Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Visionary Poetry 10: Embodiment

A merely psychological explanation for visionary poetry is no explanation. The body has to be included.

Nonetheless, I reject the idea of biological determinism, the idea that consciousness consists only of the brain and biochemistry. I reject the notion that all things human can be reduced to biochemical triggers. Neurological medicine has become dominated by the purely mechanistic viewpoint, and I think that's a tragedy. Consciousness is what in cognitive studies and artificial intelligence studies they refer to as an emergent phenomenon: a synergistic result that is more than the sum of its parts.

There is also the holographic paradigm, as seen in laser holography: every part of the finished image contains the whole image, but the smaller the part, the more fuzzy the image is; full resolution can only be obtained from the whole. (Break up a developed hologram slide into smaller parts, and every part contains the whole image, but the focus gets fuzzier the smaller the part gets.) Lay a neuron on the table, and show me what part of my mind and soul it is? You can't; no one can.

I think neuroscience is a red herring, when we talk about visionary states. I think you can make a case for the brain and the mind interacting, and reflecting one another. The brain-mind system is recursive, and integrated. But even though we know that brain chemistry affects mood, state of mind, and so forth, it still does not account for the emergent phenomenon of consciousness. Brain chemistry by itself is an incomplete picture of what's really going on.

The left-brain/right-brain hemispheric model is an interesting model of consciusness functions, but it is not after all reflected all that strongly in the actual brain. Since this model was originally proposed, following early PET scan research in the 1970s and 1980s, when for example it was noticed that the left hindbrain "lit up" during linguistic activity—since then, more research has been done, a lot more detailed active-scan photos have been taken, with higher resolution, and it turns out these hemispheric functions are in fact more diffuse, and more generally distributed than the early, crude (low resolution) images made them appear to be. Another example of an early model based on poor data. The hemispheric concept has entered the folklore now, though, and may even have descended to the level of myth or archetype. Western discourse has a strong tendency to model everything as a binary polarity in opposition, from heaven/hell to god/man to man/woman to left-brain/right-brain. It's no wonder then that the hemispheric brain model would then become part of the folklore.

But folklore doesn't always reflect detailed, accurate science.

I read a book several years ago with a truly hefty title, that was nonetheless a real page-turner, proposing a hemispheric model for the history of human consciousness; this theory has largely been supplanted or refuted, but the book itself remains one of the better-written science volumes of all time, and still reads well as literature: Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.

What I find so interesting about materialistic, reductionistic explanations of human consciousness as nothing more than biochemistry is how ridiculously far out on a limb they go to try to explain things like near-death experiences as simple oxygen starvation. Even if one could account for spiritual experiences as simple brain dysfunctions—the similarities between some mild forms of epilepsy and shamanism have been noted before—one cannot account for the emotional and spiritual impact these experience have on the minds and hearts of the people who survive them. Oxygen starvation cannot in and of itself account for the peacefulness many NDE surviviors describe, or their changed attitudes towards life and death, after their return.

What I find intriguing is the reversal of attitudes in the sciences themselves. 150 years ago, physics was a completely mechanistic (Newtonian) and deterministic field, while biology presented a more spiritual, organic, near-mystical worldview. Now, 150 years later, those worldviews have become completely reversed! Physics, since the advent of atomic physics, quantum mechanics, and string theory, has as one of its root tenets the concept that the consciousness of the observer directly affects the outcome of the experiment; while biology has become completely dominated by the deterministic, mechanistic, biochemical worldview.  (cf. Matthew Fox and Rupert Sheldrake, Natural Grace: Dialogues on creation, darkness, and the soul in spirituality and science)

I find this flip in worldviews in biology to be particularly ironic, when it isn't purely alarming. Since, after all, physical principles, the universe's physical laws, ultimately underlie biology—we are all made of elementary particles, or star-stuff, of the same elements as everything else in the Universer—it's particularly blind of biology, it seems to me, to adopt a totally mechanistic worldview, when everything they are studying is ultimately based on physics.

The observer rule in theoretical physics seems to imply a direct connection between consciousness and the fabric of spacetime, albeit not a deterministic one—physical determinism is based on the idea that the creation of consciousness only flows one way, from matter towards mind; the observer rule contradicts that, showing that the information flow goes both ways, since mind can affect matter—thus, the observer rule implies that consciousness, even if it is an emergent phenomenon, is able to affect that which it emerges from.

