“…some deeper area of the being.”

Alec Nevala-Lee shares a passage from Colin Wilson’s Mysteries (see Magic and the art of will). It elicits many thoughts, but I want to focus on the two main related aspects: the self and the will.

The main thing Wilson is talking about is hyper-individualism — the falseness and superficiality, constraint and limitation of anxiety-driven ‘consciousness’, the conscious personality of the ego-self. This is what denies the bundled self and the extended self, the vaster sense of being that challenges the socio-psychological structure of the modern mind. We defend our thick boundaries with great care for fear of what might get in, but this locks us in a prison cell of our own making. In not allowing ourselves to be affected, we make ourselves ineffective or at best only partly effective toward paltry ends. It’s not only a matter of doing “something really well” for we don’t really know what we want to do, as we’ve become disconnected from deeper impulses and broader experience.

For about as long as I can remember, the notion of ‘free will’ has never made sense to me. It isn’t a philosophical disagreement. Rather, in my own experience and in my observation of others, it simply offers no compelling explanation or valid meaning, much less deep insight. It intuitively makes no sense, which is to say it can only make sense if we never carefully think about it with probing awareness and open-minded inquiry. To the degree there is a ‘will’ is to the degree it is inseparable from the self. That is to say the self never wills anything for the self is and can only be known through the process of willing, which is simply to say through impulse and action. We are what we do, but we never know why we do what we do. We are who we are and we don’t know how to be otherwise.

There is no way to step back from the self in order to objectively see and act upon the self. That would require yet another self. The attempt to impose a will upon the self would lead to an infinite regress of selves. That would be a pointless preoccupation, although as entertainments go it is popular these days. A more worthy activity and maybe a greater achievement is stop trying to contain ourselves and instead to align with a greater sense of self. Will wills itself. And the only freedom that the will possesses is to be itself. That is what some might consider purpose or telos, one’s reason for being or rather one’s reason in being.

No freedom exists in isolation. To believe otherwise is a trap. The precise trap involved is addiction, which is the will driven by compulsion. After all, the addict is the ultimate individual, so disconnected within a repeating pattern of behavior as to be unable to affect or be affected. Complete autonomy is impotence. The only freedom is in relationship, both to the larger world and the larger sense of self. It is in the ‘other’ that we know ourselves. We can only be free in not trying to impose freedom, in not struggling to control and manipulate. True will, if we are to speak of such a thing, is the opposite of willfulness. We are only free to the extent we don’t think in the explicit terms of freedom. It is not a thought in the mind but a way of being in the world.

We know that the conscious will is connected to the narrow, conscious part of the personality. One of the paradoxes observed by [Pierre] Janet is that as the hysteric becomes increasingly obsessed with anxiety—and the need to exert his will—he also becomes increasingly ineffective. The narrower and more obsessive the consciousness, the weaker the will. Every one of us is familiar with the phenomenon. The more we become racked with anxiety to do something well, the more we are likely to botch it. It is [Viktor] Frankl’s “law of reversed effort.” If you want to do something really well, you have to get into the “right mood.” And the right mood involves a sense of relaxation, of feeling “wide open” instead of narrow and enclosed…

As William James remarked, we all have a lifelong habit of “inferiority to our full self.” We are all hysterics; it is the endemic disease of the human race, which clearly implies that, outside our “everyday personality,” there is a wider “self” that possesses greater powers than the everyday self. And this is not the Freudian subconscious. Like the “wider self” of Janet’s patients, it is as conscious as the “contracted self.” We are, in fact, partially aware of this “other self.” When a man “unwinds” by pouring himself a drink and kicking off his shoes, he is adopting an elementary method of relaxing into the other self. When an overworked housewife decides to buy herself a new hat, she is doing the same thing. But we seldom relax far enough; habit—and anxiety—are too strong…Magic is the art and science of using the will. Not the ordinary will of the contracted ego but the “true will” that seems to spring from some deeper area of the being.

Colin WilsonMysteries


Edge of the Depths

“In Science there are no ‘depths’; there is surface everywhere.”
~ Rodolf Carnap

I was reading Richard S. Hallam’s Virtual Selves, Real Persons. I’ve enjoyed it, but I find a point of disagreement or maybe merely doubt and questioning. He emphasizes persons as being real, in that they are somehow pre-existing and separate. He distinguishes the person from selves, although this distinction isn’t necessarily relevant to my thoughts here.

