Rick: Welcome to Buddha at the Gas Pump. My name is Rick Archer. Buddha at the Gas Pump is an ongoing series of interviews with spiritually awakening people. We’ve done around 570 of them or something now. If this is new to you and you’d like to check out previous ones, please go to batgap.com and look under the past interviews menu. This program, this show is made possible through the support of appreciative listeners and viewers. So if you appreciate it and would like to help support it, there’s a PayPal button on every page of the site. And then there’s a page which talks about other ways of supporting it if you don’t like to deal with PayPal. One thing I was listening to local radio, National Public Radio this morning, they were talking about, you know, having people ask their employers if they have matching donation schemes. And several people donate to BatGap through a thing like that. So if you’re at a company which has some kind of arrangement like that, you might want to check into it. Okay, my guest today is Dr. James Cooke. Dr. Cooke is a neuroscientist, writer, and speaker whose work focuses on consciousness with a particular interest in meditative and psychedelic states. He studied experimental psychology and neuroscience at Oxford University and is passionate about exploring the relationship between science and spirituality. And I’m passionate about that too, I’m always excited about that topic. James writes for RealitySandwich.com and is the host of the podcast “Living Mirrors” with Dr. James Cooke, which can be found on his YouTube channel, which I’ll be linking to from the show notes of this interview. He splits his time between London and the mountains of Portugal where he is building a retreat center, the Surrender Homestead, and that also has a website and social media pages and so on, which I’ll also be linking to. So welcome James, good to have you here. And what happened to, oh good, you’re so still I thought maybe we had frozen the video. So as usual, I’ve listened to quite a few hours of James’ other interviews and talks and gotten to know him pretty well through that, and we’ve also had a few personal chats. And I thought it might be good to start with an awakening or a big shift that he had when he was about 13 years old. And so let’s start with that James, and you know, if you want to go back a little before that to tell us what your life had been like and leading up to that event, please do.
James: So I may go a bit further back than my own life. And my, so my kind of family background, my parents are from kind of working-class East London, and their kind of families kind of come from backgrounds where there’s a lot of intergenerational trauma. So there’s kind of antisemitism on one side and kind of Irish famines and all of this kind of stuff in the mix. And so without me knowing it as a kid, I was born into an atmosphere of intergenerational trauma, a lot of emotional stress. And so, but as a kid, you don’t know that you just you take your family to be normal. But it meant that by the time I was 13, I’d been going to Catholic school, my parents weren’t particularly, you know, they were kind of lip service Christians from the kind of Irish side. But having this kind of background carrying this kind of trauma and fear and anxiety and all of this kind of unpleasant emotion, and then having this kind of fire and brimstone message of Catholicism, I took it all basically way too seriously. I think I channelled my emotional distress into, from an early age into the big metaphysical questions, you know, and it’s hard, as a kid, you don’t have a vocabulary of understanding intergenerational trauma. So you just, you know, the world feels scary and you’re told that if you commit a sin, you’re going to go be burnt in hell. And so this really bothered me. Everyone else seemed to be pretty, pretty fine with it, or just didn’t take it seriously as I did. But it meant that by the age 13, I was, yeah, I think like a lot of kids, certain faculties are coming online in the brain at that point, and you start to be able to question things. And I was always, I guess, a kind of scientifically minded kind of rational minded kid, even back then. And so I had an incident where I was on the bus and I was really preoccupied with this issue of hell, but also my inability to have blind faith and how that was going to send me to hell supposedly. So there was, what I was being told is there was this benevolent God who had made me exactly as I was, made me without free will, I’m sorry, made me without this, this capacity to have blind faith. But yet was demanding of me that I have blind faith. And so, and if I didn’t, I was going to be sent to hell. Right. And so this was just like a perfect paradox. And I kind of looped around it in my head again and again, thinking like, oh wait, but a benevolent God would do that. But apparently he has, and, and, you know, and there was no way out. There was no way for me to magic up this, this, this kind of, this leap of faith. And so I think what I now understand what I think happened was it functioned effectively like a Zen koan or something. It kind of baffled my rational mind. I don’t know how long this went on for, but it went on and on and on until I had just physiologically exhausted myself or, or just the rational mind realized there was no way out. And so it stopped and it felt like it just stopped completely. And so, I was just on the bus outside the castle there in Colchester in England. And yeah, I remember just, it was just this moment of collapsing fully into the present moment and feeling like knowing intuitively that in the present moment, the world just is what it is and it’s fine and it’s perfect. And it’s kind of, you know, the present moment opened up into this kind of infinite quality. And I realized all of this just kind of intuitively, I realized that the, you know, what I was engaging in was just thoughts. It was just ideas, ideas that people had told me I was projecting fear into the future. I was remembering things from the past and I was living in a kind of a fantasy world. This is just what our minds are like all the time. Right. But I was, I’d been suffering immensely just through thinking. And as soon as I stopped thinking, there was no suffering at all. And there was just utter, utter peace, utter kind of bliss. And I remember I just wanted to kind of jump up and shout with joy, but I didn’t, I’m, you know, English reserved man. So I just saved that. And then, yeah, so it took me, I would say it was a pretty classical, I guess, kind of, you could call it a mystical experience or like a non-dual awakening, I guess. But it, ‘cause it was, the core of it was realizing that reality just is, it just is what it is. And it’s infinitely more than what you could ever say about it. Concepts and words are just so limited and reality is just here. And so, you know, after that, once I read about Buddhism, it made a lot of sense that, you know, suffering is generated through this kind of clinging and craving and these thought patterns. So, meditation became a way for me to kind of cultivate this. But I think maybe something that’s very, this is in the forefront of my mind with this is that the feeling I had was everything that exists in reality, because it’s just the nature of the world, it is natural. There’s just the natural world. And so I’m not saying I’m close-minded to phenomena that maybe science will, you know, doesn’t fit into the current scientific mainstream, but if it turns out ghosts exist, ghosts will be natural phenomena. You know, it’s like, it’s this understanding of the natural lawful as just the stuff that exists. And for me, that was a huge relief. >>
Rick: I even think that with regard to like stuff, you know, Christ was supposed to have done, like walking on water or something. If he really did that, then that was natural. There were certain laws of nature he knew how to tap into that most people don’t. But nothing violates the laws of nature. >>
James: Yeah, exactly. We just need new laws that, you know, because the laws are just descriptions. Reality is what it is. Reality doesn’t care what you say about it, what your laws are. So yeah, that was the kind of realization and it was so freeing. >>
Rick: You know, the science fiction writer Philip K. Dickey said, “Reality is that which when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” >>
James: That’s a good quote. I may steal that one from you. But yeah, so I think that set me on my kind of scientific bent. And it’s a funny one because I did think about just becoming a monk or something because it seemed to me that the logic of this experience, the logic of, you know, we’re all to some extent trying to find well-being in life. And most of us go out into the world and try and rearrange the deck chairs in the Titanic to make us happy. But then this realization was the kind of obvious realization that happiness comes from within. So it’s like, “Well, why don’t I just cultivate that directly? Why don’t I just become a monk and do that?” >>
Rick: And this was still at the age of 13 you had that insight. >>
James: No, I remember thinking about becoming a monk when I was about 17. That’s when I was making decisions of should I go to university or, you know, and yeah, so I – >>
Rick: But in any case, this epiphany that you had when you were 13, it didn’t go away. It’s kind of, that was a big switch that you didn’t switch out of again. >>
James: Right. It never, it wasn’t like I had it and then I reflected back and then couldn’t remember what it was like. It was every time I looked for it was there. And it was just a very kind of, you know, and as we talk about it, it happens now, it’s this kind of, you know, there is this non-dual aspect of it as well, where it’s an appreciation or a feeling of everything that’s appearing just being appearances in consciousness. And the feeling of James is in here, looking out of the external world, that collapses and you can kind of, you know, oscillate between those two. A kind of fairly trivial example would be when you’re wearing headphones, especially if you’re wearing big over ear headphones, you go from feeling like you’re in between them to realizing that the pressure on the head is just another appearance in consciousness. So it’s like, you know, the way I feel it is like suddenly I’m this field of consciousness or I’m the self in between the ears. So yeah, so that became my kind of main practice was just kind of returning to that non-dual insight. But then the reason in my kind of late twenties as a scientist, I mean, maybe I’m skipping ahead there. I mean, I should, yeah, what I was going to say about why I ended up not going down the kind of monastic route and end up going down the science route. I think it was this, this realization, or this feeling that whatever exists is natural and science should be the kind of humble, lawful study of this incredible phenomena of existence. So, you know, I’m comfortable calling reality God, you know, as it’s kind of utterly transcendent to our ideas. And it’s just this, it evokes all, you know, I think once you have these experiences, you realize there is a thing people are talking about when they talk about God and it is this thing that is utterly beyond words. But science should then be coming up with maps and kind of reverently studying it and just understanding its behavior rather than the way science tends to be, which is kind of reductionist, stripping away meaning. The meaning is very much first for me. >>
Rick: Yeah, I heard you say in one of your recordings that, you know, when you had this breakthrough at the age of 13, you then became an atheist. But I kind of, listening to everything else you said, I sort of had the feeling like, well, I don’t believe in the same God you don’t believe in and that we just have to define the term differently and then we can talk about what we really mean by it, you know? >>
James: Yeah, I mean, for me, being raised Catholic in a very, you know, I mean, I now think of the kind of Catholicism I was raised in where God is a big scary man in the sky just seems like, you know, I’m sure that’s not, none of the founders of these religions have had that in mind. And that’s the God I don’t believe in, you know, the blind faith punishing thing. So you could say I’m a pantheist or something, or I’m a, you know, like, but I guess when I was in my late teens, there was all the kind of new atheist-y stuff. And I actually, you know, it resonated a lot. There was a sense in which I, as this kind of wounded child who’d been deeply kind of distressed by what I was being told by these institutions really reveled in people like Richard Dawkins saying, “Oh, Catholics are telling kids ridiculous things and it’s like child abuse and stuff.” Like part of me felt like that was someone defending me. And I mean, now I’m very, very critical of a lot of that movement. But yeah, there’s complexity here, you know, I think obviously people like Richard Dawkins wouldn’t probably call themselves a pantheist or say they’re uncomfortable calling reality God. But there’s an aspect of that kind of religion to me. >>
Rick: But those guys are actually interesting to listen to, you know, him and Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens when he was alive and there’s one other, I forget. But they call themselves the Four Horsemen. >>
James: Dennett, that’s the other one. >>
Rick: Dennett, right. But they’re interesting because they’re very intelligent. But what I always find them doing is sort of taking pot shots at a straw man God that they fabricate, you know, based upon the most ludicrous aspects of religion and saying, “Oh, see how silly and ridiculous it is.” But they don’t usually address the notion of God as being some kind of transcendent, all-pervading intelligence or some such thing, you know. They just try to parody the more antiquated versions, you know, cultural notions of God. >>
James: Yeah, and I mean, my concept of God is, you know, I mean, I think Spinoza had a similar idea and faced a lot of criticism for it because people were like, “If God is literally just a natural world, it’s not even an intelligence or something, then what is it? It seems kind of meaningless.” But for me, it’s something like that. I think for me, God is a word that is used to refer to the attitude to a kind of religious feeling that you get when you stand in awe of the vastness of existence and the fact that you’re part of it. You know, I mean, anyone who thinks for a second about what the word God means would have to agree, I think that it’s inherently like, if you think you can label God and then point into everything that’s utterly beyond words, utterly beyond what you can kind of conceptualize. And I’m happy with it that way. I mean, I think this might be something we’ll talk about a bit is, for me, the core of all of this stuff and the core of my worldview and how I think about consciousness, the core of it is this idea that this, what I think is the core of non-duality as well, that reality is beyond words, beyond concepts. And yeah, I think this is why I don’t say things like, where I think we might differ, I don’t use the word consciousness to refer to this all-pervading reality. And the reason I said I use the word God, I actually don’t tend to, but I basically don’t like to use the word because I think it’s referred to the absolute. Yeah, it’s a full zealot, I think, trying to name the absolute.
