Category Archives: Consciousness

Anatomy of Superstition

I have written about many of my “supernatural” experiences.  When writing those posts, I tried to relate them with the same mind and same eyes I had at the time of the experiences.  Indeed, my memory of the incidents is just as I told them.  But I do not believe in the supernatural.  So how do I explain these events?

Below is naturalistic model of how I understand the components of supernatural experiences.  Mind you, the model below does not explain all of the events, or every aspect of the events — I am very comfortable with “I don’t know!”  And at any time I am excited  to modify my model to better approximate my experiences and those of others.

Over time I will be elaborating on the individual components in the bullets below:

  • Our Worldview:
  • Cognitive Bias: Here is a great, simple, short, visual guide to common cognitive biases which are grouped in one of 4 categories: Social, Memory, Decision-Making and Probablitity/belief.
  • Cognitive Illusions:
  • Sensory Illusions:
<a href=”http://www.scribd.com/doc/30548590/Cognitive-Biases-A-Visual-Study-Guide”>Here is a great, simple, short, visual guide</a> to common cognitive biases which are grouped in one of 4 categories: Social, Memory, Decision-Making and Probablitity/belief.

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Reincarnation: The Population Problem

This will become part of a series on “Reincarnation” — see more links below.

The word “soul” works for Hindus and Christians but most Buddhists would object.  But for Buddhists who believe in reincarnation, please indulge me and just generously translate “soul” as “that which reincarnates” (or let me know your favorite word).

Here is the obvious problem for all of you who believe in reincarnation:

With the explosions of populations, of not only humans but other life forms, where are all the new souls coming from?

In re-incarnation circles, here are some of the [weak] answers I’ve heard:

  1. from other worlds or dimensions
  2. from a soul repository
  3. from heaven and/or hells
  4. from De novo: the universe/God/the-sea-of-consciousness is constantly making/generating new souls
  5. from inanimate objects (a river, a mountain)

Questions for Readers:

  • What answers have you heard to this dilemma?
  • Do any of those work for you?
  • What do you think is a good name for this problem?

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My related posts:

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Astral Projection

Flying Dreams (HT: flicker)

I often fly through the sky in my dreams.  I flew more in my younger years, but I fortunately still do occasionally.   I can vividly and fondly remember these dreams almost as if I really flew — almost like I am recalling “real” memories.  But it seems not all of us fly.  Over the years I have asked people if they have pleasant sky-soaring dreams, only to find out they are not as common as I imagined. I guess we all assume others have the same experiences as ourselves. Do you fly in your dreams? Perhaps it is my mind’s propensity to such dreams that also had me experience astral projection.

Astral projection is a type of Out-of-the-Body Experience (OBE) where an individual finds themselves completely consciously aware but separated from their physical body.  Perhaps my flying dreams are what made astral projection seem interesting to me when I was in High School. I read about it somehow and decided to experiment with it.  I discovered that I was very good at imagining my flying about in my astral body throughout my town and even around the country.  But I always did feel like I was cheating and just using my imagination until I had the real experience years later.

Eight years after high school I was going through a year-long training program as a yoga teacher in Minneapolis when I had another OBE.  One night at the Meditation Center we were doing a group relaxation mediation on our backs in a darkened room with incense in the air and the calming voice of Dr. Arya (our teacher) guiding us through the meditation when I felt my body lock up — I realized I couldn’t move even if I wanted to.  Then I felt my soul drift out of my body up toward the ceiling. I actually did not know it was my soul until I turned around while I was drifting up and saw my body lying on the floor below me. It scared me. But I could not return to my body. A minute later, however, I was able to wiggle my big toe and my soul came crashing back down into my body.  My body jerked and I laid there sweating with my heart pounding, but I kept quiet until the meditation had ended.

Astral Projection

After the guided meditation, our guru said that if anyone had unusual experiences during the 45-minute mediation to come and discuss them with him privately. So I did. He told me such experiences are called Siddhis (extra-yogic powers) that should be considered distractions and ignored and that I should not pursue duplicating them. He reassured me that they were not unusual.

Three years later I was in Japan and learned that the Japanese actually have a word for this freezing of the body just before sleep.  They call it “KanashiBari”  (金縛り, metal binding) — see the wiki article on “Sleep Paralysis“.

This post was motivated by a commenter (L. Rodriguez here ) who asked if anyone understood this experience. His experience was negative, dark and scary for him. When I was younger, I did not know how to understand these experiences.  Today I look at these experiences as odd cognitive illusions, but I could be wrong.

It is interesting that some people are more inclined to have these experiences than others. Have you had any of these experiences? What do you think?

