Sunday, November 29, 2009

Faith and Disbelief

When it comes to religion, believers and nonbelievers appear to think very differently. But at the level of the brain; is believing in God different from believing that the sun is a star or that 4 is an even number? While religious faith remains one of the most significant features of human life, little is known about its relationship to ordinary belief. Nor is it known whether religious believers differ from nonbelievers in how they evaluate statements of fact.

In the first neuroimaging study to systematically compare religious faith with ordinary cognition, UCLA and University of Southern California researchers have found that while the human brain responds very differently to religious and nonreligious propositions, the process of believing or disbelieving a statement, whether religious or not, seems to be governed by the same areas in the brain. The study also found that devout Christians and nonbelievers use the same brain regions to judge the truth of religious and nonreligious propositions. Sam Harris, who recently completed his doctoral dissertation in the lab of Mark Cohen, a professor of psychiatry at the UCLA Staglin Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, was a lead author on the study. Jonas Kaplan, a research assistant professor at the USC's Brain and Creativity Institute, was the co-lead author.

The study involved 30 adults - 15 committed Christians and 15 nonbelievers - who underwent three functional MRI (fMRI) scans while evaluating religious and nonreligious statements as "true" or "false." The statements were designed to produce near perfect agreement between the two groups during nonreligious trials (e.g., "Eagles really exist") and near perfect disagreement during religious trials (e.g., "Angels really exist"). Contrasting belief and disbelief yielded increased activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), an area of the brain thought to be involved in reward and in judgments of self-relevance. "This region showed greater activity whether subjects believed statements about God, the Virgin Birth, etc., or statements about ordinary facts," the authors said.

The case for belief being content-independent was further bolstered by the fact that while the trial statements accepted by religious believers were rejected by nonbelievers, and vice versa, the brains of both showed the same pattern of activity for belief and disbelief. A comparison of all religious with all nonreligious statements suggested that religious thinking is more associated with brain regions that govern emotion, self-representation and cognitive conflict in both believers and nonbelievers, while thinking about ordinary facts is more reliant upon memory retrieval networks. Activity in the brain's anterior cingulate cortex, an area associated with cognitive conflict and uncertainty, suggested that both believers and nonbelievers experienced greater uncertainty when evaluating religious statements.

The study raises the possibility that the differences between belief and disbelief may one day be reliably distinguished by neuroimaging techniques. "Despite vast differences in the underlying processing responsible for religious and nonreligious modes of thought," the authors write, "the distinction between believing and disbelieving a proposition appears to transcend content. These results may have many areas of application - ranging from the neuropsychology of religion, to the use of 'belief-detection' as a surrogate for 'lie-detection,' to understanding how the practice of science itself, and truth-claims generally, emerge from the biology of the human brain."

Harris is the author of two New York Times best-sellers, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation which have been published in more than 15 languages, and is the co-founder and CEO of The Reason Project. His writing has appeared in Newsweek, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Times of London, the Boston Globe, the Atlantic and many other journals. Other authors on the study included Cohen, Susan Bookheimer and Marco Iacoboni of UCLA; and Ashley Curiel of Pepperdine University. The authors report no conflict of interest.

Neotribal Festival

This is the first thing you learn about festival: to get there, you must leave here. You must, in other words, cross over, out of the ordinary world. Maybe you haul your tent to a glade in the middle of nowhere, and maybe you just hand some guy your ticket. But either way, you must cross a threshold. Without even noticing it, your normal body armor starts to slip away, as you instinctively recognize that the strangers around you are not quite so strange anymore, for even if they look strange, which could easily be the case, they are no longer judging you in the same way that people in the mundane world do. They are more likely to be friends you just haven't met yet, fellow conspirators of joy.

The anthropologist Victor Turner used the word liminal to describe the passageway between the known and the unknown, the path that takes you to a nomadic territory that lies in-betwixt and in-between. Turner was interested in traditional rites of passage, those tribal ceremonies that guide participants through the process of social transformation - from childhood to adulthood, say, or from novice to shaman. Such rites are important inspirations for today's neotribalists as well, both consciously and not. For though the festival rarely marks its participants with the obvious cuts and tattoos of a puberty rite, it does hold out the potential for real change, and this potential lies in the liminal: the deeply felt sense that the normal rules are suspended or warped, that a possible world is emerging, and that a new self can rise to greet it.

