How I joined a cult. Part 5: Ineffability

29 Dec

The Andrew Cohen Community at Foxhollow, Massachusetts, 2002

Did I fail in Part 4 to show, as any storyteller should, those ‘deep’ or ‘heightened’ states of ‘non dual’ consciousness I say were milestones on my road to culthood? In fairness I set out to do no such thing. Others have tried – here for instance – but I do have some sense of my limitations and did say early in that post that I was standing at the outer edge of my experience. I also laid down a note of caution on ineffability; that which by definition cannot be captured in words.

This of course is deeply unsatisfactory to the rational mind, a fact which takes us to the heart of the matter. If my experiences mean anything at all they suggest that we are not our minds; that the ‘me’ to which we make such frequent reference, and around which our awareness habitually revolves in painfully and destructively narrow circles, is not separate from a Vastness of Being to which the attachment of labels like ‘God’, ‘The Absolute’, ‘Immanence’ etc seems a feeble attempt to make finite and known – while insisting on the very opposite – that which is Infinite and Unknowable.1

By the same token, that ‘me’ is not reducible to the play of thoughts and feelings which crowd out our internal landscapes pretty much 24/7.

Which would point to there being more to the confusing soap opera I call My Life than rational inquiry can uncover. Our powers of reason serve us admirably, especially when combined with empirical observation, but empirically based reasoning is still just a tool and even the best and most versatile of tools have limits to their usefulness. That’s no bad thing while we have others in the toolbox but, when we don’t, an excellent servant can easily become a terrible master as we fall back on ingrained habit and superstition.2 As the saying goes: when our only solution is a hammer, we do so tend to view every problem as a nail.

Then again …

… the moment we cordon off any arena of experience as off-limits to reason and evidence, we step onto terrain fraught with such dangers as arbitrary authority – unchecked, unaccountable and underpinned by that most treacherous of credentials, charisma.

*

I’m just saying, is all. I didn’t get to write the rules here. And let’s remember that what got me into this in the first place was Andrew Cohen’s observation, perfectly accessible to reason and demonstrably accurate, that almost every one of us has a superstitious relationship with his or her mind. This from Part 3:

Walking down the street, you experience a generous and uplifting thought. Unconsciously, you feel good about yourself, concluding yourself a noble soul. A few minutes later you’re assailed by a mean-spirited and base thought. Now you feel a louse! Why? In both cases you drew conclusions about who you are from the content of thoughts (99.99% of which are inconsequential firings of the nervous system) which you think of as (a) ‘yours’ and (b) significant when in reality they are usually neither. To any observer, nothing happened.

Let’s also remember that meditation as taught by Andrew and others is a practical thing. In its simplicity and repeatability it meets some at least of the key criteria of experimental science. I can’t say exactly what you will experience if you practise no relationship to thought in a setting where, for an hour or so, it is safe to withdraw from the demands of daily life. But I can say that those who do so on a regular basis find that (a) no relationship to mind is indeed possible, ergo we are not our minds;3 (b) the practice is highly conducive to states consistent with what some have spoken of – here’s a second instance – as non dual consciousness.

Unconvinced? Never mind. For my purposes – charting how and why I joined a cult – I need not prove that these states are attainable, or attempt a graphic account of them. Far less need I say what they signify (a point I’ll return to) or whether they might help us to become better people (ditto). I need only place a marker: these were my experiences, and such was their power.

Whether, to borrow from John Lennon as quoted at start of Part 4, “the dream I had was real” is beside the point. I thought it real, and yearned to go deeper. If Part 4 left you none the wiser as to what I experienced at the London School of Dentistry in June 1996, and a few weeks later in the Swiss Alps, it really doesn’t matter. Not for my purposes it doesn’t.

Still, it would be nice – for you I mean – if you had at least an inkling. And maybe you have at that. I don’t claim my experiences to be unique, or even rare. Just extraordinary.

Which isn’t the same thing.

* * *

  1. Religions seek to encode that which cannot be encoded, to name that which cannot be named. And even their most ardent followers are hard put to deny the harm they do; the shelters they give our raging egos. (But then, ego – defined here as arrogant self importance, often working under cover – can hide anywhere: in science, any of the isms, enlightenment – whatever that means – and even our capacity to love. No idea or impulse, however pure, is immune.) Are the world’s religions obsolete then? After all, every one of them came into being in the late neolithic era. Their gods and prophets knew nothing of Charles Darwin’s discovery – resoundingly upheld in recent decades by technologies and methods he had no access to – that the universe, and life in our tiny corner of it, are (a) far older than their creation myths could possibly encompass and (b) in a state of permanent evolution. But rationalist scorn of their tall tales falls wide of the mark. Explanation is only part, and not the most important part at that, of what religions do. Other tasks are: managing, by way of moral absolutes tempered to greater or lesser degree by compassion, those tensions arising from our dual nature as social but individuated animals … establishing a social glue through shared cultural referents … addressing our seemingly innate desire for transcendence and existential meaning. I don’t say they do these things perfectly, uniquely or even adequately. But that subset of atheists who think that, in demolishing the explanatory role of religion, they ipso facto make religion null and void have failed abjectly to get the measure of their bête noire.
  2. Long ago a friend told me that people who believe in astrology not only inspired his derision but also his anger. I can think of worthier targets of my ire, and asked: if the movement of celestial bodies can influence our tides, why not our psychology? FWIW I’ve a sneaking suspicion that astrology has a predictive power of marginally higher than random significance but, right or wrong, my argument was pretty weak. But then, so was his protesting response that: we know why the moon affects the tides. Yes, we can and should bring scientific methods to bear in attempting to show that a putative phenomenon, in this case the predictive power of astrology, does or does not exist. But it is highly unscientific to deny, a priori, that phenomenon on the curious ground that we can’t explain it. And no, I’m not looking to add to my already uphill task by demanding belief in astrology! Simply saying that even our much vaunted rationality can be deployed in superstitious ways born of our addiction to fixed and finite mental habits and categories.
  3. ‘.. no relationship to mind is indeed possible, ergo we are not our minds.’  I’ve no wish to get into a debate here on semantics; on what the lexical signifier, ‘mind’, points us to. Yes, it may be that one part of ‘mind’ has simply distanced itself from another. In which case the part doing the distancing is so rarely engaged – and the part being distanced from so rarely disengaged – as to make no practical difference to what is being said here: viz, that a superstitious identification with thought and feeling leaves us with a tiny and needlessly tormented perspective on life. It would, however, have adverse implications for how Andrew Cohen interpreted non dual experience. But as I so often do, I’m getting ahead of myself.