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Related Post:  My Supernatural Experiences

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How to Hear God’s Voice

How to Hear God's VoiceI would like you to try a thought experiment. With your mouth closed, silently say to yourself, “Open the door.” Alright, say it again and listen to the voice carefully. Does it sound like your own voice? Now, again, in your mind only,  this time whisper silently “Open the door.” Next,  yell it loudly (in you mind).  Listen to the differences.  It is odd to call it “listening” because there is no sound, but you all know what I mean.

Now, in a completely different voice, try saying “Open the door” silently.  If you are a man, use a woman’s voice or you women folk, try a man’s voice.  Make up a voice or imagine someone you know saying it.  Can you hear it?   Does it sound like you?

If you ask people who say God speaks to them, they will describe God’s voice in one of four ways:

  1. By circumstance
    The believer may report it like this: “Well, it was the only college I got accepted at, so God must be speaking to me”.
  2. By an emotional feeling
    The believer may report it like this: “I felt a sudden peace come over my heart and knew it was God speaking to me”.
  3. By a voice in their head
    Congratulations, that is what you just did above. You now know what it is like to hear God’s voice. God may say to you, “Go speak to Mary”, “I want you to become a missionary.” or many other things. Oddly enough, God rarely comes up with something you could not even imagine.
  4. By loud normal voices
    This is due to an abnormal brain — either frank psychosis, stress or a strange constitution.

Let me add one final detail to the phenomena in # 3. Have you ever played with an Oija board? Well, it is a divination board that you lightly touch which mysteriously spells out words.  The Japanese use a similar tool called Kokkuri-san where a penny moves on a piece of paper.  In both of these divination methods the pointer is moved by people (not spirits), but the question is, how intentional is the movement.   Likewise, when you ask your mind a question, it can sometimes speak to you without your present intention of creating the voice, but nonetheless, it is your mind’s voice.  This unintentional conversation with yourself can happen to folks even when they are not seeking God’s voice, it happens even to nonbelievers.

Have you heard voices?

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Related Posts:

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Well-Being inside of Sadness

Below are two videos I watched today which were kindly posted on Leah‘s and Zoe‘s sites.  Both videos are inspiring to me.

Years ago I was deeply impressed by Matthieu Ricard when I read his comments in “Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama”. It is the transcript from a meeting in 2001 where he was a participant.  This video confirms my impression.  It is my belief that this gentleman speaks from experience, not from theory.
Question for viewers:

  • Do you suspect that he is correct when he says, “You can feel well-being when sad”?

Next, a video by a young insightful man who is an enchanted atheist.

Question for viewers:

  • If enchantment with reality is not someone’s disposition, how could they cultivate it?

I had to add this one too: Loved it! For more excellent ones like it, see the website “Symphony of Science” which is full of the words of enchanted naturalists.

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Transcendence in Mystical Atheists

How can atheists have “transcendent experiences”?  What would that mean?
Tom Rees at Epiphenom just posted on a recent experiment locating the parts of the brain responsible for transcendence.  The definition Tom gives for “transcendence” was:

the belief [sensation] that you are connected in ineffable ways to the world around you, that you are not limited by your body but can go beyond it in mysterious ways.”

You will notice that I just corrected his definition.  That correction is not just nitpicking, but critical to understanding atheists with transcendent experiences.  Key to that understanding is that many “beliefs” are created after a “sensation” and that for any given sensation, any number of beliefs can be attached.

I recently offered a tool call “Atheists, declare thyself” where atheists or agnostics could describe aspects of their beliefs, experiences and expressions of atheism.  My hope is that the tool offers a method to enhance both dialogue and self-exploration.  This post is an attempt to further these dialogues by exploring the “Mystical Perceptions” category on the table.   The mystical category may seem odd to many atheists.  But I, for one, have had many “mystical perceptions” over the years and yet consider myself an atheist.  Yet as most of the Atheists that have filled out this table to date, I see that most describe themselves as “non-Mystical”.  Are non-mystical atheists the common variety. Perhaps those with mystical perceptions seldom become outright atheists.

I personally feel that most theists don’t have mystical experiences in general either.  Indeed, mystical experiences feed our normal sense of religion.  But a theist and an atheist will walk away from such experiences with different explanations.

