Outside the Box

<strong>Neuron Dancers</strong>
Neuron Dancers

My wife, a painter, was lying on the couch. “The five blades of the ceiling fan are each a different color,” she said musingly. “Different?” “Yes,” she continued, “depending on which window the surface of the blade is lit by, or which lamp in the room, and the colors of the nearby walls.”

Most of us perhaps see the fan s as off-white and are most concerned with how fast it will cool the room. It occurred to me that ordinary reality is so helpful, and so limited, because it sees things mainly in terms of the obvious use or dangers they suggest. A painter’s vision would then be analogous to what we call expanded consciousness, which is not better or worse than our usual vision, but which offers different information.

Because ordinary consciousness is so useful, many of us cling tightly to it. Any deviation from it may being forth prejudicial terms. Expanded visions are often dismissed as “hallucinations,” maybe caused by “drugs.” The world is divided strictly between material reality and a catch-all category called the spiritual. The former is studied by scientists; the latter, by priests and, may the Lord help us, by “psychonauts.” Stephen jay Gould called these realms “magisteria.” This division kept peace between the church and the men in lab coats, but it has confused the category of “spiritual.”

As a result of the distinction, anything outside of ordinary reality is consigned either to mental illness or to a transcendental realm. In the reaction to “drugs” after WWII and especially during the 1960s, the classic psychedelics were said to be “psychotomimetic” or “hallucinogenic.” In other words, the visions they occasioned were regarded as similar to mental illness. What else could there be, other than ordinary reality and distortions of it?

Except theology. So, as a new name for the hippie’s “psychedelics,” people who knew awe is the most important effect concocted the name “entheogens,” meaning they awaken the god within. The name was ambiguous about whether this god was transcendental or immanent, was a God familiar from the old-time religions with their temples, churches, and mosques (the sort of being who is prayed to) or suggested by the increasingly popular phrase, “spiritual but not religious.”

The classic psychedelics are only one way to get beyond the limitations of ordinary reality, and they don't always effect a change. Even when revelatory on the personal level, the experience may remain trivial socially. Many of us have met “guides” who say, “you don’t always get the trip you wanted, but you do get the trip you need.” If only this were the case! But at least there is a chance, as with any of the other techniques catalogued so usefully by groups such as the Council on Spiritual Practices (CSP).

(Disclosure: I had the honor to serve on the CSP board for a while starting in the 1990s.)

A friend in touch with a high Google executive tells me that in that firm it’s a firing offense to shoot down a new idea before it has an opportunity to be thoroughly explored, before it may suggest yet other ideas, one of which may lead to a product. In the non-profit world, too, things that eventually lead to a revolution are often said to be “impossible,” “ridiculous,” or in the contemptuous phrase of a physicist, “not even wrong.” In retrospect, “everybody knows” that a certain concept is right, even obvious, but not when it was nearly dismissed.

In his influential history of science, Thomas Kuhn advanced the useful hypothesis that after people do “normal science” for a while, anomalies pile up, and a new “paradigm” appears that takes account of what did not fit within the old paradigm. Brilliant, except where does the new paradigm come from? To conjure up an intuitive leap is indisputably true, but doesn't tell how it happens. Most ideas that are “outside the box” will not prove to be true, but one may, and in order to obtain the one it’s necessary to generate and at least briefly tolerate all the others. The kind of mind that thinks outside the box is not necessarily the same mind that frames and conducts careful experiments to test an idea.

A realist painter has to see what is actually there in order to reproduce it, even when that perception adds little or nothing to our sense of the usefulness (or danger) of an object, such as a ceiling fan. In a similar way, what we call expanded consciousness may help us to get beyond narrow pragmatism.

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