Rick: Yeah, you can’t use, and you can’t use the word God without defining what you’re talking about, otherwise you’re miscommunicating with people. But I have a little quote from Einstein here which relates to what you were just saying. He says, “Contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity to reflect upon the marvellous structure of the universe which we can dimly perceive and try humbly to comprehend even an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifested in nature.” That’s kind of a nice one.
James: Yeah, that is nice. I like the idea of all eternity as well. You said conscious life kind of going for all eternity because my conception of, you know, if we think about what this totality of reality is, yeah, the way I think about it would be something like, you know, I’ve gone straight into something which is even harder to put into concept probably, but if there’s nothing, effectively there’s infinity because if there’s no boundaries, you just have an infinite void. I think that’s my starting point for thinking about why we’re here. And then I think, you know, if anything can happen in infinity, it will happen eventually. And so if existence can happen, then there’s existence and non-existence isn’t a thing by definition. So suddenly out of nothing, you have reality. And then I think that does go on infinitely because like, how could it be any other way? How could you have a boundary in existence that just says, “Nope, no more.” So I find the scientific idea that, I mean, I understand that with science you have to, well, modern science is very, really restricts itself to observation. And so it says there’s the Big Bang, there’s the heat, like heat death of the universe, and that’s all that exists. But conceptually for me, I’m like, well, surely we’re just on one little spiral of existence. Surely this is just like one little puff of a firework or something. And presumably that’s just, I mean, you know, in recent years we have people talk about multi-verses and stuff like that and big bounce things kind of contracting once it expands. But yeah, I like the idea that maybe Einstein was onto something similar because in that picture, life would appear again and again and would just keep going and there’s no end to it. >>
Rick: Yeah, I just bought a book which I haven’t read yet by a guy named Jim Holt called “Why Does the World Exist?” and he interviews a bunch of different people. I heard about it from Swami Sarvapriyananda, but he interviews a bunch of different people, physicists and mathematicians and so on, and basically asks the question, “Why does the world exist? Why is there anything at all?” And there’s so much I want to get into with you about, you know, randomness and free will and whether there’s some kind of purpose to the universe and whether there’s a soul and whether we continue after we die. All these things actually pertain to the kinds of things you’ve just been saying, although it may not have been obvious but it’s all tied together. And I think there are more fundamental paradigms we could explore upon which very different perspectives could rest about why things exist and what the universe is and what we are and so on. So, I hope we can dig right down into that stuff as we go along today. >>
James: Yeah, that’d be great. >>
Rick: Yeah. So, let’s start digging and feel free to like, you know, throw in anything that comes to mind. If you want to talk more about your personal journey right now before we proceed, we can do that. You want to do that or shall we start getting into some of this stuff? >>
James: Yeah, I mean, I’ll give a bit more of an overview because where I got to was kind of why I ended up choosing science. And then I guess, so what I ended up studying was effectively how the brain builds concepts. And I kind of took that almost with the attitude of trying to understand the enemy, trying to understand the thing in my mind that makes me feel separate from the rest of the universe, that makes me believe we live in a universe of junk, of just like objects floating about instead of some huge, unfathomable process, which is how I think is really going on. So, that took me down that avenue and neuroscience is just utterly fascinating as a field and we’re in a real boom of it at the moment. So for many years, I was just very happily playing around in that. But with my kind of, I guess, non-dual, just on the walk to work, I would just basically be kind of inhabiting this kind of non-dual perspective and not really talking to many people about it because there are a couple of friends I would talk to about it. But then there was always a fear. I was hanging around with scientists and science-minded people and most people, I think, just assumed it was some kind of mental illness or something, at least jokingly, would think, you know, that’s a concern.
Rick: Probably due to your weekend chemical explorations or something.
James: Well, that’s what I was about to say is at that point, I hadn’t tried any psychedelics, which is where I was heading with this, which is that by my late 20s, working as a full-time neuroscientist, I had been reading the research around psilocybin for kind of end-of-life anxiety. And for me, the mystical kind of insight I’d had, had, you know, I mean, asked me again in a few decades when I’m nearer to death, but it felt like a completely obliterated fear of death. Like it really, I’ve always, I’ve tried to have this conversation with so many people and no one ever agrees with me, but I’m always trying to say how the fear of death is just an arbitrary evolutionary trick. Like, it’s just from the perspective of a survival machine that you care about your own mortality. Like, that’s it. Like, it’s just a little thought, but you are the same thing as everything else that’s going to keep going. And so, like, it really, really doesn’t matter. Like, sure, it relatively matters and there can be attachment, but like, it’s not ultimately meaningful. So you don’t have to fear it.
Rick: There’s a line in the Upanishads which says, “Certainly all fear is born of duality.”
James: Exactly. That’s great. I mean, that’s at the core of my worldview, I would say. And I’m sure we’ll get in later to my kind of theory of consciousness, which is very much that effectively separation or attempted separation of life brings into existence consciousness, I think. And, but it’s also that dynamic is the cost of that is fear. It’s like you’re to perpetuate, you become this survival machine that’s resisting the kind of collapsing back into everything else. And I understand most things through this lens now from the kind of trauma stuff I spoke about earlier is also like an issue of separation, kind of excessive fear and separation. I think that’s why spiritual states could be an antidote to that.
Rick: Yeah. So what you just alluded to, is that what you mean by the living mirror theory?
James: Yeah. So the living mirror theory is effectively the life process. Yeah. So, well, I’ll just finish this quick point because about the psychedelics before I go, if you don’t mind. But then I’ll happily get into that next. But yeah, so I’d read these papers saying that people who were dying of cancer, you know, it’s from papers from Johns Hopkins saying that people who had psilocybin occasion mystical experiences, so psilocybin is the active compound in magic mushrooms and high doses can produce these nodule states and people came away not fearing death anymore. And the reports, I was like, oh, this is the thing I experienced. And I really, I think these, you know, at the moment we’re a small community compared to the mainstream, I would say like kind of spiritual people, people who understand what we’re talking about with awakenings and stuff. And I think the future of the species depends on more people understanding this stuff. So I was like, I think if you know, if there’s a naturally occurring compound that’s less toxic than a cup of coffee that can be administered safely, like, and we can, we can help people have these experiences, then we should be doing that. So that led me to kind of self-experimentation to kind of, I thought, you know, I’m a trained neuroscientist. I’ve had a natural naturally occurring mystical experience.
Rick: James, your voice broke up just there. So you were saying I’m a trained neuroscientist and then it went blah, blah, blah. So, so pick up that sentence again from, from just before you said when I’m a trained neuroscientist.
James: That is what I actually said. I didn’t just say blah, blah, blah. But so, yeah, so I also had this naturally occurring mystical experience and then I had, you know, I could have a psilocybin occasioned one and I thought this would be good to see if they really are the same thing. And I found they largely were. But in that process, what happened and happens to a lot of people, especially with things like ayahuasca as well, is your body, just your mind just kind of naturally brings up traumatic memories, emotional material, and an incredible amount of healing happens, or can happen if you do it intentionally. You know, I was doing this, I’ve never done them recreationally. It was always in this very intentional way. And that really transformed my life. I was not expecting that. And so this is why now I, when I first went into the public, I was expecting to talk about psychedelics just in the context of they can trigger non-dual kind of awakenings of some kind. But now I’m really passionate about their use in kind of personal growth, healing trauma, because now I would say I’ve gone from having this very non-dual, slightly disembodied, dissociative, almost, not in a pathological way, but way over on that side, through to now my practice is far more embodied, far more like a kind of mind, like it’s a mindfulness couched in a kind of non-dual knowing that there’s really no goal, like the present, like this is it, but it’s this very embodied way of being, which feels incredibly more healthy to where I was before. So that’s why I’m a kind of an advocate for psychedelic medicine.
Rick: And I heard you mentioned that…
James: We can jump to the Mythery or we can…
Rick: Well, before we get to that, I’ve heard you actually mentioned that you had some physical problems. I think it was eczema or something like that, and some other similar problems. And you actually, I guess it was during an LSD trip, you actually found your body kind of literally shaking and purging itself of whatever it was that was actually causing that symptom and you overcame it.
James: Yeah, so I mean, this was multiple sessions. I effectively, I went from, so the first was psilocybin and I would have, you know, kind of memories coming up of painful things and maybe some emotional release and crying. But afterwards, feeling incredible, like I dropped a burden I had lifted off of me. And then gradually, as you strip away these layers of things you’re preoccupied with, it got back to really early life stress that was stored in the body as I’ve been developing real kind of just holding tension and fear. And so I ended up finding the work of Peter Levine, who’s started this field of somatic experiencing and that’s the effect I kind of was figuring out my own version of these kinds of things as I was reading the stuff. Yeah. And effectively the thing that really utterly transformed my life was allowing my body just to kind of find some homeostatic peace where like I had, so the main thing was I had asthma. I had, I was told I had asthma, but because I couldn’t breathe very well and I would breathe very shallow in my upper chest. And what I came to realize is my stomach muscles were just, their set point was so tight and all of the kind of soft muscle that was so just clenched tight and had been my entire life. And I had eczema and irritable bowel syndrome, just a whole bunch of issues. And the Western medical model says those are separate physical issues with no, with just mysterious origin. You just got unlucky and you genetically have bad skin, bad breathing. And what I realized was, no, I was stressed. I had, well, stress is an understatement, trauma, like childhood trauma, like a lot of us have that was still with me. And I was, I was highly functional. I was getting with my life, but it was just in the body and was producing periods of depression as well, because it’s just, it’s so much carrying all this stuff. And the kind of non-dual stuff really helped me to kind of, to get out of the depression, but it really, it was kind of spiritual bypassing, I think, to some extent. And then, yeah, as you say, I started just, there’s a particular exercise, there’s a, your hips basically have this natural way of trembling that animals do to release stress. And it’s, you know, if you think if you’ve been attacked by a lion and you play dead, there’s like all of this, these hormones in your body, there’s, there’s glucose has gone to the muscles, the muscles are tense, ready for you to run as soon as you can. But then if you don’t like shiver that off, it’s just going to stay there and you’re going to be carrying around that. So yeah, it was just hour after hour of feeling the emotions, letting it out, breathing. So a lot of it was centered around the breath. And then now I can breathe comfortably into my belly and in a way that I can take long, slow, deep breaths. In the past, it was this stressed out, shallow chest breathing. And along with that, my skin got better, my breathing got better. I was told I don’t have asthma. But my thinking is I probably never did. My stomach’s fine now. I now feel like a healthy person and for almost three decades, I really was carrying this incredible stress. >>
Rick: Hmmm, And I want to emphasize something you said, which is that you didn’t do this in a sort of a recreational way, like, you know, drop a tab of acid and put on Jimi Hendrix. You were going about it in a really serious, careful, you know, controlled way. And I think if you hadn’t, if you had done it in a more trivial way, then you wouldn’t have derived these benefits. >>
James: Absolutely. Absolutely. And so, you know, once I realized that this was a method to bring up a work through difficult material, that was all I wanted to do with these assistance of these chemicals. And the interesting thing is if you try and do this recreationally, the concept of a bad trip, I think, is that you want to go and have fun. You have the mood elevating effects, but then suddenly you’re thinking about something horrible that happened to you in the past, or you’re stuck in a fearful thought loop, or, you know, but fundamentally you’re trying to run away from that and you don’t feel safe. Whereas what I was doing was putting on some blindfolds, imitating scientific studies, putting on a pre-prepared playlist of music, turning off my phone, making sure I wouldn’t be disturbed, and then basically running full speed ahead at the difficult material, feeling the emotions. So yeah, I mean, it’s a shame that these things have been pushed underground because, you know, it’s the thing I’m most proud of in my life is the work I did in those hours because I was pushing myself so hard and really going to the depths of my being and wrestling with what felt just like existential kind of anger and sadness. And the fact that it’s seen as trivial or has this image of like, yeah, it’s just some kind of recreational thing. It’s just, it could not be further removed. I went on an ayahuasca retreat for the first of this year and the work people do there is just, is a very serious, thoughtful, kind people, for the most part, who are doing really important work for themselves. And So I want to do what I can to change the image of this stuff. >>
Rick: Did you happen to see my interview with Michael Pollan and Christopher Baiche? >>
James: Yeah, I think I saw that. Yeah, I read that book recently. I read both of the books, yeah. >>
Rick: Right, well, I was just wondering, Christopher talked about, you know, like you, putting on blindfolds and having a playlist of music, and I don’t think I asked him, so I’ll ask you, why music? Why not just silence? >>
James: So silence, I think, can produce just a natural fear response. You’re kind of, you know, you’re just scanning your environment. You know, if you think of relaxation music, it really does relax most people. It just sends a kind of unconscious signal that you’re safe. You know, I think it’s a very evolutionary thing, that if you’re in a bunch of humans and someone’s singing, you have to be very relaxed to sing. You don’t do it if you’re stressed out. So I think it just makes you feel safe and cushioned, but also, maybe equally importantly, if you choose the music well, there’ll be some periods where there’ll be kind of crescendos and things, and it really evokes emotion, you know? So, for someone who may struggle to feel normally under psilocybin, they may, or LSD, they may hear a swell of music and, you know, some classical music that never affected them before, but suddenly they’re just there in that emotion, and it triggers all the kind of associated memories and things. So yeah, I think yeah, that’s the main reason why.