Mystics are traditionally despised, excommunicated or at best sequestered by most orthodox monotheisms.  I sense a trace of the same tendency in the atheist ‘community’.   Mysticism is threatening because it reeks of individual interpretation, direct experiences and easily escapes the standardization demanded by orthodoxy.  I feel  A-mystical A-theists are too quick to judge the many altered states of awareness that they themselves may never have experienced — they label those who experience them variously as insane, confused, pathological, crazy, illogical and/or irrational.   These judgmental atheists, limited by their experiences, make false judgments of the world, others and the nature of meaning.   While it is fair game to criticize the beliefs about a perception, to go further and view the experience itself as pathological is, I feel, a mistake.  And indeed, in Rees’ article, there seems a hint of the judgement that mystical perceptions are pathological and yet Tom acknowledges that many Buddhist practitioners have intentionally trained to have such perceptions.   Such a judgment, in my eyes, is similar to a person who has never had good beer, good sex or heard good sitar,  cynically debating anyone who valued beer, sex or Indian Classical music.  Is such cynicism justified?

So, how many atheists have mystical inclinations?  Well, Christopher Hitchens has been the talk of town since he was interviewed with a Unitarian Universalist minister by Vanity Fair.  Eric Reitan, a liberal Christian, does a good piece on it in Religion Dispatches called, “Christopher Hitchens, Religious in Spite of Himself?”  Reitan puts forward this question because Hitchens uses Rudolf Otto‘s term numinous to describe “a feeling of awe or wonder” and states that “everybody has had the experience at some point when they feel that there’s more to life than just matter.”  Has Hitchens had mystical experiences?  Should something as simple as “awe” or “wonder” be considered “mystical”.  I will talk about these in another post.  But for now, this points at the complexity of talking about such subjective experiences.  But here is my point:  You can’t easily dismiss the experiences of others just because you have not had them.  The operative word here is “easily” and also note that I am not saying you can’t debate their interpretations of these experiences.

Let’s look at another New Age Atheist — Richard Dawkins.  Could someone help me find a YouTube post I saw months ago where someone claimed to have developed a magnetic induction device to trigger altered mental states?  Dawkins apparently tried the device and felt nothing while other of his atheist colleagues tried and did have altered states.  Was this pure placebo effect for those that felt something or are some of us built (or trained) to perceive such states more easily than others?   It does not really matter.  Perhaps Dawkins really is less inclined toward mystical experiences.   Or, are these New Atheists so bent on characterizing all religions as fundamentalist that they are a bit short sighted of others who share many of their perceptions?

Luke, at Common Sense Atheism, describes an enthusiastic attitude toward a naturalistic view of the universe which he calls Enchanted Atheism.  This optimist enchantment points to yet another set of emotions, which I feel are different than the mystical sensations explored by the article mentioned at the beginning of this post and thus, in my table, I listed mysticism and enchantment in different categories.

In conclusion, it is important to understand that we should not allow our limited range of experiences and emotions to narrow our ability to understand others — atheists or theists.

Questions for readers:

  • If you are a Atheist/agnostic, how do you feel about this issue?
  • If you are a Theist, how do you incorporate these science findings into your world?

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Related Triangulation Posts:

  • My Worldview: the first two lists are of my mystical and supernatural experiences (not beliefs).
  • Beliefs, what are they?:  my attempt to understand the nature of beliefs

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Fictitious Sea Otter

I use to live in a rural town in central Pennsylvania on the beautiful Susquehanna River.  One morning at 4:30 a.m., as was my habit, I was up doing my morning run. That morning I ran along the river. The moon was out, a soft mist covered the ground and the river was lit with a ghostly glow — it was beautiful. Suddenly, right in front of me, a sea otter jumped off its resting place on the river back and dove under water. It startled me.

I ran about 3 more seconds before I realized it couldn’t have been a sea otter — I am in Pennsylvania. But it was too late. My mind had seen a sea otter, and the memory was there to stay.

I use to also live in Seattle where I often saw Sea Otters on my morning runs along the Puget Sound. I guess my mind was doing the best it could to offer me a picture of whatever it was that jumped in the river that morning on the Susquehanna.

__________________
Related PostMy Mother’s Ghost

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Generous Translations

dialogI was sitting in a coffee shop talking with a new acquaintance who was relating a recent struggle in her life. During the story she casually said, “I believe everything happens for a reason” and because apparently she had no reason to doubt that I agreed with this common pablum, she continues her narrative without even a pause.  And though I don’t agree, I tried to tame my philosophical mind from stopping her story, and criticizing her assumed metaphysical claim.  Instead, I employed a trick I sometime use to stay connected and listen to another person’s story:  that trick is to do what I call a “generous translation”.

I find the face value of her common claim to be utter nonsense. I don’t believe in a world controlled by an intelligent being or some karmic calculator. I certainly don’t believe that humans have different types of fates than animals. The event of a road-kill squirrel, for example, must be explained similar to that of a road-kill human:  I call this roadkill theology. But I didn’t want to bring up my crass worldview into my conversation with this new acquaintance just now. Heck, I am just listening and trying to get to know her. So instead of stopping our conversation to talk about this issue, I generated a “generous translation” so that I could keep listening patiently to her thoughts.

