Dream-notes to bring the Real close
With my cat under the Bodhi tree
When I was in the early years of high school, perhaps 12, or 13 years old, I wondered whether I was a tiny creature on a relatively small planet in a random corner of a giant universe, or that that same universe existed in my consciousness. I vividly remember how I sat at my desk thinking about it while looking out of the window, seeing the much loved slender and almost transparent birch tree in our own front lawn, and a few bigger and more majestic trees across the little river which slowly made its way to the right on the other side of the road before our house. In first instance, both perspectives made sense to me and they both seemed true, each in its own way. The problem was that I did not manage to hold both perspectives simultaneously, and the jump from one to the other was somewhat clumsy, since it involved an awkward in between state which was neither here nor there. I discussed my predicament with my sister, but she could not shed much light on it. What did become clear while we talked was that everybody around us took it for granted that the first assumption was the right one. My problem with that was that the second one appeared at least in some ways more true to me. The reason was that of that huge external universe I could actually see only a tiny bit directly: my room, me, and what was immediately outside my windows. All the rest about the physical universe I knew only indirectly. There was another, slightly larger bit of the world which I could retrieve from memory because I had seen it myself at other times, but all the rest, and that meant virtually all of it, I knew only because others had told me about it, and, unfortunately, by that time I had learnt to distrust what others, and especially teachers, told me.
The awareness that everything existed in my consciousness, on the other hand, was for me a primary reality, something I knew directly, from my own experience, in real time, right then and there where I posed myself this question, so it felt more real. The only hitch with that view was that there was no reason to presume I was more important than others, so reality became a rather complex web of 'consciousnesses' encompassing each other. But this did not bother me much, and now, when I think back about it, I realise I was right not to worry about that since that is a problem physics has neatly solved by the way it conceptualises the force-fields of gravity and electro-magnetism. Consciousness may function in a similar manner with many centers of consciousness that overlap -- and influence -- each other. What did bother me more was that -- as far as I knew -- nobody else thought about reality the way I did.
I do not remember any precise point when this inner conflict got resolved. It may have simply petered out, like my irritation over the fact that I could not imagine colours outside the narrow humanly visible spectrum, or spaces that were not limited on the left and right, front and back, top and bottom. The other possibility is that I gave up on my consciousness-centred view of reality at the same time that I gave up my cat-taught vipassana meditation.
More or less in the same period, but possibly a bit earlier, my much loved cat used to sleep, at least in winter, between my blankets in the hollow of my knees. This was problematic, because when I turned from one side to the other just before falling fully asleep, the cat would wake up, walk off in a huff, and climb out of the window into the cold night. To prevent all that from happening I had to keep myself from turning on my other side and the only way I could manage that, was to stay alert while falling asleep. It so happens that "staying alert while allowing one's body and mind to fall asleep" comes pretty close to what one does in meditation practice, and so, as I got better at it, I had, night after night, the most marvellous experiences: streams of inner light moving through what I later learnt were called nadis, the ida, pingala and sushumna, almost unbearable intensities of delight. A wonderful inner world opened up that in some strange way, gave a sense of the deep inner meaning of life. And then, one day, going on a ride to the nearby town with my father in his car, I made the terrible mistake of telling him about it. He was visibly shaken, and so clearly scared his son was going crazy, that I stopped my nightly adventures with immediate effect. I don't remember what this did to the night-life of my cat, but for me it was as if the light had been switched off and the meaning of my life had come to a sudden end. I became increasingly depressed.
And so it was till, in January 1970, I met S. N. Goenka in Bodh-Gaya, the place where Buddha reached nirvana under a Bodhi tree. Goenka had arrived in India from Burma a few years before and gave informal meditation classes on the flat roof of the local "Burmese Viharra". He instructed me to sit quietly and watch streams of prana move through my subtle body with every breath. When I reported back that I could see them clearly and that they seemed to awaken a much broader, more wildly moving stream of whitish light rising up in between, he was surprised at the instantaneous effect of his instruction. I don't recollect whether I told him that he had stirred the ambers of a fire that had actually been lit, many years earlier, by a cat!
It is only today that I realise what a sweet coincidence it is that now, 50 years later, I live in a building named "Bodhi Apartments".
A small village in the far North of Thailand, a young Buddhist monk explains that "According to Buddhism, it is Consciousness that manifests the world out of itself"...
