Searching for Stars: A Conversation with Alan Lightman

The Cosmic Body by Alan Watts

Let’s spend some time with Alan Watts. I recommend a decent dose of sour diesel just prior to pushing play.

So then, is it true? Is the modern idea of consciousness–the so-called “me,” my “I,” the “ego”–a hallucination, a sort of muscle knot inside our forehead in sorry need of a meditative massage? Is our battle with a mechanical nature just a terrible nightmare, a dream that our true identity will soon awaken from?

Margulis and the Psychedelic Eucharist

Here is Prof. Corey Anton lecturing on the recently deceased Lynn Margulis’ bio-philosophy.

Towards the end of her book (co-authored with Dorian Sagan) What Is Life?, Margulis offers an  analysis of the role of psilocybin in the evolution of mammalian consciousness.

She brings up the usage of psychedelic fungi in ancient mystery cults just after sharing Socrates’ warnings about the drug-like effects of writing. I’ve written about the relationship between psychedelic (al)chemistry and Plato’s/Socrates’ views on language as a pharmakon recently. I draw on Richard Doyle’s thesis in Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noösphere that psychedelics have functioned as “rhetorical adjuncts” in the history of human evolution, carrying natural selection and sexual attraction beyond themselves into religion, and from religion on into scientific discovery and artistic creation. Altered states of consciousness have always been at the generative core of human civilization. Art, religion, and science are novel modes of production never before seen in the history of earth. Humans are doing something new now. Which doesn’t mean we aren’t still things. We are things with powers unheard of in the world until now. We are the thing that thinks things (science) and things thinking (art), and that can, under special circumstances, think itself thinging. Almost always, we remain unable to think ourselves thinging, unable to catch the “I” in the act of  “am-ing.” We simply act without knowing how or why, making up our reason for acting afterwards depending on the moods and emotions that happens to be coursing through us when the need (social/legal or moral/psychological) for a justification of some past action arises. Much institutional religion (in its modern forms, Christian televangelism and the civil religion of 24-hour cable news) seems to function sociologically by providing us with hope and solace despite the existential shame and guilt we feel as a result of knowing we don’t know how or why we act the way we do. We are each of us liars since the first words that came out of our mouths. “I am”? But who am I? The special circumstances that allow the “I am” to experientially concresce (that is, allow the substantial self to emerge and dissolve fluidly–to flow through and across its own and others boundaries freely) are cultivated by carrying ourselves into philosophical modes of mind. Philosophy is a way of life and a way of writing. Increasingly, due to the invisible divine hand of the market, it has been reduced to a way of writing without life, publishing for pay. And often we don’t even get to own our own writing! Philosophers are lucky enough even to finds jobs at all in these waning days of capital.

Yes, we are still things. But we are not just heads of cattle, not just anything. Nothing is just anything. A cow, a blade of grass, a clump of soil, a star in heaven–each is radically different and yet still rhyzomatically the same. Nobody knows what a thing is, how it works, or why it works that way. “No-one knows what a body can do” (Deleuze‘s Spinozist formula).

Margulis quites Maurice Blanchot on page 189 of What is Life?:

Yes, happily language is a thing. It is a written thing, a bit of bark, a sliver of rock, a fragment of clay in which the reality of the earth continues to exist.

Participatory Psychedelia: Transpersonal Theory, Religious Studies, and Chemically-Altered (Alchemical) Consciousness [final draft]

Participatory Psychedelia: 

Transpersonal Theory, Religious Studies, and Chemically-

Altered (Alchemical) Consciousness

Photo: Tree of Life by Ron Barnett

Preface: Take it and eat it.


Walking alone on a quiet beach at dawn, I found an old, leather-bound book half buried in the sand whose title, once stamped with golden letters, was now too worn to decipher. I opened it, discovering inside that a cavity had been carved out of the pages to make room for its pharmacological contents: seven nearly dried psyilocybe cyanescens mushrooms. I removed and ate them one by one, leaving behind a bluish-purple outline on the page. As I swallowed the last mushroom, I noticed the text beneath the blue stains and realized I must be holding the Bible. The text, from Revelation, chapter 10, read:

Go, take the book which is open in the hand of the angel who stands on the sea and on the land…Take it and eat it; it will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth it will be sweet as honey.

I looked up from the page and was immediately struck by the first beam of light from the Sun as it rose above the ocean horizon. Its light carried with it a powerful sound, like a cosmic trumpet, which knocked me to the ground. I dropped the book and laid in the sand with my hands covering my face to shield me from the synesthesic storm. A sinkhole opened beneath me, as though I were passing through an hourglass. My body descended into darkness. In a moment, all was silent and still, until suddenly, my consciousness was turned inside-out.

