Introduction by Andrew Beath
Ralph Metzner's comments below

This article is an excerpt from Andrew Beath’s book Consciousness In Action, the Power of Beauty, love and Courage in a Violent Time (Lantern Press, 2005)


Ralph Metzner is a psychotherapist and professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies. A consciousness researcher and philosopher, he has been involved in America’s social change movement since teaching at Harvard with Tim Leary and Ram Das, in the sixties.

Some of Ralph’s work describes and maps human consciousness. He addresses the importance of altered states and expanded consciousness to guide our soul in finding its life purpose. In the course of our conversations I asked Ralph to discuss how an individual’s childhood development and socialization might affect her emotions and intellectual perception, thereby determining the level of her consciousness.

In addition, I was curious to know Ralph’s perspective about the concept of Eros as the underlying attractor, one could say glue, that brings diverse elements together in the process of creative expression, while building Creation’s ever deepening complexity. We also discussed various meditation practices that might result in altered states of consciousness. He told me:

If you believe and experience, as I do, what the Buddhists say, then even a hermit in a cave in the Himalayas or a monk in a monastery could be doing activism, working at other levels of consciousness to bring about a change from within.

I’m very involved in, and drawn to, the Buddhist perspective. When I teach my classes about the states of consciousness and the comparison of the philosophies of the East and the West, I show that the Eastern conception of consciousness is profoundly different from ours. In the West we say we have consciousness, and then we have a personal unconscious, of course. We try to analyze the unconscious in order to become more conscious.

In the East the language is completely different. They say the default mode of being in life is unconscious, literally unknowing, blindness, symbolized by a blind person. Consciousness is possible but only if you practice meditation or yoga. In the Buddhist Wheel of Life, Wheel of Samsara, at the hub of the wheel are the three animals. They symbolize craving, aversion, and unconsciousness. What they are saying is that the wheel of life keeps turning because of these three factors.

Interestingly enough it’s like Freud: you have unconscious craving and aggression as the core dynamics of the psyche. So you practice disciplines of consciousness and those have the effect of liberating us from the wheel. Then we’re less tightly gripped by the unfolding processes that keep churning along.

The Soul’s Vision

A distinction one can make is between practices that bring about certain expanded states, temporarily, and more lasting transformation. In traditions like Buddhism there are those that emphasize doing the practices and not paying so much attention to unusual experiences – like visions or feelings of bliss and merging that may come up – because they can be distractions. What you’re after is a more permanent transformation of your total way of being, not just a state of oneness every now and again.

There are other traditions, such as Tibetan Buddhism and also mystical practices, as well as shamanic traditions where the seeking of visionary states for the non-ordinary knowledge or understanding that they can provide is definitely cultivated. Then there is always the question of yes, okay, you have a visionary state, you have a vision, but then you have to apply it, otherwise you’re just diddling around.

If you want your life to have passion, traditional people would say you’re seeking a vision, but a vision of what? The answer is: a vision of your life. What is my life really about? What am I doing here? So I would say, yes, seek a vision for yourself, then for yourself in relationship with others. Not only because society needs visions, also because each individual needs a vision. Actually I would go even further than that. Each individual has a vision. The soul has a vision. You choose to come into form. You, the soul, the spirit, chooses to incarnate. So what is the vision of your soul? Why did you come here? Was it to be a teacher, a healer, an artist, a builder?

The vision of the oneness, the diversity and the magnificence of life is a similar core experience for many people, and much of its beauty comes from the incredible diversity, the complexity and the differentiation. Thomas Berry says there are three principles in the universe: one is the unity, the communion; another is the subjectivity, the consciousness aspect; the third is differentiation, the multiplicity and diversity.

The Intention of Expanded States

We are all vulnerable to being thrown off center, and yet there is the possibility of recovering and coming back to center, of remembering who we are, remembering intention. So intention and centering are key concepts, in a strategic sense, of trying to maintain a particular consciousness and, by extension, conscious activism.

We’re referring not just to an altered state, but an expanded state. There are also contracted states, or disassociated states – addictions, compulsions, psychosis, and so forth. The altered state in itself is not necessarily related to a positive transformation unless the proper intention is there. For example, a ritual can encourage positive social change, but this is not necessarily so. It depends on the intention behind the ritual, the purpose. The Nazis were masters of rituals of destruction, rituals of domination; and so is the Pentagon. What is the intention of the ritual? That’s what I want to know before I consider it to be of benefit to greater awareness.

