Blog Archive

Putting Miracles in Their Place


  Who Requested that Alarm Call?  

A few days after I arrived in India for the first time I was squatting over a hole-in-the-ground toilet early in the morning, when some words popped into my head:

… NO WATER …

The words were utterly unconnected with any ongoing thoughts, and they struck me as having been somehow intruded into the usual flow, as if they were surrounded by white space. Certainly I had no use for them, so after noticing the strangeness of this phenomenon, my mind moved on to other issues. I did the business I was there for, and turned on the tap so I could clean myself in the traditional Indian fashion. Oh no! So that’s what it meant: NO WATER!


Not your regular kind of miracle? Too banal to deserve consideration? Or perhaps you feel it doesn’t count because it was entirely private and held no significance except to me alone? Actually, that’s exactly what makes it worth paying attention to, but in order to make this case I’ll need to draw several disparate threads together…

What makes a miracle?


People often hold peculiar notions about what constitutes a miracle.

Which is more miraculous: that “god” created the world in six days; or that there was a big bang which gave rise to all the matter and energy we see, followed by an episode of cosmic inflation in which the universe expanded to1078 times its size in 10−32 seconds?

Which is more miraculous: that “god” created humans out of clay; or that we are all made entirely from the dust of long-dead stars (except for the hydrogen atoms, which came from the big bang)?

Which is more miraculous: that a “messiah” or “prophet” came just once to just one planet; or that there are at least 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 planets in the universe?

Which is more miraculous: that a “guru” survives without, apparently, needing to eat or drink; or that there is a structured and surprisingly comprehensible system of physical laws, including the second law of thermodynamics which obliges every living being to imbibe sustenance.

In truth, external reality is so remarkable that its very existence surely qualifies as a miracle. But the kind of miracle I’m concerned with here is a rather more subtle, internal phenomenon.

So Who Are You Really?

This morning, when you woke up, you found yourself in possession of a more-or-less coherent body of memory purporting to be “your” past, and insofar as you troubled to check, it was also more-or-less consistent with the narratives reported by the people whom you found yourself surrounded by.

But there is another interpretation, which fits the available facts equally well. Perhaps you were created, ab initio, at the moment when you experienced waking up, complete with appropriate memories, and those around you were either created likewise, with consistent  memories, or are complicit in misleading you. You might find this alternative scenario implausible, but can you honestly exclude such a possibility? How can you be sure?

Indeed, how can you rely upon the veracity of these past few hours – perhaps you were created just an instant ago, complete with a memory of having read the beginning of this sentence, and the preceding paragraphs, and everything that occurred previously in “your life”.


And perhaps you were re-created just an instant later, with subtly differing memories, and again an instant later, and again, and again… What proofs can you offer to refute this account of your subjective experience?

Why Does Stuff Happen?

In fact, close observation suggests that we experience an intermittent stream of discrete moments, each projected from an unseen source (as discussed in another post). Of course, we mostly don’t experience reality in this way because our minds process and repackage our experiences, using a number of unwarranted fundamental assumptions about the nature of consciousness. That these assumptions are held to be axiomatic by all “right-thinking” scientists and philosophers, as well as by ordinary people, speaks only to their plausibility, and not to their legitimacy.


Re-examining these entrenched axioms is not an intellectual challenge, but an experiential one, to be experimented with as part of a meditative approach to life. Instead of offering any arguments, therefore, I’ll simply list some of them:

  • I am a free-standing conscious entity, separate from and independent of other people. All other conscious entities which may exist can always be readily distinguished from myself.
  • I enjoy real freedom, with some limitations, to choose the content of my consciousness, and also to influence the world around me.
  • The principle of cause and effect applies across all space and time, without relaxation, except for some allowance made to accommodate the statistical nature of quantum mechanics.
  • The only way to establish whether something is real is through intersubjective agreement with other people.

The True Purpose of Miracles

Miracles stand out because in the general course of day-to-day life everything which we encounter is fully consistent with scientific laws, including cause and effect. Science is essentially a structured method to establish intersubjective agreement: if I say, “This is a snake”, and you say, “No it’s a rope”, then we have a problem. If I describe an object (thing, event, phenomenon) in a particular way and you can recognize my description as an accurate explanation of that object, then we can agree on what to do about it.


But occasionally I have an experience which doesn’t fit into the scientific framework of intersubjectivity. Scientific laws are the everyday clothes that reality wears, but sometimes it likes to dress up. The appearance of consistency is a reassuring beat underlying our daily experience, but the cosmic drummer is free to create interesting variations since each and every stroke is independently produced. But such variations pose no difficulty for the rational scientific worldview so long as they remain intrasubjective: your miracle is only revealed as such to you alone, and mine to me.


