A comment conversation between me and "cc" on a recent blog post got me to thinking about whether any human experience can be unmediated. Meaning: not communicated or transformed by an intervening agency
In a comment I said:
But sometimes people do need to be talked out of an erroneous belief system. That was the job of my wife, when she worked at a state mental hospital, and then also (to a different degree) as a private psychotherapist.
Just because someone feels like they are one with the cosmos doesn't mean this feeling has any basis in reality. People also feel they are God, or they are being abducted by space aliens, or that their minds are being read. Every weird feeling doesn't point to mental illness, but sometimes it does.
"But sometimes people do need to be talked out of an erroneous belief system."
Perhaps then, you should talk yourself out of your belief in separation, because the immediate (unmediated) experience of inseparability is beyond belief.
To which I commented:
cc, a dream also is an immediate unmediated experience. As is a mirage. Or some other illusion. So experience isn't the touchstone of reality, that's for sure. Whenever someone claims that an experience is "beyond belief," as you just stated, I wonder how they know this.
Dreams are a form of belief, as are mirages. Yet at the time they seem absolutely real to the dreamer, or the mirage perceiver. It's only after we wake up, or come close to the mirage and see its unreality, that the truth of the situation becomes apparent.
Neuroscience has learned about the "hidden brain." This is where unconscious beliefs/assumptions arise. So someone can consider that they are having an immediate unmediated experience and not be aware of how that experience is being mediated by the workings of the hidden brain.
Now, when I said "a dream also is an immediate unmediated experience," what I meant is that a dream feels like there is no intervening agency between me and what is being experienced.
Actually, my brain is producing the experience. But since I'm sleeping, I'm not aware that I have a brain, so the dream feels like immediate unmediated reality while I'm in a dreaming state.
When I wake up, I realize that I was dreaming.
Even when awake, though, nobody can experience anything in an unmediated fashion. Without a brain, we can't be conscious (I realize some people disagree; well, show me human consciousness without a brain, and I'll likely change my mind).
Understand: I'm open to the possibility of an unmediated experience. This basically would be a "pure consciousness experience" or "pure awareness," something that I'm attracted to, but can't bring myself to believe in.
Here's an excerpt from my blog post on Brain's "dark energy" casts doubt on pure awareness.
But whatever pure awareness is -- and again, I'm kind of vague about this -- this notion needs to be compatible with an emerging neuroscientific world view if it is to make sense to me.
The mind/brain filters unadorned reality markedly before perceptions become conscious. All the while, unconscious mental systems are churning away unrecognized, apparently laying the groundwork for interpreting those heavily filtered perceptions based on past experience and for taking action in response to some event.
How "pure awareness" enters into all this is a very open question. It sure looks like modern neuroscience is challenging some of the fundamental assumptions of spiritual belief systems.
Regarding "cc's" comment that "the immediate (unmediated) experience of inseparability is beyond belief," I'd say: so is every experience.
Right now, I don't believe that I'm typing on my laptop at our kitchen counter. Neither does my wife believe that she is chopping broccoli and putting it into a glass bowl for microwaving.
Like everybody else (aside from, perhaps, some mentally ill people) we simply experience life; we don't believe that we're experiencing life. This is because humans aren't aware of how the brain produces awareness. All we know is what we experience, not how the brain processes experiences outside of conscious awareness.
I don't see how an experience of inseparability is different from any other experience.
Again, every experience is ineffable, seemingly (but not really) unmediated, and unquestionable to the experiencer (though others might reasonably question the validity of an experience, as when a driver in a desert is sure he sees water on the road, which really is a mirage).
Various spiritual and mystical faiths believe in something variously called enlightenment, pure awareness, satori, and such. This is a belief, because that state only demonstrably exists as a cultural phenomenon.
For example, supposedly the Buddha was an enlightened being. He then passed on his enlightenment to someone else. And then that person did the same. At least this is my crude understanding of traditional Zen Buddhism: only a Zen master can validate someone's enlightenment, and the master's enlightenment was validated by his or her master, etc. etc.
