Do you believe in reincarnation, and if so, does it matter? According to a 2018 Pew Research survey, 33% of Americans say they believe in reincarnation, yet it is beyond the range of ordinary polling to ask why this belief exists. In an age of faith, both East and West, a person’s daily life was deeply influenced by a religion’s teaching about the afterlife.
Questions of sin and redemption, karmic retribution, heavens and hells, and journeys through other bodies such as those of animals—these were pressing concerns for many centuries. Now in modern secular society, the question of surviving the extinction of the physical body has been channeled into belief versus science. We don’t ask if God finds us worthy to go to heaven so much as how credible a near-death experience might be according to the best research.
The scheme of belief versus science is something of a false divide, however. There has been credible research on reincarnation, which would surprise most people, including scientists. Pioneering studies were conducted by Ian Stevenson, chairman of the psychiatry department at the University of Virginia Medical School, who began investigating the phenomenon of young children who say they recall a past life. Hundreds of such cases were looked into with the aim of validating if the person they remembered being actually existed.
Thanks to its positive connotations, “wholeness” has become a buzz word in areas of life as diverse as holistic medicine, whole-foods nutrition, and the human potential movement, which aims to create a whole person rather than a separate, fragmented one. What these various applications have in common is that wholeness is a choice—and there the problem lies.
If you are talking about whole foods versus processed foods, wholeness is certainly a choice, and the same can be said for holistic as opposed to mainstream medicine with its reliance on drugs and surgery. But speaking about a whole person is somehow different. If you consider the issue a bit deeper, becoming a whole person is involved in the most fundamental questions about what it means to be human.
The nature of human consciousness is such that we can take any viewpoint we want towards our own existence. This goes beyond being an optimist or pessimist, beyond positive thinking. Or even psychology. At the most basic level, each of us decides how to relate to reality itself. In the modern era society teaches us to relate to reality through scientific, rational, logical means. Nature, including human nature, is thus quantified, measured, mined for data, and arranged through rational explanations.
From such a perspective, the human mind must be the product of the brain, following the basic logic that brain activity can be measured and quantified. This fact seems so obvious that neuroscience claims to be the prime, perhaps the only, way to explain the mind. Yet this claim runs afoul of the entire subjective world, which obviously exists—everyone is aware of sensations, visual images, sounds, thoughts, flashes of memory, etc., which occur “in here.” This entire realm of human existence cannot be turned into data or quantified. (For some background, you might want to consult the most recent post, “Why Math Is Leading Us Deeper into Illusion.”)
It’s hard to imagine a world without numbers. The square footage of your house, the rent or mortgage payment, the weight you see on your bathroom scale are all examples of lower mathematics, while the GPS that guides your travels, your smartphone, and sending a space probe to Saturn are examples of higher mathematics. Yet the Pyramids and the Parthenon needed only lower math, little more than a few basic equations and the ability to count.
It seems absurd to call numbers a problem; they are too useful in every aspect of life. But if you aspire to go beyond your present state of consciousness, if you want to be happier, to find love, or to know yourself, mathematics is not only useless, it blocks the way. It traps you in an illusion and deepens the illusion in radical ways. Believe it or not, anything you can count, weigh, calculate, or measure is part of an all-embracing illusion—to grasp this fact will put you on the threshold to the “real” reality and your place in it.
I mean illusion in the most common sense of the word, the way a dream is an illusion. Imagine that you are dreaming one night, and inside your dream you can use numbers, measure things, and even pursue science. Obviously the ability to do these things would reassure you of the reality of your dream. But once the bubble is burst and you wake up, all the counting, measuring, and doing science would become instantly irrelevant.
In recent years the self-care movement has been gathering momentum, and in many ways it is a natural extension of what came before, which was prevention. Both put the focus of remaining well on the individual. Instead of running to the doctor’s when symptoms appear, prevention taught people to avoid risks in advance. Giving up smoking to prevent the risk of lung cancer was a milestone in prevention over fifty years ago, and since then a host of preventive measures have been discovered.
But prevention focused on disease rather than wellness, which made room for self-care and its aim to attain lifelong well-being. A positive lifestyle that benefits both mind and body lies at the core of self-care, and important breakthroughs are being made, such as the vital importance of avoiding low-grade chronic inflammation and also chronic stress. Yet few realize how revolutionary self-care can actually be.