Rick: Okay. So let’s switch now, unless you want to say more about that. Let’s switch to the living mirror theory, and that’ll launch us into…
James: There’s one more thing, actually, I will say about that. So Terence McKenna, who’s a famed kind of advocate of this stuff in the 90s, he used to advocate taking high doses of psilocybin mushrooms in silence, in the darkness, with the explicit aim to have these very strange, what he described as kind of almost like alien encounters with the kind of the spirit of the mushroom, or just, you know, something where you felt like you’re in dialogue with some other. I think you’re put into just a very kind of fearful mode where you’re worried about other entities coming and eating you, so you start to see that kind of thing. Whereas if you’re listening to music, you can really go inside yourself, and there’s less of this, I guess, hallucinatory projection. That’s my theory. >>
Rick: Yeah, it’s almost like the music is like a mantra that the mind can kind of dwell on or something, which is how I’ve always meditated. And I would just throw this in, we can pick it up later, and it might be a point of interesting contention, but I wouldn’t deny or insist that there actually are not some kind of entities on some subtle level, and that you could open yourself up to their influence if you went about it the wrong way, or if you weren’t prepared in a certain way or something. And we can get into that, because at some point in this conversation I want to talk to you about the whole idea of subtle realms and subtle matter and the implications of that.
James: Yeah, that would be good to get into. Should we go into that now, or should we go into the living mirror stuff?
Rick: Well, let’s do living mirror first, because that’s kind of a foundational thing for you, and then that’ll be a springboard to a lot of other things. And as much detail as you wish to offer on it.
James: Okay. Yeah, so this is, I guess, like a lot of, I mean, not everyone, but a lot of people who are interested in this kind of stuff are faced with the question of what is consciousness, what is its nature, how does it fit into the grand scheme of the world. And in science, this has been cast as what’s often called the heart problem of consciousness, which is how do you get consciousness from matter? There’s kind of a presumption that it’s that way around. And I think, as you’ll know, there are lots of people, probably maybe yourself included, who would argue that that’s kind of a fake, it’s an illusion that there’s a problem there, because all that exists is consciousness, and what we call matter is a kind of pattern within it. People like Bernardo Castro argue that.
Rick: Yeah, his whirlpool metaphor, where a whirlpool is only water, and yet it has an existence as a whirlpool. So that’s the kind of thing Bernardo would say.
James: Right. Yeah, so I guess my starting point would be, so the Living Mirror Theory tries to offer an answer to the place of consciousness in nature, how it fits into this picture of what is the material world and what’s consciousness. And the core of it is what I’ve already mentioned, but I think what reality is in and of itself is unnameable. I don’t think, I think it doesn’t make sense to call it matter, but I also don’t think it makes sense to call it consciousness. I think it’s just, for me, this is the kind of core of the non-dual insight, it just is. And you also think of this, that language is all self-referential, it’s all kind of relative. You can’t really come up with a word to label the absolute, because if it’s the only thing, if I say all of reality is X, that’s actually a kind of meaningless statement. X doesn’t mean anything, because it’s not opposed to anything. So, I would say…
Rick: Let me just interject here before we lose this point, and that is, isn’t language only useful if it refers to things that are shared experiences? If I come up with some word for something that I’ve experienced that you haven’t, the word just can’t communicate that experience to you. And so, if we’re talking about really deep, sort of ontological realities and people happen to experience them, then you can call them anything you want, or nothing at all, but it really doesn’t help much one way or the other because it’s not a shared experience.
James: Yeah, that’s a good point, and I think experience is a big part of it because the average scientist, because they’ve spent their lives typically in the kind of ordinary state of consciousness, it’s very easy to look around and hit on a table and say, “Reality is made of hard stuff. Matter is hard stuff. Done.” And that is, if you study science, no serious philosopher of science thinks that’s the case. Matter isn’t hard stuff. That’s textbook, kind of mainstream philosophy of science, but most scientists don’t think of it that way.
Rick: There was this physicist, I forget his name, but he got a little bit mentally unbalanced, and being a physicist, he understood very deeply that matter was not hard stuff, that there was really basically nothing there. And he became really trepidatious in walking along. He would wear really big boots because he didn’t want to sort of fall in.
James: Right. That’s good. But yeah, so I would say my starting point is clearly reality exists, something’s happening, and change is a crucial part of that. In meditative states, this is really, when you meditate, noticing impermanence, noticing change. If there’s anything that’s fundamental to the nature of reality, it’s that. It’s not a solid, static thing. It’s identified with flow. And I found the concept of the Dao to be really useful, because the Dao as well, the core idea as well there is that the Dao that can be named is not the eternal Dao, right? It’s the start of the Dao Te Ching, and then that’s the same thing I’m saying. You can’t name this process. But there’s something happening, and certain aspects of that process are quantifiable. There’s, my laptops in front of me, the manufacturers tell me how many inches across the screen is, I can measure it, you can measure it. There’s some pattern there that we can get a number of, and it exists in between us, and we can agree on it. So that’s what I call matter. It’s just some part of this process that we can quantify. I’m not saying it’s made of anything. I’m not saying it’s like a substance, but it’s just, it’s clear that we can measure stuff. Basically, that’s as humble as you should be with matter, I think. And then consciousness is this vast experiential realm of qualities. You can’t measure how tasty my dinner was, but I have this relative qualitative scale from disgusting through to pleasurable. And so, consciousness is inherently qualitative. The redness of red doesn’t come in units of red. And so, there’s been this mystery of how do you go from the quantities to the qualities, which is another way of saying where does consciousness fit into this picture of the natural world. But again, if you think the natural world is hard matter, and consciousness is some kind of airy substance, then you are going to have a hard time. But if you take the attitude of explaining how they fit together, because basically how do you get this gas kind of consciousness from this matter of this hard stuff of matter? But what I’m saying is everything’s just a process. And within that, where Whirlpool is a really good analogy, you have life forms. To be alive is to engage in separation from the rest of the universe. The whole universe is quantum mechanics tells us and thermodynamics tells us it’s one big thing. It’s one whole. But within that, you get these little separations of living systems. And effectively, if you look at that, well, the concept, the idea for me is that if you’re going to keep yourself together, because we’re highly ordered, right? The universe is very chaotic, and it’s kind of falling apart. And there’s a lot of stuff going on in it, but we have a lot of order. And that seems like it could be a bit of a mystery. But if we’re kind of self-maintaining, self-creating systems, and the only way you can maintain your order and survive is to attempt to know what’s going on around you. If you’re a little single-celled organism and you’re wandering around in the ocean, and you could go into some lava, you need to detect where that lava is and move away from it. And that just needs to happen. That happens kind of evolutionarily. If you don’t do that, you’re going to die. And if you look at the thermodynamics, there’s, I won’t get into the science, but there’s effectively the physics of it corresponds to inference, which is like inferring things like this kind of attempt to know exists at the informational level. So I think that’s the key. I think life is the key to understanding where consciousness fits into the natural world. So I think all living systems are conscious. And by consciousness, I’m talking about experience, this wordless, apprehending feeling that occurs in awareness. And I’m using synonyms here. I’m kind of looping back on myself, but it’s hard to talk about consciousness any other way. But I don’t think a rock is conscious. I don’t think it even makes sense to talk about a rock as a separate thing. I think it’s just part of the whole of the universe. So I think life is like eyes opening in the universe, but I don’t think there was experience. You have people now, a lot of people arguing that matter is conscious, all matter is conscious. That’s like pan-psychism or that everything is consciousness. And so in those pictures before life forms, there would be experience. In my view, there’s a lot of unconscious stuff happening and then weird like the eyes opening in the universe. But the whirlpool is what creates consciousness and consciousness is kind of, therefore, it’s not a property of the little separate organism. It’s a property of the whole, it’s the property of the universe. And we can get into why I think this cashes out certain spiritual intuitions about what it is that survives death, why consciousness is indestructible, and why my and your nature is fundamentally the same. Even though we’re these little islands of consciousness, I think the quality of consciousness, there is effectively only one consciousness, even though it’s manifesting in all these little bubbles. I think there’s basically just one, yeah, one fact of consciousness in the universe.
