Dissolving the ego

Resultado de imagem para Photo by Ernst Haas/Getty

Photo by Ernst Haas/Getty

You don’t need drugs or a church for an ecstatic experience that helps transcend the self and connect to something bigger

Jules Evans is policy director at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London. He is the author of Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations (2013) and The Art of Losing Control: A Philosopher’s Search for Ecstatic Experience (2017).

In 1969, the British writer Philip Pullman was walking down the Charing Cross Road in London, when his consciousness abruptly shifted. It appeared to him that ‘everything was connected by similarities and correspondences and echoes’. The author of the fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials (1995-2000) wasn’t on drugs, although he had been reading a lot of books on Renaissance magic. But he told me he believes that his insight was valid, and that ‘my consciousness was temporarily altered, so that I was able to see things that are normally beyond the range of routine ordinary perception’. He had a deep sense that the Universe is ‘alive, conscious and full of purpose’. He says: ‘Everything I’ve written has been an attempt to bear witness to the truth of that statement.’

What does one call such an experience? Pullman refers to it as ‘transcendent’. The philosopher and psychologist William James called them ‘religious experiences’ – although Pullman, who wrote a fictionalised biography of Jesus, would insist that God was not involved. Other psychologists call such moments spiritual, mystical, anomalous or out-of-the-ordinary. My preferred term is ‘ecstatic’. Today, we think of ecstasy as meaning the drug MDMA or the state of being ‘very happy’, but originally it meant ekstasis – a moment when you stand outside your ordinary self, and feel a connection to something bigger than you. Such moments can be euphoric, but also terrifying.

Over the past five centuries, Western culture has gradually marginalised and pathologised ecstasy. That’s partly a result of our shift from a supernatural or animist worldview to a disenchanted and materialist one. In most cultures, ecstasy is a connection to the spirit world. In our culture, since the 17th century, if you suggest you’re connected to the spirit world, you’re likely to be considered ignorant, eccentric or unwell. Ecstasy has been labelled as various mental disorders: enthusiasm, hysteria, psychosis. It’s been condemned as a threat to secular government. We’ve become a more controlled, regulated and disciplinarian society, in which one’s standing as a good citizen relies on one’s ability to control one’s emotions, be polite, and do one’s job. The autonomous self has become our highest ideal,  and the idea of surrendering the self is seen as dangerous.

Yet ecstatic experiences are surprisingly common, we just don’t talk about them. The polling company Gallup has, since the 1960s, measured the frequency of mystical experiences in the United States. In 1960, only 20 per cent of the population said they’d had one or more. Now, it’s around 50 per cent. In a survey I did in 2016, 84 per cent of respondents said they’d had an experience where they went beyond their ordinary self, and felt connected to something greater than them. But 75 per cent agreed there was a taboo around such experiences.

There’s even a database of more than 6,000 such experiences, amassed by the biologist Sir Alister Hardy in the 1960s and now mouldering in storage in Wales. They make for a strangely beautiful read, a sort of crowdsourced Bible. Here is entry number 208: ‘I was out walking one night in busy streets of Glasgow when, with slow majesty, at a corner where the pedestrians were hurrying by and the city traffic was hurtling on its way, the air was filled with heavenly music, and an all-encompassing light, that moved in waves of luminous colour, outshone the brightness of the lighted streets. I stood still, filled with a strange peace and joy … until I found myself in the everyday world again with a strange access of gladness and of love.’

The most common word used when describing such experiences is ‘connection’ – we briefly shift beyond our separate self-absorbed egos, and feel deeply connected to other beings, or to all things. Some interpret these moments as an encounter with the divine, but not all do. The philosopher Bertrand Russell, for example, also had a ‘mystic moment’ when he suddenly felt filled with love for people on a London street. The experience didn’t turn him into a Christian, but it did turn him into a life-long pacifist.

I became interested in ecstatic experiences when I was 24 and had a near-death experience. I fell off a mountain while skiing, dropped 30 feet, and broke my leg and back. As I lay there, I felt immersed in love and light. I’d been suffering from emotional problems for six years, and feared my ego was permanently damaged. In that moment, I knew that I was OK, I was loved, that there was something in me that could not be damaged, call it ‘the soul’, ‘the self’, ‘pure consciousness’ or what-have-you. The experience was hugely healing. But was it just luck, or grace? Can one seek ecstasy?