I would characterize the positive aspect of all these possibilities as expanding your perspective beyond that of the egocentric self. We know people can expand, and we also know that some become very spacey. They may be expanded into an awareness of spacey things, but not integrated - not related to something in particular.

Mapping Consciousness

Conceptually, one distinction that I make is between states of consciousness, levels of consciousness, and stages of consciousness development. These are actually three different notions. The idea of an ordinary state of consciousness and an altered state can be followed as a kind of paradigm. Familiar states, like sleeping and dreaming and waking, as well as meditative states, ecstatic states, drug induced states, psychic states, pathological states, mystical states, religious experiences or visionary states of consciousness all last for a particular limited time, which might be short or long.

In each you’re functioning in a different way. Your perception is different. Your feelings, your thinking is different, possibly expanded. It lasts a specific time period, which might be only two minutes, but that two minutes might be life changing. Such experiences can have a profound impact on a person’s life in terms of changing their set of priorities and values. Or they can have an impact that is more subtle and interior and not necessarily externally visible.

Levels of consciousness refer more to what are said to be permanent structural features of consciousness for human beings. Of course we live in a context of many other beings besides humans but I am referring to humans with those levels.

Then there are other aspects that all the traditional teachings call higher levels, not in terms of higher value but higher in frequency. Like the subtle bodies, or the levels of soul, or of spirit that we may have access to in, say, meditative states and that we also go into when we die. Shamanism calls it the spirit world and, of course, that world is inhabited by other beings as well. But we are human and come to all of it through human consciousness.

My professional work and personal experience have confirmed that the whole planet has an astral level or dimension. The astral body, or emotional body as some call it, is the body in which we function in the astral world, just like the physical body is the body in which we function in the physical world. That concept refers to the whole world, landscapes, creatures, beings, non-humans and every other being.

Unity and Diversity

The notion of unity is tricky to work with because relatedness and Eros and connectedness always imply an “other.” Sometimes people say, “There is really no separation between you and me,” and so forth. That kind of language can be confusing. You can recognize differences and still feel connected. In fact to perceive a connection, a relation, implies the perception of an “other,” different from self, doesn’t it?

There can be states of consciousness, temporary states, where you dip into that unity of consciousness, nirvana, or whatever name you’d like to use, where there is no differentiation, no form, no nothing. But as soon as you have one single thought, much less say something or do something, you’re in the realm of multiplicity, not just duality but also actual multiplicity. In terms of personal development I lean more towards saying, “Well yes, there are mystical states of oneness. I value them and love them, but they are not states where you can stay. As soon as you start to do something you come down and you’re in the world of multiplicity.”

Jung had a notion of “wholeness,” or “undividedness,” as he called it. I like wholeness because it means that all the different parts of oneself are included as a goal of personal development. It is also open-ended because it allows for you to know parts of yourself that you don’t yet know.

For example, if I’m in a state of oneness at the moment, then I don’t feel anger; in fact it’s hard for me to even imagine feeling angry with anyone. But I know that in my ordinary life I’m going to get angry again if I’m confronted with something that is outrageous and that is a threat. I’m going to mobilize rage to defend myself or my family. In this way I would be able to understand myself as a being that has different kinds of reactions according to the circumstances. I want to become as conscious of those potential reactions as possible.

Personal Perception Creates One’s Worldview

You have ways of understanding, of thinking, ways of behaving and perceiving reality that you learn as you grow up in society. You have a worldview. You have perceptions, social skills, and professional skills. That’s all part of your equipment. You learn those. In psychotherapy we work a lot with helping people free themselves from entanglement of these conditioned patterns of reaction and interaction that may have been appropriate at an earlier stage of life, or perhaps in another level of evolution – personal or collective – but have become counterproductive and inappropriate.

When threatened, it is appropriate to mobilize a tremendous amount of energy to either attack or flee. When not threatened, that same energy is wildly inappropriate and destructive. Consider righteous indignation. I might be righteously indignant about something that is being done to somebody else, although I’m not actually threatened. Is that an appropriate reaction? Expanded consciousness allows me to understand that if it’s happening to them, it’s also happening to me. If I see somebody beating up a defenseless person in the street, I would want to intervene but, hopefully, I would be able to intervene without rage.