There have been a few brain-mind studies that have shown that experienced meditators can affect the structure and chemistry of their own brains. A study of Tibetan monks has validated these conclusions, and linked strong theta-wave function in the EEG of a meditating monk to alterations in brain neurochemistry. So much for one-way determinism. Even if one argues that these are exceptional cases, it remains true that they are within the realm of human possibility, therefore, anyone who really wanted to, could do it, too—therefore, determinism is not in operation, because one exception to a deterministic rule means that the rule needs to be re-formulated.

Therefore, even if visionary states are reflected in brain chemistry, there is still something else going on. Something that science might be able to explain someday, but that it cannot at this time. Emergent properties are syngeristic, more than the sum of their parts, and transcendant of their origins. We cannot explain what our own consciousness is, even as we experience it.

Many neuroscientists appear to want to dsiprove the existence of spirit or soul—they are in some extreme cases rabidly anti-mysticism—but they are hampered by the nature of the question: You cannot definitely prove a negative. You cannot prove that something does not exist, because you would have to have analysed and catalogued the entire universe before you could definitively state that—and the universe is very large, resisting comprehension by the single human mind. (Try to imagine the time-span of a million years, much less a billion. Geologists get used to working in deep time, as they call it, but it requires an imaginative effort that I have noticed can sometimes impair their ability to cope with the here-and-now of the present moment.) Astrophysicists and astronomers continue to discover new and bizarre phenomena on a regular basis; the skies are full of wonder. How then, should the human spirit be less wondrous?

The truth of vision remains an open, unanswered, equivocal question. It remains an issue of qualitative study, rather than a subject of quantitative analysis.


I don't think it's necessary to "explain" visionary states as psychopathology or neuropathology, as it then becomes all too easy to explain them away. Exalted state or food-poisoning? People who want to believe only one of those choices will not be easily convinced of the other choice also being present. While the turn towards ratonal science in the 17th century, and away from Medieval mysticism, was in part prompted by the Church's attempts to stifle heresy, and as such was a justifiable endeavour, scientific rationalism is and never has been the root of all knowledge. (Newton also studied alchemy and astrology, for example.) So, I find the attempt to rationalize visionary experiences as products of either cognitive or neurological causes to equally miss the point.

You see, reducing visionary states to psychological dysfunctions is no better than reducing them to neurological dysfunctions. There is something missing in all such reductionist thinking‚—and that is the quality of the experience, and the effect it has on the experiencer, short-term and long-term both. Even most brands of modern psychology would discard spiritual experiences as readily as the neuroscientists do, because most brands of modern psychology are inheritors of the medical tradition which in the tradition of Western medicine assumes pathology and dysfunction as root causes, or at least more interesting to study, and usually does not consider healthy function.

This is why Abraham Maslow's work was such a breakthrough: his was first psychological tradition to study healthy function rather than pathological dysfunction. The transpersonal psychologies follow in this wake. One of the most interesting areas of study in psychology, in connection to visionary poety, is Stanislav Grof's work. He began in the 1950s by studying regular people taking LSD to promote visionary experiences in controlled settings. (Back when it was still legal to do so.) He began noticing many patterns emerging from this case work, which led to the development of his theory of perinatal experiences, and eventually, in collaboration with his wife, Cristina, to holotropic breathwork. (cf. Grof, The Adventure of Self-Discovery; and Grof and Grof, editors, Spiritual Emergency)

Maslow also wrote a book, The Psychology of Science, which is relevant to this discussion. He discusses education in some detail in this book, but the main thrust is how personality affects the way people do science. Some workers in science even use scientific rationalism as a defense mechanism against uncertainty and error—which can lead to the elevation of Science to the status of a religion, complete with unquestionable articles of faith.

I have used this analogy before: the ego-personality likes to think it is the whole system, and/or the part of the system of the Self that is in control at all times. But the ego-personality is like the screen on your compiuter monitor: it's the part that interfaces with the rest of the world, that looks outward onto the world, that seems to be all there is to the computer, or in some magical way embodies personality of the computer. The screen is what seems to link us to cyberspace. But it's only the interface. By itself, it has no existence: it is merely projected light on a screen, with no physical substance. It's a valued, important part of the overall system, but not the most important part even, just the most visible part. What really makes the system work the way it does is largely invisible and hidden—the famous nine-tenths of the iceberg below the waterline. There is a great deal going behind the scenes of which the ego-personality is unaware.

So, if the entire system were able to self-integrate and become self-aware of all its parts (the purpose of the opus, the work, of psychological integration), it would become more than it was, synergize into something greater—and the visionary experience is an emergent property of the result of this integration.

Some of Maslow's work on self-actualization and peak experiences ls very much in this terrain, as well, and quite supports this conception of transcendence. His studies of "oceanic" or peak experiences are worth looking into.