The generous translation process went like this:  I took her sentence:

I believe everything happens for a reason

and translate it to say something like this:

When bad things happen to me, I try to rebound and see if I can turn something good out of something that is obviously bad.

Wheeww, with that translation there are no divine plans and no anthropocentrism. With that trick, my analytic, cynical brain could relax and I could listen to my new acquaintance with sincerity!

Now, this may not be exactly what the woman meant, I imagine — or maybe it was.  Or maybe she indeed believed in a puppet master in the sky who cares for her and has big plans for her well-being. I can’t tell by her one statement. But at that moment, I settled for my generous translation.

Now this may have an arrogant nuance to it, but trust me, I mean no such thing. Yes, of course, my cute way of phrasing the non-generous translation stinks of some arrogance perhaps, but the generous translation itself is meant to do the opposite.

My view of self allows this translation to be sincere and I use it to find overlap between the speaker and myself. The translation seeks to find some statement which I think the speaker may agree with and which I can agree with even if the new translation does not capture as much as the speaker would want nor as much as I would want. A generous translation seeks common ground.

Here are some other generous translation examples:

  • “God only gives us as much as we can handle” –> “I will hope that though hard times may come, that I will find strength to move beyond them.”
  • “God speaks to me through the Bible” –> “I feel inspired with I read books I value. They help me to emphasize the virtues that I value.”
  • “Life without God is meaningless” –> see my post on that stinger.

So you see, when I do a generous translation, I don’t buy into speaker’s literal words. I actually think most of the time we really use language or ideas in non-literal senses anyway, though we may think we don’t.   For if I told my listeners how I was translating their sentences, though they may agree with the translations, they may insist that they meant much more and that they actually meant what they said. But I would quietly doubt that.

So here is the key. We should try to seek the generous translation not only of those with whom we disagree, but also of ourselves. We should take time occasionally to see, at a deep level, how our web of beliefs is actually functioning, how they actually support our lives beyond the analytic meaning of our words.

Generous translations is a technique.  Sometimes it is OK to be frank with folks too!  But it is good to have a flexible tool kit.

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Web of Beliefs

Supporting_our_LifeThe diagram below is one I used to discuss my view of “Many Selves, No Self“.  The dots are modules of mind and the lines are the ways they interconnect and operate together.  The connected dots form a self — in this case, let’s make it a web of beliefs.  It is this web analogy that aids me in thinking about our beliefs.  The web is how we hold our lives in our hands.

Slide5Our beliefs are woven together to support our lives.  When we focus on the literal beliefs themselves, we often miss the function of the web because we forget about the complex interconnections of our beliefs, others and our environment.

For instance, it is possible to have two individuals with very different beliefs but woven in such a way that their webs are incredibly similar in function — they hold their lives together in very similar ways in spite of holding contradictory beliefs.

This is the problem with simple reductionist thinking.  It tends to look at the smallest components of a system but forgets that what makes a system work is the interconnection and interaction of all these components.

It is our web of beliefs that gives us meaning and helps us move in life.  It is not the individual beliefs themselves but the manner in which they interact with our other beliefs and our environment that give meaning.  Beliefs are clothing, they are functional and can take different forms while serving the same purpose.  Our beliefs are not as substantial as we imagine. Depending on a Christian’s web of beliefs, for instance, she may be closer to a Buddhist or even closer to some atheists than she is to her fellow Christians. We can not judge a person by their beliefs alone, we must watch how they are woven into their lives and the lives of those to whom they relate.

Now I will agree that some beliefs are almost impossible to weave well into one’s life, like: “It is good to kill others to obtain your desires”, or “Those who differ from me should be punished” or several others.  I am not pointing toward total relativism.  But I hope the reader sees the possible benefits of my limited analogy.

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Mini-deaths

scared turtleThe fear of death can be painful and crippling. It can arise just before you die, but in the extreme, it can haunt some people daily.  Fear is a basic human emotion and evolved to serve adaptive advantages–keeping us safe. But the fear response is often our enemy, for like many unconsciously evolved modules of mind, it operates rather indiscriminately at times.  Like all evolved systems, our mental modules are often good-enough for survival but not good enough to aid in our happiness.  Evolution only cares about our genes survivals, not an individual’s happiness.  So it is our challenge to transcend the non-discriminant functions of mind if we desire to gain some happiness.

The fear of death result from the working together of several modules of mind. The major module, for which we are usually thankful, helps us avoidance of death.  This module can be a hinderance at the inevitable end of life, giving fear during the only precious time one has left.