An opening is provided by a first-person account on a personal website by Joey Lott, who poses what he calls “A cure for anxiety.” Lott presents himself as a longtime sufferer from anxiety whose affliction was intractable: “I failed so completely to make things better (even after years of therapy, meditation, yoga, affirmations, breathwork, prayer, hundreds of self-help books, countless workshops, and on and on) that eventually I grew hopeless. Nothing could help me, I believed. I thought I was broken.”
The popularity of the mystic Sufi poet Rumi is based on his love affair with God, expressed in such ecstatic terms that he makes the spiritual journey seem deeply romantic. But Rumi also reported about how his state of consciousness felt, which gives valuable clues about higher consciousness itself.
Here is a beautiful line of his that has profound implications for consciousness as well: “Exchange your cleverness for bewilderment.” What kind of bewilderment does he mean? To most people, bewilderment is the opposite of an appealing state, since it implies indecision, confusion, perhaps loss of control entirely. Rumi was known for applauding such a state, however, if the result was bliss and ecstasy.
To modern ears the message is more pointed. “Cleverness” is Rumi’s synonym for the rational mind, which seeks explanations that are logical and consistent. The aim of the intellect is to bring everything down to earth, so to speak, eliminating the folderol and fantasy associated with spirituality and mysticism in particular. Rumi encountered this not in terms of modern rationality with its basis in science but from clerics who studied and became expert authorities on “correct” Islam.
There are very old, rich traditions of higher consciousness around the world, and diverse as they are, they seem to have one thing in common: Arriving at higher consciousness takes time, perhaps a lifetime. Along with this idea comes other, closely related ones. Higher consciousness is exceptional. It requires intense inner work. Only a select few ever reach the goal.
The overall effect of these ideas is to discourage the average person from even considering that higher consciousness is within reach. For all practical purposes, society sets those apart who have become enlightened, saintly, or spiritually advanced. In an age of faith such figures were revered; today they are more likely to be viewed as beyond normal life, to be admired, shrugged off, or forgotten.
Much of this is a holdover from the merger of religion, spirituality, and consciousness. For centuries there was no separating the three. Most traditional societies developed a priestly class to guard the sanctity—and privileged status—of reaching near to God. But these trappings are now outdated and even work against the truth, which is that higher consciousness is as natural and effortless as consciousness itself. If you are aware, you can become more aware. There is nothing to higher consciousness than this logical conclusion.
Questions of life and death, including the existence of life after death, seem to resist any firm conclusion. Most people tell pollsters that they believe in God, the soul, and the afterlife, but for all practical purposes we live in a secular society. The reassurances of organized religion no longer persuade millions of modern people, while on the other hand, there is a sharp rise in skepticism, doubt, and atheism.
Living as if we are mortal is the choice most people now make—for practical purposes, they live as if nothing existed before birth and nothing is likely to exist after death. Yet there is another choice rarely discussed, which one might call practical immortality. It rests upon a simple but life-changing decision anyone can make, the decision to identify with consciousness.
Right now everyone’s allegiance is split. We identify with our bodies some of the time and with our minds the rest of the time. If you run a marathon, go to the doctor for a checkup, feel attracted to someone else physically, or drag through the day for lack of sleep, you are identifying with your body. When you feel sad, have a bright idea, or argue about politics, you identify with your mind.
These may seem like obvious things, but it is due to split allegiances that death poses so much fear. If you think that life ends when the physical body ends, the prospect is rarely pleasant, and no matter how much spiritual literature you read, a mental conviction that physical death isn’t the end won’t resolve your fear. Everyone seems to agree that nothing can be known about the existence of the afterlife until we get there—or not.
Modern medicine has triumphed on many fronts in conquering diseases and extending life, but its greatest advance is almost totally unsung. Health and longevity have made it possible to see the body as our greatest ally. After centuries of inevitable sickness and early death for the vast majority of people, the human body is poised to become our greatest ally on a new front: consciousness.
If you can step outside the accepted image of your body as a machine, you will discover that it is actually not a separate physical object but united with your mind as one consciousness—call it the bodymind. This step alone rids you of many damaging attitudes. As a thing separate from ourselves, the body is an obsessive source of worry over sickness, aging, and death. Equally obsessive is whether someone’s body is beautiful enough, strong enough, appealing enough to the opposite sex.
If you want to know what human beings really want, consider how Alice reacts to Wonderland. Lewis Carroll’s inventions are so entertaining, we tend to smile at how upset, vexed, and unsettled Alice actually is. Wonderland overturns our regular, orderly, and predictable life, which is what people actually want.
