In which I attempt to articulate my worldview

The thoughts that follow are provisional and tentative: I think of them as operating assumptions and working models undergoing beta testing. They’re based on my personal engagement with and experience of the world, my UPG, and are not meant to be anyone else’s model. I have a great interest in the work of philosophy (I take the Ph in my degree seriously) but I don’t claim to be trained in the academic discipline. If I sound like I’m parroting some specific philosopher but don’t attribute it, it’s probably because I didn’t know that person said it first. At the same time, I’m not claiming to be the first to think these things. None came from a vacuum. Some of this, such as the metaphor of Indra’s Net, I already outlined in my post on karma. I’m assured that my worldview, by conventional standards, is “weird,” “crazy,” and “stupid,” and some have found it quite alarming, so I guess that means it’s pretty challenging to the ontological status quo. It feels only obvious to me, which makes it difficult to express; but I’ll do my best. I reserve the right to change my mind…indeed, I think that’s the whole point.

In Which I Attempt to Articulate My Worldview | Otherwise
Painting by Leonora Carrington

1 – Dreamworlds with no access to objectivity

We’re not able to get out of our own “heads” to observe whatever objective, independent reality might exist. By that I mean, everything we know comes to us through some sense or own mind and there’s simply no way for us to gauge whether those senses are in any way accurate. We are, as it were, trapped in a totally subjective dreamworld which I suspect is co-created by all conscious beings. I think all sentient/conscious beings have a spirit or soul (perhaps more than one, some perhaps shared), which is not the same as the ego/self. The ego/self is conditional and ever-changing according to stimuli filtered through the physical senses and the mind and memory. Thus each individual self lives within a particular iteration of the co-created dreamworld, and while hypothetically we might captain our own dream-ship, in reality most of us are not lucid dreamers. We are absorbed by and largely passive within the dream, and our ego/selves are at least as much a product of the dreamworld as it is of us.  I would agree with the Buddhists that our ego/selves are, in that sense, illusory. The spirit or soul(s) is something which I imagine to be essential and permanent, but what it is exactly and how it relates to the ego/self I am not sure.

For some reason, our dreamworlds seem to be filled with suffering. If you buy the metaphor of Indra’s Net for the sake of argument, once suffering first got started it inevitably spread through the whole web. But why it is there in the first place I don’t know. In the New Thought/New Age, it’s believed to simply be a mistake, a delusion, limited to our dreamworlds but not a part of ultimate reality. But that doesn’t explain how and why it exists in the first place.

The fact that our dreamworlds are subjective and illusory does not justify people’s horrid behavior. You can’t simply say, no matter, it’s not really real, because it is real as long as you are dreaming. (As real as anything else, anyway.)

2- Intersubjectivity

Our relationships with other sentient/conscious beings are nexus points where our private worlds link up to and reflect each other, Indra’s-Net-style, and we get a glimpse of others’ worlds. Based on these glimpses we modify (and are further modified by) our own dreamworlds. Our subjectivity is thus an intersubjectivity. Maybe our spirit-selves transcend this dreamworld, or maybe they move into a different dreamworld (like the bardo?) when our physical bodies die. Maybe we are in the bardo now, that has certainly been suggested. The dreamworlds seem to be able to take virtually infinite forms, just like the ordinary dreams of sleep (dreams within dreams), as evidenced by some of the Bosch– or Carrington-like surreality one can experience during shamanic-type journeys. The forms are clearly not bound by earthly physics or biological evolution. As far as I can tell, the laws of physics and biology only obtain within certain dreamworlds. I guess this could be considered a form of idealism, but a better fit are the concepts of maya as used in Advaita Vedanta and sunyata as used in certain schools of Buddhism. I see this as a form of Skepticism (in the Classical sense) as well.

EDIT: I guess this could also be considered a soft form of subjective idealism, in that I’m not stating that the non-mental doesn’t exist, only that we have no means of knowing whether it exists. And you could say, well in that case, it might as well not exist as that is a purely academic distinction. But I think the distinction is meaningful. 