Pullman thinks not. He says: ‘Seeking this sort of thing doesn’t work. It is far too self-centred. Things like my experience are by-products, not goals. To make them the aim of your life is an act of monumental and self-deceiving egotism.’

I disagree. It seems to me that humans have always sought ecstasy. The earliest human artefacts – the cave paintings of Lascaux – are records of Homo sapiens’ attempt to get out of our heads. We have always sought ways to ‘unself’, as the writer Iris Murdoch called it, because the ego is an anxious, claustrophobic, lonely and boring place to be stuck. As the author Aldous Huxley wrote, humans have ‘a deep-seated urge to self-transcendence’. However, we can get out of our ordinary selves in good and bad ways – what Huxley called ‘healthy and toxic transcendence’…




What Is Space?


It’s not what you think.

Ask a group of physicists and philosophers to define “space” and you will likely be stuck in a long discussion that involves deep-sounding but meaningless word combinations such as “the very fabric of space-time itself is a physical manifestation of quantum entropy concepts woven together by the universal nature of location.” On second thought, maybe you should avoid starting deep conversations between philosophers and physicists.

Is space just an infinite emptiness that underlies everything? Or is it the emptiness between things? What if space is neither of these but is a physical thing that can slosh around, like a bathtub full of water?

It turns out that the nature of space itself is one of the biggest and strangest mysteries in the universe. So get ready, because things are about to get … spacey.


Space, It’s a Thing

Like many deep questions, the question of what space is sounds like a simple one at first. But if you challenge your intuition and reexamine the question, you discover that a clear answer is hard to find.

Most people imagine that space is just the emptiness in which things happen, like a big empty warehouse or a theater stage on which the events of the universe play out. In this view, space is literally the lack of stuff. It is a void that sits there waiting to be filled, as in “I saved space for dessert” or “I found a great parking space.”


If you follow this notion, then space is something that can exist by itself without any matter to fill it. For example, if you imagine that the universe has a finite amount of matter in it, you could imagine traveling so far that you reach a point beyond which there is no more stuff and all the matter in the universe is behind you.1 You would be facing pure empty space, and beyond that, space might extend out to infinity. In this view, space is the emptiness that stretches out forever.


Could Such a Thing Exist?

That picture of space is reasonable and seems to fit with our experience. But one lesson of history is that anytime we think something is obviously true (e.g., the Earth is flat, or eating a lot of Girl Scout cookies is good for you), we should be skeptical and take a step back to examine it carefully. More than that, we should consider radically different explanations that also describe the same experience. Maybe there are theories we haven’t thought of. Or maybe there are related theories where our experience of the universe is just one weird example. Sometimes the hard part is identifying our assumptions, especially when they seem natural and straightforward.

In this case, there are other reasonable-sounding ideas for what space could be. What if space can’t exist without matter—what if it’s nothing more than the relationship between matter? In this view, you can’t have pure “empty space” because the idea of any space at all beyond the last piece of matter doesn’t make any sense. For example, you can’t measure the distance between two particles if you don’t have any particles. The concept of “space” would end when there are no more matter particles left to define it. What would be beyond that? Not empty space.


That is a pretty weird and counterintuitive way of thinking about space, especially given that we have never experienced the concept of non-space. But weird never stood in the way of physics, so keep an open mind.

Which Space Is the Place?

Which of these ideas about space is correct? Is space like an infinite void waiting to be filled? Or does it only exist in the context of matter?

It turns out that we are fairly certain that space is neither of these things. Space is definitely not an empty void and it is definitely not just a relationship between matter. We know this because we have seen space do things that fit neither of those ideas. We have observed space bend and ripple and expand.

This is the part where your brain goes, “Whaaaaat … ?”

If you are paying attention, you should be a little confused when you read the phrases “bending of space” and “expanding of space.” What could that possibly mean? How does it make any sense? If space is an idea, then it can’t be bent or expanded any more than it can be chopped into cubes and sautéed with cilantro.2 If space is our ruler for measuring the location of stuff, how do you measure the bending or expanding of space?