The inhabitants of Wonderland aren’t just fantastic. They are unhappy. The White Rabbit is anxious enough to be a study in stress over a deadline. The Duchess’s cook throws dishes in a state of rage, and the Duchess herself hands Alice her squalling baby, which turns into a pig. Alice is very glad to get out of there. But Wonderland haunts us, and for good reason.
Even though teams of scientists around the world are working on great mysteries, from the origin of the universe to the origin of life, the greatest mystery remains personal, the mystery of the self. So far as we know, human beings are unique in pondering our own existence as selves and also our place in the universe. You would think that this trait is enough to solve the mystery. After all, if I am aware of myself, I should be an expert on how the self operates.
But exactly the opposite is true. No one can say, with any hope of reaching a consensus, even the most basic things about the self. For example, “self” is both a word and a concept, yet no one knows how or when human speech came about, and concepts, which imply thinking, confront us with our ignorance about what a thought actually is. Take the simplest statement about the individual self, “I am.” When you say these two words to yourself, is it really possible that your brain cells know English and possess a voice?
The world’s spiritual traditions can be reframed as explorations into “I am.” Jehovah uses the phrase when he speaks to Moses out of the burning bush, as well as in Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God.” Jesus tells his disciples, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” In the ancient Vedas, supreme knowledge is conveyed, mysteriously enough, in the declaration, “I am That.”
The upshot, if we gather these statements together, is that “I am” is a statement beyond what we ordinarily think ourselves as individuals and holds the key to truth, life, existence, and a higher power known as God. The gist of the Upanishads is that all things are done by, for, and because of the self, the foundation of reality. However you parse our different types of scriptural heritage, as a species we have been fascinated and baffled by our own self-awareness.
How do we know that anything is real? This isn’t a question that usually bothers most people, because we’ve all been brought up to look upon the physical world “out there” as a given. But let’s say that someone actually asks you the question, “How do you know the physical world is real?” What would you answer?
If you pause for a second, there are only two kinds of answers to this question: Either you tell a story or you refer to your own experience. Stories used to be collective myths, generally based on religion, about how God or the gods created the world. But any story, including the most advanced scientific models, depends on belief. If you believe in the Book of Genesis, you will see reality very differently from someone who believes in the Big Bang. To sort out which story is actually true, the second kind of answer arose, defining reality according to our experience. A rock is hard because two people who kick it agree from their experience that it is, in fact, hard.
The power of seeing is well known to everyone, and many examples exist. There is love at first sight and Alexander Fleming noticing that penicillium mold kills bacteria. Galileo as a youth in church was the first to notice that a pendulum swings in a regular rhythm, setting the basis for pendulum clocks. Isaac Newton famously discovered gravity by watching an apple fall, although this tale was told second-hand and is probably a romantic fiction.
But what if a mere glance has untold power, literally the power to create reality? The opening for this idea came from what is known in quantum physics as the measurement problem a hundred years ago. A quantum is a tiny unit of energy, and if a specific quantum like an electron or a photon is considered a thing, it should be measurable. You should be able to know where it is at a given instant in time, for example, or how fast it is moving, how much it weighs, and the other properties that we assign to things in the everyday world.
When you take the popular phrase “Follow your bliss” and trace it back to its source, something more powerful was intended. In a late interview the famous expert on mythology Joseph Campbell first used the phrase, saying “If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you.”
This implication that bliss is a personal path, and that the path is pre-determined, is much more than “do what you really like to do,” which is how most people interpret “Follow your bliss.” Let me expand on this point by showing that “bliss” is much more fundamental than almost anyone realizes. It holds the key to transforming the mind.
“If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you.”
Doing what you really like to do is certainly a good idea; it is much better than the opposite, doing what you have to do even if you don’t particularly like it. But no one can engage in pleasurable activity all the time. The human mind brings us experiences of pleasure and pain, and since the two are paired as inescapable opposites, mental tension and conflict are inevitable no matter how positive and pleasant you try to make your life be. (For deeper background, please see my most recent post, “Can You Make Your Mind Your Friend?”)
Although we don’t often put it this way, the most important relationship in everyone’s life is with the mind. The late Stephen Hawking drew the world’s attention by leading a life totally of the mind, his physical activity reduced to eye motion and blinking. The body without the mind is inconceivable, however. We cannot exist without thought. So it’s important to ask how best to relate to our minds.
I’m thinking of the most basic issue: Is the mind friend or enemy? Leave aside for the moment the traits that make it fascinating to be human: love, creativity, intelligence, evolution, and self-awareness. These traits make the human mind unique among all life forms on Earth, but we also suffer uniquely. Our minds are the source of anger, fear, envy, depression, grief, and hopelessness. If a friend brought suffering into our lives, it wouldn’t matter how happy he made us at other times—suffering trumps friendship, especially when you consider that the mind is capable of confusing us so deeply. The last thing the mind seems to understand is itself.