People will often say in therapy things like “love is letting go of fear,” or “you just have to get over your fear” and that kind of thing. Then people feel badly because they can’t let go of their fear. I no longer say that. I no longer say you can get rid of all of your fears or your capacity for fear.

Primal fear and primal rage are basic evolutionary reactions that we share with all animal life. They are designed for protection. You can’t, you don’t want to get rid of them. There is no way that you can, nor would it be desirable. You wouldn’t survive if you didn’t have the capacity to mobilize rage-energy when attacked. It’s something that just happens and it’s over as soon as it’s over.

There are other reactions that are secondary reactions, overlays, and neurotic fears that are not appropriate anymore. Rage or blame that is based on judgments and delusion-created cravings. Those we definitely want to get rid of. So we don’t, we can’t, free ourselves from the evolutionary part of our being. That comes from having a biological body that has evolved on this planet. It is survival instinct. Wholeness would imply that you maintain that physical-mammal body in an integrated way so it doesn’t dominate you and it doesn’t spill over into your interpersonal relations. Then you don’t function as a predator in your everyday life.

Eros and the Web of Life

We need a relational worldview in which the systemic interrelatedness of everything, which this theory of conscious activism calls Eros, is the prime mythic image. The web of life would be another image of it. I often recall a woman I know who is a conscious activist, Claire Cummings. She does a lot of work with Native American issues, and she said that what Native Americans would like from people are three things, all beginning with the letter “r”: relatedness, respect and reciprocity. And in a way that is a good model for anyone, human beings, animals or spirits. All three of those “r” words are Eros concepts.

We could call that a communion of subjects. As Thomas Berry says, we’re moving from a world in which we have a collection of objects to a world in which we have a communion of subjects. These ideas fit with the notion of the web of life, which I work with a lot. It’s the web of interconnectedness, which is a kind of a systems view. It’s also the most ancient view of indigenous and shamanic people and similar to the Anglo Saxons’ concepts of “Wyrd.” It’s a web in which the basic principle is connection, the same as Eros and relatedness. It’s impossible to ever really be outside of this web.

There are also levels of consciousness involved. I had a dream once when I was starting to work with the notion of the web of life. The dream indicated that this web exists on many levels. It became clear to me that you can think of the web of life at a biological or genetic level where all life has the same DNA coding process, at least for life on this planet. So single cells, trees, animals, plants, everything shares this code. All of these things come from original single-celled organisms. This creates a very direct biological interconnectedness.

But the web of life also exists at the emotional level, and that would be the dimension we call love, and it would also be O. E. Wilson’s notion of “biophilia,” an instinct. He says all life has an instinct to love other biological living forms –biophilia. That’s the feeling that we have when we love trees, love the ocean, or love the rainforest. It’s not sexual love but it’s love in an embracing sense.

You could say that even beyond the mental there is a level of unity or oneness that goes beyond “web,” because “web” is still a concept, after all, a metaphor, a form. If you think of something like essence, or soul, or spirit, then you’re talking about formless consciousness. There are formless qualities of consciousness where there is a sense of union that can be felt, experienced, known and understood. Yet it is unable to be represented in any kind of conceptual form.

Our ancestors had a much closer connection to the natural world. That’s the issue that fascinates me. Historically, how has it come about that we live in a world where we get so disconnected as a culture? The current interest in shamanism, working with herbal medicine, psychoactive herbs and other substances, as well as the current focus on organic approaches to farming and nutrition all have the quality of bringing about a more direct experiential connection with nature—not rejecting technology, necessarily, being conscious of how technology can be useful, but also aware of how it can separate us in our thinking.

Some people say the hunter-gatherer cultures have something to teach us. They do not mean that we have to go back to hunting to get our food; however, there are some attitudes and perceptions that hunter-gatherer societies have developed that would be of great value to recapture. Among other things, I’m referring to a sense of respect, sometimes bordering on reverence, from humans toward non-humans, especially the animals that these people hunt and kill for food or to provide clothing. That way of being is more in context with consciousness of the web of interrelatedness.

If you’re in a web, you have to respect the others who are in the web, even for your own self-interest. It doesn’t make any sense otherwise. You can only really get into these toxic postures of domination and superiority if you think of yourself as an individual who has to struggle for survival against other individuals.

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