Every summer, tens of thousands of participants descend upon dozens of festivals and gatherings, great and small. The names of these clans and crews are legion: hippies, ravers, pagans, crusties, free spirits, burners, seekers, travelers, eco-warriors. They gather together to dance, to escape, to hold ritual and to craft a visionary culture based on community, creative self-expression and a celebratory earth wisdom. Labels are always dangerous, but an honest name for the scene is neotribal. These are the new tribes, recreating and reinventing patterns of organic culture that are inspired by the premodern past but designed for a high-tech planet hurtling through a period of unprecedented global change.

In festival culture, everyone is part of the picture - physical arts like poi and hooping are widely practiced, crafters make and sell art and ritual craft; and people treat fashion as an invocation and a performance. Everyone, in fact, is performing - not posing so much as actively participating in a collective game whose goal is beauty, wonder and transport. Festivals can be a wild time, but for many participants, the festival is also a vital space of cultural invention. Within the environs of the gathering, half sacred and half imagined, another possible world appears. Despite the variety of festivals and clans, certain values come to the fore: community over consumerism, the power of the feminine, the wisdom of consciousness exploration and the ethical call to develop a hands-on harmony with the earth. Some of these values grow out of countercultural movements generations old, others are modeled on the folkways of other times and places - sometimes with respect and sometimes with a hasty hunger. Like all ideals, neotribal values are rarely realized in full and are more complex and contradictory than they initially appear.

People have gathered in ritual celebrations throughout recorded history; and no doubt back through the depths of prehistory as well. At the same time, and despite the tremendous differences in human cultures, anthropologists recognize a shared language of the festival. People wear special attire, sometimes donning masks or fancy headgear; and sometimes painting their bodies. They drink and eat and dance, often with great exuberance and for hours or even days on end. Intoxicants are taken, if they have them, and maybe the spirits show up and join in the dance. Emile Durkheim, who believed that religion was fundamentally a social process, called the energy raised by such gatherings "collective effervescence." And though this powerful group buzz is invariably dedicated to the gods of earth and sky, it often generates its energies through the more secular strategies of a party. These entwined goals are key to the modern neotribal festival, whose exuberance bubbles up in the space between sacred and profane, ritual and fete, ceremony and celebration.

In his book The Eternal Return, the historian of religion Mircea Eliade described how certain rituals allow mythic time to erupt inside mundane history. In particular, Eliade talked about annual tribal ceremonies that stage the recreation of the cosmos. The idea, which is found throughout primal societies, is that by ritually returning to the chaos at the beginning of things, and then reenacting the emergence of our ordered world, the cosmos itself is renewed. Such ceremonies give us an insight into the deep impulses of the festival, within whose electronic noise and psychedelic chaos stir new forms of living and being together on this planet. The cutting edge festivals today are green and sustainable, with workshops on alternative fuel and carbon footprints rounding out the music and dance. Even more vitally, the infrastructure of the festival itself is becoming an experiment in right planetary living. This isn't just global warming window dressing. This represents an intuition, welling up from primal memory perhaps, that the festival is a foundation of world renewal.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Spiritual Nomad

There is a significant phase that occurs in the process of initiation for many people that is referred to as the "Spiritual Nomad." Often, when one reaches this transition phase of spiritual evolution, it can be so painfully unnerving to the personality/ego that it not only devastates one's self esteem; it also severely undermines our confidence to manifest even the most basic needs for our survival. It is precisely our "root" fears of survival that are being shaken to the core and unpeeled from us during this process. We are being prompted to work toward clearing these fears and perfecting our trust and surrender. So it is extremely important to understand the dynamics of why this occurs and actually how entirely common it is.

This will help you avoid the pitfall of allowing yourself to dwell in feelings of humiliation, shame and embarrassment by this externalization of forces that transform your world into what appears to be a great "sacrifice." This is a crucial part of some of our development and we need to realize that many people have already undergone, or are currently working through this phase of spiritual development. This is a temporary phase. So if you know anyone who is presently working through this, do be sure to acknowledge their courage, strength and bravery to surrender to divine order and align to their soul's purpose. Send them love. This is the truth of what they are doing and it is to be honored and acknowledged. We need to be more conscious of supporting those being recruited and the new initiates awakening to reinforce the divine purposes of awakening transformation on this planet. We are moving incredibly swiftly - forward.

So what is a "Spiritual Nomad"? Some questions to define "The Spiritual Nomad": are you currently jobless, juggling jobs, possibly homeless and relationship-less... much to your own bewilderment because you are an incredibly talented, skilled and loving being? You may even have assorted credentials to your name. Do you feel invisible - like no one will hire you, love you or even recognize you? And, really, for no apparent reason (it feels like you have a mark on your forehead)? Are you unable to do anything as you did in the past to earn a living or live as you once did? Are you a healer or working as a mentor, teacher, trainer or therapist; running around trying to find a way to translate this into cash or a means of support?

