If you are visiting this blog for the first time, you might find it more accessible if you start at the beginning of the Refocusing series.
My last post described a “theatrical perspective” in which I distinguished between my roles as a character in the long-running drama of life and as the actor portraying that character. I’m now going to explore another formulation organized around the concept of a paradigm, as a collection of shared beliefs, values, and ways of perceiving that determine how those sharing that paradigm shape and understand their experience of the aspects of reality that the paradigm addresses. I’m drawing from Thomas Kuhn’s usage of that term in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, though the subject matter I’m dealing with is somewhat fuzzier than Kuhn’s.
Think of a paradigm as a description of reality, or perhaps a lens through which you see the world that determine what aspects of reality are visible to you, and what aspects are not. I will focus primarily on physical action and interactions between people, and particularly on what we might call constraint interactions. By this, I mean interactions in which one person (the Holder) attempts to impede or constrain the actions of another (the Mover), who in turn, looks for ways to inhibit or neutralize the impediment. More simply stated, the Holder goal is to get the Mover stuck, while the Mover’s goal is to remain free. Refocusing explores unconventional ways for the Mover to achieve that goal.
We’ll examine those interactions through two contrasting paradigms, one reflecting the conventional worldview that is more or less standard in contemporary society, and the other reflecting possible ways of explaining the unconventional experiences that Refocusing seems to make available.
The Conventional Paradigm
We experience ourselves as solid entities living in a material world, a world made up of physical objects and material stuff, that behave according to known mechanistic rules that we think of as Laws of Nature. We act physically by contracting muscles, which in turn, move bones and create forces through the skeleton that we can transmit to external world, to apply pressure to or move people or things, or to resist being moved by them. This is how we interact with the world around us. Our actions are intended to produce the outcomes we seek, and our ability to achieve those outcomes depends in large part on our ability to generate the necessary forces. If we are trying to move something, for example, our success or failure will depend on whether or not we can generate enough force to overcome whatever resistance we encounter.
We experience physical events as in some sense primary, and as being the cause of our experience of those events, so we understand our experience of the results of our actions as being caused by the outcomes those actions produce. All of this is so natural, routine, and expected that it seems hardly worth describing this level of detail — a bit, perhaps, like a fish trying to describe the water he swims in.
These are major mechanical tenets of what I’m going to call the Conventional Paradigm, the largely unarticulated but widely understood description of the world that guides and directs most people’s day-to-day lives. This Conventional Paradigm embraces beliefs and expectations about other non-mechanical aspects of reality as well, such as the beliefs that the mind is nothing but an epiphenomenon of chemical and electrical activity in the brain, and that we can only know the outside world through information received from our senses. Most of our life experience seems to agree with this paradigm and to provide validation for it, which is further reinforced by what we’re taught in school and what we know from science. The Conventional Paradigm seems so basic and obvious as to hardly be worth questioning. That’s just how things are, after all. Isn’t it? Or is it?
While the evidence for the Conventional Paradigm may seem overwhelming, it is not incontrovertible. Anomalies exist that suggest there is more to reality than the Conventional Paradigm can account for. These anomalies includes phenomena like firewalking, telepathy, clairvoyance and precognition, and other phenomena, often thought by “hard-headed” adherents to the Conventional Paradigm to be mythical and imaginary, rather than real. Experiences made possible by Refocusing seem to call some of the mechanical tenets described above into serious question, which is where are primary focus will be here.
Moving Beyond the Conventional Paradigm
While Conventional Paradigm can explain most experience, most of the time, the anomalous evidence suggests that it isn’t the only explanation, that aspects of reality “really exist out there” which the Conventional Paradigm doesn’t fully explain, and that acknowledging these possibilities can enrich our lives, even if we don’t have equally fully developed explanations for them. How then, should we think about these phenomena? How should we stretch the boundaries of the Conventional Paradigm to encompass these other possibilities, and still function in the everyday world as we do so?
There are four ways of stretching those boundaries that I’d like to mention as having been foundational in the evolution of my understanding of these issues. These are Thomas Kuhn’s concept of paradigms and paradigm shift, Joseph Chilton Pearce’s Crack in the Cosmic Egg, don Juan Matus’s conception of reality as an agreement, and Rupert Sheldrake’s idea of the universe as an organism.