If they aren’t completely solipsistic, our dreamworlds do overlap. We just can’t be sure how much or in exactly what ways. We are interacting with other sentient beings at all times, but (1) we may or not be aware of that, (2) we may or may not be able to perceive them within our dream, and (3) we just don’t have an objective rubric by which to determine how much they are filtered through our dream. It’s sort of like when you’re sleeping and the telephone rings, so you dream that you answer the phone. In this metaphor, an external phone exists, but the one you answer is only in your mind.

3 – Gnosis

Gnosis is something like waking up from our private dream, possibly into a bigger more widely shared dream, possibly into some kind of objective, independent, transcendent reality (if such exists). While we are embodied, at least, it seems to be exceedingly rare for a person to be able to stay in this state of enlightenment all the time, but with dedication we can learn ways to visit it and to stay there longer. Cultural opinions vary on the best means and ends (there are more than one of each).

ANOTHER EDIT: I often hear idealism bashed as mere navel gazing and a pointless waste of time because ultimately you get to a point of having to say “who knows?” and apparently, not generating a conclusive answer is a failure. I would counter that nothing (that I can think of) that we ever experience has a conclusive answer. Everything that enters our consciousness is so inextricably bound into our intersubjective dreamworld that any “thing” is inevitably many “things” and no “thing.” I would also point out that adopting a “who knows?” attitude can be a great boon to mental health, the foundation of establishing truly compassionate and non-judgmental relations with other beings, and–this is important in terms of praxis–a radical opening to gnosis.

On a personal note, I find it very interesting that when I have tried discussing these ideas with Americans and I couch it as a discussion of, say, Buddhist philosophy (e.g., Yogacara or Madhyamaka), my interlocutor will often receive it with a certain amount of respect and curiosity, if not agreement. But if I made the same arguments but described them as my own opinions, the reaction is generally a mix of derision and worry about my sanity. 

4 – Magic

Magic, in my humble opinion (actually humble for once), is pert night useless if it doesn’t help us at least understand that our private reality is a kind of dreamworld among many dreamworlds (“jailbreak your mind”). I see magic as akin to lucid dreaming in the sense that it lets us change the rules, manipulate the architecture, of our dreamworlds as well as peek into other dreamworlds and achieve or receive gnosis. In this sense I think Dion Fortune’s definition of magic as “a change in consciousness in accordance with will” is quite accurate. The New Age notion of “creation of reality” is thus both true and untrue–yes, we are co-creating it, but so is everyone else. No one has full control over or clear perception of their own dreamworld, let alone anyone else’s. You have to be a boss wizard to even put your hands on the steering wheel. Yet knowing it’s a dream gets you that much closer to waking up. The more cognizant you become that it’s a dream, the more dreamlike your dreamworld starts to behave, with time getting more wibbley-wobbley and timey-wimey and non-linear and synchronicities multiplying and strangely allegorical and symbolic events happening. Stuff gets weird. At the same time, this is why magic actually does work. Magic is simply how dreams work.

One implication of this is that we don’t actually need any ritual trappings or spells, and I suspect that is true, but perhaps you have to get way more lucid to do it reliably without the props.

5 – A singular, panpsychic, fractal-ish universe (monism)

I find the notion of a multiverse entirely unpersuasive. I mean, there’s not even any proof of it (nor can there be, as I understand it) within physics–it’s purely a hypothetical thought experiment designed to try and wiggle out of the otherwise-inexplicable. “Universe” by definition means all things, so if we found another one, we’d have to subsume both of those in a greater universe, and so on ad infinitum. In that sense, I am a monist and non-dualist. This could be considered a form of pantheism, but I guess that depends on how you define a theos. However, I suppose there might be other dreamworlds in which you have other egos/selves. That would be cool. I’ll have to think more about that.