Rick: Okay, so let me respond to that as concisely as I can. First, I’ll start with a question that came in from Bharat Bedia in London who asks, “What are your thoughts on Advaita Vedanta which rationally and logically explains that Brahman, the absolute, Sat-Chit-Ananda is all there is, and what scientists call reality, including concept theories, are a duality, hence an appearance in non-dual pure consciousness?” And before you, keep that in mind, I mean, you understand the Vedanta perspective, let me throw a couple of things at you. There’s a Sufi saying that is, “God sleeps in the rock, dreams in the plant, stirs in the animal, and awakens in man.” And pan-psychism, which you mentioned, seems to me like kind of a subtle materialism. In other words, we’re saying, “Well, there is physical stuff, and physical stuff has some consciousness to varying degrees.” Some scientists have even said that maybe even a neutron or an electron has a little bit of consciousness. And I still think that even if you take it that deep, they’re getting it backwards. It’s not that things have consciousness, it’s that things are consciousness, and that consciousness has, through a sort of self-interacting dynamics, given rise to all these things. And if you think of consciousness as fundamental, a fundamental universal field, then ultimately at that level, there’s nothing but that. And so, but if it’s consciousness, then it wants to be conscious, it’s its nature to be conscious, and yet there’s nothing for it to be conscious of other than itself, there’s nothing else down there. But then in becoming conscious of itself, a three-fold structure is set up between observer, observed, and process of observation. And then that three-fold structure continues to elaborate through what physics would call sequential spontaneous symmetry breaking, and all of the diversity grows by degrees, force and matter fields, and eventually, you know, concrete, apparently concrete structures, and eventually biological life. And so, that’s God kind of waking up from sleep to dream to stirring to being awake. And so, in light of that scenario or that theory, you could say that the whole universe is this sort of giant evolutionary machine through which the God or divine or pure intelligence, pure consciousness, you know, says, “I am one, may I become many,” and in becoming many, is able to have a living experience of itself, rather than just a sort of abstract, unmanifest state. And so, from our perspective, you know the T.S. Eliot poem, Burnt Norton, where it’s like, there will not be an end to all of our seeking and finally we’ll arrive back from where we started and know the place for the first time. So, there’s this sort of progression through various degrees of greater and greater complexity, and the more complex, the more able it is, the forms are to express or reflect consciousness, and ultimately to become self-aware, and then ultimately to have instruments refined enough, namely ourselves, to actually know the ultimate reality from whence all of this has sprung. Irene is saying, “Jesus!” That was like one of the longest raps I’ve ever done, but I wanted to get it all out in one big lump so you can go on.
James: There’s lots of good stuff there. Yeah, yeah, I’ll dive into it and then remind me of different things and we can, yeah, that’s a good lump to navigate around. Yeah, so I think the poem you quoted, I would say, yeah, I would feel comfortable saying that God stirs in the stars and the planets and awakens in life. So, I don’t think awakens in man, but that’s my picture where I don’t think God as the ground of being that I think is unnameable, I don’t think that necessarily needs to be awake every moment. This is the thing of the, I took the picture you sketched out, it seems like a really good description of perhaps the Advaita perspective that the questioner was raising as well. So, I’ll try and I’ll assume those are the kind of the same, that he’ll be happy with me tackling those in one. And something that I’ve always been struck by as someone who had this awakening experience as a teenager, did not feel like my conclusion wasn’t, so, you know, what’s known as philosophical or ontological idealism, the idea that only consciousness exists. I’m quite careful to say that I really think non-duality Advaita and all these non-dual traditions are separate from the claim that what only exists should be called consciousness or its nature is consciousness. The non-dual experience is an experience and I think it can have a couple of different kind of conclusions. You can have a couple of different conclusions about the nature of reality from it. And if you look in, especially in Buddhism, there are loads of different traditions. Some say mind only, some say more what I’m saying. So, I like to make sure that those are two separate things, that you’ve got the non-dual experience of realizing everything really is one, really is not separate and really is beyond your concepts because your concepts are what make you think things are separate. And in my picture like that, mine is a non-dual picture, but it’s not an idealist picture. It’s not a picture where only consciousness exists. But responding to that idea, I think what we’re founded, so we agree that, I think we agree that you could say I am conscious, which I think we probably agree actually isn’t the best way to say it. There is consciousness here. You could say I am consciousness, but I think just saying there is consciousness here and there is consciousness where you are. And that’s not controversial. And then the question becomes, what’s the nature of the rest of it? If you say that for every life form, say we agree that for sake of argument that all life is conscious or to just humans, if you want, but then the question becomes, what are the rest of it? What of planets? What of the vacuum in space, the big bang? Is that consciousness? Is that conscious? So to me, consciousness is this phenomena that’s located here and it can access these states where you realize the fundamental unity of existence. But I think that’s from this perspective, I’m looking out and realizing that I’m part of this greater whole. But if you were to, yeah, if I would not feel comfortable saying the nature of the vacuum of space is consciousness, because I don’t know what I mean when I would say those words. I know what I mean when I say this is consciousness over here, it is where you are. But the same reason I don’t feel comfortable saying it’s matter. I just don’t think you can say what it is. And something maybe it’d be good to get your perspective on is, yes, you wrote this article about if everything is consciousness, is everything conscious? Which I think is something I really, yeah, in this picture would be keen to understand because it’s only life that attempts separation. Rocks don’t attempt separation. Physicists can describe thermodynamically everything blends into everything else and it’s only life that resists this. So if everything outside of life, everything outside of life is one whole, so then I guess it would have to be one mind kind of looking inwards at all of these life forms. It’s like a negative of where the life is, like Swiss cheese almost. The rest of the universe is like one mind with all these holes in it. And then you’ve got these little minds. I guess I just don’t know what that gets you. I don’t, yeah, understand where, I mean, maybe understand where the instinct to claim that would come from because in that picture, I think maybe a key difference in those pictures is after you die, you return to, I’m assuming in that picture, a kind of blissful, unitive state with the rest of conscious cosmos. In my picture, this is it. In my picture, it’s like we’re stuck in this little squirm where we’re like, if we’re going to be conscious, we have to exist and struggle and we can try and get enlightened, but there’s this nagging ah, you can never quite get it because the ultimate union is death, but then the lights go out. And so, I think this is it. I think this is the game and it’s a fascinating, wonderful game. It’s a privilege to be living it. But I don’t think that this is like a hell realm where we’re suffering for no payoff. I think consciousness is the payoff and you can think of it as the universe exploring itself in a sense. But yeah, because I guess that would be my worry, if death is that great, then I’m not sure what the point of life would be.
Rick: Well, there’s a lot in there that I can reply to. Where to start? First of all, this thing about life being sort of unlike rocks and stuff because life has the ability to resist entropy and keep, you know, I think it was one of the physicists said it might have been Schrodinger that we eat negative entropy, we imbibe orderliness and thereby maintain our structure. I guess one question we could ask is, well, Brian Swimme said you leave hydrogen alone for 13.8 billion years and you end up with rose bushes, giraffes and opera. You know, why did all this beauty and orderliness come out of a completely entropic soup of hydrogen? How did everything form into these beautiful structures? So, there’s some kind of counterforce to the second law of thermodynamics that seems to be creating structure and orderliness in spite of the second law which wants everything to sort of disintegrate and become more entropic. So, why don’t you respond to that bit before we get into some of the other things you just said?
James: Right. Yeah, so I don’t think there’s a contradiction between, I don’t think, you know, all the phenomena we’re talking about are kind of emergent phenomena. And so, the specific technical idea of negative entropy is kind of out of fashion, but the idea is right that like, that you have these kinds of stars, you know, where we are on planet Earth, you have all this energy, all this orderliness streaming out of the sun and plants basically, yeah, they eat that to make their own order and then we eat the plants and all of this order is getting passed down. But it’s all in the direction of diffusion of into this thermodynamic kind of equilibrium, just as some lukewarm soup at the end of it all, it seems. But yeah, my take would be, it’s like, you know, if you imagine our universe as just some explosion in a huge firework, and it just produces the most beautiful flourish, you know, that may seem astounding, but I think it just is the nature of it. I don’t think there’s a mystery. But well, so I think the important thing is that when you were talking, I got kind of shivers in the way that I’m talking about, like, the nature of reality is, as you were describing, you look at it and you’re like, what the hell is going on here? You can get in touch with this feeling of like, how is all of this beauty and complexity here? And I don’t, to me that evokes the kind of mystical reverence for reality that makes me think I’m not actually going to be able to really, no matter, you know, I think the physicists could probably do a really good job of explaining why the complexity is there. But in the big question that you raised of, but like, sure, you can show why it does it in this particular instance, but like the big why, like why, why is there awe and beauty and all of this stuff happening? To me, that’s the core kind of religious feeling of just standing in awe of reality. And I don’t expect that to ever be explained away by ideas or by any kind of thing I can think and go, there you go, that’s why. And I actually apply that as well to, you know, it’s why I don’t say things like perhaps the universe is some intelligent creator or it has some plan or it has agency. I really just stand in awe of it. And so I guess there’s, you’re making me realize that maybe more than a lot of people in this kind of spiritual community, I have quite a split between saying reality is this transcendent awe inspiring thing. And let me come up with some maps for it because it’s beautiful to be in awe of it and to study it. But those maps will never take away that awe.
Rick: No, and I think the word awe implies to a certain extent, well, maybe not. I mean, it may imply that we really don’t understand what it is, but it’s amazing and so we’re in awe. But I think that we could also get to a level of enlightenment, we could use that word, where you do deeply experientially understand what’s going on. I say experientially as opposed to just understand, which is a mind thing, because you have actually realized your true nature as being that intelligence which is fundamental to the whole universe. And it doesn’t mean you are God, but it means you have merged with God. The wave isn’t the ocean but the wave has realized that it’s the same stuff as the ocean, so to speak. And that realization is experiential and abiding. And there too, there would be tremendous awe and gratitude and devotion and profundity in one’s moment-to-moment experience, but there would also be a clear understanding of the mechanics of nature in a very deep way. Let me just throw one quick quote at you. The notion of randomness, there are physicists and scientists who think that the universe is random and meaningless and that we’re just sort of biological robots, and there actually is this many universes theory that, you know, how could the universe have evolved as it is if it’s random? Well, there must be an infinite number of universes and we just lucked out in terms of being in the one which resulted in all this orderliness. But here’s a little quote, paragraph. “So, there are 20 elements in amino acids that combine in certain sequences to form the 700,000 kinds of proteins in our body. To just make one of these proteins, collagen, you need to arrange 1,055 amino acids in precisely the right sequence. If this had to happen by chance, it would be like a Las Vegas slot machine with 1,055 spinning wheels, each with 20 symbols, and you had to get the same symbol on all the wheels to win the jackpot. The odds of achieving this through chance are far greater than the number of atoms in the universe, and that’s just one of 700,000 proteins in the body.” So go ahead and respond to that.
James: Yeah. So, there’s, well, I want to respond to the other thing you said as well. I’m drawn. Okay. I’ll go with that one first. Yeah. So, I think what I said at the beginning about, I think reality must be infinite. I can’t think of it being any other way. Because if you think there’s any endpoint or any boundary, then just the nature of it is you can’t have like hard boundaries.
Rick: And what do you mean by reality here? You say reality must be infinite. What are you referring to?
James: All that exists.
Rick: So the universe or whatever, so there’s no limit to it.