Thomas Kuhn was the physicist, historian, and philosopher of science who introduced and popularized the idea of scientific paradigms and paradigm shifts. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn argued that science is not the steady progression of increasingly accurate successive approximations converging toward absolute truth that it is commonly thought of as being, but is instead a process of understanding the field being investigated through a particular paradigm, or way of seeing and understanding that field. The day-to-day process he called “Normal Science” involved investigating unsolved problem that the paradigm presented, finding solutions and filling in details to push out the boundaries of the paradigm.
Anomalies that the paradigm couldn’t explain would usually be ignored, until they became significant enough to force what Kuhn termed a “Scientific Revolution,” requiring the adoption of a new paradigm that could explain those anomalies. Examples include the adoption of Newtonian mechanics and its later replacement by relativistic mechanics, or the shift in chemistry from phlogiston to oxygen as the explanation for the process of combustion.
The new paradigm, Kuhn argued, often described a reality that was significantly different than the old, not simply the next step in a series of successive approximations of the same underlying truth as it was sometimes described. He often cited the ambiguous perceptual illusion of the the rabbit/duck to illustrate the idea of seeing the same underlying reality through different paradigms. I discuss Kuhn’s ideas in greater detail in my chapter on “Science as a Form of Perception” in The Reality Illusion.
I encountered Kuhn’s work in the early 1970s, as I was arriving at similar conclusions in my research at the Rand Corporation about the role of quantitative methodologies in national security decisionmaking. I was seeing those methodologies a far less “objective” than they were usually thought of as being, and more as somewhat arbitrary “perceptual lenses” through which policy issues could be shaped and dealt with. At the same time, my belief in physics and what I’m now calling the Conventional Paradigm was being challenged by the energetic and perceptual experiences that my new-found interests in T’ai Chi and Aikido were offering me, and by the windows that my readings in Taoism and the writings of Carlos Castaneda were opening. Kuhn’s concept of paradigms as different ways of seeing the same phenomena fit nicely in with and facilitated all those streams.
Crack in the Cosmic Egg
Joseph Chilton Pearce’s metaphor of the crack in the cosmic egg, described in his 1973 book by that name, added another layer to my emerging understanding. His argued that what we experience as and mistake for external reality is actually the inner shell of a “cosmic egg” that separates and cuts us off from the deeper reality around us. He described spiritual awakenings and other non-ordinary experiences as “cracks” in that cosmic egg, and he argued that many people have them and they are much more common than most people think. The reason we don’t realize that, he claimed, was that the most common response to the crack was to cover it over and repair it — to get things back to “normal” as quickly as possible. Even when that didn’t happen, he said, the crack tended to repair itself with time and be forgotten. It was the exceptional person who was excited enough by the crack look for ways to keep it open, or to find another one if the first one closed. In one of those “coincidences” that the universe seems to arrange, Pearce’s book caught my eye in the Pentagon bookstore, as I was killing time there before an appointment. A decade later we met and became friends, and Joe wrote a Foreword to The Reality Illusion.
Reality as an Agreement
Don Juan Matus is a Yaqui Indian brujo, or shaman, who was Carlos Castaneda’s teacher and mentor. I’ve written about his ideas and my interest in them elsewhere in this series. I became interested in Castaneda’s writing in the early 1970s, during the same period when I discovered Kuhn and Pearce.
The Universe as a Organism
Rupert Sheldrake is a prominent English biologist and critic of conventional mechanistic science, which he sees as based on arbitrary mechanistic assumptions unsupported by actual evidence. He is best known for his theory of morphic resonance, which posits the transmission of information through morphic fields, at all levels of physical and biological organization. I first heard of Sheldrake some years ago, but have only recently begun to seriously investigate his ideas. His most recent book, Science Set Free: 10 Paths to New Discovery, is summarized in his lecture The Science Delusion. I resonate particularly with his idea that rather than being the giant machine governed by immutable laws of nature that physics takes it to be, the universe might be something more like a giant organism, governed, perhaps, by habits of nature rather than laws of nature.