I like the idea that the Monad possesses, or better yet is, some form of consciousness (panpsychism in the broad sense, not the ridiculous version some materialists are trying to palm off on us). I find the concept of lila in Indian philosophies to be a very appealing way of modeling creation and existence (a sort of outflowing of pure divine bliss). My experiences of gnosis so far have been blissful, but ultimately I guess I don’t have any way to know.

It could be argued that, insofar as I’m in a dream, I can’t really know who is actually sentient/conscious and whom I merely dream to be so. I have to concede it. Skepticism (in the Classical sense) ultimately leads on to solipsism, and there’s really no way to argue your way out of that. I believe others to be real because if I am real, it only makes sense that others are too; however, it’s possible that I only ever interact with/relate to my dream-versions of others. Regardless, I think the best operating assumption is that everything else is as much a sentient, agentic, in/spirited entity as I am and that we are all part of a Monad/Universe which I would prefer to believe is conscious. I mean why not? Consciousness exists, it has to come from somewhere. If it exists somewhere, it is at the very least part of the Monad/Universe. Does this mean that we are one and the same as the Monad, or are we derivative yet within it? Damned if I know. How would you even divide a monad, isn’t that an oxymoron? I think it might just be a question of your scale of analysis, fractal-like. It’s turtles all the way down.

In my dreamworld, I have had experience with sentient/conscious non-embodied beings just as I have with embodied ones. So from my experience, at least in my dreamworld, consciousness is not consubstantial with nor confined to physical matter. And I have felt/sensed what seemed to be consciousness or maybe something like mana in ostensibly inanimate “things” such as stones, water, and so on. Of course, though we may identify these as single entities, like us they are full of smaller beings–bacteria, fungi, moss, algae, etc. Their consciousness may be manifold, and so might ours. Again, it is fractal and a matter of scale. As above, so below. In “‘Animism’ Revisited: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology” (Current Anthropology 40:S1, 1999), Bird-David proposes the concept of the “dividual.” Unlike an individual, the dividual is not atomistic but constituted within and by his/her relationships. This is one reason why ego/selves are contingent and illusory and not bounded or permanent.

If spirits can be without physical bodies, I suppose one could make the argument that there could be physical bodies without spirits and without consciousness (i.e., inanimate things), but as I said I think best practice is to treat “everybody” as “somebody.” Just in case. I can’t see any a priori reason to assume that a rock, say, or a tree, or the entire Earth, or the Sun, etc. etc. don’t have sentience/consciousness. In order to make such a claim, I feel I’d have to fully understand all the possible dimensions and manifestations of consciousness, which I don’t. Not even within my own particular dreamworld. Perhaps all consciousness is just a fractal iteration of the Monad? If that’s true “we” (the Monad) would be effectively looking in a mirror whenever we perceive or interact with “other” consciousnesses.

In Which I Attempt to Articulate My Worldview | Otherwise
Another one by Carrington

6 – A few practical implications

As I said, I think best practice is to err on the side of compassion and treat all the “others” in our dreamworlds as objectively real, conscious/sentient, and intertwined with ourselves. Dreamworlds are best viewed as interpenetrating. I honestly believe that’s as good an approximation of reality as my brain is likely to ever get to, but I also think it’s a major part of just not being a jerk. To paraphrase Uncle Al, Love is the Law–or might as well be. Everyone else is suffering already, let’s make an effort to not add to it and even to alleviate some of it.

In my view, given the nature of karma as previously described, every time a being realizes the impermanence, illusion (maya), and emptiness (sunyata) of their dreamworld it benefits every other being. Waking up is a legitimate way to help alleviate the suffering of all.

Speaking of which, this seems like a good point to correct what I think is a misapprehension of Buddhist philosophy, with the inevitable caveat that there are many schools of Buddhism. It’s a big, big tent. But all the schools I know anything about are united in this: Buddhism is not about resigning yourself to your place within the status quo and learning to be happy with it. Like Gnosticism, Buddhism is a set of techniques for lucid dreaming and ultimately awakening. It was, and remains, radical because it doesn’t require gods, gurus, lineages, monasteries or temples, marriage or celibacy, poverty or wealth–but it also doesn’t preclude them. It doesn’t even require that you accept a single article of faith except for the possibility that if you try the techniques, they might reduce your suffering. Reducing pain is just the entry point, though. Now like every religion, or set of techniques that evolved into a religion, Buddhism as we know it has all those lineages and temples and hierarchies and so on that its own teachings emphasize you don’t need. I don’t think that invalidates the teachings. (I would say the same of Christianity.)