In the third year of my medical studies I was quite fed-up with anatomy and behaviouristic psychology, and so I pushed all mandatory practicals into one semester and took five months off to go to India. There happened to be a flight to Bangkok which was cheaper than any flight I could find to India, and hardly three days after my departure, I found myself in a small village in the far North of Thailand, close to the Chinese border. I was standing on an unpaved, tree-lined square, speaking with a young Buddhist monk, roughly my age. There was a typically Thai, beautifully arranged tea stall in the background. I had asked the monk whether he was not worried the onslaught of modern technology would spoil his Buddhist life-style, but he had laughed it away, saying something on the lines of "technology may come and go, but Truth will stay." I wasn't too sure this would work out the way he thought, but then he added: "According to Buddhism, it is Consciousness that manifests the world out of itself." The moment he said that, my entire world stood still. When it restarted, the thought that popped up in my mind was: "This is the first time in my entire life, that anyone has told me something that is true."
Looking back at that moment, I've often thought that this was bizarrely exaggerated, but whenever I go a little deeper into myself, it still rings true: If I would put everything I learned in school on one side, and this one sentence on the other, I'd choose for this sentence.
Strangely enough, it took me more than 50 years to fully understand what had hit me so strongly on that day in front of the little tea-stall. Why this one sentence had such an impact began to dawn a little after I had written something about panpsychism, the belief that consciousness is an essential aspect of everything in existence. I had written that Plato shared that view and had recounted Plato's conviction that the world is a shadow play projected by a higher, more eternal world of Ideas. As a philosophy, this comes pretty close to the Buddhist view, and so I wondered why Plato's ideas had never struck me as true when my school teachers taught them to me. It was only then that I began to realise that what had hit me over 50 years back in Thailand had not been the content, it had not been the sentence which the young monk had spoken, but the type of knowledge embedded in that sentence and the way he had shared it.
My school's teachers imparted constructed knowledge. Thanks to their senses, they were aware of the physical world in which they lived, and they shared a type of knowledge that -- as my medical teachers never stopped stressing -- their brains had manufactured. They knew, from their history classes, that there had been a man called Plato who had lived long ago in a land called Greece, and they shared what this man had written in his writings. The knowledge they shared was all "evidence-based", factual, potentially practical, but second-hand and in the end meaningless.
With the Buddhist monk, the situation was different. The knowledge he shared was knowledge by identity: he knew the consciousness that manifests the world because he knew, at least to some extent, that he was that consciousness — and somehow he had made me recollect at least a little bit of what that consciousness was.
And so I began to find back a truth and a way of knowing I had lived as a kid, but had lost going to school.
How seemingly random events and seemingly independent agents help to give a shape to the story of our lives.
A blind god is not destiny’s architect;
A conscious power has drawn the plan of life,
There is a meaning in each curve and line.
— Sri Aurobindo, Savitri, p. 460
A little over 50 years ago, my father had a dream in which my mother had cancer. He trusted the dream and took my mother to a gynaecologist, but the gynaecologist found nothing, and nothing was done. Three months later the first symptoms appeared. An operation was done, but by that time the cancer had spread too far and could not be removed. A few days after this unsuccessful operation, the tumour spread to her kidneys and she became unconscious. Radiation therapy was started but the oncologist was not sure whether it would work. The prognosis was bad.
I was not with my parents when this happened. I had taken 6 months off from my medical studies at the University of Amsterdam and was travelling through Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and India, learning the basics of Indian philosophy, yoga, and meditation. In those days, it was possible to travel overland between India and Europe, and so when it was time for me to return, I took first a train from Delhi to Amritsar, then a bus to the India-Pakistan border, another bus from there to Lahore, and so on, one bus-ride at a time, passing through Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. Half-way Turkey, while travelling on the back of a truck, I fell asleep and had a dream. In the dream a woman was coming out of the front-door of a large somewhat old-fashioned, red-brick hospital. The dream was very vivid, the picture perfectly clear, except that I could not make out who the woman was. I woke up with the sense that she was a close relative and that her medical problem was serious, but that, at that moment, she was not in any immediate danger. I told the dream to a co-traveller who got quite panicky and insisted I book a call to my family from the very next town we would pass through. It would have made sense to do so, but since, according to the dream, there was no immediate danger, I did not make the call.