Good questions! The reason this idea of space bending is so confusing is that most of us grow up with a mental picture of space as an invisible backdrop in which things happen. Maybe you imagine space to be like 
that theater stage we mentioned before, with hard wooden planks as a
 floor and rigid walls on all sides. And maybe you imagine that
 nothing in the universe could bend that stage because this abstract frame is not part of the universe but something that contains the universe.


Unfortunately, that is where your mental picture goes wrong. To make sense of general relativity and think about modern ideas of space, you have to give up the idea of space as an abstract stage and accept that it is a physical thing. You have to imagine that space has properties and behaviors, and that it reacts to the matter in the universe. You can pinch space, squeeze it, and, yes, even fill it with cilantro.3









The Binary Code of Body and Spirit: Computing Pioneer Alan Turing on Mortality

Alan Turing and Christopher Morcom. Art by Keith Hegley from The Who, the What, and the When, an illustrated celebration of the little-known inspirations behind geniuses.

“The body provides something for the spirit to look after and use.”

“The void horrifies: so we are all immortal,” Simone de Beauvoir scoffed at the religious escapism of immortality in explaining why she is an atheist, adding: “Faith allows an evasion of those difficulties which the atheist confronts honestly.” But there exists a certain orientation of spirit that is both unreligious and lucid in contemplating mortality. Einstein touched on it in his beautiful letter to the Queen of Belgium, in which he wrote: “There is, after all, something eternal that lies beyond the hand of fate and of all human delusions.” And yet he conceded that such an orientation toward mortality is reserved for those “who have been privileged to accomplish in full measure their task in life.”

To make sense of the untimely loss of a young and unrealized life is a wholly different matter, one which haunted computing pioneer Alan Turing (June 23, 1912–June 7, 1954).

Turing’s decryption of Nazi communication code is estimated to have shortened WWII by two to four years, consequently saving anywhere between 14 and 21 million lives. But despite his wartime heroism, Turing was driven to suicide after being chemically castrated by the U.K. government for being homosexual. More than half a century after his disquieting death, Queen Elizabeth II issued royal pardon — a formal posthumous apology that somehow only amplifies the tragedy of Turing’s life and death.

Tragedy had been with Turing from a young age. At fifteen, while attending the Sherborne School, he fell deeply in love with a classmate named Christopher Morcom. For the awkward and ostracized young Alan, who was bullied so severely that a group of boys once trapped him under the floorboards of a dorm dayroom and kept him there until he nearly suffocated, Christopher was everything he was not — dashing, polished, well versed in both science and art, and aglow with winsome charisma. Alan’s love was profound and pure and unrequited in the dimensions he most longed for, but Christopher did take to him with great warmth and became his most beloved, in fact his only, friend. They spent long nights discussing science and philosophy, trading astronomical acumen, and speculating about the laws of physics.

When Christopher died of bovine tuberculosis in 1930 — a disease he had contracted from infected milk, for which there was no common vaccine until after WWII — Alan fell to pieces. He was able to collect himself only through work, by burrowing so deep into the underbelly of mathematics that he emerged almost on the other side, where science and metaphysics meet. Sorrow had taken him on a crusade to make sense of reality, of this senseless ruin, and he spared no modality of thought. Most of all, he wanted to understand how he could remain so attached to someone who no longer existed materially but who felt so overwhelmingly alive in his spirit.

All the while, young Turing remained in touch with Christopher’s mother, who had taken a sympathetic liking to her son’s awkward friend. After Christopher’s death, he visited the Morcoms at their country home, Clock House, and corresponded with Mrs. Morcom about the grief they shared, about the perplexity of how a nonentity — for Christopher had ceased to exist in physical terms — could color each of their worlds so completely…





BY Brendan D. Murphy, Guest Waking Times 

With so many people (many indeed being iconic scientific and historical figures) experiencing what they are supposedly not meant to, according to materialistic thought, the reasonable individual might be forgiven for wondering if there is something more to consciousness than our present “scientific” paradigms would have us believe. Can we go further than questioning the assumed legitimacy of orthodox materialistic theories which reduce consciousness to a mere epiphenomenon (by-product) of physical matter (the brain) and even—heaven forbid—suggest that they are not merely incomplete, but actually types of superstitions in themselves?