If someone invited you to live in a world where every physical thing—granite, stars, trees, the bones in your body—lost their thingness, would you accept? The fact that things exist is very reassuring, so reassuring that we can hardly do without it. Unfortunately, this reassurance is false. We live in a world where things aren’t really things, whether we choose to or not.
Matter, the physical side of matter and energy, is one half of a duo act. We are told matter is what the universe is made of, and energy is what puts matter in motion. The dance between them constitutes the reality we inhabit, a fact so obvious that modern science relies upon it as the unquestioned basis for doing science, not to mention for leading our everyday lives.
If matter and energy are not what they seem, science could be rocked to its core—but great care is taken for this not to happen. Strangely, a nursery rhyme tells the tale. Like Humpty-Dumpty in the English nursery rhyme, physical matter—solid, tangible inert matter composed of atoms and molecules- took a great fall over a hundred year ago, when quantum mechanics demolished every one of those qualities. It is entirely inaccurate to envision the universe being built up from bits of solid matter—or bits of anything.
The ancient Greek notion that reality can be reduced to a minuscule speck of matter (the atom) was a delusion of logic, and therefore a mental construct only. In reality the elementary particles that comprise the atom have a mysterious existence. They have no measurable weight, position, or any other characteristic until they are observed. Before that, they exist as waves that extend infinitely in all directions. These waves have no properties you can assign to any solid object. They arise as ripples in the quantum field, and the entire structure of the universe is mathematically described as interference patterns among these ripples, like the pattern formed on the surface of a pond if you throw two rocks in at the same time.
The dissolution of physical matter isn’t controversial—quantum mechanics is the bedrock of modern physics--but it turned out to be intolerable for working scientists. They rely upon the reassuring nature of thingness just as much as ordinary people. Theoretically, doing away with thingness should have been the end of the story. As every child knows, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty-Dumpty together again. Physics, however, managed to do something more mysterious. It ignored that matter fell and broke in the first place.
The billions of dollars spent on high-energy particle accelerators shows the lengths to which jobs, budgets, and complex projects rest on an ability to ignore what quantum physics actually means. There are now eighteen basic particles, with the hope that more will be discovered in the future, dependent on building even more mega-accelerators. But when these vast machines cause a new particle to bounce out of the quantum field for a fraction of a millisecond, using huge amounts of energy to accomplish this, where is that particle really coming from?
The story of life on Earth owes a great deal to Charles Darwin, and even though few people today read his epoch-making 1859 book, On the Origin of Species, without a doubt we live in a Darwinian world. Revolutionary ideas are subject to change, and when they go viral, as Darwinism did with a vengeance, many unexpected consequences result.
The crudest misuse of Darwin’s theory of evolution are contained, ironically enough, in phrases Darwin never uttered: “survival of the fittest,” ”the law of the jungle,” and “Nature red in tooth and claw.” These notions have been enormously influential. They turn evolution into a winner-take-all competition ruled by the violent opposition of predatory and prey.
Survival of the fittest, when applied to human society, celebrated the rich and powerful as evolutionarily superior. It justified the prejudice that the poor deserve to be poor because they are unfit (i.e., weak, stupid, genetically inferior). Racism and genocide have looked to Darwinism as an excuse to “purify” whole populations through means ranging from forced sterilization to mass murder. Oppressing workers in the worst periods of the Industrial Revolution also looked to Darwin for (false) justification.
It seems perverse that the easier life becomes, the worse our problems. Technology has created life-changing innovations like the Internet that are directly linked with terrorist attacks, giving like-minded fanatics instant global communication. Computers gave rise to social media, which has led to cruel bullying at school, fake news, conspiracy plots, and the anonymity to mount vicious personal attacks—all of these seem as endemic as hacking, another insoluble problem created by technology.
One could go on practically forever, and it wouldn’t be necessary to blame current technology either—the internal combustion engine is directly connected to climate change, and nuclear fission led to the horrors of atomic warfare. But my point isn’t to bash technology; we owe every advance in the modern world to it—except one.
Technology is based on higher education, and whatever its benefits, higher education has almost totally lost interest in wisdom. Wisdom isn’t the same as knowledge. You can collect facts that lead to the understanding of things, but wisdom is different. I’d define it as a shift in allegiance, away from objective knowledge toward self-awareness.