8 Replies to “How I joined a cult. Part 5: Ineffability

  1. “… the moment we cordon off any arena of experience as off-limits to reason and evidence, we step onto terrain fraught with such dangers as arbitrary authority.”

    This encapsulates the danger of religion, but it also describes the limitation of science – at least as it is currently practiced. Science presently can only deal with enumerable or objectively describable entities or ideas. Unfortunately, there is more to the world and human life than can be encompassed by science.

    There are three tendencies in broad scientific life which I find annoying. These are to see one discipline (usually the one which the narrator is practised in) as being superior in explanatory power to most others. So a sociologist, for example, will denigrate the explanatory power of psychology, and vice versa, even though they both deal with human behaviour, and are both equally valid and overlap in explanatory power. The second is to believe that because people living in the past were not so advanced in material science, that they were also more stupid than we are now. The third is to dismiss knowledge which has been accumulated over hundreds or in some cases thousands of years as being mere ‘folk’ wisdom, not worthy of inspection.

    These are self imposed limitations to science, and point to the fact that scientists are just human too – I remember being actually shocked when I first came across descriptions of scientists being motivated by jealousy towards their fellow practitioners, or by personal ambition – I had swallowed the propaganda of complete objectivity. They also indicate that science is not the dispassionate, purely analytic (or descriptive) practice that it purports to be.

    This in turn partly explains why science cannot come to terms with religion or purely subjective experience – fear, discomfort and lack of effective tools. Practices such as mindfulness and meditation have been going for probably 3,000 years (at least), and have been shown to be effective and real disciplines. Similarly, poltergeist phenomenon (associated in most cases with troubled adolescents) have been described over centuries. It would seem almost certain that there is a core of truth in these reports. The fact that science has no real way of understanding of them is to say that science is currently self-limiting.

    As for religion, that too has its problems. The social glue and provision of morals that you mention seem to me to be one of the most dubious aspects, but morals can be arrived at by anyone who is not a psychopath, and social glue would be better provided by a Marxist or Anarchist state.

    A religious belief is fine, as long as it is confined to one individual. As soon as the individual tries to communicate his own unique experience to someone else, it becomes false. In fact, I think that ‘organised religion’ should be prohibited, while individual belief, entheogen drug use and for example, shamanic practices should be encouraged, as long as they do not try to establish themselves as unquestionable belief systems. Similarly for self-proclaimed ‘gurus’ – keep a pinch of salt handy – believe the message as far as you can verify it, but disregard the messenger.

    So much more that should be said – needs a book – but its a bit too late for me to start on that.

      • Rather the Fat Lady than me!

        At my age, I have other things to do than write books – just reading them still takes most of my time. Composing a short reply to your posts has reminded me how difficult it is to write concisely, logically and coherently. A book about the relationships between science, religion and the mind – just researching it would take years, and with Covid ravaging the country, thanks to the incompetents in Westminster, I might not have years 🙂

  2. PS.

    “This of course is deeply unsatisfactory to the rational mind, a fact which takes us to the heart of the matter”

    While rationality is indispensable in everyday life, I would say that it is greatly over-rated as a practice. Greed, hate, callousness, jealousy, malice etc. possibly even love, are very much a part of life at all levels and are also deeply irrational. (See Mr. Spock!) As I noted before, these practices obtain even in the purest (?) practices of science. Rationality also leads to the formulation of paradoxes (Zeno, etc.) which prove that rational arguments can lead to irrational outcomes. So you get a large amount of current(ish and mainly British) philosophy which is basically about splitting semantic hairs on the point of imaginary pins – completely worthless.

  3. I don’t think I have anything very useful to say Phil – but you have got me thinking about non duality.

    I found the picture of Mr Cohen rather scary! As a bass player I know something about the power and forcefulness of drummers but …….

    • you have got me thinking about non duality

      We might yet drop acid together Bryan. If memory serves, a mere forty years ago – i.e. long after I’d called it a day – you suggested this.

      I found the picture of Mr Cohen rather scary!

      Maybe a touch there of wild Keith Moon but more the take-no-shit-from-no-fucker kick-assitude of an Art Blakey or Buddy Rich. As to the scariness of the pic, well, that’s a mix of my limited kit and skills in 2002. He was playing a bar in Lenox, Massachusetts and I was just getting into photography with a 2.1 MP Olympus point and shoot. Huge red eye was crudely removed with Photoshop Elements. All I have now is a small jaypeg file, so doing a better job, even with current skills and kit, wouldn’t be easy. But why would I want to? That eyeball glaring demonically through the cymbals couldn’t be more suited to my purposes had I planned it that way!

    • Ha! I sent prints of this picture, the one used in Part 3 and others of that gig to Andrew. He never replied. It could be he umbraged out at that slight hint of the demonic but it’s more likely, given his low tolerance of mediocrity in any arena, he thought no reply was merited.

      His loss. I’m not one for bragging but … let none accuse me of never having delivered an eye-catching pic!

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