Etymologically, the word consciousness derives from the words scire (to know) and cum or con (with). Consciousness is “to know with.” So if you, the persona, cognize (to know or be aware of), who are you cognizing with? Is there more to consciousness than the Freudian ego and unconscious?

Mathematical physicist Roger Penrose has written:

A scientific world-view which does not profoundly come to terms with the problem of conscious minds can have no serious pretensions of [sic] completeness…I would maintain that there is yet no physical, biological, or computational theory that comes very close to explaining our consciousness or intelligence.[i]

Indeed, in the past (and even today?) some scientists had taken the absurd position that consciousness is an illusion. This, while providing a nonsensical reason to ignore the problem of consciousness, obviously fails to sate the curious inquirer’s queries regarding how we got here and what we are doing here as conscious beings. Materialistic philosophy as we know it—derived from the mechanistic worldview—had, more or less since the dawning of the Age of Reason in the 1700s, steadfastly maintained that what we call experience arises solely as a by-product of the brain’s internal workings. No brain, no consciousness.

But is it really that simple? What about functions of consciousness that appear to transcend the cranial boundaries of our heads? The Age of Reason said that these forces had only ever existed in man’s imagination; only reason could show man the truth about the universe. “The trouble was,” according to Colin Wilson, “that man became a thinking pygmy, and the world of the rationalists was a daylight place in which boredom, triviality and ordinariness were ultimate truths.”[ii]

The Age of Reason glorified the rationalist, who, enamoured of his endless linear cogitations, was blinded to faculties of consciousness that actually transcended them: faculties that would have allowed him not to merely philosophize about deeper levels of reality, but actually access them. “This is the great tragedy of modern man,” wrote occultist, philosopher, and composer Dane Rudhyar. “His much acclaimed scientific spirit frees him of the compulsions of subrational and subconscious states of mind, only to bind him to an empty rationalism and a quantitative analytical intellect, both of which actually entomb him in a sarcophagus filled with only the mimicry of life. This sarcophagus is the ‘megalopolis’—the monstrous city.”[iii]

But something stirs in the bowels of the concrete jungle. An international online survey of paranormal experiences had met with an overwhelming response, according to Australian researchers in 2006. The survey, on phenomena that cannot be explained using the current “laws” of science, is by researchers at Monash University in Melbourne. A recent (for the time) Gallup poll revealed that 75% of Americans hold at least one paranormal belief, and a UK newspaper poll showed that 60% of Britons accept the existence of the paranormal, say the researchers. According to the researchers, the survey is not about beliefs or whether parapsychological phenomena exist, rather it is about what people have experienced and the impact it has had on their lives.Some 2,000 people had made contact via the internet within six weeks of the survey beginning. A whopping 96% of respondents claim to have had at least one brush with the paranormal. The exercise seeks to gauge the frequency, effect, and age of onset of unexplained phenomena such as premonitions, out-of-body and near-death episodes, telepathy, and apparitions. Results as of 2006 showed that 70% of respondents believe an unexplained event changed their lives, mostly in a positive way. Some 70% also claim to have seen, heard, or been touched by an animal or person that wasn’t there, 80% report having had a premonition, and almost 50% recalled a previous life.[iv] In May 2000, the New York Times Sunday Magazine published results of a poll conducted by Blum & Weprin Associates; a huge 81% said they believed in life after death.[v]

Virtually all of these beliefs hint at (and require in order to be true) the existence of other realms or dimensions in which consciousness can operate. A 2005 poll taken by the Scottish paranormal society showed that more people are likely to believe in ghosts and the paranormal than have faith in any organized religion. A Gallup survey taken in 2005 showed that about three in four Americans profess at least one paranormal belief.[vi] This is a massive amount of “paranormal” experience and belief—all of it depending on the existence of other levels of reality, without which such experience can only be labeled as delusion and fantasy.