Do you seem to travel a lot, drive or go long distances; or sleep in several different places in short periods of time, perhaps even on your ex's couch? Do you feel confused about your purpose and identity in the world? Are there people, such as your biological family or friends, who are completely shocked or troubled by your life, attempting to offer their advice of what went wrong with you? Welcome to "The Spiritual Nomad" experience. Fun, isn't it?

This is the time in one's life where every aspect of perceived "security" in the structure of the human world is completely unstable, unknown and unforeseen. Your life in all major areas; such as relationship, money, career, residence is all abruptly halted, changed and/or terminated. You are left feeling isolated and standing in a place of total bewilderment, wondering what happened to your life, the people in it, and your former identity. This sets off every fear button you have because there is absolutely no sign of what is going on, what is coming or why it's happening. There is only a sense that some force came in, picked you up out of your hologram, and placed you into someone else's life. For a while, you may not recognize whose life it is. It is very much like the sensation captured in the Talking Heads song lyrics, Once in a Lifetime..."Where does that highway go? Am I right? Am I wrong?"

In the process of our unraveling consciousness in this human drama setting, this is one of the experiences that we have set up as "spirit" to create the experience of learning to fully surrender to transformational forces. It is a complete dismantling of our ego and ego defenses. This is the crossroads where we start to leave the world of human order and align to the Divine Order. To many of our earthly cohorts, biological families and old energy friends; it will appear as if we have stepped off the edge of a chasm into a realm of insanity. Groups will stand around shaking their heads, whispering how you have gone off your rocker, and offer lots of advice and theories about your problems and issues. As unsolicited advice starts mounting - generally suggesting that you are incompetent, "less than", unrealistic, ungrounded, living in the clouds or just purely strange - your subconscious fear programs get triggered. Maybe, just maybe, could they be right? Internal pressures increase and you feel extremely conflicted about who you really are and what the heck you are doing with your life. This sets you off on a tangent of extreme inner examination and the re-evaluation of every goal, dream, thought and idea that you have had about your role in the world. Will I ever make it? Will I ever become self actualized? Will I have the ability to create abundance in my life?

This process is designed to cultivate the incredible inner strength needed to face yourself and your deepest fears of survival. You then become intimate with the universal Law of Abundance and learn how generous the universe really is, even if it's not all manifested in order of your personal preference. You find that somehow, someway, all your base needs are being met, even though you have not the foggiest clue how it's happening or who some of the strangers are that have appeared in your life to support you - in ways you would never imagine. You learn how to receive from total strangers (an illusion, as everyone is family) or from new sources, and learn how to acknowledge and receive these new ideas of abundance of which you were not formerly aware. So, most commonly, one feels a type of embarrassment at being in the situation; yet, simultaneously, one feels gratitude for these blessings being demonstrated at the most mundane levels (or even incredibly opulent levels) of existence. Finally, at about this time, you begin to trust and realize that you really are divinely protected and supported. You can relax now (at least a little).

These experiences do cultivate a level of deep faith and trust in the transformational order, even when you do not have any external validation of "safety" - and that safety could be monetary, emotional support or a place to call "home" with a bed in it. Even when you are feeling blind and disconnected, to face this uncertainty and to find yourself "okay" with it all is a major revelation. When you realize that your deepest fears (so many of them) did not happen anyway, and, if they did... well, it really was not as bad as you once imagined it. You can face just about anything. Your personal power begins to increase and your inner conviction keeps on growing. Well, if you find yourself smack dab in the center of this process, know that there are many designs and great plans for you. But, it is important to work through all your fear, worry and obsessions. Then work to allow guidance, support and your inner sense of knowing to come to you on your path; even when it makes absolutely no logical sense. You are learning to work your higher sensory perceptions and these antennae within you are being finely tuned for your new task and mission in the world.

You cannot "make" anything happen while you are in this process. So, you must relax as best you can. You are in transition to your greater destiny. When relaxing, you are expanding, not constricting and the transformational forces can more easily work through you and for you. Know that transformational forces are working magic in your life in ways you cannot comprehend. That there really is a divine order to what is happening to you. Know that it is okay not to know. Get more comfortable with uncertainty and external chaos while you cultivate that impenetrable core of essence to show the way for you and others. Finally, know that likeminded people are out there.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Are We Possessed?