This is precisely the problem with the so-called miracles claimed by religious organizations and other charlatans: whenever a “miracle” is perceived by more than one person, it requires the suspension of our normal intersubjective agreement. Any miracle which breaks science has obviously been designed for the purpose of manipulating vulnerable people. Not only is it bizarre to assume that reality is fashioned as a homogenous whole - except for this bit, but such “miracles” draw the attention outwards, instead of inwards like the true miracles.

And there are more subtle misunderstandings, even among those who realize that miracles are always an individual experience. For example, the mother of Ram Dass was ill, and Neem Karoli Baba accurately described her illness, so Ram Dass interpreted this to mean that “the guru knows everything.” This is surely an unjustified exaggeration: it was only necessary for the guru to say a few appropriate words on a specific occasion, perhaps not even appreciating their significance, for Ram Dass to experience a miracle.


But whatever you make of the miracles granted to you, at least don’t ignore them. The world displays a general coherence which is wonderfully useful for organizing our daily lives, but occasionally, when we need it most, each of us is given a hint that there is more beneath the surface. Miracles are splendidly effective at catching your attention and reminding you that you aren’t really who you think you are: that’s what they’re there for. So, the next time you have an extraordinary experience - it might be a marvellous serendipity or a smidgen of telepathy - make use of the opportunity to investigate the nature of consciousness: is it really local, personal, and limited?

The True Sceptic


  Why and How to Start Meditation  

Sceptics boldly claim to always approach everything with an attitude of doubt: they are proud to declare that they never pretend to know stuff they don’t. Well I emphatically dispute the universal character of their doubting: in my experience there isn’t one sceptic in a hundred who applies that doubting to his or her own subjectivity.

It’s easy to demonstrate that sceptics really do pretend to know stuff they don’t. Take anger, for example. Everybody “knows” that anger is wrong (harmful, self-defeating, etc.), and yet you are still sometimes angry. If you really knew that anger is wrong, you would simply drop it. Indeed, once the knowledge exists, anger would drop by itself, instantaneously: no time is required.


I’ve been talking about subjective knowledge, but let’s see how it works with objective knowledge: an erupting volcano is not a indication of divine wrath, and the set of people who truly know this has a zero overlap with the set of people who think that sacrificing a virgin might help the situation. Acquiring the knowledge is sufficient, it itself, to immediately transform both beliefs and the resultant behaviour.

So why don’t we apply the same approach to subjective knowledge? Actually, the very fact that you continue to get angry is enough to demonstrate that your “knowledge” is false:

  • You believe that anger is wrong.

  • You’d like to know that anger is wrong.

  • You’d like others to believe that you know it.

  • But you don’t know it – you’re just pretending.   1
  
So How Come I Never Noticed This Before?

There are many other examples I could have chosen to make the point: scepticism is generally reserved for objective matters, or at best is applied to thinking processes, but never to any deeper aspect of the subjective self. A sceptic who wants to understand something in the external world sets about investigating it by empirical enquiry, through observation and experiment. An exactly similar approach can be used to find out about the internal world, where your own self is the subject to be investigated: this type of enquiry is called meditation.   2,3

So why aren’t the so-called sceptics getting busy with this research? Precisely because they’re pretending to know stuff which they actually don’t. Believing that you already know something really gets in the way of finding out about it – just look at the millions of young-Earth creationists, who could easily disabuse themselves of their preposterous ignorance, but somehow don’t.


You believe that you already know anger to be wrong, so you’re not doing anything about it. In fact, you’re riddled with such false beliefs: and a true sceptic would be ready to provisionally accede to this possibility, pending further study.   4 Isn’t it at least conceivable that the flaws in your subjective knowledge, as indicated by your pretence about anger, have corrupted some or all of your objective knowledge?

Getting Started

So how does one go about investigating one’s own subjectivity? What about anger, then? Well, there are some useful techniques directly bearing on anger, which anyone might try: deliberate catharsis is helpful – just take it out on a pillow, perhaps as part of a specific meditation designed for the purpose. Beyond this, some further steps in the investigation can be identified: watch anger arising and dissipating, without repressing or expressing, and without judging. But already I am describing practices which most will find impossible, and many will consider unintelligible.

It turns out that understanding anger is not the best place to begin. In just the same way that before you can comprehend quantum chromodynamics there’s lots of other stuff you need to get a handle on, the inner enquiry tends to be more successful if you follow a progressive course of study. Start by observing your experience of the body, move on to the thoughts, then the emotions, and then to the deeper layers which may become apparent.