After that incident, it took me ten more days to reach my parents’ home. When I entered the house, I was surprised to find a large number of family members in the sitting room. For a moment, I thought they had gathered because they were somehow expecting me, but they were as surprised to see me, as I was to see them. In reality, everybody was there to welcome my mother back after a dramatic illness and an unexpected recovery at a nearby hospital.
It took me some time to figure out what had happened. When my mother became unconscious, my father feared she might not survive and made desperate attempts to reach me. It was on that day that I had my dream. But the radiation therapy did its work, at least to some extent, and after a few days my mother regained consciousness. She returned home from the hospital just a few minutes before I returned home from India.
In other words, I got the dream when my father made his attempt at reaching me, but what I dreamt was not what my father was thinking at that moment. What I dreamt was what would happen 10 days later when my mother would be released from the hospital. Stranger still, at the exact same moment when she came out of the hospital, I was standing, only a few blocks away, at a bus-station, waiting for the short, last stretch of my 9000 km journey from India to my parental home. Since my bus made a few stops on the way, and because I had to walk from the bus-stop to the house, I entered a few minutes after she did.
When sometime later she was once more admitted to the same hospital, I went to visit her, and the main entry was exactly as I had seen it in the dream, as if I’d seen a photograph.
So, how could this happen? It was not “just” telepathy, as I saw what nobody knew would happen at the time that I saw it. It was not “just” an image of something random that would happen in the future either: what I saw was a picture of what for me was the single most significant moment in a long series of events. A picture of my mother five minutes earlier in the hospital or five minutes later in the car would not have conveyed all the relevant information. And the underlying reality the dream depicted is even more strange: how did we manage to arrive at exactly the same moment at exactly the same spot? I had taken a boat ride, spent random time sightseeing in Istanbul, joined people building a multistory house of cards in München, got bizarrely fast lifts (in a Mercedes) and bizarrely slow ones (in a pickup truck). And how did my mother get her timing right? Her physical recovery; hospital procedures; doctors, nurses, admins all doing whatever they needed to do at exactly the right time in exactly the right speed; and all this for the three of us to come together at what for us would be one of the most significant moments in our lives... If you would write a story like that, people would say “come on, great story, but reality is not like that”, but it is.
What if physics had become the science of experience?
Just imagine that in the end of the 19th century a handful of highly persuasive "experientialists" had suggested that everything exists only in the mind, and that we should stop wasting our time studying physical things and forces. Imagine that they had argued that we should especially stop talking about electro-magnetism and other imaginary forces since we cannot even sense them, and that we can never be sure whether they really exist or not. Now imagine that physics had accepted their suggestion and that it had stopped doing physical experiments; that it had limited itself to sophisticated statistical research on what common people think about how our ideas about matter affect our lives; that it had studied the history of ancient ideas about matter; that it, after long hesitation, had started to conduct qualitative studies of carpenters and other craftsmen who claim to have direct experience of what they call "wood", "iron" and so on.
So where would we have been if this had really happened? The most likely outcome would have been that the hard sciences would have come to a grinding halt, and that the 21st century would have been strikingly similar to the 19th, and not that different from the 18th or the 17th.
In reality, this is of course not what has happened: those men never appeared on the scene, the physical sciences went ahead at full speed and changed our lives beyond recognition. But all those who have studied the history of psychology will know by now what this "thought experiment" is leading to, and they will expect Watson, Skinner and Pavlov to make their appearance in this story any minute. But we need not give them any further attention. These "behaviorists" had more than their share of attention as it is. It will be more useful to concentrate on how all those involved in therapy, counselling, self-development and the yoga traditions -- whether inside or outside mainstream academics -- can help academic psychology to climb out of the well into which it was thrown by behaviorism in the beginning of the twentieth century and become true to itself, effective, and quickly progressive.
The contribution this could make to society is not small, given the central role psychology plays as the foundational science for education and through that for the feelings, thoughts and attitudes of every new generation.
Science is making incredible progress, but its achievements have been one-sided to the extreme. It is providing humanity with incredible powers in the physical domain, but it has not given it the love and the wisdom that are needed to use those powers in harmony with one another and with the whole to which all of us belong.