James: But even beyond, think of beyond our universe. So, you know, if we take the multiverse and stuff, but even beyond multiverse, like just for all being, you know, the nature of that has to be infinite. I can’t see how it’d be any other way. It’s hard to, maybe people think that would click or not, if they agree. But as a result of that, you have to find yourself in the bits where it’s possible to find yourself. We can’t find ourselves on the sun because life can’t exist on the sun. So, if you have infinity, things will happen by chance and then you’ll sit there and go, “Hey, look what happened by chance.” I remember when I was about, I was in my teenage years, being in a religious education class and being told a similar logic of there had to be a creator God, because we’re in the Goldilocks zone on planet earth, you know, like too close to the sun, too hot, too far away, too cold. And what a miracle we find ourselves here. And it was one of my earliest memories of having like what I felt was an original thought. And it was this thought, it was the same thing we’re discussing. I was like, wait a minute, but we have to find ourselves here. We can’t find ourselves anywhere else. If there are a billion planets and there’s a one in a billion chance of life occurring, it will occur in one of them. And then they will find themselves there and they will look around and go, “Whoa, what are the odds that we found ourselves here?” And it’s a certain kind of fallacy. You know, you can imagine like hitting a golf ball and it landing on a blade of grass. And if the grass could contemplate this going, “Whoa, what are the odds it was me?” You’re like, yeah, there has to be someone. So there’s the same logic there, but also the, I would say the core thing that I find thrilling, the core insight that I find most powerful in understanding the natural world is the, there’s not really a good name for it, but it’s kind of the logic of, it’s a similar thing. It’s the logic of kind of survival dynamics where it’s the same thing that powers evolution. You know, how could it be that giraffes have such long necks? Well, get enough animals together and give them that goal and let those and die off. The ones with long necks will survive and you get these long necked animals. Same thing with a bacterial cell, a single celled organism. How could you possibly have such complexity? Well, give it enough time with a chemical soup. And even if it’s a 1 trillion chance, if you run it this idea that you have, you know, a kind of multiverse idea, but even bigger than a multiverse of just, you know, who knows how much time has been happening before we came on the scene, but we, you know, we are, the eyes open when the eyes open and they assemble when they assemble. So, I don’t, I don’t feel that there’s a God or a creator or an intelligence that is any, in anything like us. You know, I think there can be this feeling that, you know, a lot of people feel like, I think the, the identity, I mean, the Atman is Brahman thing. I think sometimes people can feel like the identity of the universe is very similar to my, to myself in my most awakened moments. You know, it’s something like a human intelligence. That’s not the line I take. I think it’s just something deeply mysterious.
Rick: Yeah. When we’re talking about, you know, this unbounded intelligence and, you know, God in the way we’ve now defined God, there’s nothing human about it. Humans are just one of a gazillion different reflectors of that intelligence, sort of the way there are innumerable electrical devices that reflect the same electromagnetic field, the same electrical field. So, you know, we don’t want to anthropomorphize God. And this thing you said about there can’t be life on the sun, I’ll go out on a limb here and say, oh yeah, there’s life. In fact, there’s life in interstellar space, there’s life everywhere, but we have to obviously define life, life being that field of intelligence that’s all-pervading. And if you go to the sun, theoretically, and you notice the fusion reaction taking place there and what’s happening in all the little atoms and molecules, there’s, you know, certain orderly laws of nature that reflect that intelligence, that are expressions of it. And I would go, now here’s something that will really sort of knock your socks off. I don’t think it’s archaic or primitive for certain cultures to have revered the sun as a God. What I would suggest is that, yeah, I would suggest that on a subtle level, the sun could very well be a conscious being, just as we’re conscious beings, just a very different kind of conscious being actually. So, this gets us into something I wanted to talk to you about and I don’t want to leave anything on the table that you had wanted to discuss so we can keep picking all that up, but that there’s not only the gross physical form that meets the eye and meets the senses, but there are subtler realms. We could call them astral or celestial, various terms have been used, and those realms are as populated with life, even life forms, as the gross realm is. They’re just subtle life forms that can’t be seen with the naked eye, like you were alluding to ghosts possibly being real a while back. And it’s in that sense that I would suggest we have a soul, which you have kind of refuted in some of your talks, the soul being sort of like the Russian doll on a subtler level that’s within our physical form, and there aren’t an infinite number of these Russian dolls, but there’s sort of a subtle essence and that would explain out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, and it would also explain reincarnation, that there is something which is more subtle to us that lives when the physical body dies and it carries on and eventually takes on another physical body the way we put on new clothes the next day after we’ve had a night’s sleep. So, that’s enough to bounce off you for now. Let’s see what you have to say about all that.
James: Yeah, that’s good stuff to jump into. One thing I’ll say on the previous topic before we move on is you mentioned this thing of experiential recognition of kind of getting the intelligence of nature, kind of feeling like you know it in a non-intellectual way. That I completely agree with.
Rick: You are it. You know it because you are it.
James: Yeah, exactly. You look inwards and you, I’ve had that many times, this feeling of like, just all you can say is like, “Yes, yes, yes, it makes sense. I know it. I’ve known this so many times. This is so inherent in me to know this and it makes sense.” So, yeah, I completely agree with that. But yeah, so this idea, I guess my worldview, you know, in Cards on the Table is this one in which there’s one reality, mind and consciousness are tied up with the life process, they’re deeply embodied. And so when the life process dissipates that individual island of consciousness doesn’t continue. And so it’s a very kind of non-dual holistic, you know, oneness kind of picture. Now, I kind of contrast that to the sense of individuated souls that might somehow survive the physical body, you know. So you have the version we’re taught as kids is a kind of dualism where it’s like matter is one thing, consciousness is another thing. Consciousness feels like it can kind of survive death. And, you know, that’s a view I don’t see many people kind of defending. I’ve not read, basically, I just don’t have accounts that I can point to and say, “Ah, here’s someone who’s explained to me how that could work.” But what I would have to say is the Whirlpool idea, if there was truth to this, it would be something like the idea that all of reality is consciousness. My feeling of being this body now is some just kind of dream of this island and it can move on and have another life. And, you know, so that’s the, I guess, the thing I would leave the door open to if there is literal truth to the things you described out of body experiences, near death experiences, encounters with entity, disembodied kind of subtle entities. And so to cycle back to the topic of psychedelics, if you’d spoken to me a few years ago about this stuff, I would have not had much of interest to say. I would have just said, I would have stopped here, basically, I would have said, “Yeah, I don’t believe that stuff. I think it’s probably just imaginative or whatever.” And I would have said it in a kind of way. But then with Ayahuasca and the active chemical in that DMT, that produces the most astounding experiences that feels like your disembodied soul goes to another realm, whether entities that you engage with, they’re intelligent. And it’s the most convincing thing I’ve ever experienced. It’s more convincing than thinking I’m talking to you right now, which is crazy. And the Johns Hopkins psychiatric research team recently had a paper that came out this year. And on average, people basically asking people about these experiences, on average, they say that the experience of that realm, if you want to use that word, is 50% more real than this experience of daily life. This experience of daily life feels about two thirds as real as that does. And my instinct is that’s similar to dreaming maybe. A dream feels, once I wake up from a dream, I’m like, “Oh yeah, that felt maybe 60% as real as normal life.” So it’s a similar kind of ratio. And you really would feel like you’re waking up from this world being a dream and that being the real world. So anyone, before… I feel like I’m in this odd position where if this was several hundred years ago, and we didn’t have science and philosophy, and we weren’t trying to play this game of coming up with consistent maps for the world, I would have just said, “That’s real.” You’d have to be insane to think that wasn’t real. I saw it, it’s as real as anything. As someone now playing this pedantic game of science and philosophy and trying to make everything square, I really can’t… my honest conclusion, after I think about it a lot, is to come down to a worldview where I think the mystical experience of non-dual unity is literally, kind of real. The insight should be taken as actually real. But I think that the visionary states or states where there’s content of that kind, I think it’s more like a generative thing going on inside the individual, but where through intuition and through our ability to integrate fast amounts of information, as well as through archetypal cognitive structures within the Quaith revolution, I think there’s a huge amount of meaning that happens there. So I think shamans and spiritually adept people can go into these mental spaces. I don’t think it might… And again, this is my guess. Science has… It’s pathetic how little science has paid attention to this stuff. It really… Engaging with spirits is a key part of the human experience. It happens across all ancient religions. And to just say, “Ah, it’s nonsense,” is really a cop-out. And so that’s why I’m glad you’re talking to me now as opposed to a few years ago when I might have been more like, “Ah, it doesn’t need explaining.” Because I really think it does. And I’m really… I’m going out on a limb here to say, “Here’s my honest opinion,” with the humility of saying, “Science has really not backed me up. There are no textbooks I can look to on the psychology or philosophy of how this stuff happens.” But that’s my instinct is, you might genuinely be able to channel someone’s… But through something… There’s nothing supernatural, nothing outside what we currently know about the laws of physics. I don’t think we need to bring to the idea of other levels of reality. But that you can channel intuitively, you can gain insight, and you can just… A lot can happen and it’s really important and valuable. But yeah, I would say… Actually, if you don’t mind me monologuing a bit more, the way I think about this, it goes back to this idea of all of reality being a process. So I think reality is just this one process. And when I say this is a glass, glass is a concept. There is no… If I melt it down, at what point does it not stop being a glass? I think I’ve heard you… I think in your interview with Donald Hoffman, you had a quote about pots and is the pot, when it has a certain form, can you say that has an essence of pots? And then if you… Is it there in the clay? Maybe I’m mangling that particular analogy, but this is a core idea of… Was that vaguely what you said?
Rick: Kind of. There are three analogies that are common in Advaita Vedanta. Pots, waves, and jewellery. You walk into a room full of clay pots and you can truthfully say there’s nothing but clay here, but it’s not a complete picture, it’s not the full truth because there are also pots. And you could look at an ocean and say there’s nothing but water, but you can’t say there aren’t waves because there are, even though there’s only water. Or jewellery, you know, you can say there’s nothing but gold here and yet there are bangles and earrings and rings and different forms that the gold takes and you can’t say those don’t exist. So, this is called something, there’s a term, vyavaharika satyam in Vedanta which means transactional truth, which means that in actual life, you know, sure, everything is ultimately all one, but in actual life there are relative realities and you can’t sort of deny that they exist if you want to live. You have to sort of take them at their own level and knowledge is different in different states or different levels of consciousness.
James: Right, yes. It’s the same thing of the doctrine of two truths in Buddhism, I think, where you have the absolute and you have the relative. And I think the jewellery one is useful as well because I would say when someone goes into that shop and they look at the different jewellery, it’s highly contextual. It’s basically the words you use and the concepts you bring to bear are all to do with which part of my body am I going to wear this on? Do I think it’s valuable? Like it’s only the labels of bracelet and, you know, brooch and things like that only exist in that landscape of ideas. And if you took a bracelet and you sent it into space, I would argue it’s not a bracelet anymore. No one’s going to wear it. It’s now just a circle of gold. You know, you could say that, but it’s not a bracelet. But this is pointing to the limitation of concepts and the fact that everything, including the self and all objects have this quality where in absolute terms, there’s just the one pattern of reality. And within that, there are relative structures. Now, in a sense, I would say, you know, my experience of this glass exists, but the glass doesn’t actually have an intrinsic essence of glass. It doesn’t exist as a glass. I don’t exist as James. Like these are just concepts. And so I would actually say that spirits exist in the same way that glasses exist. You can have the experience of a spirit and there’s a real pattern in reality happening there and in consciousness. But on the absolute level, there’s not really a solid thing that you could point to and say, that’s a spirit. It’s a pattern. So that’s my take, which I think, yeah, you can probably go either way, whether you think that’s radical or not, with respect to whether glasses or spirits exist.