What am I talking about? How can you begin your bodily observations? Actually it’s very simple (though arduous). When you eat, give your attention to the tasting, to the chewing and swallowing, instead of just shovelling it in; don’t indulge in unnecessary talking, and don’t watch TV! When you shower, stay with the sensations of your skin: even though you’re repeating the same actions you’ve done thousands of times before, notice how it feels this time. Whenever you remember, try to de-automatize the way you go about all of your mundane daily activities by attending closely to what you’re doing: if you’re listening, just listen; if you’re cleaning, just clean; if you’re driving, just drive.

Methods

In addition to these observations, it’s very helpful to conduct some experiments. Just as for any scientific experiment, the context is circumscribed in order to limit the variables involved and so provide more definite results. These inwardly directed experiments are the “meditations” that most people have heard about. A great many different techniques exist, and I recommend trying out a few that appeal to you, before settling on one or two that you find functional.   5 There are two traditional methods, however, which seem to work for almost everyone, so these can usefully be described here:   6

  • Sit in a relaxed and comfortable position – this can be in a chair, or on the floor – but don’t lie down. It’s best to keep your spine erect, so rest your back against something if you need to. Close your eyes, and turn your attention to your breathing, watching the rise and fall of the abdomen. You will notice a variety of sensations, thoughts and feelings; but whenever you realise that your attention has wandered, just return to the rise and fall of the abdomen. Don’t interfere with the breath as it moves in and out, just let it be. (15 minutes, increasing in stages to 60 minutes.)

  • Wearing loose and comfortable clothing, but with bare feet, walk very slowly, moving in a circle, or just back and forth. Watch the motions of your body as it balances against the pull of gravity, and pay close attention to the contact of your feet with the floor. Have your eyes open, but don’t get lost in the seeing. Whatever arises, keep returning to the soles of the feet. (10 minutes, increasing in stages to 30 minutes.)

Try to set aside a period for meditation every day, if possible at about the same time, and in the same place. Use a timer to mark the completion of the period.


These ancient methods are wonderfully simple and effective, but modern people have been conditioned by the modern world, and many get on better with newer techniques. Osho has devised a variety of meditations and interactive “group” methods, which work on all the layers of your being at once. If you believe that insight is just a kind of thinking, I recommend his Dynamic Meditation and Mystic Rose.

You Won’t Know Unless You Try It!

“Religious” people claim to have a perfect list of moral rules that god wrote; yet the rules are transparently facile, and only obeyed out of fear and greed. Secular humanists find it perverse and tedious to be accused of immorality by such ignorant dullards. “Rational” people claim to adopt a stance of universal scepticism; yet only apply their doubts selectively, entirely neglecting half of the world which they perceive. Meditators find it perverse and tedious to be accused of delusion by such ignorant dullards.   7

If you haven’t studied physics, ideas like the equivalence of mass and energy, or wave-particle duality seem distinctly fishy. When you have, then the wonderful elegance of external reality becomes awesomely obvious. If you haven’t practiced meditation, the very notion that useful results can be obtained purely from introspection seems distinctly dodgy. When you have, then you will want to structure your life around a process of subjective enquiry, so that meditation becomes the context within which everything you know and do and are coheres.


Nothing limits your access to knowledge as much as the belief that there is nothing worth knowing. Ultimately the quest to comprehend reality, both external and internal, is understood to be a play about identity. Without answering the question Who am I? all other knowledge is suspect.

True sceptics place no limits on their scepticism: they doubt the outer world using science, and they doubt the inner world using meditation. They’re ready to do whatever it takes to become acquainted with the true nature of reality.




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  1 I’m not claiming to be free of anger myself; quite the contrary.

  2 This term is often used for specific techniques; but here I am using it in a more general sense, to describe an empirical approach to inward enquiry: Meditator (or Mystic) is to meditation as scientist is to scientific method.

3 The empirical character of meditation directly parallels the scientific method; though science, to be credible and convincing, must also be communicable, reproducible and falsifiable. These qualities are less easily demonstrated for meditation, so that the epithet “subjective” is often used to deprecate meditators who try to explain their experience. Such condescension is unwarranted, however, and I shall address these issues in a subsequent post.

  4 A more constructive approach, useful to established meditators, is to invert the burden of proof by proceeding “as if” certain hypotheses are true even though they seem implausible. For example: My consciousness is not localized.

  5 Avoid overcomplicated or proprietary techniques: just as science is blighted by pseudoscience, meditation is under attack from pseudo-meditators. If you need further guidance, try this.