What can we contribute to this change? Many will argue that we should start with our own inner change, and this is no doubt true, but it is not enough. There should also be structural changes, and these may well have to start with the theory and practice of psychology as a scientific discipline.
In their basic nature people are closer to poems than to stacks of cards, so .... the ability to enjoy poetry should be considered indispensable for psychologists.
In their basic nature people are closer to poems than to stacks of cards, so while it is not bad for psychologists to have some basic idea of statistics, learning how to understand and write poetry should be considered indispensable for psychologists.
Of course, there are also more prosaic types amongst us and even they have occasionally psychological problems or an urge for further development, so reading and writing novels and short stories could be included in the psychology curriculum as well.
Would it not be wonderful to curate selections of poems, novels, and short stories for different types of psychologists, clients, and specialisations within the discipline?
physicalism has been an unmitigated disaster for the humanities and for our understanding of ourselves...
The physicalism that is widely assumed to be an essential element of the scientific method and way of thinking, even by those who consider themselves post-positivist, is actually neither a necessary condition, nor a finding of science. It is no more than an assumption that simplified physics and chemistry to a level where they could flourish. And flourish they did, as is evident from the ever increasing speed with which our knowledge and practical know-how in these areas is expanding. But physicalism has been an unmitigated disaster for the humanities and for our understanding of ourselves, since in a purely physical universe there is no place for consciousness, nor for anything that is based on it. Our awareness of our own existence, of the world, of others, agency, meaning, purpose, love, joy, values, belonging, gratitude, awe – in fact everything that really matters to us as human beings simply evaporates when it turns out to be no more than an epiphenomenal side-effect of intrinsically meaningless brain-states.
Religion can mitigate the devastating effects of a physicalist world-view to some extent for those who have faith in it. But religions typically depend on belief and on ancient scriptures which need a socially privileged class of priests to explain them. As a result, their role in society is inevitably conservative. The world’s scriptures — at least in the superficial exoteric interpretation that priests most typically prefer — tend to contradict not only science but also each other (and quite often themselves). All this becomes problematic for those enamoured by the progressive, self-critical attitude of science, which is so obviously right, given the social justice it seems to engender and the technical marvels it produces.
Interestingly, the Indian tradition has something that goes spiritually further than most, if not all religions, and that is at its best as open, self-critical and progressive in the domain of our inner life, as science is in the physical domain. It is there in the consciousness-based systems of yoga and meditation.
Unfortunately, they have their own difficulties. While the most popular schools are broad but superficial, others go deep but are narrow, encrusted in rituals and entangled in limited philosophies that can be as divisive as the religions based on them.
Fortunately, in the beginning of last century, several attempts have been made to distil the essence of all these different approaches to our inner truth. The most profound and comprehensive of them may well be Sri Aurobindo’s who not only made a synthesis of the psychological essence of the major schools of Indian spirituality, but combined this with the best that mainstream science has to offer: its rigour, intellectual rectitude, openness to innovation, and perhaps most of all, its idea of evolution and collective progress. The direct outcome of his broad, global integration was the idea of an ongoing evolution of consciousness, which in a fascinating manner adds a whole new dimension of beauty and purpose to our individual and collective existence on this planet. It can serve as an inspiring back-ground story for a new approach to psychology that integrates the very best of what West and East can contribute.
There are two distinct ways in which Indian Psychology can be applied. The first could be called instrumental or pragmatic, the second essential or paradigmatic.
There are two distinct ways in which Indian Psychology can be applied; there is a gradient between these two approaches, and many mixed forms are possible, but conceptually it is useful to distinguish them. The first could be called instrumental or pragmatic, the second essential or paradigmatic.
In the first approach, decontextualised ideas and techniques from the Indian tradition are used as adjuncts to existing ways of dealing with human beings that are standard within the present global civilization. Typical examples are the way yoga-asanas are used as fitness exercises that increase physical beauty and lower blood pressure; the rebranding of meditation as a relaxation response that helps to cope with the stresses of corporate life; and the use of vipassana as a stabilizing adjunct to psychotherapy. All these are, no doubt, for the good, but one cannot help but feel that they miss out on the essence, on the most beautiful, and in the end most important core of the Indian tradition.
Of the second, the essential or paradigmatic use of the Indian tradition, it is much more difficult to find good examples. One could perhaps think of the philosophical stance of some post-Newtonian physicists like Erwin Schrödinger, the educational experiments based on the work of Krishnamurti and Sri Aurobindo and, of course, certain developments in Transpersonal Psychology.