Rick: Well, you could also put spirits in glasses, right, and get drunk drinking them. Different kind of spirits. But I would say on the absolute level, there are no things. On the absolute level, there’s absolute. There’s no relative and therefore no things. And you know, I think the idea of Vedanta is that ultimately all this is one thing, one stuff, Brahman, and it’s not a thing, but it’s the ultimate reality. And it assumes forms, but if you look deeply enough into what those forms actually are, they’re Brahman. So, there are these states, there’s these phrases, the Upanishads, you know, “I am that, thou art that, all of this is that, that alone is,” and so on. So, there’s, you know, one fundamental stuff of the universe, which isn’t stuff, it’s sort of consciousness really, or God, if you wish to use that term, and through its self-interacting dynamics, it assumes all these forms and we are among those forms. I just wanted to throw in one other quick thing here, which is that, you know, we’re using our computers right now, and if we had to actually interface with what’s really going on in the computer in terms of the bits and the bytes and all that stuff, binary language, we wouldn’t be able to use it. It would be completely incomprehensible to us. So, we have a graphical user interface that enables us to interact with the computer, with the inner workings of the computer. So, like that, you know, all beings are like graphical user interfaces, and you know that famous Thomas Nagel article, “What is it like to be a bat?” It’s, you know, the bat and the cow and the human being and every other living thing under the sun could interact with the same tree, but they’re all seeing something very different according to the way their particular graphical user interface functions. But that doesn’t mean that there are ultimately that many different realities. One ultimate reality that bat somehow lives in and another for the human being and another for the cow. There’s one ultimate reality and we all reflect it or interface with it in different ways. Now, just a wrap-up point for this is that the cool thing about being a human being is that you can realize and here the language breaks down because it’s not you who realizes it but let’s put it this way, the ultimate reality can awaken to its own nature through the instrumentality of the human nervous system. Bats and cows can’t do that.
James: You mean a kind of an intuitive knowing, like an awakened enlightened state where consciousness knows itself?
Rick: Yeah, and not intuitive in the sense of a fleeting sort of hunch about it, but in terms of the fully embodied realization of it so that you are that and you know that with absolute conviction based upon your experience and you live from that realization.
James: Right, yeah. And that’s something very real. I mean, just to clarify, I think intuition is the core of knowing in the mind. Everything, the rational mind is secondary to intuition. Intuition is the most, like even all of science, when you ultimately cash out, you know, two plus two equals four sounds like a very rational proposition, but actually it was only, I’m not sure when, but it took a very long time for mathematicians to actually prove it logically and rationally. You just kind of have to get it. You know, you show someone two things, you show them another two things. Now there are four of them. You just kind of go, huh, yeah, it seems like two plus two equals four. And so, it’s funny. It feels like that’s really rational, but actually ultimately everything comes down to that, you know, that kind of intuitive, just getting it. But yeah, so I don’t want to lose my thread of where we were going with the previous question. Oh yeah. So I would say with the subtle realities, I guess in the same way that most people are comfortable saying glasses exist, tables exist, jewellery exists.
Rick: Yeah. It’s an agreed upon reality.
James: Yeah. I would say it’s more accurate to say the experience of those things exists in the same way you were saying, it’s like a graphical user interface. They’re like icons, but the ultimate reality isn’t, they don’t really exist. So in the same way, I would say the experience of the subtle realms exists. And if people are happy to say glasses and cups and tables exist, then they should actually be by the same logic, be happy to say the subtle realms exist. Now, the question, so I guess by that, in that picture, I’m saying they do exist, people experience them. And then the question becomes what is their nature? Where do they fit into the picture of reality that we have? And knowing, you know, just the way that I think about the mind and the brain and they’re being embodied, my honest, the only way I can make it fit with everything else I know or think about the world is to say, I suspect as we map the space and we understand how it arises, my guess is it won’t cause us to rewrite or like it won’t cause a kind of huge paradigm shift where we have to rethink the nature of reality. But that’s a possibility. It could turn out we’ve not really explored these areas scientifically and philosophically in a rigorous way. And when we do, we will realize that they’re vast and they actually have a different nature. They’re not the thing I was saying, which is a combination of generating imaginative stuff combined with yeah, that kind of intuitive, perceptual mapping of what’s going on in order to have some knowledge. Yeah, this may be getting a bit subtle in itself, these arguments, but I hope it’s conveying that I don’t believe it’s supernatural, but I also don’t believe it’s just trivial.
Rick: No. Well, let me bring up an example that I think relates to what you were just saying. I heard you say in some recording that, well, you can’t experience your own death and when I die, that’ll be the end of me, but you know, some little girl will be born in Australia and she’ll open her eyes and begin to have experience. But you weren’t saying that, well, maybe that little girl will be me reincarnated, you know, my soul will somehow transmigrate into that body. You weren’t saying that. But where we differ is I would say, yeah, that could actually be your soul transmigrating into that body. And the logic of this is that there’s not enough time in one lifetime to achieve the full span of spiritual development of which we’re destined to achieve, for which we have come into existence. It takes many lives to evolve life by life by life, and of course this is ancient traditional understanding, not anything I dreamed up, and a lot of people like to brush it off as sort of ancient ways of thinking, but I think they were onto something, the guys who talked about this stuff. And if you see it that way, a lot of things fall into place, to my mind anyway, a lot of things that otherwise don’t make sense, like children being born with some incurable disease and dying after a year, begin to make sense. And you can kind of see, and it also helps to think of, it helps you to think of God as some kind of benign reality that is not capricious or cruel, but that is, there’s a word, evolutionary Pan-entheism which is kind of a competitor to pan-psychism, but it’s that there’s this sort of evolutionary force pervading everything and slowly but surely in its own sweet time bringing about the evolution to greater and greater embodiments of divine intelligence in all beings. Anyway, I could keep rambling, but you can respond to that.
James: Yeah, so remind me to come back to reincarnation because I want to. But yeah, the last thing you said is fascinating too. I guess I don’t believe, I don’t think of this as, of reality as being kind of intentional, having a goal, kind of intentionally evolving in a particular way. And something you mentioned earlier we could touch on is, I don’t believe in individual free will of this ego to control things. But I think the nature of the ultimate reality is ultimate freedom. I think it’s ultimately unconstrained. It’s just process happening in infinite space. And so it is kind of, every part of it is exploring, is doing exactly what is in its nature to do. So that’s a very long, you could say that’s determinism. Everything just does the thing it’s going to do. But to me, that looks like a being of ultimate, or just the fact of being in ultimate freedom, just expressing its nature perfectly. But so, on the reincarnation point, yeah, it’s related. Because I guess I don’t think there is a me to be reincarnated. I really think that the idea of a self is an illusion and that we really are a process in this greater whole. And relatively, there’s some separation now, but it’s really a transient illusion and a product of this survival fear-based thinking of, I have to protect this pattern. But I don’t think there’s anything at the core of that. So I don’t know what would be carried over between people.
Rick: The subtle body.
James: Yes. So that’s, yeah, I mean, I think, I guess I think of, if you describe the subtle body or the soul as being kind of synonymous with consciousness, my picture is that consciousness is deeply embodied in the dynamics of the universe and arises in the universe and can’t be taken apart from it. And so when it comes to, ultimately, I think, when we have, if things are happening in the physical world, so like, yeah, if we’re talking about, we mentioned at the very beginning, kind of things that might, you know, supernatural things happening, levitation or walking on water and things like that. Any claims, you know, I used to, in my days of listening to Dawkins, I would have been very dismissive of that stuff. I now am open-minded when I see how widespread these kinds of things are. Maybe there’s things we don’t know, but I do ultimately have to come back to the idea that an object, a claim about something happening in objective reality, the reality in between us has to be cashed out with objective evidence. Like I just, I can’t allow myself to just think people are probably telling the truth anecdotally. No, no, that’s very important. >> I have to think, you know.
Rick: Yeah. In fact, what I was just thinking is when you say, “I don’t believe this and I don’t believe that,” and then I’m saying, “Well, I believe this and I believe that,” I mean, we both have to acknowledge that we’re playing with hypotheses here. And, you know, none of us has the wisdom or authority to make absolute truth claims that are indisputable.
James: Definitely, yeah.
Rick: So, and hypotheses, by their very definition, are things which, you know, you accumulate evidence to either support or refute. And I would say there’s a heck of a lot of evidence to support the notion that there is sort of some kind of subtle essence. I wouldn’t say that it’s ultimately what you are, because what we ultimately are is that sort of universal Consciousness, Brahman, and that has no individuation really, but Brahman sort of arises in individual ripples the way an ocean does, and so we’re kind of a, you know, to use a metaphor where the sun is shining and there are many things which reflect it, or there are many different kinds of radios and cell phones and everything which pick up on the electromagnetic field. When the radio breaks, the electromagnetic field doesn’t break. In fact, the specific programs that are playing that particular Beethoven symphony keeps playing, and other radios can pick it up. But anyway, metaphors have their limitations. So ultimately, we are not, we could say we don’t exist, but at that level nothing exists, there is no universe. However, as soon as we acknowledge a universe, we can acknowledge all sorts of individual expressions of it as possibilities, one of which is that there is a subtle essence to us that actually outlives the physical body, outlives many physical bodies. And you speak of evidence, okay, well people go under general anaesthesia and then watch the operation from the vantage point of the ceiling and see things that are happening down the hall and things like that when the senses, the physical senses are shut down. Or Dr. Ian Stevenson at the University of Virginia interviewing thousands of kids who remember past lives and then going to the villages that the kids describe and meeting the people that they predicted he would meet and things like that. So, there’s just a lot of, I have some evidence for the point I’m making, and I’m not sure what the evidence is to support the notion that there is no personal self whatsoever and that we’re just sort of, and that there’s no free will whatsoever, which is another argument we can get into.
James: Yeah, I mean, for the self thing, I think it comes down to, it’s more…
Rick: The Buddhist thing.
James: Yeah, you can have the experience of realizing there is no self. And then you can, I mean, now there’ve been a whole bunch of books written about this basically saying how modern neuroscience completely catches it out. You look at us, we’re just this network system. There is no central controller. There’s a lot of people kind of making these arguments. It’s more like you’d have to find some evidence of what the self really is.
Rick: Yeah, you have to define it. You pick a radio part, you don’t find Beethoven in there, or the Beatles or whatever.
James: Yeah, so the self is a pattern, you could say. I would say what we take to be the psychological self is the mind of the organism pointing back at itself and saying, “This thing, this pattern that’s continuing,” but then when you pick it apart, you realize it’s a concept. I mean, that’s the main thing. It’s a concept rather than, well, in my view, it’s a concept rather than a kind of a thing that exists like a soul or a subtle body. But yeah, I’m really glad you said that. Every time I use the word “I think” or “I believe,” it’s really important to emphasize, as you said, what I’m saying is my honest place I’ve come down to thinking about this stuff is this, and I’m open-minded. And yeah, it’s not a kind of, “This is definitely like this.”
Rick: Ten years from now, our positions might be reversed.