I’m not sure to what degree our views diverge, as I find much of the text to be insightful and a wonderful overview. However, to demonstrate my misgivings, the author only mentions David Hume’s bundle theory a couple of times on a few pages (in a several hundred page book), a rather slight discussion for such a key perspective. He does give a bit more space to Julian Jaynes’ bicameral theory, but even Jaynes is isolated to one fairly small section and not fully integrated into the author’s larger analysis.

The commonality between Humes and Jaynes is that they perceived conscious identity as being more nebulous — no there there. In my own experience, that feels more right to me. As one dives down into the psyche, the waters become quite murky, so dark that one can’t even see one’s hands in front of one’s face, much less know what one might be attempting to grasp. Notions of separateness, at a great enough depth, fades away — one finds oneself floating in darkness with no certain sense of distance or direction. I don’t know how to explain this, if one hasn’t experienced altered states of mind, from extended meditation to psychedelic trips.

This is far from a new line of thought for me, but it kept jumping out at me as I read Hallam’s book. His writing is scholarly to a high degree and, for me, that is never a criticism. The downside is that a scholarly perspective alone can’t be taken into the depths. Jaynes solved this dilemma by maintaining a dual focus, intellectual argument balanced with a sense of wonder — speaking of our search for certainty, he said that, “Beyond that, there is only awe.

I keep coming back to that. For all I appreciate of Hallam’s book, I never once experienced awe. Then again, he probably wasn’t attempting to communicate awe. So, it’s not exactly that I judge this as a failing, even if it can feel like an inadequacy from the perspective of human experience or at least my experience. In the throes of awe, we are humbled into an existential state of ignorance. A term like ‘separation’ becomes yet another word. To take consciousness directly and fully is to lose any sense of separateness for, then, there is consciousness alone — not my consciousness and your consciousness, just consciousness.

I could and have made more intellectual arguments about consciousness and how strange it can be. It’s not clear to me, as it is clear to some, that there is any universal experience of consciousness (human or otherwise). There seems to be a wide variety of states of mind found across diverse societies and species. Consider animism that seems so alien to the modern sensibility. What does ‘separation’ mean in an animate world that doesn’t assume the individual as the starting point of human existence?

I don’t need to rationally analyze any of this. Rationality as easily turns into rationalization, justifying what we think we already know. All I can say is that, intuitively, Hume’s bundle theory makes more sense of what I know directly within my own mind, whatever that may say about the minds of others. That viewpoint can’t be scientifically proven for the experience behind it is inscrutable, not an object to be weighed and measured, even as brain scans remain fascinating. Consciousness can’t be found by pulling apart Hume’s bundle anymore than a frog’s soul can be found by dissecting its beating heart — consciousness having a similar metaphysical status as the soul. Something like the bundle theory either makes sense or not. Consciousness is a mystery, no matter how unsatisfying that may seem. Science can take us to the edge of the depths, but that is where it stops. To step off that edge requires something else entirely.

Actually, stepping off rarely happens since few, if any, ever choose to sink into the depths. One slips and falls and the depths envelop one. Severe depression was my initiation experience, the weight dragging me down. There are many possible entry points to this otherness. When that happens, thoughts on consciousness stop being intellectual speculation and thought experiment. One knows consciousness as well as one will ever know it when one drowns in it. If one thrashes their way back to the surface, then and only then can one offer meaningful insight but more likely one is lost in silence, water still choking in one’s throat.

This is why Julian Jaynes, for all of his brilliance and insight, reached the end of his life filled with frustration at what felt like a failure to communicate. As his historical argument went, individuals don’t change their mindsets so much as the social system that maintains a particular mindset is changed, which in the case of bicameralism meant the collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations. Until our society faces a similar crises and is collectively thrown into the depths, separation will remain the dominant mode of experience and understanding. As for what might replace it, that is anyone’s guess.

Here we stand, our footing not entirely secure, at the edge of the depths.

Choral Singing and Self-Identity

I haven’t previously given any thought to choral singing. I’ve never been much of a singer, not even in private. My desire to sing in public with a group of others is next to non-existent. So, it never occurred to me what might be the social experience and psychological result of being in a choir.

It appears something odd goes on in such a situation. Maybe it’s not odd, but it has come to seem odd to us moderns. This kind of group activity has become uncommon. In our hyper-individualistic society, we forget how much we are social animals. Our individualism is dependent on highly unusual conditions that wouldn’t have existed for most of civilization.

I was reminded a while back of this social aspect when reading about Galen in the Roman Empire. Individualism is not the normal state or, one might argue, the healthy state of humanity. It is rather difficult to create individuals and, even then, our individuality is superficial and tenuous. Humans so quickly lump themselves into groups.