For those who try to apply the theoretical core of the Indian tradition to their psychology practice in fields like education, psychotherapy, counselling, inner growth and self-help, it is useful to make one further distinction. This is the distinction between approaches that emphasize the outer, instrumental nature, and those that focus on finding the Self.
There is natural tendency to start with changing one’s outer nature, and in strongly structured paths like that of Patanjali, an extensive list of social and outward practices are mentioned as first steps that need to be taken up seriously before one can safely embark on the higher and more inwardly oriented steps of yoga. The reason for this sequence is that a certain harmonisation of the outer nature, even if not essential for finding the Self, is still likely to make the inner quest more safe and secure. But the argument should not be taken too far. It is true that too early, too exclusive a quest for the Self can lead to what the Americans call “spiritual by-passing”. But it is also true that too early and too exclusive a stress on outer perfection, if it succeeds at all, tends to lead to hypocrisy and to a hard to break spiritual ego. If it fails, it is likely to lead to endless and completely unnecessary frustration.
The fact of the matter is, that a real and lasting change of one’s nature is only possible once one has found a safe haven in one’s eternal Self. It is not for nothing that in the Puranic stories, the devas, the divine powers of the mind, only win their eternal battle with the asuras, the darker sides of human nature, once they have made contact with the Divine who then functions like a helper and a guide towards their innermost Self. On a more mundane level, this is the inner reason that mindfulness helps in CBT: even a little stepping back, moving just a tiny bit closer to one’s eternal Self, helps to face one’s inner demons more effectively.
It is a subtle balance and one of many areas where Buddha’s middle path may offer the safest option.
Imagine a group of young people entirely moved by Truth, Nobility, Light, Love, Beauty...
When I woke up, I thought the place was very well-known, that I had been there so many times, and that others had been there as well. But now I'm more fully awake, I wonder.... At least in my waking consciousness I’ve never been there, and I wonder how many others have. All humanity seems to know are the most bizarre deformations and distortions of it.
Now I am fully back in my waking consciousness, it is hard — if I'm fully honest, it is impossible — to imagine or even recollect that beauty. In my ordinary waking consciousness nothing comes anywhere near.
Try to imagine a spontaneous, completely “true” grouping of youth, with all the dynamism of youth, a spontaneous, collaborative union of young people who are completely luminous, without the least internal shadow or the tiniest impurity or darkness.
Perhaps it was something like what Mother describes of the people on the supramental boat [ADD LINK]. That joyous unity of youth was there, ready to do together the works of true nobility.
In my ordinary waking consciousness, when I hear or see words like “goodness”, “nobility” or “perfection” for a group, I immediately think of their opposites. Here “perfection” is always false. We need the graciousness and charm of imperfections. But there in that other, inner world there was the genuine reality of the complete perfection of nobility, light, goodness, the works.
Just before coming out of it, I saw it as a space in which there were a few rectangular blocks that differed in proportions, colour and radiance. The colours varied from a dark terra-cotta, a muted stone brown-red, through gerua, to yellow gold. The colours were not painted on the surface but through and through, and everything was self-luminous, radiant like molten steel, but neither hot, nor grainy. The shapes were all composed out of perfect rectangles — but who knows, the shape of these “visuals” might well have been a contribution from my mind’s sense of perfection.
The words, "golden youth cooperative” came after I woke up — in that world itself there were no words. The words came when I had come half-way out it but still could see it. Initially these words themselves were also true, gold and noble. “Golden youth cooperative” was full of energy, like what it stood for, enthusiastically doing what is noble, true, light and good in society. The block representing it was visually the most bright, the most intensely shining, the lightest in colour, like yellow-gold. The other blocks were a little darker, a little more towards brown-red, though still self-luminous. All so incredibly beautiful, so completely “filled up” with such genuine harmonious perfection; there was absolutely nothing remotely wrong or evil.
It now comes to me that that whole universe was built on perfectly pure, divine love, but when I just came out of the dream the word love did not come up, I guess because it has itself become so polluted… Though Love is no doubt the essence of the true reality, the word “love” needs thorough over-hauling, cleaning, re-conditioning before it can be used again.
I’ve never seen anything remotely as beautiful.