Did you know that the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has now been amended so that genuinely psychic people are no longer considered “disordered”?[vii]

Intuition and Creativity

Srinivasa Ramanujan (below, left), born in India, 1887–1920, has been called the strangest man in all of mathematics, probably in the entire history of science. Working in isolation from his peers, this genius was single-handedly able to re-derive a hundred years’ worth of Western mathematics. As Michio Kaku reports in Hyperspace, the tragedy of his life is that much of his work was wasted rediscovering known mathematics.[viii] Most interesting to us, Ramanujan said that the goddess Namakkal inspired him in his dreams; in other words, the source of his creative genius was this other realm within his sleep, rather than ordinary waking consciousness…


About the Author

Brendan D. Murphy – Co-founder of Global Freedom Movement and host of GFM RadioBrendan DMurphy is a leading Australian author, researcher, activist, and musician.

This article (Science and the Paranormal – The Question of Consciousness) was originally  published and is copyrighted by Global Freedom Movement and is published here with permission.



Why Trees Are The Ultimate Meditation Teachers

Why Trees Are The Ultimate Meditation TeachersPhoto by Eric Parks | https://tricy.cl/2s3whKb

In Buddhism, trees have long been recognized as living things worthy of recognition and protection.

By Lauren Krauze

Last April, my morning meditation was interrupted by the sounds of whirring chainsaws and clamoring trucks. When I stepped to the window, I noticed three men from the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation standing around a large oak tree on the sidewalk in front of my apartment. At first, I thought they were trimming the branches. As I watched them saw off larger and larger sections, I realized they were cutting down the entire tree.

My heart started racing. How could I stop this? I thought of the environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill, who climbed a California redwood tree in 1997 and lived there for nearly two years to save it from being cut down. From my third floor window, I quickly scanned the oak’s upper canopy. It was nearly gone.

I hurried down to the sidewalk and approached the hard-hatted men. “Why are you cutting it down?” I yelled over the chainsaws. A bearded man with icy blue eyes cupped his hand around his ear and leaned toward me. I repeated my question.

He raised his arm and gestured toward the tree, yelling: “It’s dead!” His tone suggested that I had missed something obvious. Dead? The day before I had watched house sparrows and black squirrels scamper along the branches and hide among the tree’s full, healthy leaves. We watched as a thick limb tumbled down through the remaining branches and landed on the street with a thud.

As much as I wanted to intervene, there was nothing I could do. I trudged back upstairs. I closed my apartment windows, but I couldn’t escape the screaming chainsaws. Later, after the trucks pulled away, all that remained was a clean stump and a few small piles of sawdust.

For days, I reflected on my urge to protect the tree every time I walked past the stump. I realized I was trying to repay a kind of guardianship offered to me a long time ago. When I was a kid, three tall and sturdy oak trees grew in my family’s backyard. When I reached my hand out of my open bedroom window, I could graze the tips of their leaves with my fingertips. At night, I remember lying in bed and watching their dark branches sway in and out of the window frame. I liked to think they were waving hello, like witnesses or guards watching over me in the night.

In Buddhism, trees have long been recognized as living things worthy of recognition and protection. Shakyamuni Buddha was born in the lush Lumbini grove and later became enlightened under a bodhi tree. At the end of his life, he also physically passed (parinibbana) while nestled in a grove of sal trees. In Thailand, forest monks perform tree ordination ceremonies as a way to declare trees sacred and conserve the forests. Monks wrap robes around ordained trees and hang signs on their vast trunks that remind others that “to harm the forest is to harm life.”

A meditation teacher once advised me to look to the example trees set as steady, observant beings. “They are excellent meditators,” she said. “They sit in one spot for decades, watching all that goes by.” In his book The Island Within, anthropologist Richard Nelson described trees in a similar manner. “The dark boughs reach out above me and encircle me like arms. I feel the assurance of being recognized, as if something powerful and protective is aware of my presence . . .  I am never alone in this forest of elders, this forest of eyes.”