So if I walk into a Zen monastery and say "I don't need this crap; I'm already enlightened!" -- almost certainly I won't be believed. Nobody will bow down to me, or make me the head Zen honcho.
Why not, though?
If an experience of inseparability (which basically is what Buddhism is all about) is unmediated and beyond belief, then why is it necessary for someone to believe in my enlightenment? Why all this testing, koan stuff, mysterious interchanges with the Zen master?
Just accept that I've had an unmediated experience of inseparability, a.k.a. enlightenment.
My point is this: those who claim that it is possible to have an unmediated experience of reality belie that claim through their utterance of it. Again, I don't go around asking people to believe that I'm writing a blog post on my laptop here in Salem, Oregon at 9 pm on a Sunday night.
I simply experience that I am. Even if this is a dream, or a computer simulation of some advanced alien civilization, I sure feel like I'm doing what I'm doing, and experiencing what I'm experiencing.
So when someone expects that I should believe in their experience of inseparability or enlightenment, this makes me think that they aren't very confident in the reality of that experience. Which makes sense, because every experience is questionable, being mediated through the often-flawed (or at least, deceptive) human brain.
Such is the attitude of an essay, "The Only Unmediated Experience You Ever Know." Travis Eneix basically says that every experience other than you are is mediated. That's pretty much what Descartes said hundreds of years ago, and it makes fairly good sense.
My only quibble with that contention is that a person's sense of I am can't exist without a human brain. So even that experience of I am arguably is mediated.
The idea of an unmediated experience is, of course, nonsense. But what gives it staying power is that it's an extrapolation of something true (that most people know nothing about... for, if they did, they would stop mythologizing the experience).
My undergraduate research was in cognitive psychology and one of the phenomenon we explored is what Dr. Ruth Day referred to as "language boundedness."
In short, most people perceive and manipulate ALL sensory information through a filter that's influenced by the syntax of their native language (not the words, but the rules).
A small percentage, though, have the ability to switch to a different perceptual mechanism, bypassing the syntactic filter.
Similarly, most sensory information is processed through a complex feedback loop, not a "straight path" from sense organ to awareness... but some people can "turn off" some of the feedback loops.
So, extrapolate from these two well-researched phenomenon -- there's clearly a way to become aware of information, free of the normal cognitive associations to which we've become familiar. These experiences can have the feeling of "timelessness", or "unmediated-ness," but they're merely unfamiliar types of non-typical perception.
The idea that these, or any other method of perceiving, is inherently better, desirable, or the proof of any sort of attainment is simply the sales pitch from the relevant teaching.
Posted by: Steven Sashen | October 02, 2011 at 10:10 PM
Steven, good points. Mindfulness is real. Unmediated awareness isn't. Yes, it's possible to shut off the "monkey mind" and be in closer contact with sensory experience.
I can follow a slow car ahead of me on the two lane road leading five miles into town without thinking, "That jerk is trying to make me late to my appointment." Rather, I can just observe that a car is driving slowly in front of my car without filtering the experience through an erroneous belief system.
Posted by: Blogger Brian | October 02, 2011 at 10:51 PM
If I was to say the the mediator is "the monkey mind", and that its unwilled absence is what I mean by "unmediated experience", would you still say that "unmediated experience doesn't exist"?
The only difference between your example of unmediated experience and mine is that yours involves effort and mine doesn't.
Posted by: cc | October 03, 2011 at 09:28 AM
"These experiences can have the feeling of "timelessness", or "unmediated-ness," but they're merely unfamiliar types of non-typical perception."
I'm all for removing the hokum and hocus-pocus from the experience of "unfamiliar types of non-typical perception", and if the word "unmediated" is incorrect, I stand corrected, but I would say that this non-typical perception is "better" than what's typical.