James: But then also, I wrote an article recently on out-of-body experiences and near-death experiences because basically I was in a place of really being like, “People have these experiences. A lot of people have these experiences. It’s something like 10% of people have had some kind of out-of-body experience, which is insane. That makes it a real part of the human experience, and we don’t have a good explanation for it. And I don’t like the idea that we just dismiss it in the scientific mainstream as just some weird experience because there’s this deep structure to it. Clearly, there’s some phenomenon here that needs to be explained. And in my research, yeah, I looked at those studies that you mentioned, and I was really pleased that so much of it is being done because this is effective. My point is, you can make yourself feel comfortable by just saying, “I’m a skeptic, and I’m not going to be open-minded about anything.” And then you can live an unhappy life and never experience the joy of meditation. Or you could be a really hard-nosed, closed-off skeptic, but I don’t think that’s the way to go. But then you can get stuck in this middle ground if you’re a sincere person who wants to take people at their word. You can get stuck just comparing people’s anecdotes. And then ultimately, after some amount of time, I think you have to say, “Okay, they’re doing the studies. I look forward to when they come back and they say, ‘Here’s the evidence.’ And you can look at the evidence and go, ‘Huh, yeah, looks like it’s real.'” But again and again, the studies seem to be fairly inconclusive. And I would say, take something like telepathy. I feel fairly strongly about telepathy. I don’t believe in it because the experiments to prove it would be so simple. Any 18-year-old or any undergraduate could run the experiments with a notepad. And the data collection doesn’t require any particular technology or funding. And if you could prove it, you would win a Nobel Prize. The incentives are there. So that’s one thing where I’m like, I would feel more comfortable putting money on it not being an actual phenomenon that exists in terms of information transfer between minds.
Rick: In response to that point, I want to refer to a book written by a friend of mine whom I’ve interviewed on this show called “An End to Upside-Down Thinking” by Mark Gober, “Dispelling the Myth that the Brain Produces Consciousness and the Implications for Everyday Life.” And what he does in this book is he takes every sort of possible angle of, you know, like telepathy and near-death experiences and out-of-body experiences and a whole bunch of different things like that and then looks at the research on them animals having psychic abilities and psychokinesis, mind influencing physical matter, and on and on. He just breaks it down very systematically and that’s worth a look. See what you think, I can’t really recapitulate the whole book off the top of my head, but in all these areas there’s a lot of evidence. I’ve interviewed Dean Radin of the Institute of Noetic Sciences and I’ll be interviewing him again in a month or so. And although a lot of the studies he does seem to detect sort of infinitesimal aberrations from the norm, they are statistically significant and it does appear that some of this stuff is taking place. But I think more importantly, you know, you can take relatively ordinary people and test their abilities in this regard, or you know, relatively ordinary people have out-of-body experiences during a surgery or something, but you have to also look to the real mystics who’ve advanced far beyond the norm and who speak apparently from their own experience when they describe these deeper mechanics of creation or of life.
James: Yeah, I think, I mean, I’m definitely deeply aware that the mainstream really doesn’t give this stuff a fair chance. So for all I know, there’s really compelling evidence that I’m just not seeing because it’s not accepted. And that’s, I guess, when I raised the thing about objective evidence, that’s basically, for me, I just felt like I was in a space of not being able to have any conclusions because I really want to trust people, you know, who seem to know what they’re talking about. And especially when I look at stuff like Tibetan Buddhism, I really respect, deeply respect their teachings on the nature of consciousness and think that it’s incredibly accurate and advanced. And then when they talk about subtle realms and past lives and things, it would seem strange of me to suddenly say, “Oh, no, but that they’re just mistaken, that they’ve got it completely wrong.” So that’s why I’m like, I think there’s, you know, every tradition probably has some things that get better than other things, but I’m definitely not just saying these things or dismissing them completely. But just, yeah, I guess it’s the thing I tell myself eventually that I’m to remain open-minded and wait for the compelling evidence.
James: But, you know, I mean, a lot of these phenomena can’t really be studied in compelling ways. Yoga took a very long time. Clearly, yoga is deeply beneficial. Clearly, meditation is. But because it’s holistic, it’s hard to prove in a reductionist framework. And the kind of healing experiences I had, these holistic embodied experiences, people have started doing experiments and these kinds of things, but it’s hard. And so when the mainstream is against it, it really doesn’t give it a fair go. So I should have started with that and said how much time I’ve spent being very open-minded before saying that my ultimate conclusion is I have to lean on the evidence side of it.
Rick: It’s true. I mean, if you went to the American Medical Association and said, “Hey, I took LSD and I got rid of eczema.”
James: Right, exactly.
Rick: They’d say, “You know, bug off, kid.” But, you know, I think it was Max Planck who said that science progresses one funeral at a time because, you know, people are very attached to their cozy little paradigms and it can be career suicide for a graduate student to say, “Hey, I want to study psychic phenomenon,” or something like that. So there’s this strong influence to be conformist.
James: Exactly, I think that’s really suffocating.
Rick: Yeah, and there’s some value in that because if we just sort of, you know, anything goes and blah blah, then you have what you sometimes have in places like Sedona, Arizona where it’s just like every kooky idea that comes down the pike is taken seriously. So there has to be this sort of, there have to be some brakes on the vehicle, but often those brakes are just applied too heavily.
James: Yeah, I think really being open-minded and interested and then having, and then using, yeah, evidence is a really wonderful thing. We’ve learned loads of cool things, you know, by using the scientific method. But I think the big problem is that I think, you know, so what happened to me is stress when I was young made me kind of flee into my rational mind and this fear-based desire to understand. And I think a lot of people who end up in science or end up as sceptics are those kinds of people, people who have some core wound of fear. And so that’s why they look at meditation, they look at yoga and they go, “Oh, that touchy feely, they’re using all these words around feelings, I don’t like it.” And then they confuse that, that feeling with science. And that’s not, you know, I think en masse, that’s partly why you get this divide. And I think that’s terrible, you know, so I would like to see more of the kind of conversations we’re having that are fundamentally open-minded, and then we discuss what’s the best way to move forward.
Rick: Yeah, and science, I mean, ordinary science deals with stuff that’s a lot more concrete and easy to prove, you know, and it’s gotten us to the Moon and it’s given us computers and skyscrapers and all kinds of things, whereas the spiritual realities that we’re talking about are much more subtle. And I guess a good analogy might be, there are very advanced physicists who understand the kinds of things that might be explored with the Large Hadron Collider for instance, and who know how to use that apparatus, and you and I are just out of our league, you know, we couldn’t possibly replicate their findings, we have to take their word for it. If they say they’ve found the Higgs Boson, well, I guess they have. And if they haven’t, then they’ll argue amongst themselves and sort it out. So, when it comes to these subtler phenomena, these spiritual realities, there are, you know, there are Einsteins of consciousness, we could say, and have been for millions of years, or not millions but many thousands of years, and I think maybe their perspectives need to be taken somewhat seriously, and they’ve really put in the hours, you know, the 10,000 hours that what’s his name wrote about in …
James: Malcolm Gladwell.
Rick: But who was it?
James: Malcolm Gladwell.
Rick: Malcolm Gladwell, right. But here’s the deal, I mean, we can’t all become PhDs in physics and run the Large Hadron Collider, but we can all become sort of yogis and mystics. We all have this apparatus of the human nervous system which actually in many respects is far more sophisticated than the Large Hadron Collider, and we can learn how to attune it and use it in such a way as to actually replicate for ourselves, to our own satisfaction, the findings of all the mystics and saints and yogis. We can dedicate our lives to doing that and actually succeed. So, that’s exciting.
James: Yeah, and I think that’s the more important thing as well. We’ve been talking about very big picture, zoomed out stuff, but to bring it into a kind of more embodied thing, like ultimately, if we spend as much effort as we spend on science, if we spend that effort cultivating awareness and compassion and just these fundamental aspects of the mind, that would be a better world. That would be, you know, also, now what I’ve personally discovered from my own experience of health arising from holistic wellness rather than from just this kind of symptom management model of mainstream Western science, I think we could be a healthier world as well. You know, if we just invested in that kind of, you know, in my picture, it’s one of we’re living in separation and by bringing ourselves into closer union with the greater whole, what you realize is awareness exists beyond the self and also that that feeling tone is one of compassion and love and acceptance. And that in that process, healing happens as well because we are these naturally homeostatic patterns. You can have all the kind of trauma relief stuff I mentioned and improvements in health. And I think that’s, I agree, like, I think we, you know, we need to be centering that stuff for the everyday person and taking seriously the experts, as you mentioned, you know, in every field, as you say, there will be experts and yeah, it feels like a disservice to us that we don’t really, the mainstream doesn’t know what to make of the testimony of experts in meditative or introspective or contemplative traditions because I’m sure there’s stuff of infinite value there.
Rick: Right. And because the mainstream these days and for quite some time has been dominated by the materialist-reductionist paradigm. And, you know, and that’s what dominates modern science and that’s the sort of predominant intellectual influence of our age, but we could envision a time, you know, where we don’t discard science in any, but we supplement it with the sort of subjective technologies, technologies of consciousness, and you can imagine a society in which all the children learn to meditate in school and were taught, you know, learn to discuss the kinds of things you and I are discussing here and grew up doing that. I mean, if that became a universal reality, we would have a completely different world in every respect, you know, economic and in terms of the way people are treated and in terms of what we do to the environment, I mean, the ripple effect would be huge because we’d be watering the root of the tree rather than just tinkering around with the leaves while the tree still is deprived of its nourishment.
James: Yeah. And I think you’re right because, you know, I think basically all of the world’s ills can be traced to this issue of separation and this issue of alienation and people, our culture living on average in an unconsciously stress and trauma-ridden state of fear and self-concern and the antidote to that is everything we’re talking about is cultivating this, you know, instead of being over on the separation side and the fear side being on the kind of method to open side of things. I think if we could get to a situation where we address that stuff, that would be, yeah, that’s the root of the issue and everything else kind of falls into place. And also on the point you mentioned of reductionism in science, I think it’s really not the case that science needs to be reductionistic. It’s just an attitude that we have that’s linked up with, I guess, the last several hundred years of commodifying and destroying nature and ripping everything apart to sell it. You know, like when you study the brain, I’m a systems neuroscientist, which means you have to study as a whole system. You can’t study its individual parts because all of this complexity exists in the whole structure. It’s like inherently holistic. And same with ecosystems, you know, we’re realizing networks are the basic structure of the emergent properties of the universe and that’s not a reductionist program. You need a holistic systems program in order to understand that stuff. And there are people arguing for this stuff, but it’s not the main attitude in science, unfortunately.
Rick: Another thing that occurred to me as you’re speaking is that, and I’m sure you’ve experienced this, you know how at a certain point you unleashed a lot of energies within yourself which healed your physical body? And there are many ways of doing that, obviously. One thing I would say, we’ve been alluding to this sort of deeper reality of the absolute or of consciousness or whatever you want to call it. One thing that is traditionally said about it is that it’s a reservoir of tremendous energy, creativity, intelligence and happiness. You know, Sat-Chit-Ananda, ananda means bliss. And if you begin tapping into this, it begins just sort of bubbling up into your life and all kinds of marvellous changes begin to take place in your outer life in terms of your productivity and your efficiency and just your, you know, the way you align your life with a more evolutionary purpose. And don’t mess things up for yourself by doing dumb stuff. So again, you can extrapolate out from an individual doing that to millions and billions of individuals doing that and imagine again how the world would change. So, you know, we’re all worried about the problems that beset humanity, pandemics and environmental disasters and so on and so forth. I would say that the greatest untapped natural resource of all is that inner potential, that inner intelligence. And that if we can, as many, many individuals, if we can tap into that as a society, if we can tap into that, we will literally produce a heaven on earth.