  6 Interestingly, both of these techniques involve bodily processes, breathing and walking, which rely on neural networks known as central pattern generators.

  7 Meditation is the process of becoming more conscious by turning the attention inward. This turning-in is often interpreted as a withdrawal into unconsciousness by people who only ever look outward. When I lived with my parents, I used to practice a meditation which involved staring unblinking at a mirror lit only by a small candle: my mother was constantly afraid I would burn the house down.

Inner and Outer Reality

  Stop Sweeping that Weird Stuff under the Carpet  

Strange things happen to me sometimes. And to you too, I reckon.

Whenever I have an established practice of daily meditation - watching my breath for an hour every morning, let us say - I find that the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune give me less trouble than at other times. Scientific materialists would say that my meditative practice causes neurological changes to my brain, so that my mind perceives the external reality I encounter to be less upsetting; they would deny any possibility that the world is actually changed for the better.

Another example: in my youth I experimented with psychedelics, mostly LSD. The first few times it was about 45 minutes before the drug took effect, but then I experienced a remarkable change. Typically I would make a tentative plan, with a friend or two, to drop acid together on a particular day. But if the weather was poor, or some other difficulty intervened, then we would postpone our trip to a more opportune time. So there would be a first moment at which the decision to trip was confirmed, and I would find myself already tripping at that moment, before ingesting the drug. Again the scientific materialists have a ready explanation: I was simply deluded.


Of course, we can and should be sceptical about this weird stuff, but I find the rational accounts patently unconvincing when applied to my own experience. It seems that the subjective and objective realms can sometimes overlap and interpenetrate, especially if we dabble with meditation or psychedelics. This intriguing lead needs to be followed up: there is a crack in the wall of this dark cave we live in…
  
Reconciling Reality

I have written before about our everyday understanding that there are two realms of reality, and it also seems to us that two distinct kinds of event exist, so we are naïve dualists. There are outer physical events (dogs barking, Federer winning Wimbledon, an exploding supernova, etc.) which are objectively accessible to others; and then there are inner mental events (thoughts, memories, feelings, etc.) which remain subjectively personal. Superficially, both kinds of event appear capable of influencing and giving rise to other events, of either kind, but a brief examination reveals some formidable difficulties.

Inner Causes Outer - I feel good, so I call my friend

What kind of mechanism could forge a causal link between the non-physical and the physical? Would it be part physical and part mental? Then nothing has been resolved, we still need to bridge the same gap. A popular work-around assumes that mental events are “really” physical events   1 ,meaning that consciousness as such is illusory – I’m just imagining that I’m imagining that I’m imagining…

Outer Causes Inner – My friend calls, so I feel good

Some people find this easier to accept, it seems like obvious “common sense”. Well, perhaps we can establish a chain of causes as far as a specific brain-state inside this head, but we still can’t understand how my conscious experience arises. Again, the issue can be avoided by simply ignoring our own direct experience of subjectivity. This is clearly absurd: I may be entertaining any number of false notions concerning the nature of my identity – Who am I? – yet any experience at all, howsoever misinterpreted, necessitates the existence of a subject who perceives the experience. Even if  everything I thought I knew is actually wrong, I still can’t doubt the fact of my own existence.

Outer Causes OuterThe glass fell on the floor, so it broke

Surely this seems incontestable – science depends on cause and effect, right? I’ll return to this later.

Inner Causes InnerI smelt roses, so I thought of my mum

This is difficult to characterize until we take a position on the other cases. If mental states are caused by correlated brain activity, then sequential mental states could be causally independent, resulting simply from a causal link between brain activities   2 .




Enough Philosophy, Already!

Anyone who has actually looked   3 , to try and understand the origin of inner events, will find that they are never observed to be generated by any preceding event. They simply arise in consciousness, inscrutably. There’s a thought, and then another thought, and another following. Of course, successive thoughts may be related, indeed they usually appear to be, but the occurrence of any particular thought provides no definite information concerning which thought will next occur. I’m suggesting that all inner events manifest atomically, with complete independence from any and all other events, whether inner or outer. A little introspection is enough to show that don’t, in fact, choose our own thoughts.

But why stop there? My practice of meditation has encouraged me to play with the possibility that all outer events also arise atomically, in just the same way, from the same mysterious source. And whenever I find myself able to relax into this understanding, it’s wonderfully liberating. Of course, I accept responsibility for everything I “do”, and even (in my better moments) for everything that happens to me   4 ; yet I also see that I’m not really controlling the stuff and the situations I encounter in the world around me. You may be reluctant to go along with me here, so just to give you a helpful nudge I’ll mention a remarkable experiment. People in a brain-scanner were told to push a button whenever they felt like, and as often as they liked, but also to note the position of a rotating display at the moment when they were first aware of the wish or urge to act. So here's the thing: the machine operator was able to predict what their “decision” would be, seven seconds before they were aware of making it. Still think you’re doing it?