Many of the experiences that Refocusing makes possible seem to violate or contradict the Conventional Paradigm, and fall outside the ordinary reality that paradigm reflects. I now want to look at some possible ways of changing that paradigm to deal with those contradictions. These changes will leave the resulting paradigm incomplete and much less intellectually satisfying than is the Conventional Paradigm, but that seems to be a necessary part of moving from a well-established and familiar consensus to the strange and unfamiliar territory into which Refocusing takes us. Learning to become more comfortable with ambiguity seem to be a necessary aspect of this shift.
In what follows I’ll disassemble pieces of the Conventional Paradigm and see how they might be changed to make them more compatible with the Refocusing experience. I’ll refer to what results as we make those changes as the Refocusing Paradigm.
My conventional experience of myself is as a solid entity, whose physical interactions with other people and with physical objects reflect that solidity. When Bob puts me in an armlock, he physically restricts my ability to move. The only way I can move is by forcing him to move. But Refocusing lets me experience myself as a more fluid entity, seemingly able to flow through or around his grip without effort. The Making Yourself Solid video that we saw earlier explores this transition between fluidity and solidity, and demonstrates the role that solidity plays in conventional experience.
The Refocusing Paradigm must somehow encompass this apparent duality — that I can experience myself both as fluid and as solid. I’ve come to resolve this by thinking of myself, at my core, as a fluid entity who can become partly or wholly solid, and can use that solidity, albeit unconsciously, to create my conventional experience as a solid entity living in ordinary reality.
I see my ego as the part of me who manages this process. This may seem like an unconventional definition of the ego, but it is actually a natural extension of more usual definitions, extended into new and unconventional territory. My ego draws and maintains the boundaries between “me” and “not-me,” and manages my interactions with the outside world in a manner that maintains the illusion that we think of as ordinary reality, described by the Conventional Paradigm. This involves two primary tasks.
The first task is making sure I’m solid when I need to be, so that I can interact physically with other people or solid objects. One way my ego might accomplish this is by habitually keeping me locked in a solid state all the time, and many people go through life pretty much this way. Alternatively, my ego might allow me to experience hints of fluidity at least part of the time, while monitoring my environment for potential physical interactions and tensing me into solidity when physical interaction becomes likely. As we saw earlier, that shift between fluid and solid is a subtle one, which can easily slip by unnoticed if you aren’t carefully watching for it.
The ego’s second task in maintaining the illusion of ordinary reality is to make sure that my actions produce the results called for by the Conventional Paradigm, even when that isn’t what might “really happen.” Think back to our earlier exploration of the action of getting up from a chair. Smoothly transferring my weight from my pelvis to my feet will stand me up, even if someone has his hands on my shoulders to hold me down.
But standing up easily when someone is holding me down isn’t allowed by the Conventional Paradigm, so my ego must orchestrate a different result. As my shoulders begin to encounter the holder’s restraint, my ego will inhibit my smooth transfer of weight and replace it with pushing my butt down into the chair and my shoulders up against the restraining hands, while lifting my feet off the ground to enhance the ineffectiveness of my effort. He will organize my perception so that I perceive myself as trying hard but unsuccessfully against objective external constraints that are too strong for me to overcome. This is how the ego creates the illusion of objective limitation as part of my conventional experience.
My ego’s control of my perceptual focus plays a central role in this illusion. My ego focuses my attention on the external impediment (the hand on my shoulders) and on my effort pushing against that impediment, while at the same time narrowing my awareness so that I simply can’t notice the stagecraft that is keeping me fixed — the fact that I’m pushing my butt into the chair and lifting my feet off the ground.
This narrow focus is my real source of limitation here. Broadening my awareness will allow me to take in a fuller picture of what’s happening, making it possible for me to see options that the narrow focus made invisible. Seeing that my ego is doing things that are contrary to my real intent (getting up from the chair, in this case) allows me to inhibit those actions and continue the actions that the ego had inhibited (shifting weight smoothly into my feet), which will let me accomplish what I set out to do.
There’s more to be said about the changes necessary to move from the Conventional Paradigm to one more representative of the Refocusing experience, but this is more than long enough for a blog post so I think I’ll end now and save the rest for my next post.