"He who knows others is wise; He who knows himself is enlightened."
Lao-Tzu, c. 604 - c. 531 BCE, The Way of Lao-Tzu
"A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be."
Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality, 1954
In many of our previous essays we have suggested that the highest levels of understanding and mental abilities require that we step back from both the objective world outside and the subjective world within. This ability to inhabit a detached abstract world is rightly valued as a sign of advanced intellectual mental development, and is one of the last cortical abilities to develop in childhood and early adulthood.
In many humans this function is under-utilised, especially in the sense that we can re-evaluate both our cultural world and our own mental behaviour. Here we will look more deeply into this aspect of abstraction and try to introduce some techniques to aid its development. Many of these derive from ancient wisdom traditions, but nethertheless are still equally valuable today. Others relate to more recent discoveries in fields like neuropsychology and humanistic psychology, but all fit in with our view of brain and world as complex interacting systems.
With our emphasis on interacting systems, we can start with a visual technique that helps bring together the parts and the whole. This is a conceptual diagram, similar to that shown below:
Here we see the relationships between our abstractions. All aspects of this diagram are internal to our minds, we have concepts concerning the outer world alongside concepts concerning other people and these both relate to our concepts about ourselves. All these areas are interrelated in both mind and reality, they co-evolve in both worlds, but often in different ways. Our meta-self is that part of us that can look in its turn at the relationships between these mind areas, and it is that module that you are in fact employing in trying to understand this diagram. What we are discussing in this essay is the methods that we can use to understand just what these internal relationships are, how they develop, how we use them and how we can alter them to function in a fitter way.
Our intelligence takes many different forms, and each person has a different balance between the various abilities. These forms, in the view of Howard Gardner, include linguistic, logical, spatial, kinaesthetic (movement), musical, interpersonal and intrapersonal (self-knowledge). Many other viewpoints on this issue also exist, one of the most interesting linking emotions into the equation (see Daniel Goleman's book 'Emotional Intelligence'), but we can also add 'Sensual Intelligence', awareness of our wider sensual world, to the list along with all our subconscious and unconscious functions. Suffice it to say that in any complex system, such as the mind, multiple different abilities will coexist, all equally valuable in the right circumstances or context.
In common with the systems approach we use throughout complexity thinking, we concentrate here not on static structures but on experiential processes (pioneered by Sternberg), dynamic and evolving forms of intelligence. Different cultures value abilities in very different ways, so we must be wary of trying to enhance just one favoured modality in isolation, merely to conform to our social prejudices. Treating full understanding as the interfacing of multiple separate abilities fits in much better with our emphasis on multidimensional fitnesses, the idea that measures of success need to take into account all the effects of an action, what is lost as well as what is gained, and not only a single desired goal.
Abstract thinking usually starts to develop in adolescence, since before this time the brain is not sufficiently developed to support such abilities (see 'Your Child's Growing Mind' by Jane M. Healy), but many adults still find great difficulty with many of these tools, i.e. deductive reasoning, systematic hypothesis testing, propositional logic, higher-order symbol systems, self-criticism, planning, metaphor and analogy (Luria). These abilities require the development of the frontal lobes of the brain and are extensively used in scientific tasks, as well as in many technical and managerial work areas.
Abstractions stand for classes of real concepts, they are generalisations of relationships that exist within the world, mappings from outside to inside. The achievement of good abstract thought skills is thus helped by concrete examples, these provide the links between the brain modules necessary for the development of analogous associations, to be used later when we map our internal abstract thoughts back out to reality. The more such associations we make and the more general their scope, the better our abstraction abilities should become.
Without wishing to get too bogged down in controversies about the relative functions of the left and right brain hemispheres, we can nethertheless recognise that we all possess two basic modes of thought. The first is analytical and sequential, best suited to dividing up the world, processing language, understanding music and doing deductive reasoning. The second is intuitive and holistic, better suited to recognition, making associations, seeing overall patterns and to inductive reasoning. We can perhaps regard the latter as the overall attractor mode and the former as the transient path or trajectory that makes it up, in other words the Wood and the trees.
Complex systems require both approaches, for their parts our analytical abilities are supreme (as seen in science) and for their wholes our creative abilities flower (as seen in the arts). Rather than dividing people up into two such classes, we should strive to bring together these abilities in each of us, to enhance our overall comprehension and to gain a better individual balance between these complementary sides of our nature. This requires that we recognise that we each potentially possess all these abilities and can, if we choose, develop any of them by suitable exercises (see Healy Ch6). We must also recognise that both these sets of abstract abilities are internal and theoretical, and another level of practical (common sense) skills are required also if we are to map these talents effectively back onto the outside world.