So by allowing the possibility that every event which impinges upon my consciousness is effectively independent, the difficulties with outer events being caused by inner events, or vice versa, simply evaporate. But what about cause and effect? Why am I even considering abandoning this mutually-agreed framework which so nicely accounts for the obvious connections between outer events? Aren’t I throwing the baby out with the bath-water? Actually, I’m not endorsing occasionalism, where god intervenes continuously to move every atom: I’m suggesting that a causal relationship among events, both inner and outer, does indeed exist; but beyond our field of view. I‘m very sympathetic to the ideas of David Bohm, a physicist of the first order who was also inspired by J. Krishnamurti. The events we perceive devolve from a subtle substratum of reality which Bohm terms the "Implicate Order". There is a delightful physical model which provides some clearer understanding of this process   5 .


Advaita: An Integrated Perception

The expression of cause and effect, then, is mediated via “hidden variables” existing off-stage. This doesn’t prevent us from constructing conceptual descriptions of reality to predict the connections among external events. Science still works perfectly, except in some particular circumstances. Quantum mechanics has already obliged us to relax the simple classical view of cause and effect to accommodate a probabilistic interpretation of the physical world – we just can’t explain why this uranium atom, rather than that one, spontaneously breaks apart. Many strange truths have been uncovered:

  • Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle places absolute limits on what we can know.
  • Bell’s theorem demonstrates that our local reality is fundamentally interwoven with the most distant parts of the universe.
  • Wave function collapse accords a pivotal role to subjective observers, without which all-and-everything exists in the endless limbo of quantum superposition.


In practice, all these bizarre ideas can be ignored as irrelevant; so long as we limit ourselves to the sort of things we generally encounter in normal daily life: middle-sized, warm and slow   6 . We have evolved to operate comfortably within this familiar sector of reality, and outside of it we are utterly boggled.

In a similar fashion, I suggest that our understanding of cause and effect, while entirely sufficient for our mundane lives, needs to be further extended to deal with the kinds of experiences that come up when we are involved with any species of subjective enquiry. Whether systematically, through meditation; experimentally, through psychedelic drug use; or idiosyncratically, through those marvellous moments when we spontaneously find ourselves in harmony with nature – we are all capable of noticing the weird and wonderful connections between our inner and outer reality.

If we are satisfied to limit the scope of our enquiry, without asking the hard questions, then string theory reduces to quantum field theory, for example, and Einsteinian relativity reduces to Newtonian mechanics. Well, the really hard questions concern the nature of consciousness; and the limitations of dualism can only be escaped by integrating the study of the inner and the outer   7 . A comprehensive account of our internal and external reality therefore has to be informed by subjective investigations, as much as by objective ones. The scientist must also become a mystic, and reason must go hand-in-hand with insight, or our understanding will be half-baked, and the task will remain half-done.


So, the next time reality goes a bit wobbly on you, take the opportunity to do some research. There will never be a better moment…



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  1 Philosophers of  consciousness and cognitive scientists go much further than merely correlating mental states with physical events in the brain, they assert that the two are, in some vague way, identical. Among the exponents of this view, Daniel Dennett provides some of the least unconvincing arguments for his own non-existence.

  2 Not Inner1→Inner2, but Outer1→Inner1 and Outer1→Outer2→Inner2.

  3 Sorry about all the philosophical language. Describing the meditative life in scientific terms makes it sound like philosophy, but it isn’t. You really need to suck it and see. There are no shortcuts to meditation; thinking about thoughts won’t help.

  4 I suspect that this all-encompassing acceptance is a necessary step, without which it’s not possible to make any useful sense of my remarks: a kind of surrender is required. I intend to return to this in a subsequent post.


  5 Imagine a large cylindrical glass container of glycerine mounted on a turntable. We place a spot of black ink in the glycerine, near the edge of the cylinder, then we slowly rotate the container, causing the ink to disperse throughout the glycerine until it has effectively disappeared. If we now slowly rotate the cylinder in the opposite direction, the spot of ink gradually re-forms; in its original position, after the same number of turns. (Yes, it really does work!) OK, now imagine placing a series of spots. We place the first as before, then rotate the cylinder until the ink has thoroughly dispersed. We place a second spot of ink just beside where the first spot was, and rotate to disperse. We place a third spot beside where the second was, and rotate to disperse. We continue this for a few more spots. When we reverse the direction of rotation we see the last spot coalesce, then disperse, then the next-to-last one appears right beside where the last spot was, and so on. This analogy implies that when we perceive a particle moving through space, we might in fact be experiencing a series of particles, distinctly and independently manifested from a deeper reality.