I sometimes wonder if the stories we impose on trees—and the anthropomorphic qualities we assign them—illuminate our efforts to bring forth the parts of ourselves that are most curious and aware. Not too long ago, I was strolling through a museum with a friend. Her husband had passed away several weeks earlier, and she was grieving and in deep shock. After we stopped to rest on one of the couches in the museum, we gazed out the windows at several small trees growing on a patio…




The bloodstained leveller


Resultado de imagem para the Second World War. Photo by Lambert/Getty

image edited by Web Investigator

Throughout history, plagues and wars have left greater equality in their wake. Can we get there again without bloodshed?

by Walter Scheidel is Dickason professor in the humanities, professor of classics and history, and a Catherine R Kennedy and Daniel L Grossman fellow in human biology, as well as director of graduate studies in classics, all at Stanford University in California. His latest book is The Great Leveller (2017).

Blame inequality on climate change. Until the end of the last Ice Age, some 12,000 years ago, our ancestors lived in small foraging groups. They moved around a lot, owned very little, and passed on even less to the next generation, sharing any windfalls on the spot. The Holocene changed all that. Rising temperatures allowed humans to settle down to farm the land and domesticate livestock; collective management of resources gave way to private property rights, and new norms made assets hereditary. Over time, the cumulative rewards of brain, brawn and luck came to separate the haves from the have-nots.

This process of stratification was reinforced by the creation of states, as political power and military muscle aided the acquisition and preservation of fortunes and privilege: more than 3,000 years ago, the ancient Babylonians were well aware that ‘the king is the one at whose side wealth walks’. With the emergence of mighty empires, and as slow but steady increases in the stock of knowledge expanded economic output, the concentration of income and wealth reached previously unimaginable heights.

The principal sources of inequality have changed over time. Whereas feudal lords exploited downtrodden peasants by force and fiat, the entrepreneurs of early modern Europe relied on capital investment and market exchange to reap profits from commerce and finance. Yet overall outcomes remained the same: from Pharaonic Egypt to the Industrial Revolution, both state power and economic development generally served to widen the gap between rich and poor: both archaic forms of predation and coercion and modern market economies yielded unequal gains.

Does this mean that history has always moved in the same direction, that inequality has been going up continuously since the dawn of civilisation? A cursory look around us makes it clear that this cannot possibly be true, otherwise there would be no broad middle class or thriving consumer culture, and everything worth having might now be owned by a handful of trillionaires. Did democracy and progressive reform save us from this unenviable fate; or was it the labour movement, or mass education? All of these developments played an important role, and yet, at best, furnish only part of the answer. For inequality had already dipped steeply on several occasions, long before any of these modern breakthroughs had begun to appear.

From time to time, it turns out, history has pushed a reset button, driving down inequality in marked, if only temporary fashion. It is only by surveying its full sweep, over thousands of years, that we can discover the dynamics that drove this process. And these dynamics turn out to be very disturbing indeed: every time the gap between rich and poor shrank substantially, it did so because of traumatic, often extremely violent shocks to the established order. Catastrophic plagues, the collapse of states and, more recently, mass-mobilisation war and transformative revolution, are the only forces that ever levelled on a grand scale. No other – and less bloody – mechanisms have even come close. In a time of rising inequality, what does this imply for our own future?

But let us start at the beginning, in the very distant past. Europe is by far the best-documented case (see Figure 1 below). Economic inequalities emerged as farming spread from the Middle East around 9,000 years ago, and grew as the land filled up and small communities coalesced into larger societies. Archaeologists have discovered enough elite burial sites with luxury goods that had been manufactured for the privileged few and traded over long distances to support this reconstruction. The Roman empire was the culmination of this very drawn-out process. To the present day, no one state has come as close to monopolising political power in Europe as Rome did: for centuries, as many as four out of every five Europeans were ruled by the Caesars.

Figure 1: Inequality trends in Europe (all graphs from Walter Scheidel, The Great Leveller)

Wealth concentration at the very top far outpaced the growth of the economy: between 200 BCE and 100 CE, the largest reported fortunes of Roman plutocrats rose by close to a hundredfold while the population of the empire went up merely tenfold. Some aristocrats owned thousands of slaves, more than even the biggest planters of the antebellum South. In terms of personal net wealth, the richest among them were as remote from the common man as Bill Gates is from the average American today. By some measures, this trend continued all the way up to the fall of the Roman empire, as private palaces replaced mansions, and estates swallowed up entire towns and villages…