Seeing this all spelled out in writing, I ask myself (yet again), why magic? Honestly, I go back and forth with magic. We have an on-again, off-again relationship. Magic is a lot of work, much of it dull as dirt, for very unpredictable, strange results. It’s rarely the shortest or simplest method to get from Point A to Point B. I would argue that the reason magic has the weird results it does is because that is how dreams work. Dreams are a mysterious combination of the inappropriately and inconsistently logical leading to the totally absurd, coupled with liberal symbolism, allegory, and analogy. Magic makes connections bizarrely in the same way our minds make connections bizarrely.

However, if you’re only using magic to manipulate the dream, without realizing that it is a dream, I would respectfully ask why you bother. For example, in my dreamworld, you have to have money to eat, and I like to eat, so I need to acquire and use money. I don’t see any reason not to use magic to hack the dream so that becomes easier, and lord knows it is more interesting than the drudgery that is known as “earning” a living. If magic reduces that drudgery and adds a little color, that’s reason enough. But only because I also am learning to dream lucidly and even awaken entirely, if that is indeed possible. Of the two, I put the greater emphasis on the latter set of methods, because otherwise I would just be magically rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Returning to the topic of animism, I think the metaphor of Indra’s Net, taken to its logical conclusion, presupposes animism (sensu lato) because literally nothing exists which is not in the net and no one jewel on the net is ultimately different in nature from the others. Therefore if any one is animate, all are. And in this sense, I can call myself an animist–but I’m no longer sure if that is the most useful descriptor.

It came from the deep

Have beings from inner/astral realms influenced, perhaps even deliberately directed, human cultures and civilizations? Should UPG be added to the list of evolutionary forces?

Sumac Icaro, from The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Ameringo.
“Sumac Icaro,” from The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Ameringo.

I am not the first person to pose this question, and some have argued emphatically that yes, our experiences on other planes have shaped our actions on this one (here’s one, here’s another, and another). Let me say first of all that I am not talking about “ancient astronauts”–corporeal visitors from other planets flying nuts-and-bolts spacecraft. If, as certain big-haired proponents of AA theory claim, extraterrestrials had visited Earth in sufficient numbers and over a long-enough span of time to be the Annunaki, build the Egyptian pyramids, the Maya pyramids, Stonehenge, ley lines, etc., I have two questions: (1) where is the material evidence for these material beings and spacecraft? Are you telling me no aliens ever died here, no spaceships ever crashed, nobody dropped an interstellar wrench or cigarette butt? And (2) where are they now? Did they just get bored after the Maya collapse? Did they decide that feeding us scraps has led us to lose our fear of them and start noisily scrounging around their trash bins at night, like city raccoons, or bears in a national park? So now they just drive by occasionally, making sure to keep the doors locked and windows up?

It’s not that I think visiting extraterrestrials are impossible, but they are completely conjectural. Experiences of immaterial visitors, however, are attested all over the place. They seem to happen all the time, but even those who have had such experiences often deny their reality because they don’t fit into the dominant philosophical paradigm of materialism. On the other hand, many people either believe in ETs or are at least willing to consider the possibility because that story fits within the materialist paradigm.

I am inclined to believe that Jacques Vallee is right when he argues that UFOs and ETs are essentially the same immaterial, or semi-material, phenomenon as faeries and miraculous visions of the Virgin Mary. As Gordon puts it, “The Neighbours already have a propensity to troll and those that present themselves in the guise of UFO phenomena are the trolliest of all.” At any rate, until someone shows me actual material evidence of ET, I shall remain skeptical of ET’s materiality. In the meantime, I feel there is more than sufficient evidence to demonstrate the existence of non-material beings and experiences, even if I cannot explain their nature.