Carl Jung, the great doctor of the soul and one of the most inspired psychologists of the twentieth century, had incredible insight into what is currently playing out; both individually and collectively, in our modern-day world. He writes, "If, for a moment, we look at mankind as one individual, we see that it is like a man carried away by unconscious powers." We are a species carried away – ‘possessed’ by -- and acting out, the unconscious. To condescendingly think that we, as modern-day, rational people, are too sophisticated to believe in something as primitive as demons; is to have fallen under the spell of the very evil spirits we are imagining are nonexistent. What the ancients call demons are a psychic phenomenon which compel us to act out behaviors contrary to our best intentions.

Possession is an interesting word. It conjures up immediate associations of the Devil, who, mythologically speaking, is the one who ‘possesses’ us, in the demonic sense of the word. Possession is to identify with a complex of the unconscious, and become taken over by it to such an extent that we act it out in, as and through our lives. Who among us hasn't done this? Multiple examples of people becoming possessed by and en-acting their unconscious has happened for everyone to see. The claims by the ASA’s chairman Leonard Chuene over the Caster Semenya saga which turned out to be bald faced lies, Glen Agliotti’s dubious testimony in the Jackie Selebi corruption trial, the ongoing spectacle of celebrity scandals from Steve Hofmeyer to Joost van der Westhuizen; and the steady parade of CEO’s and highly placed civil servants making off with obscene financial pay-outs. In their actions these people were all ‘taken over by something’, as we are ourselves.

Once these archetypal contents become activated in the unconscious, it is like they have taken possession of certain individuals, irresistibly drawing them together by mutual attraction and knitting them into smaller or larger groups; which may easily swell into an avalanche. People who have fallen into their unconscious naturally attract and connect with each other, as they reciprocally reinforce each others' madness. An impenetrable bubble of shared, rigid beliefs gets conjured up around them which deflects and resists any self-reflection which threatens their fixed worldview. Anyone who reflects back their unconscious state is demonized and seen as a heretic, blasphemer and enemy. Through using individuals as its instruments, evil needs the unconscious masses for its genesis and proliferation on the world stage. Masses are always breeding grounds of psychic epidemics. In a collective psychosis there is a herd mentality, where people stop thinking for themselves and let others think for them, like sheep (‘sheeple’); that just follow wherever they are being led.

Possession is nowadays described as complexes; such as the power-complex, savior-complex, mother-complex, inferiority-complex etc. They take over the control of the total personality in place of the ego, at least temporarily, to such a degree that the free will of the ego is suspended. Everyone knows nowadays that people have complexes. What is not so well known, though far more important, is that complexes can have us. The more complexes we have, the more we are possessed. That said, we don't need to get rid of our complexes; rather, we need to become consciously aware of them. What is important is what we do with our complexes.

Possession is synonymous with bondage. Possession means being supplanted by something stronger, being taken over and ‘owned’ by something other than ourselves. We've all had moments where we've been possessed by something, where we've felt ‘not ourselves’, where we are no longer identical with ourselves. Some of us may spend our whole lives living someone else's life instead of our own. We've all had moments where ‘something’ has gotten into us, where we feel out of sorts, beside ourselves. At any moment any one of us can become ‘possessed’ by the unconscious in a way such that a more powerful energy than our conscious ego moves and animates us. Then I cannot say I do, but rather it is done through me; something takes possession of me. When I have fallen into my unconscious and compulsively en-act an unconscious complex, I become manipulated by more powerful forces than myself. In Jung's words, a person then becomes “the devil's marionette”. This could happen only because I believe I have abolished the demons by declaring them to be superstition.

Complexes have a possessive and obsessive effect on consciousness. Interestingly, the word ‘obsession’ originally meant to be under the influence of an evil' possession'. Obsession refers to certain ideas that have taken possession of the person. I can become possessed by unshakable ideas of the way things should be or who I think I am, oppressing and tyrannizing both myself and others who hold a different viewpoint in the process. The idea is like an autonomous being that wants a body so much that it even incarnates in my body; I begin to play, to perform the idea; and then people say I am completely mad. The idea has taken possession of me till it is as if I am out of my mind. In this way, millions of our species have killed and been killed over a fixed idea.

Commandeering and colonizing my psyche, a split-off, autonomous complex is; potentially, like a ‘vampiric virus’, in that it is fundamentally ‘dead’ matter; it is only in a living being that it acquires a quasi-life. Just like a vampire re-vitalizes itself by sucking our life-force, when I unconsciously identify with an activated complex, I am literally animating and en-livening the undead. Complicit in my own victimization, I then unwittingly give away my freedom, power and life-force in the process. Like cancer cells ravaging the body, disassociated complexes are like ‘splinter psyches’ that can become overly swollen with psychic energy, and then will propagate and metastasize themselves within the psyche; consuming, devouring and cannibalizing the healthy aspects of my psyche.