James: Yeah, I think you’re right. I mean, I think, you know, what I hope is just for us to get to a place of health as a species and with the planet. And I think that does happen, as you say, where when individuals feel themselves to be part of the greater whole, then it’s clear that you want the health of that greater whole. It’s just obvious. Like, it doesn’t, you don’t need to even put into words. It’s just so simple. And this is what you see again and again. You know, it’s why people who, you know, there’s a correlation with like holistic health and wellness with spiritual stuff, you know, it’s just, it becomes pretty obvious. And so I think, for me, like moving society forward, this stuff has to be at the center of it because ideologies don’t work in terms of, you know, imposing on people, here’s how we need to organize things. Here’s my idea of how we need to organize the world. What we need is people to each wake up to realizing the intuitive, obvious truth of how to cooperate, you know, in mutually beneficial ways. And then, you know, the rational mind with all its ideas and ideologies doesn’t need to be, it can then be the, you know, the servant to this goal as opposed to the kind of tyrannical master that gets it wrong all the time.
Rick: Yeah. I remember maybe about six months or a year ago, a group of European countries offered Bolsonaro of Brazil a couple hundred million dollars to, you know, preserve a certain portion of the rainforest and he said, “Eh, use it to replant your own forest. We’re going to burn it down, you know, because we need to think about our own economy right now.” So, it’s just a sort of a, you know, myopic thinking that, and billions of people thinking myopically, you know, thinking in terms of the small and not having the big picture, not having the broad comprehension that, you know, results in an everyman-for-himself world where, who was it that, I don’t know, there’s Gandhi or somebody had some quote about, I don’t know, I forget, but somehow if everyman is for himself, then nobody benefits. You know, we all suffer.
James: Yeah, and then you just, if you’re just looking out for your self-interest, you’re inevitably going to cause discord and it just spreads and it becomes like, you know, it becomes its own kind of virus, like a psychological virus of a race to the bottom. And it’s unconsciousness, you know, this is why awakenings of many kinds are the answer, I think, because all you have to do is see it. And then, as you said, the kind of natural, logical, homeostatic, evolutionary, like nature of what makes sense starts to take over and you live in line with the Dao or whatever you want to describe it. You just, you live from that place of what, you know, you no longer have to make decisions. The decisions just present themselves and the system finds its own healthy balance. You know, systems like ourselves, they tend towards resistance. Because they propagate themselves, they have to basically cultivate health in order to exist. So, that’s why our skin heals, it’s why I had my healing experiences. The same goes for the ecosystem, it can heal itself, it can come back to equilibrium, to some healthy balance, but not if we’re constantly resisting.
Rick: That’s a great point. You know, there’s that saying, “God helps those who help themselves.” And in my own life, and I think I could speak for you here too, I couldn’t have orchestrated or foreseen all the details of how my life worked out once I got on a spiritual path. I just sort of did my spiritual path thing and then all kinds of marvellous developments came about, you know, and unfoldings and opportunities and one thing after another over the years. And so, in a way, this argues both for and against free will. Because I, you know, I used what I perceived as my free will to, you know, stick to something that I found valuable and to, you know, despite distractions and oppositions and whatnot, to just stick with it. But then something larger than me took care of the details. There’s a verse in the Gita that says, “You have control over action alone, never over its fruits.” The fruits took care of themselves, I just took care of the action. And if we go back to that, “God helps those who help themselves,” I really feel like there’s been some kind of divine support or something, some larger intelligence helping to orchestrate my life. And do I speak for you in saying that also?
James: Yeah, I mean, I think there’s, yeah, it can be an absolutely natural intelligence. This is the same thing I was reaching for with the… I think it’s astounding that it’s the case if you go from living as someone feeling like a separate, you know, person, if you’re like an atheist, and then you discover that, you know, for me, I guess the concept would be something like redemptive love. If you open yourself radically, and you welcome everything with love, what you find is it triggers this process of homeostatic healing. And so suddenly, you can produce states of self-transcendence and self-compassion, and you start to have all of these experiences that are attached to, particularly in Christianity, that are real. And I actually think they make biological sense as well, and not in a way that reduces them, but they’re genuine phenomena that are helpful. And I think that’s the same thing that you were saying, you open yourself to the processes that are larger than you, and you flow with them, and then they take care of what needs to be taken care of. And I think, yeah, on the free will thing, we can go back to the idea of the absolute and the relative. In absolute terms, you’re going to do what you’re going to do. But in the relative term, you do make choices. Living systems are agents, they have the capacity to choose. And in the same way that I was saying, I see the totality of reality as this ultimately free process that’s doing what is most worth its nature. That’s what we should aspire to do as well. Most people’s idea of free will is this kind of fantasy of, I can utterly transcend my history. Even if I could choose to do something I deeply don’t want to do, just magically. And why would you even want that kind of free will? Why wouldn’t you want the capacity to choose in line with what you are and what is wise? That’s what we do have. It’s not libertarian free will.
Rick: As I see it, we have a certain amount of wiggle room. There’s a lot of conditioning and everything, and there’s our whole, what we’re born with. But we have some wiggle room. And if we use that wiggle room wisely, we can sort of increase our freedom one degree after another. And ultimately, what is it we want to do? What we really want to do is that which we could say divine intelligence wants to do, because it knows better than our individual perspective knows. And so, by using that wiggle room, we can move ourselves into alignment with that divine intelligence, or with the Dao as you quoted earlier. And I’m again tempted to expand it out to society. I think, you know, the Dao Te Ching actually says this kind of thing, that if the society is in tune with the Dao, if a lot of people are aligned in this way, then putting it in modern terms, we’ll find solutions to climate change, we’ll find solutions to various diseases, we’ll find solutions to economic inequity. You know, these things will just kind of spring up. And maybe they already exist in the minds of certain people, but they’ll become acceptable to the majority and to the politicians and to everything else. It’ll clear away what seemed like intractable obstacles.
James: Yeah, I mean, so with Lao Tzu, you know, in China, you also had Confucius and China ended up organizing society ultimately with along kind of Confucian lines. And then in ancient Greece, you had Heraclitus who had very similar ideas to Lao Tzu to do with, you know, he’s the philosopher who said, you never step into the same river twice. He was very much thinking in terms of these realities of transcendent process and concepts, you know, these limited things. But then everyone basically followed Aristotle in Western thinking. And there is this, you know, this brings me to why, again, why I’m an advocate for psychedelic medicine, because I think it’s not going to be easy for everyone to just open themselves to this stuff when they have trauma, when they’re, you know, if you take people, you know, Bolsonaro is a good example of someone who’s ossified in their hate and their like all of their coping mechanisms, that is not someone who’s going to meditate and do yoga tomorrow and maybe isn’t reachable. But there are a lot of people who are reachable who, you know, something like Ayahuasca might be able to take their physiology and move them in the direction, show them how they can live in a healthier way. But without healing, whatever his, whatever people like him, you know, whatever their deep issues are, because clearly there are deep issues, without healing those traumas, we’re not going to be able, you know, that’s the blockage I think that causes people to not follow these values paths.
Rick: Yeah, well, I think that stuff can definitely be a kickstarter, whether it’s a lifelong path or not for most people, I have doubts. I mean, for me, it was a kickstarter.
James: Some people say it takes a few sessions.
Rick: Yeah, I mean, it opened my eyes after a few sessions and believe me, they were not controlled careful sessions like you’ve done, this was back in the 60s, but at least I realized there was much more to life than meets the eye. And then, but then after about a year of that kind of exploration, I realized there must be a more natural and healthy way to go about it and then I found one and stuck to it. So, I don’t know if you yourself will be taking these substances 20-30 years from now, you may or you may not, but you might find that they have served their purpose and they’re, because as you say, as a neuroscientist, the DMT exists in thein and all these various chemicals and perhaps these more kind of built-in processes like meditation bring about the full advantage of those chemicals in a more natural and abiding way. Abiding is an important word. I interviewed, what’s his name, holotropic breath work?
James: Stan Grof.
Rick: Stan Grof. And sitting next to him and doing the interview, I sort of had this feeling of a little bit of sadness or something, like he was late in his life and he had all these amazing experiences, but there was some feeling of like, you know, having not realized as fully as he had originally hoped. And I might be totally wrong, my apologies to Stan if I misread that feeling, but I think the name of the game is to proceed in whichever way will be best, will be most effective in establishing appreciation of ultimate reality as a 24/7 condition, not just something that we experience on occasional weekends.
James: Yeah, I mean, I completely agree. You know, I think these things are, they’re big medicine. They’re not something to be done recklessly and often, but for some people they’re necessary in order to help them move in this direction. But yeah, then ultimately it comes down to, for me, it comes down to kind of cultivating a sense of home. You know, that’s what I, this non-dual mindful space, just what our nature is at bottom, to me, it feels like ground. It feels like home. It feels like the kind of where I should be inhabiting and then I can go off and think things. And, you know, but ultimately, I want to come back to that grounded sense of home. So yeah, like all of these things, whatever we go and do is temporary, but that’s the abiding thing, I think.
Rick: Yeah, and meditation itself is temporary. You meditate, you have a nice experience and then you get back into activity, but the influence of it is cumulative. The nervous system undergoes some changes while you’re sitting there and then to a certain degree those changes become permanent and after many years of it, the whole physiology is transformed. I don’t know if you could do psychedelics that regularly and if you did, if it would bring about permanent changes that you’d want to actually have.
James: Yeah, I think you’d want to cultivate it more organically through your own, you know, it’s very easy for people to think that they’ve figured everything out because they’ve had some big experiences and it’s not a very wise, integrated way of being.
Rick: Okay, well, we’re just about at the two-hour mark and I think this has worked out organically to be kind of a nice conversation. I had a lot of notes that I didn’t even refer to but I just wanted some stuff to fall back on, but I think the way it’s unfolded has been an interesting back and forth.
James: Yeah, it’s been great.
Rick: Yeah, so tell us a little bit, I’ll be linking to about three or four different things in the show notes of this episode, but just tell us what they are and what you’re doing, what you’re doing over there in Portugal and what folks can plug into if they want to tune into what you’re doing.
James: So if you want to see what I’m up to, drjamescooke.com is the easiest place to see links to everything except the Surrender Homestead, but yeah, I would say most of my stuff is on my YouTube channel, which is YouTube/drjamescooke And then, yeah, I think you can find me, drjamescooke, on usual places, Twitter and Instagram (@drjamescooke) and all those.
Rick: I’ll link to all that.
James: The Surrender Homestead also on Instagram (@thesurrenderhomestead) in particular, we’re building a retreat center. My wife, her main thing is to make it an artist residency, a place for people to come and do creative projects. I’ll probably be eventually running meditation retreats. We’re talking about potentially some kind of psychedelic therapy. So, a whole bunch of things that we’re working on, but we’re in the mountains of Portugal and it’s really beautiful. But yeah, I’d say my YouTube channel is probably the main place. You can also subscribe to the podcast Living Mirrors with Dr. James Cooke, the audio version in the normal places, like Spotify and iTunes and all of those.
Rick: Yeah. Okay, good. And as I said, I’ll link to all those things on your page on batgap.com. So thanks, James. It’s been a lot of fun, been very stimulating and enriching. I always say this, but it’s not only the conversation that’s enriching, but the whole previous week where I’ve been listening to all of your things. It’s been very educational for me and I really enjoyed the whole process.
James: I’m glad, yeah. Thanks, it’s been really great.
Rick: Yeah. So to those who’ve been listening or watching, thank you and keep listening and watching. We’ll continue on. Come to batgap.com if you haven’t been there and just explore the menus and see what you see, a place to sign up for email notification of interviews and things like that. So thanks and we’ll see you next time. See you later, James.
James: Yeah, see you Rick.