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
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,
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.