This evidence about choral singing makes me wonder about earlier societies. What role did music play, specifically group singing (along with dancing and ritual), in creating particular kinds of cultures and social identities? And how might that have related to pre-literate memory systems that rooted people in a concrete sense of the world, such as Aboriginal songlines?

I’ve been meaning to write about Lynne Kelly’s book, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies. This is part of my long term focus on what sometimes is called the bicameral mind and the issue of its breakdown. Maybe choral singing touches upon the bicameral mind.

* * *

It’s better together: The psychological benefits of singing in a choir
by N.A. Stewart & A.J. Lonsdale, Psychology of Music

Previous research has suggested that singing in a choir might be beneficial for an individual’s psychological well-being. However, it is unclear whether this effect is unique to choral singing, and little is known about the factors that could be responsible for it. To address this, the present study compared choral singing to two other relevant leisure activities, solo singing and playing a team sport, using measures of self-reported well-being, entitativity, need fulfilment and motivation. Questionnaire data from 375 participants indicated that choral singers and team sport players reported significantly higher psychological well-being than solo singers. Choral singers also reported that they considered their choirs to be a more coherent or ‘meaningful’ social group than team sport players considered their teams. Together these findings might be interpreted to suggest that membership of a group may be a more important influence on the psychological well-being experienced by choral singers than singing. These findings may have practical implications for the use of choral singing as an intervention for improving psychological well-being.

More Evidence of the Psychological Benefits of Choral Singing
by Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard

The synchronistic physical activity of choristers appears to create an unusually strong bond, giving members the emotionally satisfying experience of temporarily “disappearing” into a meaningful, coherent body. […]

The first finding was that choral singers and team sports players “reported significantly higher levels of well-being than solo singers.” While this difference was found on only one of the three measures of well-being, it does suggest that activities “pursued as part of a group” are associated with greater self-reported well-being.

Second, they found choral singers appear to “experience a greater sense of being part of a meaningful, or ‘real’ group, than team sports players.” This perception, which is known as “entitativity,” significantly predicted participants’ scores on all three measures of well-being. […]

The researchers suspect this feeling arises naturally from choral singers’ “non-conscious mimicry of others’ actions.” This form of physical synchrony “has been shown to lead to self-other merging,” they noted, “which may encourage choral singers to adopt a ‘we perspective’ rather than an egocentric perspective.”

Not surprisingly, choral singers experienced the lowest autonomy of the three groups. Given that autonomy can be very satisfying, this may explain why overall life-satisfaction scores were similar for choral singers (who reported little autonomy but strong bonding), and sports team members (who experienced moderate levels of both bonding and autonomy).

Dreaming: Sense of Place, Sense of Self

I don’t spend a lot of time trying to remember dreams or thinking about them when I do remember them. But the last couple of nights some dreams were lingering in my mind upon awakening. There always is something odd about dreams, unpredictable and often unrelated to everyday life.

Dreams have the power to mesmerize for a similar reason stories draw us in. With any story, we are beholden to the narrator, reliable or not. The narrator determines the warp and woof of the narrated world. In a dream, our mind is the narrator which doesn’t make it any more reliable or necessarily even familiar.

There is one major difference with dreams. The narrator is more hidden because the narrating mind is behind rather than in front of our dreaming consciousness. That might be the reason why identity of the dream-self seems so uncertain. It rarely comes up in a dream who I am. I simply am. The focus of dreaming is rarely on the self but what the self is doing.

More than identity, what defines most of my dreams is a sense of place, the world of that particular dream. That seems important. The dream-world determines the actions and interactions of the dream-self. So often dreams have carefully prescribed spaces that constrain choices and determine possibilities. I typically find myself in a building, a room, a hallway, a pathway, a street, a tunnel, a stairway, etc. One space opens up to another space, ever leading onward somewhere else. A sense of time in a dream is defined by movement and movement is defined by a change of location or vantage point, a shift in space linked to a shift in time.

It is like with vision. If you hold your eyes perfectly still in a perfectly still environment, your vision eventually goes blank. This happens because perception is dependent upon change, on contrast.

The world, dreaming or waking, and our movement within it determines our sense of self. Not the other way around. The sense of self is a secondary experience or rather an extension of a more fundamental experience, the waves and eddies on the surface of very deep waters.

This brings the nurture vs nature debate down to a more basic level of psychological experience. In a dream, there is no nurture vs nature, no external vs internal. Reality instead is a cotinuum, a singular experience: Being-in-the-world.