  6 Macroscopic (though not cosmic-scale) phenomena, possessing non-trivial thermal energy, and moving at non-relativistic speeds.

  7 Others, who’ve passed this way before, have termed this approach advaita, meaning “the non-dual”.

Science and Mysticism

  Rivals or Colleagues?  

Some of my friends view the world through the lens of science, and others are inclined towards mysticism. The first group generally fails to distinguish between “religion” and mysticism, and the second habitually confuses science with pseudo-science. Frankly, I find both groups complacent.

For me, the two endeavours are of a piece: I am both a scientist and a mystic1. I therefore find myself in a kind of no-man’s-land, where some part of my vision is routinely discredited. This post is an invitation, especially for the scientists, to reconsider their smug certitude.



What Is? (Ontology)

Scientists2 assume3 that an external reality exists, and that events occurring therein can be shared (at least potentially) by every human alive. As individuals, we also enjoy direct experience of an internal reality: what it is like to be me, which does not, at first glance, appear to be shareable in quite the same way. Just as scientists explore and characterize the outer world, mystics explore and characterize the inner world.

If I say that my experiments have shown water to be H2O, you can check the truth of my claim by doing your own experiments: the shareability of the external realm allows reproducibility, one of the pillars of the scientific method. Claims about the external world can therefore be accepted as provisionally true, and used as elements in the construction of further such claims, unless and until they are shown, by evidence, to be false.

Whenever I say something about the internal world, however, there is a difficulty to be overcome. We have to consider the possibility that I’ve been misled by some unacknowledged bias or other misinterpretation. If you have no access to check the truth of my claim, then how do we know that I’m not deluded? Nobody bothers to ask this question when I say, “I have a headache”, but we must ask it if someone makes a claim like, “Love is the ground of all being”. So the problem only arises when I make a claim, based on the observation of my own internal realm, which impinges upon the external realm that we all share.

How Do We Know What Is? (Epistemology)

In the modern world, the scientific method is acknowledged as the tool of choice for investigating the outer realm: the best method of reliably establishing true facts. Even those who are reluctant to admit such facts, preferring the authority of “scripture”, are careful to apply their ignorance selectively: to the age of the Earth, for example, yet not to the principles of aircraft design.

But what about the inner realm? Remarkably, almost everybody depends upon received authority to establish true facts about their own inner world. How bizarre! Why rely upon “holy” books, “religious” leaders, media pundits, or even your friends and family, to decide what’s happening inside your own head? Why not just look for yourself?

In the same way that it takes many years to acquire a useful scientific education, conducting a comprehensive enquiry into the nature of one’s own psychology simply requires more commitment than most people are prepared to invest. Having explored both realms, I am trying to describe the process of investigating the inner world, and to talk about some of my findings, in a way which is digestible to scientists and others of a rational inclination.

There is an approach through which the inner world can be systematically investigated. Meditation4 is the discipline of persistently paying meticulous attention to any and every experience encountered. Or you can call it subjective science. Dedicated practice generates empirical observations5 capable of being communicated to (at least in outline), and verified by, anyone who takes the trouble to investigate for themselves. And there’s the rub. The discoveries of objective science only need to be made once, for everyone to share the benefits, but it doesn't work that way for subjective science if you want the benefit, you have to do all the work yourself.


Pretending to Know What Is (Theology and Other Fantasies)

Nowadays “religious” people like to pronounce that their delusions are scientific; but they have always sought to claim ownership of mysticism, so much so that mysticism is routinely (and ignorantly) conflated with “religion”. Why do they play these games? Because science succeeds. Because mysticism works. They are simply trying to boost their power and prestige by associating their absurd delusions with truly effective practices. “Religion” gets in the way of science, and it gets in the way of mysticism.

Most people waste their lives being “religious” in ways which are easy to ridicule, and they surely deserve our scorn, as well as our pity. A very few people, however, far less than 1%, are trying to do something entirely different. We are engaged in an empirical enquiry into the nature of our own psychology. You have probably met many who claim as much, but most of these will be peddling some kind of new-age woo, and such people are simply another distraction, no more deserving of our attention than the traditional god-botherers.