Howard Carter examining the coffin of Tutankhamun.
Howard Carter examining the coffin of Tutankhamun.

For years now I’ve been fascinated by questions of the psycho-magico-spiritual aspects of human civilization. But there are only three ways to investigate it: (1) Ancient texts provide a huge amount of information. The downside is it’s often cryptic or symbolic, and texts are always based in cultural contexts that are now missing. There is a reasonably good chance of unraveling the surface meaning of a text if the writing system has been deciphered, but its twilight language is likely to remain obscure. (2) Oral traditions still exist on the peripheries of the Westernized world, but we usually don’t recognize their importance until they are already disappearing. And sadly, it now seems that these traditions have to be protected from rapacious interests that would first steal, then commodify, and finally destroy. (3) Then there’s Unverified Personal Gnosis (UPG). This is the most direct route but also the most fraught, since not only do we have to learn to discern gnosis from imagination, it seems our interlocutors often have weird agendas of their own (not limited to trolling in UFO garb) which sometimes includes really crazy shit.

As an archaeologist by training, I often think about what archaeology might have discovered–what it might have restored–if it could have shaken off the chains of materialist orthodoxy. Realistically, I don’t think that could ever have happened, because the academic-intellectual project as we know it (including the discipline of archaeology) derives from the same cultural sources as materialist ontology. The entire moral justification for the practice of archaeology–digging up and confiscating old stuff and the graves of ancestors–is predicated upon the modern Western “religious sensibility” (to use John Michael Greer’s term). To wit, the belief that matter is devoid of spirit, and that includes human matter–so even if souls really do exist, they have long since vacated their mortal coil and therefore it harms no one to dig up the bones and take them to a museum half a world away.

This sensibility constrains the kind of questions that a professional intellectual can publicly ask. It’s perfectly ok to argue that other people are influenced by their culture’s spiritual/religious beliefs and even by hallucinations brought on by psychedelics; but to suggest that encounters with actual, non-material beings with goals of their own not only happen, but that they inspired changes in human behavior, would be to lose one’s job and reputation. Even tenure can’t protect one from those consequences.

During the halcyon “post-processual” era of the 1980s-1990s, archaeology flirted with more philosophical explorations of human being and doing; but that was followed by a hard swing back to quantitative analysis, the more mechanized and lab-centered the better. I butted up against this during my Ph.D. research: Fundamentally, I knew I was researching changes in consciousness that seem to have spread across Eurasia during the 1st millennium BC, and I hypothesized that these changes either dovetailed with, or precipitated, changes in concepts of the self. But there is no way to subject that to a quantitative analysis, and so all I could do was catalogue a list of “beliefs” attested in the literature. Even then, I was forced to add a completely irrelevant and overly simplistic quantitative analysis of categories of Eurasian funerary offerings, to make it all look scientific. I was expected to publish my dissertation, but to be honest, I’m embarrassed by the way it turned out. I’m sure there are some who would say that about the intellectual endeavor of archaeology as a whole. Part of what I’m trying to do here is to break out of those shackles without completely abandoning intellectual rigor.

The solar barque of Ra passing through the 2nd hour of the Duat.
The solar barque of Ra passing through the 2nd hour of the Duat.

When I was a teaching assistant in human evolution classes, we taught the four forces of evolution: gene flow, genetic drift, mutation, and natural selection. What if the Otherworld and its denizens should be added to that list?

I came across this article titled “Dream as a Constitutive Cultural Determinant–the Example of Ancient Egypt” (free full-text pdf download available). From the article abstract:

“Among Ancient Egyptian texts there are a number of dream reports, which document an interest in observing dreams. Even larger is the corpus of the night literature that deals with themes of an otherworldly, nighttime reality, the so-called Duat. There are etymologic and textual hints that these assertions on a complex, nightly meta-reality in the Egyptian culture are especially related to the hours of the late night, the peak of REM-sleep and the phase of highest dream recall. This paper develops the hypothesis that the Ancient Egyptian culture appreciated dream experience as a reality deserving high attention; and that the Egyptians deduced cultural knowledge from dream experience, intended for individual and collective, cultural application.