Given that we have reached the stage of having reasonable expertise in both verbal and visual abstractions, sufficient to deal with most of our adult concepts, we can then consider meta-levels. This is the stage of thinking about thinking, going beyond our day to day world and looking down on it as if from above. Here we see ourselves in relation to the world and also see the parts of our mind in relation to each other, as per the illustration above.
In essence, what we observe is a correlation between the world around us and the content of our mind. Our mental features relate to our experiences and operate in such a way as to maintain (cybernetically) our self-image in the face of external pressures. This mutual support aspect of the mind is examined in more detail in Chapters 9 & 10 of Ben Goertzel's book 'Chaotic Logic'. Many such semi-stable mental attractor or belief systems are possible, and this explains how different people can disagree from positions that seem so far apart, refusing even to accept the points the other makes. These points are interpreted differently, within an alternative world view, so the solutions suggested may likewise also be opposed.
We can use psychoanalysis techniques to help gain a better understanding of our own particular world view. These techniques include, amongst others, free association and dream analysis (Freud), inferiority & power plays (Adler), archetypes (collective unconscious or instincts, Jung) and needs hierarchies (Maslow). We need not employ an analyst, in fact due to the vast disagreement between the various schools it is sensible not to do so, thus avoiding overlaying our sensitive mindset with the constricting and inadequate biases of any particular theory. Any adequate self-analysis must take into account the full richness of our personality, in both its good and bad aspects.
What we must never do is to assume that alternative states of mind are symptomatic of disease, this is not the case. We are not in the realms of problems here, there are no medical causes, no unbalanced physical states that need treatment with drugs. Minds are complex systems in their own right and as such can reside in many different natural attractors. These states are all quite normal and each may confer added fitness in different cultural or environmental contexts. This is as much to do with perceiver as perceived, we must relate our world view to the environment we are in, what is sane in the West may be regarded as insane in the East. If there is a mismatch, it is as likely to be society at large that is in error as ourselves. This is often an open question, best answered by knowledge about both (outside and inside) and not by assumptions concerning either.
Given a number of alternative world views, how can we ensure that our own is the best one in the current context ? This can be a difficult task, due to the mind's complexity, but we can tackle it in stages. Many Eastern religious traditions include the technique of meditation, and this is also practised in some Western traditions. The benefits of this are becoming more widely recognised by psychotherapists in the West, but it is a method usable by all, not just those with problems.
There are many schools of meditation, each concentrating on differing aspects, but what they all have in common is in the investigation of what can be called our core-self or middle nature. This is done by calming our relationship with the outer world, withdrawing from our outer personality in order that we might use our self-awareness to better understand how our mind operates, e.g. what biases we have, how we use our emotions, what aspects of the world we avoid or get obsessive about. Such honest thought needs quietness, both physically and mentally and this is what the technique allows. Once we do this, we come into a healthier understanding of what exactly is 'self', and how it relates to and depends upon the external world, our environment. A good overview on the use of meditation for such personal development can be found in Ian Gawler's book 'Peace of Mind'.
Once we are in a contemplative mode, then what should we consider ? Some topics of self-study include a review of the day's actions, identifying our attitudes to others, how sensitive we have been to the world outside us, what motivations we have employed for our actions, our emotional states, the level of integration between all our values (connectivity), our feelings of self-worth and how we have protected it, our ownership of responsibility for what has happened to us and others.
Many of these aspects relate to who is in control - do we act or react, what are our assumptions about our world, in what social framework do we operate. We are interested in deciding the how, not the what, our general approach to events and not the specific actions. We need to identify the barriers or canalization behind our thoughts, the inherent restrictions that prevent us from seeing the wider patterns, from understanding the viewpoints of others. This is not an easy task, and cannot be done all in one go. We should start small, just being able to recognize that we can consider our own behaviour objectively, before moving on to gradually look at the detail of our mind processes. When done well, this process installs a permanent monitor at the back of our minds, such that we can detect poor behaviour and correct it on the fly, without waiting for a retrospective review in a meditation session.
Given that our natural brain state can comprise many different attractors, all of them forming part of our overall world view, we can then ask if we can reach alternative states of reality which in themselves form quite different world views ? This is certainly the case, in fact there are many. The most familiar to us is the dream state. Here rational behaviour is inhibited (except in what are called lucid dreams) and we enter a fantasy world, divorced from sensual input, where unusual events are common.
Beyond this, we are familiar with the behavioural changes associated with the use of alcohol, e.g. the lowering of social inhibitions. Drug usage also alters our consciousness and the effects of such drugs as LSD mimic similar states achieved through intense meditation and spiritual training. Near death encounters add another level of reality, typified by out-of-body experiences, and we can add to these hypnosis states, hallucinations and the various paranormal experiences. Mental reality is far richer than usually considered.