Another module, however, is the fear of the unknown.  These are tied together because death can hide within the unknown. So fear of the unknown has many benefits, but many times it can be a major hindrance. Certainly it is a hindrance when we go through unavoidable transitions in life.

Transitions offer us a chance to practice mini-deaths. These transitions offer us a chance to tame the fear of the unknown within ourselves. They can even allow us brilliant vision.

We have many selves which are composed of ideas, emotions and habits-of-relating. These modules are our anchors in the real world such as where we live, who we spend time with and what we do. When out outer world changes (new jobs, new relationships, new locations, losses etc) we can feel disoriented as our mind formulations new selves — new relationships between our modules.  But in this transition state we can watch our minds in ways we never can.  For most of the while, when the mind is not stress and operating well, it is also habitual and blind.  When things are “normal”, we are strongly under the spell of our habitual selves.

But when abrupt changes occur, our hypnotism is broken and we have choices in our responses:  We could crunch into fear, close our eyes and hope for it all to end soon.  Or, the eyes-wide-open approach and learning to find pleasure in our mini-deaths.

I am reminded of this tonight as I went through boxes of books to finally give-away or sell. I will be getting rid of 5 boxes of oriental medical books (most of them in Japanese), I no longer practice this medicine, nor will I in the future. I remember as I slowly came to realize I was an EX-oriental-medical doctor. Oriental Medicine was a big part of my life for 7 years as you can see by my bio. When I decided to give it up, I slowly lost all my memories of the 360 some acupuncture points with all their various uses and of the hundreds of herbs and the conditions they treated and ways of compounding them. I also lost the whole culture of the world of those who practiced that medicine. I entered Western Medicine and have not really looked back.

When I first landed in Japan from India, where I was working on a Ph.D., I spoke about the Indian Languages I knew (Hindi and Urdu) to everyone. Every time I made a mistake in Japanese, I explained my error in terms of “how it is done in Hindi”.   I was not enjoying being so dumb in Japanese after I had just got some degree of competence in Hindi. But a friend took me aside one day and said, “Sabio, no one gives a shit about Hindi–this is Japan.” He was right and from that day, I just embraced Japanese and let Hindi go.  I let Hindi die.  I embraced the mini-death.  Life was much better after that.

As a Physician Assistant I have changed fields several times. Just eight months ago I stopped practicing Pediatric Dermatology which I had done for three years. My book shelf was lined with Derm books, most which I have now sold. I spent much time learning and studying. I published in Derm Journals and was a ghost writer for some speakers. Now, even after eight months, I feel much of my Derm knowledge slipping. And now I am studying urology.

The Derm doctors I worked with will practice a lifetime of Dermatology. In three years I was probably able to experience at least 80% of what they will experience during their entire life of Derm. I also worked with a urologist who has done Urology for 30 years, and again, within 4 years, I got a feel for about 80 % of his life experiences in Urology. So giving up the old stuff has only allowed me to live more lives in this short life.

Change of religion is a major transition. When I left Christianity, I lost all my friends and most of my acquaintances.  Fortunately I did not have to face this mini-death head on, I moved cities shortly after admitting to myself that I was no longer a Christian.  This move, away from people who have only known me as a Christian, allowed gentler mini-deaths.  After the move, I felt like a new person and the new city with new friends allowed me to more fully explore that person — for which I am thankful.

Happy_TurtleI think fear of mini-deaths holds people from taking new jobs or moving cities. By practicing raw awareness and the joy of exploration during mini-deaths in your daily lives, you can slowly learn to limit the fears of large transitions — large deaths.  This will broaden your pleasures and potential. I find that thinking of transitions as mini-deaths is helpful for me. For many Buddhist and Hindus, after death we are reincarnated to live yet another life and we rarely have any memories of the past life, we just carry with us our habits of relating.   But in these reincarnations, usually the past life is totally forgotten.  So when I have mini-deaths in this life, like changing jobs, language or cities, I think of how fun it is to have a new reincarnation and yet still being able to remember the old self.  It has helped me to understand the illusory nature of self and the ability to find happiness at a level unattached to accomplishment, possessions and myths of who I am. Mind you, it is a small happiness, but every little bit helps.

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Related Posts:

  • My cognitive Narratives:  Views of self & beliefs
  • En: the value of vibrant connections
  • Ironically, 1 hour after I posted this, when talking with my son about my job, out of nowhere he asked, “Dad, when you left your jobs or moved from various houses, did it make you sad?” [he was thinking about moving]  So now we are reading this post together. You see, there must be a Buddha — nothing happens by accident. (that is sarcasm, by the way – this post says why).

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