A few lucky people manage to escape from “religion”, but all too often they become trapped by channelling, or chakra-balancing, or some other nonsense6. Until you can see through both kinds of delusion you can’t begin your own authentic enquiry. Genuine mystics really exist, and you will be fortunate indeed when you realise this.


Discovering What Is (Meditation)

Until you know who you are you can’t rely on anything else. To answer the question What is? you need first to ask Who am I? And the tool you need for this enquiry, the disciplined approach to subjective science, is meditation.

The search is arduous, and often dispiriting. Many who lack the necessary courage or perseverance disdainfully misrepresent the insights accruing from meditation as “revelation”. But in fact, such people are no more credible that those who deny the reality of climate-change, or the efficacy of vaccinations. If you don’t have a scientific education, it is foolish to express anti-scientific views on these matters. In just the same way, if you haven’t established a meditative practice, it is unwise to try to undermine those who have.

My enquiry is sustained, deliberate, incisive and coherent. I subscribe to no “holy” texts, I revere no “religious” leaders, I rest upon no authority but my own. Such beliefs and opinions as I hold are labile – readily replaceable by any better ideas which arise. All knowledge is tentative: knowledge of the outer world is falsifiable, but knowledge of the inner world is fugitive, and I pretend to none. In this moment something is self-evident, more I cannot say.

Nonetheless, it is my direct experience that meditation gradually disabuses me of the many false notions which I have found myself clinging to. The process of trying to live meditatively informs and illuminates my daily experience with a significance which was lacking when I limited my enquiry to the objective realm. I have benefited immensely from my practice, but it won’t help you at all, in fact you probably won’t even credit my remarks – unless you begin your own enquiry.

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1When I call myself a mystic, people generally assume I’m selling something: either a belief-system deliberately designed to be impenetrable, or some preposterous new-age woo. This is a misunderstanding. Many useful words have been debased by those seeking power or profit, but the words mystic and mysticism are the best ones available in English, and need to be redeemed.

2For scientist you may read realist, rationalist, materialist, naturalist, physicalist, or any other philosophical flavour that takes your fancy, without affecting the essence of my meaning. Philosophical street-cred is not my primary concern.

3That this is indeed an assumption is rarely mentioned by scientists, who are also not generally concerned about philosophy. Solipsism has never had much support, but perhaps we live inside a computer simulation.

4This term is often used for specific techniques, for example Dynamic Meditation, but the meaning here intended is much more general, encompassing a way of living which is structured around a process of subjective enquiry. Mystic is to meditation as scientist is to scientific method.

5Astronomers never do any experiments either.

6Hey, I’m not knocking the placebo effect. If reflexology makes you feel better then go for it, but if you imagine it will help you become more conscious, then I fear you will be disappointed.

Gurus 101

  What’s it all about?  

When I became Osho’s disciple, a sannyasin, many of my circle of friends and acquaintances were surprised. Their opinion, generally implied rather than spoken, was that I had behaved in some inexplicably foolish manner which reflected badly on them – it was embarassing, and a little disturbing. I, who had always been so subversive towards any kind of authority, had abdicated my reason to follow some guru. I must surely have been brainwashed somehow, and if it could happen to me…

Times have changed and misunderstanding has modulated, still I feel that some may appreciate a basic introduction to the world as seen by a sannyasin.

What is a guru?

Let’s deal with the labels first: avatar, buddha, god-man, master, sage, teacher, and a score of Sanskit terms. It will soon become clear why I prefer the word Master.

A master is a human being who perceives identity and reality in a qualitatively distinct way. A nematode worm has 302 neurons, while I have around 100 billion, yet the way in which we experience ourselves and the world around us is rather similar, at least from the perspective of a master.

But the worm will remain a worm, whereas I, and you also, have the potential to become enlightened. Enlightenment means the transition process through which the realization arises. Every master is (permanently) enlightened, but it seems that not every enlightened being is a master.


In parallel with the superficial history of the world, the kings and presidents, the wars and revolutions, there is another view of what’s happening, especially of who the most significant people are. Some historical masters are taken to be philosophers (Pythagoras, Socrates, etc.), and others are thought to be religious leaders (Gautam Buddha, Jesus Christ, etc.), but both these perspectives entirely miss the point of who such people really are.

Do masters really exist? What are they like?

Yes they do! And they are astonishingly diverse. The rest of us are domesticated by our biology and psychology, and by our societies. But a master has escaped from these limitations, he is a wild and untamed being.

A true master performs a specific function. What he says or does is incidental. What he is is primary. Everyone who finds themselves sharing a space with the master experiences an involuntary overlap with the being of the master: there’s this guy on a trampoline doing the most amazing stuff, and you’re sitting on the edge of it so you’re sure to get bounced around some - love it or hate it.