Within these alternative states many novel experiences are seen. These are nowadays sometimes called transpersonal, and include those often called spiritual, religious, magical or paranormal. All these states have properties that seem to take them outside material reality and it is tempting to dismiss them as delusions. Yet the commonality between them, and the ability to reproduce these abilities in controlled conditions, show that they are genuine phenomena, however strange they may be to Western scientific eyes.
People experiencing these states are disoriented, they have no way of understanding such non-sensual mental images. In these worlds time and space breaks down, the past and alternative futures overlap. We no longer seem isolated physical objects but merge with a wider reality. We can identify with plants and animals, as well as with other intelligences. We sometimes meet demons and gods, mythical beings and monsters, in circumstances that seem vivid and real. In such states accurate information beyond our normal senses can be obtained and verified, and the individual can experience remarkable healing and transformational changes. This wider 'reality' is real enough, but in a way we do not yet understand.
Many of us have had occasional revelations in our lives, those brief moments of absolute delight. At such times the objective and subjective worlds dissolve and we are left in a momentary state of selfless identity with the wider world, expanded consciousness. This is the Eureka! moment, the ecstatic state, the 'petit mort' or satori insight. In the humanist psychology of Abraham Maslow (see 'The Farther Reaches of Human Nature') these are called Peak Experiences and are common to all cultures.
Many development techniques, of the sort we consider here, attempt to recreate and extend such moments. Such experiences can considerably enhance our emotional and spiritual health, reduce intolerance and aggression and put into better perspective our desires and abilities. These experiences are encouraged by beauty, natural or artificial - uplifting experiences that take us out of ourselves into another realm. A state wherein we experience nothing but such bliss is called enlightened and is naturally rare, being associated with spiritual gurus and saints - and this 'plateau-experience' is the true sanity.
Freeing ourselves from the restrictions of both mind and society and enabling our own growth is called self-actualization. Letting out our wild side can be dangerous, both to ourselves and others, so we must do this with care in order to enjoy the benefits without causing major problems. Maslow suggests eight ways to encourage self-actualization:
This process is a progression, an ongoing development that reflects the continuum from our ignorance at birth to the possibilities of enlightenment. It is the difference between intrinsic learning (growth from within) and the extrinsic learning (imposed normality) of psychiatrists. Unlike their delusion of just two static possibilities, sanity or insanity, modern multidimensional thinking recognises that we are complex organizations of multiple abilities. We can interface with multiple possible environments, thus sanity is merely defined as conformance to the status quo, which itself may be regarded as insane from other viewpoints. Only overall, combined, fitness matters.
On top of the more traditional meditation techniques, complexity theory adds another layer. This is the idea of global fitness. We are all familiar with getting our own way, with selfishly deciding which of the obvious alternatives is better for us, and going for it - this is a local fitness measure. What is rarely done is to ask ourselves what new options we could obtain by working with the world around us. Fitness is a contextual value, and so can only be estimated with reference to our environment. Yet this environment can change, it is not static, thus we always have three options for improvement, change us, change the environment, change both.
The most powerful option is the latter, and by changing both ourselves and our environment we can jump to a new, higher fitness, hill thus we can obtain a solution better than any previously available. To do this we must be sensitive to the world around us, and this is one of the aims of meditation. Once this ability is in place, we can better relate to other people and their views, we can see how our actions would affect them and how in turn their reactions would affect us - we can see the wider picture. By such analysis we can then suggest new options that would be of benefit to all parties, and thus co-evolve with our environment to a mutually better plateau.
All these techniques aim to re-position our mind to be able to experience a higher level of understanding than that of day-to-day life. This means we need to transcend our normal rationality, since this is a deductive system based on old linear limits of knowledge and cannot deal with nonlinear inputs outside its experience. We need to detach from life before we can re-attach at a higher level of reality. If we cling to the material present we cannot grow into our enhanced future, but we must also be aware that the detachment we have so far considered is just the first stage, aimed at breaking down barriers. Once this is complete we then need to let go of the conscious abstraction and allow our newly found balance to reintegrate with the world around us.
Our new spiritual reality doesn't replace the material world but incorporates it as a component, we just add extra width and depth to our worldview. It is the death of ego and the birth of a new transpersonal or global self. We can compare this to awakening from a dream or coming out of Plato's cave into the light. There is a danger here, in that a shallow understanding of this process may lead the practitioner to think that a minor revelation is the real thing. This can be seen in such sects as 'Born Again Christians' which, whilst well meaning, miss the wider points by remaining based in prejudicial and narrow religious thought patterns. There are, invariably, many steps to enlightenment, and settling for the first breakthrough far too easily leads to dogmatic attempts to impose a flawed and inadequate world vision on others.