The Greek dictum “Know thyself” doesn’t make sense if the self you mean is the ego-personality, with its selfish demands, unending desires, and lack of happiness. Another self is meant, which isn’t a person’s ego but a state of consciousness. “Self” might not even be a helpful term, despite the age-old references to a higher self identified with enlightenment. It is more helpful to say that the pursuit of wisdom is about waking up.
For centuries a quality has existed that is referred to as wisdom. A phrase like “wiser heads prevailed” implies that wisdom can save us from stupid or foolish actions. Elders were once considered wise, and so were philosophers. But once you bring up these references, wisdom feels antiquated and irrelevant. Who are the wiser heads in our day? Aside from a revered figure like the Dalai Lama, it’s hard to name one, and he is really a spiritual figurehead more than the classic wise man.
Whatever wisdom might be, the average person doesn’t think about it very much, if at all, and when you consider the problems that feel the most disturbing—climate change, terrorism, racism, poverty, and international tensions, for example—nobody is clamoring to call on wisdom to solve them.
But maybe only wisdom can. Let me explain what I mean.
Every problem, not just the big global ones but problems in everyday life, get solved by using a mental model. This model explains what has gone wrong, which is the first step in making things right again. Consider a common problem like feeling depressed. In our time we apply a medical model and send the depressed person to get help from a doctor, who will prescribe an antidepressant, or to a psychologist, who will apply some kind of therapy.
In the past, other models would have offered a very different explanation of why someone is depressed. Instead of calling depression a mental disorder or a psychological malady, which leads to trying to understand the person’s brain, depression would have been considered a lack of personal discipline or a moral failing. A depressed person in another model would be considered possessed by evil spirits or punished by God for some hidden sin. It’s strange to think that depression might be treated using everything from bleeding to exorcism, but such is the power of mental models.
Models fool people into believing that they are true. In modern society, the general belief that depression is an illness like catching a cold or contracting cancer feels so certain that few would disagree. But in fact, the disease model is not always workable in depression. The action of popular antidepressants on the brain isn’t certain and may be totally misunderstood. You cannot reliably predict who will get depressed, and quite often depression comes and goes on its own for no reason anyone can explain.
If your model doesn’t predict things correctly, leads to haphazard solutions, and depends on unproven assumptions (in this case, the assumption that depression is a brain problem), it’s not a model that matches reality. In modern life, we rely on a model of reality that has three components or levels.
The first level is data, which we collect and assemble into facts. Facts are supposed to match reality, but thanks to the human gift of rationality we now have so-called “alternative” facts, that are really just stubborn opinions that refuse to be rational.
The second level is information. Information consists of the conclusion that the data reveals. If your blood test comes back with an abnormal blood sugar reading (fact), your doctor might inform you that you are diabetic (conclusion). But in many cases of other disorders doctors and other experts frequently disagree. The same information can often lead to opposite conclusions.
The third level is knowledge, which consists of understanding. You are a knowledgeable doctor if you went to medical school and acquired the knowledge of diseases and how to treat them. Knowledge is the summit of the scientific or rational model. Data gives us the facts; facts assemble into correct information; information, when absorbed as knowledge, allows any problem to be solved, any question to be answered.
The human potential movement deals in self-improvement, encouraging people to realize that they are not as limited as they think they are. This approach of overcoming limitations has benefitted many, but from a wider perspective, there should be an “infinite potential” movement. Let’s say that the proposition of infinite potential is viable. How would you prove that it exists?
The proof is much simpler—and far more surprising—than you might suppose. Consider yourself going to the supermarket to buy a dozen organic brown eggs. This everyday task is enough to open the door to infinity. “Dozen” is a mathematical concept. Not only are numbers infinite, but so are the equations that grow out of numbers. From equations grow scientific formulas, and science stands for the human capacity to experiment, measure, and rationally understand the world, which may not be infinite but shows no signs of doing anything but grow.
Modern machines are assembled from separate moving parts, a fact that seems so obvious that we usually don’t notice its vast influence over us. But the image of a machine extends to the human body, which is an assemblage of trillions of separate cells, and ultimately to the universe, which is considered an assemblage of atoms and molecules beyond numbering.
So ingrained is the machine metaphor that it has taken centuries to realize that it has a fatal flaw. The human body and the universe operate as a single wholeness that cannot be explained mechanically or even logically. The general public has a vague acquaintance that quantum physics changed how science views space, time, matter, and energy. What escapes general notice, however, is the revolution that followed the quantum revolution.
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