When I ‘see’ a demon, I know its name, which helps me to get a ‘handle’ on it. Naming is exorcistic, as it dis-spells the demon's power over me. The act of naming is, like baptism, extremely important as regards the creation of personality, for a magical power has been attributed to the name since time immemorial. To know the secret name of a person [or a demon] is to have power over them. For mankind it was always like a deliverance from a nightmare when the new name was found. Finding the name is an act of power. The moment I can designate the lived archetype by its symbol, I feel relieved; that is a good and positive moment even if it is horrible. Therefore, old Egyptian medicine consisted in giving the thing the right name. A new name always produces an extraordinary effect; I cannot rationalize these things, they cast a spell, they are symbols, they really do influence the unconscious as the unconscious influences me.

It is very important for me to re-introduce the words ‘demon’ and ‘possession’ back into my vocabulary; minus the fear that I will be seen as being primitive, crazy or even possessed myself if I use such words. I need to expand my psycho-spiritual fluency to enable me to navigate the living waters of my inner and outer landscapes. Being ‘possessed by demons’ - taken over by unconscious, psychic forces - is something that happens to all of us, and it is to our great advantage to be able to properly name our experience. Finding the name empowers me to creatively engage with those parts of myself that are emerging from the shadows ‘in the name of healing’.

This is why the greatest protection against demons is to be in touch with my intrinsic wholeness, which is to be ‘self-possessed’, in possession of the part of myself that is not possess-able; which is the Self, the wholeness of my being. The antonym of diabolic is the word symbolic, which, in addition to being the language of dreams; means to unite, bring together and integrate. The demonic is a quantum phenomenon, in that it contains both the symbolic and diabolic encoded within it in a superposed state, which is to say that hidden within the demonic is the creative seeds of its own transformation. Both constructive and destructive forces are fully present in the demonic simultaneously; and either energy can potentially manifest, depending upon how an observing consciousness interacts with it.

One of the main ways that demons become empowered within me is when I am unconscious of my shadow. Jung says, "Anyone who is unaware of his shadow is too wonderful, too good; he has a wrong idea of himself, and to that extent such a person is possessed." The extent to which I am unconscious of my shadow is the extent to which I am unaware of my potential to unwittingly enact my unconscious in a way which could be hurtful. If I don't see the negative side of what I do; what I am, I am possessed. Only through understanding of unconscious aspects, as a rule, can I liberate myself from possession. Understanding ‘unconscious aspects’ is to shed light on darker, asleep parts of myself - ‘the negative side of what I do’ - which is essentially the act of becoming conscious. The demons act themselves out through my psychic blind-spots.

The demon that is always with me is the shadow following after me, and it is always where my eyes are not. The places where I are possessed by my unconscious are the places in myself where I are not able to see, where ‘my eyes are not’, where I are unable to self-reflectively speculate. Symbolically, this is like a vampire who casts no reflection in the mirror. Since nobody is capable of recognizing just where and how much he himself is possessed and unconscious, he simply projects his own condition upon his neighbor; and thus it becomes a competition to have the most knowledge and the final answer. Interestingly, Jung simply refers to ‘shadow projection’, a process in which I project my own un-embraced aspects onto my neighbor, as ‘the lie’.

When I become possessed by the unconscious, I become unconsciously taken over by my primal, animal-like instincts in such a way that I regress, devolve and fall into my own lower nature. Only the animal man can be is easier to talk or to argue with a dog or a cow than with someone possessed by such a figure. For nothing that is said permeates, it is impossible to pierce the wall that is put up; it is a wall of unconscious beliefs, and the human behind the wall cannot be reached. There is no access because the human being is degraded to the state of an animal, and the thing that seems to function is not a divine being, it is a ghost.

Having fallen under such a spell, I will only strengthen and solidify my spell-bound conviction by acting as if there are no other possible outcomes. Apathy is the breeding ground of the possessed. If I am not investing my creative imagination in ways for me to heal and wake up, then what am I thinking? Just like in a dream at night, when I become lucid in the waking dream of life, I can connect with another and put our lucidity together; changing the world in positive ways in the process. If people tell me I am a ‘dreamer’ when I profess these idealistic and seemingly na├»ve beliefs; I will simply say, to quote the late John Lennon, “I am not the only one.”