Emergencies are bifurcation points, choices between life and death, between normality and change. We often regard the non-normal option as degrading or a failure but we can take a more positive view of this and regard it as an opportunity. Spontaneous self-actualizing experiences are quite common and can be psychologically devastating coming as they do without any of the preparation we have suggested. The strangeness, isolation and existential loneliness of many such transpersonal experiences reflects the sudden imposition of new attractors onto an old worldview, along with rapid transitions between them, and this leads to a critical loss of focus and balance. In their book 'The Stormy Search for the Self', Christina and Stanislav Grof show how the crises resulting from these experiences can lead to mystical growth, to a re-evaluation of our lives and the regaining of stability at a higher, more enlightened, emergent, level of normality. This relates to an unconscious attempt to perform much the same transformation that we have been considering previously by using conscious means.
The liberating effect of such changes can be related to the similar changes that take place in adolescence. There the fear and uncertainty, feelings of abnormality, and insecurity relate to a step change from child to adult sexuality and behaviour. Similarly here we have another phase change, a spiritual awakening to an equally different level. Many adults do not experience or try to suppress such growth, yet that is equivalent to trying to remain a child. Nature will not be denied in adolescence, and we should similarly rejoice in the opportunities to grow made available to thoughtful adults.
In many ancient traditions this spiritual crisis and subsequent resolution plays a large part in integrating the participants better with their society. This is seen in shamanistic initiations, in adult rites of passage, in mystical cults and within mythological journeys, as well in our Western 'identity crises'. In each case we need to dissolve an inadequate and immature world view before being able to replace it with a more advanced understanding of our world and its possibilities.
The translation by some religious sects of this rebirth into a serial chain of worlds, as in the afterlife, seems an error, based on our linear mode of thought. We can better relate these experiences to alternative views of one continuous world, to higher and lower consciousnesses of a single reality. This involves a richness few seem to be able to comprehend without such transformation techniques as we introduce here. These transformations are neither fantasy nor pathology, but merely another form of human growth, often feared, often resisted, but ultimately necessary if we are to fulfil our full integrated potential and escape the selfish viewpoints of the juvenile.
We are accustomed to regard physical reality as a linear hierarchy, from atoms at the lower end to galaxies at the upper. This size related layering, with us in the middle, is echoed in our awareness layering, from viruses to man (and Gods), each layer larger and more powerful than the last. Complexity thinking however regards each layer as of equal value, since the systems processes of emergence and so on operate in the same way for each - the same rules occur at all levels of reality. In this way we can view experience instead as a circle, where the lowest layer merges with the highest. This viewpoint takes the energy of sub-atomic physics and equates it to what we may call universal intelligence. Not surprisingly, this move is also common to ancient spiritual traditions.
In the Zen circle, changes of consciousness are related to developing views of reality. Initially we identify with the world of forms, the material world. Moving around, we later see that all form comes from nothing (energy) and ultimately returns to it. Further growth shows that form is illusion and only change exists - non-material flow. In the next stage all is thus possible, and mind has no limitations to its conceptions - magic and miracles can occur. Finally we return to the start, viewing the world as is, but from a new higher viewpoint of non-attachment. It is this sort of transformation that we encourage here.
A wider and more holistic view of the world and mind is common to almost all human historical traditions. This more enlightened viewpoint is available to all but does not come cheap, it involves homework and practice. We must work at developing both our abstract abilities, the techniques of standing back from both ourselves and world, and the use of these in order to dissolve the narrow world view of our primitive past, thereby allowing us to rebuild a new integrated world view. We need to enhance our awareness of the whole of reality and the inter-relationships between all the parts, an intuitive perspective related to what used to be called 'wisdom', now often referred to as 'spiritual intelligence' but equivalent to the more explicit global fitness analysis proposed by our complex systems metascience.
Many techniques have been suggested to help do this, we have looked at some here and more can be found in the spiritual and psychological background literature. The actual technique used isn't important, but what we must begin to realise is that this potential growth is genuine and not a myth. There are great fitness benefits in using this new viewpoint, both individually and for society at large. The pleasure we find in the rare peak experience shows us the way, and we can imagine a world comprised only of such experiences. Even if this is unreachable, given that 90% of our time in any case would be needed to work out the implications of our inspirations and to enact them, the remaining 10% peak time would undoubtably prove a considerable improvement to our overall mental state. Compare the fitness and quality of life of such a person to your own in today's world. You too can free your wild side if you so choose...