Yet many other roads lead to visionary experience, not just this one. There is the Via Positiva, the way of positive experience and knowing. Yet, there are also the roads of darkness and unknowing (Via Negativa), the roads of creativity as a spiritual path in and of itself (Via Creativa), and the roads of transforming the world and all those in it via healing and social justice (Via Transformativa). When we discuss visionary poetry, we are largely discussing the Via Creativa, but since everything is connected, we also have to discuss the others. I don't think any one of these paths is more important than or superior to the others; furthermore, we all cycle through each path, at different times, although not everyone experiences the same pattern or cycle. The Via Negativa is a particularly harrowing route to vision, and not recommended to everyone; it requires a great deal of preparation. But then, so do the others, in their own ways.

I dispute the ultimate usefulness of mechanistic assumptions about the nature of mind, body, and consciousness, because we are also organic gardens of many parts working together to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Synergies and emergent properties are still not accountable for in strictly mechanistic models.

Chaos theory talks about zones of stability and turbulence, wherein as you add energy to a system, it stays turbulent until it reaches the next dynamically stable state, which can usually be expressed as a mathematical power of the initial state. This is dynamic stability, because it is always in motion, always energzied, never in a stable state akin to some Platonic ideal form.

If we continue to integrate aspects of ourselves previously undeveloped and/or suppressed (what lies in the Shadow), it's quite likely we can continue to feel these exalted states, every time we pass through a zone of turbulence into a node of high-energy stability. Perhaps there continue to be ever-higher levels of evolution, not one final ultimate level of total integration of everything—unless we were perhaps to call that state the Unified Field Theory of Everything—or God. So, each time you attain a node of dynamic stability you have a vision, and you have to keep climbing up the ladder to attain more visions.

Yet this does not account for why unevolved, unintegrated, messed-up and generally unenlightened individuals also get visions. It does not account for why some visions only come from the darkness, and only appear in the darker times in a life. It also does not account for some of the results of vision, which can lead, via inspiration, to increased awareness of social justice, and also to the spiritual state of being open to life in emotional ways that one may never have experienced before (the sacred heart; bodhichitta; compassion).

So, mechanistic models don't work for me, because they still don't account for the actions of spirit in all this.

All of this brings us back to embodiment. We have visions, and we also have bodies. We are not disembodied consciousness free-floating in a grey sea of mentation.

Let's talk about a fundamental body act of creativity: sex.

One Indonesian/Malay word for "sex" is "bersetubuh." The root word is "tubuh," which means body, flesh. The "se" is a prefix used as a contraction for "satu," which means the number one. "Ber" is a prefix used to turn a noun into an active noun, that is, a verb. "Bersetubuh" means "to make one body." This is a profoundly enfleshed way of presenting the concept of sex.

Poetry that is only of the head—words alone that are unbodied, poetry that is not somatic, not enfleshed—cannot achieve this connection. A visioanry poetry that is only pretty images, nice little angels or angles, something floating up there somewhere above the earth, is incomplete. It is a fiction. Visionary poetry needs to get its feet dirty, have its metatarsal digits touch the ground, get a little grimed the way barefoot children run home in summer with blackened soles and broken toenails. A visionary poetry that is too perfect, too perfected, too heavenly without being earthly as well, too removed from the heart with its blood pumping everywhere, is incomplete, unfinished.

I keep hearing many poets claim that poetry is the highest artform; I've discussed this earlier in this Chataqua. These poets describe Poetry as if it were an ideal, Platonic form—perfect on some ethereal plane of existence, not dirtied or messed up by the hard pains of stubbed toes and broken jaws. Such poetry is not a complete poetry, because it is not somatic.

If a poem doesn't enflesh itself in us, the readers, if it doesn't make us feel the experience being described or told or foretold in the poem, then the poem is nothing. Literally: nothing. If it doesn't leave a mark on you, it won't last in your memory, to be sought out later for re-experiencing and re-tasting.

A visionary poem has to engage more than just the mind. It must engage all the sense, and the heart, as well as the mind, to enwrap us in its existence. Only then can it lift us up, or take us down, raise us to the heavens, bury us alive in the moist soil freshly opened by the gravekeeper's spade. We lower ourselves into the earth, covered with white butterflies. We are lifted by white ballons rising into white winter skies, everything going white. Angels see only in black and white; they listen, they attend, they assist, but they are not soiled by living. A poem needs to soil you, a visionary poem needs to explode in you like a loam bomb.

A merely psychological explanation for visionary poetry is no explanation. The body has to be included.

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