Ultimately, however, the focus is not on how remarkable the master is, but on being a disciple. I will have more to say about this, in subsequent posts.

Do I need a master?

It depends. Most people don’t. Do you need to fall in love with this or that person? With anyone? Either you do or you don’t fall in love, that’s just how it happens. If you happen to encounter a master who makes your heart sing then you won’t be asking this question anymore. If you don’t then that’s fine too.

The traditional answer is that the master finds the disciple, not the other way around, but few of us are ready to embrace the surrender that this implies.

I’ve noticed that people often come to the master when they are suffering some kind of psychological and emotional crisis, but they tend to fall away when their lives become comfortable once more. We are all damaged and insane, to some degree, but if you are really ready to turn and look within, then the presence of the master is invaluable.

Aren’t there lots of false masters?

You got that right. There’s always been an abundant supply of bogus god-men, and nowadays there are legions of guru-wannabes bombarding us with new-age twaddle.

It has always been difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff, and the internet hasn’t made it any easier.


The very worst are the well-intentioned half-wise; self-deluded seekers who have prematurely ceased their seeking. If somebody seems to be, perhaps is, wiser than me, then perhaps this is a useful teacher, but a master is something else.

How do I tell the difference between the real and the false?

The short answer is that you can’t.

Well, certainly not from anything external. Perhaps you have a checklist, with lots of boxes involving money and sex – then you’ve provided the master with a simple way to throw you off the scent. Any apparent lapse into “attachment” or “impurity” will blow you away, making space for others, more discerning than you, to approach.


Some masters have a wicked sense of humour: Neem Karoli Baba sometimes made a great ceremony of catching a train to go to another city. Crowds of disciples would come to see him off, and hundreds would accompany him. Then at the last moment, when the train was already travelling quite fast, he would jump off and go somewhere else, leaving his disciples stranded.

Then how can anyone recognize the master?

It happens, somehow. From Osho I have heard that the master does not distinguish his point of view from yours or mine – to him we are all enlightened. To the extent that we are capable of sharing this understanding, we are also able to recognize the master within.

Are there different degrees of enlightenment?

For those of us who still imagine ourselves to be separate beings, holding on to our precious minds, there is little to be gained from such speculation.

Some say there are three levels, and that from the first level it is still possible to be reincarnated… oops! All this esoteric stuff is a potent distraction. Taste a little bit and you will go looking for more. Stay grounded in your own experience.

Are there different kinds of master?

More esoterica to get lost in. Some celebrated masters have made a big thing out of this, but mostly it’s just the disciples trying to get one-up. The only kinds I find it useful to consider are the master and the others. With the master you cannot helping loving him - his every word and gesture inspire delight. With the others you are not sure what’s what. And your other may be my master, and your master may be my other.

Any master will do. A few have a high public profile, and make an impression on the world at large, but most live quietly, ignored by all except a few disciples.

It may be that some masters, in addition working on their disciples, also play a broader role. They seem to be pioneers, discovering new realms of consciousness and opening them up for others to experience. This is all very entertaining, but again, it draws attention away from the real enquiry.

But my religion says that X / Y / Z was the only-son / true-prophet / last-messenger of god.

Like I said, not everybody is ready for a master. True seekers are a tiny minority.

What is your personal experience of masters? How do you know all this?

I am not enlightened. I spent weeks or months hanging out near Osho on a number of occasions, but many others were much closer for much longer than me. Perhaps some of them are enlightened - though a few are patently idiotic, or worse.

I speak on my own authority, from my own experience, trying to share my understanding as straightforwardly as I can. If I mention anything beyond my experience, I make that clear. Sometimes I’m obliged to use metaphorical language, but none of it is there to confuse you - authenticity is the cardinal virtue.


For those who may be looking, I can say that in the years since Osho left his body (“died”), I’ve checked out quite a few people who claim enlightenment, or allow others to claim it for them. I haven’t found any who struck me in the way that Osho did, yet it seems to me that there are real masters around.

What’s it really like to meet a master?

Like being home, at last.

Like feeling high, as high as sex or drugs have ever helped you feel.

Like meeting your best friend again, after many many years when you had somehow, strangely, forgotten all about them.

Like remembering what it was like to be you at the age of 3, or 2, or…

Like being in the right place at the right time, beyond any shadow of a doubt.

In resonance with the master, borrowing his eyes, you sense that something wonderful is possible; something fresh. The master is a sandpit for baby god to play in.