(Emphasis mine.) The author, Gotthard Tribl, bases his arguments mainly on etymological analysis of Egyptian language and hieroglyphs. To follow the argument, you need to know that a glyph can be read as an ideograph (a picture), a phoneme (a sound), or a determinative (a marker that indicates the general category of phenomenon to which the word belongs), and many words consist of all three. Tribl proposes that Egyptians’ consciousness and cognition was shaped by their dreamworking, though, interestingly, a hieroglyphic for “dream” has never been found. Instead the noun we would translate “dream” derives from a verb meaning “to awake in the morning,” with the addition of a determinative meaning “eye.” So it seems the Egyptians regarded the dream experience as a form of awakening, and that it was primarily construed as a visual phenomenon. Moreover, the words/glyph for “morning” (duau) and that for “Otherworld” (duat) are both written with the star hieroglyph (designated N14) plus determinative endings suggesting, respectively, time and space. Another related word, dua, shows a star followed by a man with upraised arms and a papyrus scroll, and means “‘to praise’ or ‘to adore’ in the morning.”

Egyptian literature about night and the Otherworld (duat) indicates that when the sun went down in our reality, it rose in the Duat. My own speculation, based on Tribl’s research, is that there were therefore two mornings–morning in our world, and morning in the Duat (which would have been evening in our world). Waking in the morning seems to have been followed by prayer/ritual/worship–but was this ritual performed during morning in this world, or morning in the Duat, or both? From a modern perspective, this means, was the person awake or asleep at the time?

Tribl’s work suggests that distinction may have been irrelevant to the Egyptians. For example, during the Opening of the Mouth ceremony, texts and images indicate that

“…the Sem-priest was performing part of that ritual in sleep state (Hornung and Burton, 1991). Apparently, this part of the ritual dealt somehow with an active use of the sleep state….the sleep state of the Sem-priest is clearly prominent in that ritual and belongs to the most original parts of it (Baly, 1930). Beyond doubt, scenes nine and ten depict sleep conditions accompanied by a ‘vision‘…”

(Emphasis added.) I don’t know if dreaming was understood as a visit to the Duat, though it seems possible, at least based on the etymological argument and the surviving religious texts. Regardless, it seems that what we would call dreamworking and lucid dreaming were a huge deal in Egyptian life, and that priests and/or magicians would have been expected to be skillful navigators of that realm. It’s very interesting to look at other heiroglyphs that include the N14 star glyph. It appears in the word “star,” and in the names of various stars and constellations, but also in the words for “priesthood” and “teaching.”

Egyptian words containing the star glyph.
Egyptian words containing the star glyph.

If you look at the glyphs N13-N15 above, you can see that in the first one, the half-arc above the star indicates the passage of a half-month. Not pictured here is the glyph for a full month, which contains a full arc above the star. I find it very interesting, then, that in the glyph for the Duat, the arc has been extended into a full circle–which rather suggests the cyclical nature of day/night and life/death in Egyptian mythology. (I am not an Egyptologist, just speculating, so I imagine someone else has had this thought before. If you know of a source, let me know.)

Since Egyptian magic, along with that of Greece, is one of the most influential roots of the Western Magical Tradition, one can’t help but wonder what influence this Egyptian dreamwork had upon the WMT, and indeed on Western civilization as a whole. How much of our culture comes from the Duat? And what does that mean for us humans? Can we assume that the beings with whom we are communicating have our best interests at heart, or are we merely bugs that get sucked into their grill as they drive past? From a gnostic point of view, one might hypothesize that the beings guiding us are archons who decidedly do not have our best interests at heart.

I hope to explore this more as we go.