Posted by: cc | October 03, 2011 at 09:40 AM
"I don't see how an experience of inseparability is different from any other experience."
It's different because inseparability is actual and separateness is conceptual. Your dog, for instance, is more conscious of the inseparable nature of the relationship with you than you are because he has no concept of himself as a separate entity.
Posted by: cc | October 03, 2011 at 09:51 AM
cc, my dog would be pleased to know that she is an Inseparability Guru, but so far she doesn't seem to be big on concepts like that. Her life revolves around simpler stuff: chew sticks, walks, sleeping, chasing cats, and such.
I'm not sure what you mean by our dog having no concept of herself as a separate entity. How do you know how dogs view the world? Heck, you don't even know how another person views the world, much less how another species does.
I can tell you that when our dog hears a gunshot, or thunder, she trembles and looks for a place to hide. Also, that when my wife is late taking her on her morning walk, our dog asks to go outside repeatedly and otherwise exhibits "Come on, let's go!" behavior. She doesn't seem to live any more relaxed life than I do, though admittedly our dog lives a less thought-filled life.
Along that line, what I don't understand about your worldview is how a natural, evolution-derived capability like human thought can be a negative thing. I hear this frequently from mystical or New Age'y people, but they invariably use thoughts to say "We humans shouldn't think so much!"
How do we get closer to recognizing the inseparability of the cosmos by separating ourselves from a central human capability? How do we embrace reality by disassociating ourselves from part of us?
Posted by: Blogger Brian | October 03, 2011 at 11:14 AM
Are you saying, the experience of inseparability, is a non-dualistic experience? This non-dual experience is actual? Actual is what way? How are you using the 'actual' word?
I'm not finding fault, just need further blogging clarity.
Posted by: Roger | October 03, 2011 at 12:17 PM
"what I don't understand about your worldview is how a natural, evolution-derived capability like human thought can be a negative thing."
Thought is good and necessary. We can't live without it. The problem, it seems to me, is that it operates when there's no need for it, and it seems to be a conditioned response. We seem to be conditioned to operate thoughtfully (as opposed to mindfully) at all times, and this creates and sustains confusion and illusion.
Posted by: cc | October 03, 2011 at 12:55 PM
Roger, forget what I said about "actual".
Posted by: cc | October 03, 2011 at 12:56 PM
cc, I agree with you about the downside of excessive thinking. Yes, not everything natural, like thinking most of the time, is healthy (poison oak, for example, which we have a lot of in our area).
I think -- there I go again! -- that we aren't far apart on this issue. It's mostly a matter of words, which can lead astray.
In my daily life, my most pleasurable moments are the least thought-filled: walking the dog, dancing, riding my scooter. When I'm thinking, like when I write a blog post, I'd call that more "satisfying" than "pleasurable."
Most people don't reach the end of their days and say, "I sure wish I had done more thinking." But more dancing... more scooter-riding... that's a more plausible "bucket list."
Posted by: Blogger Brian | October 03, 2011 at 01:07 PM
"we aren't far apart on this issue. It's mostly a matter of words, which can lead astray."
It may be that the only thing separating us on this issue is that I'm not resigned to discontinuous duality. I don't see why the brain can't drop dualistic consciousness when it isn't necessary; when no practical problem needs solving.
Unless I need opinions, self-serving perceptions, and a self-image to defend, I don't want them.
Posted by: cc | October 03, 2011 at 01:22 PM
unmediated experience of inseparability
is not enlightenment.
Enlightenment is the realization of
Whwn you realize you have no self,
you come out of the conscious dream
you live while awake.
Posted by: Mike Williams | October 03, 2011 at 02:05 PM
Posted by: xy | January 22, 2013 at 08:31 PM
". . . the psyche is the only phenomenon that is given to us immediately and, therefore, is the sine qua non of all experience." (C.G. Jung in CW8, “The Structure of the Psyche” p. 139.)
Posted by: Royce | February 03, 2015 at 12:03 AM