I awoke to find myself in bed, the first gentle glow of sunrise gleaming through a crack between the curtains. It had been a dream. As I rubbed my eyes to greet the new day, all sorts of metaphysical questions occurred to me. The dream was vivid and visceral enough that I wondered if I should expect the onset of a psychedelic experience in the next 15 or 20 minutes as a result of the placebo effect having lead my pineal gland to release a bit of its own secret stash of DMT.1 Might my psyche find a way to blend my psychedelic dream with what “I” call “reality”–“I,” the “normal waking, rational consciousness” that William James so eloquently relativized in The Varieties of Religious Experience? Alas, no such alteration of my consciousness was forthcoming, but I was left wondering, like James, what the meaning of this abrupt transition could be. As James put it, reflecting upon his psychedelic encounters with nitrous oxide,

No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded…they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region though they fail to give a map…At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality. Looking back on my own experiences, they all converge towards a kind of insight to which I cannot help ascribing some metaphysical significance.2

As James well knew, consciousness is not easily made into an object fit for scientific study, if it can be so studied at all. The nearest approach to such a study appears most effective when one pays close attention to alterations in consciousness, to the transitions between dreaming and waking, or indeed, to the transformations brought about by the ingestion of one of many psychedelic chemicals. These peculiar chemicals, found throughout the plant and fungi kingdoms, and often close cousins of mammalian neurotransmitters, provide the fields of consciousness and transpersonal studies with the equivalent of Galileo’s telescope or Hooke’s microscope.3 The effect of psychedelic instruments has been variously described by experimenters as an expansion and/or an intensification of everyday consciousness. But these are metaphors: unlike normal scientific instruments for observation of the very large or the very small, consciousness has no size and cannot be measured. As transpersonal instruments and participatory technologies, psychedelics call into question the very identity of the scientist doing the observation. In such experiments, the “object” of study, consciousness, becomes both observer and observed. These recursive effects make psychedelic experiments an especially fruitful method of participatory spiritual inquiry.


Transpersonal Theory, Religious Studies, and Alchemical Consciousness


Transpersonal theory emerged in the wake of the radical political and spiritual upheaval of the 1960s, finding its principle expression in the work of Abe Maslow and Stanislav Grof. As Gregg Lahood has argued, the so-called Philosophia Perennis functioned for this first wave of transpersonalism

as a masking device, or a prestigious, protective, and seemingly authoritative sacred canopy with which to wheel a marginal, subversive, and unimaginably anomalous psychedelic epistemology into the heart of what William Blake called Newton’s sleep, or the hyperrational West.4

In other words, through what Lahood calls the “post-rational sorcery”5 of countercultural figures like Aldous Huxley,6 Timothy Leary,7 and Alan Watts,8 the psychedelic experience became sutured to a precariously universalized but nonetheless rhetorically powerful hybridization of the world’s great religious traditions. According to Lahood, transpersonalism is “still evolving through a major conceptual crisis in its worldview.”9 The second wave of transpersonalism could be said to have emerged with Jorge Ferrer’s publication of Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality (2002). Ferrer deconstructs the explicitly universalist and residual Cartesian assumptions of the first wave of transpersonal thinkers in order to reconstruct the discipline within the context of “a more relaxed spiritual universalism.”10

The principal aim of this essay is to explore the influence of chemically-altered, or alchemical consciousness, not only on the founding and ongoing articulation of transpersonal theory, but on the origins of spirituality more generally. Alchemical consciousness has been intimately bound up with religious innovation for thousands of years. Accordingly, I argue that the emergence of transpersonalism out of the foment of the 1960s is just the most recent example of the radical rhetorical effects of psychedelics on spirituality. I also attempt to support and expand Lahood’s notion of psychedelically-induced cosmological hybridization by drawing upon Richard Doyle’s thesis that psychedelics have functioned as “rhetorical adjuncts” in the evolution of spiritual discourse,11 as well as Michael Rinella’s study of the interplay between speech (the logistikon) and psychedelics (the pharmakon) in ancient Greek spirituality.12 From Doyle’s perspective, rhetoric is not simply persuasive speech leading one astray from the truth, but, due to its role in sexual selection, the engine of biological novelty; rhetoric, in other words, is an ecological practice.13 Just as flowers evolved as rhetorical devices for getting the attention of bees, and male peacock plumage for getting the attention of female peacocks, human rhetorical strategies have been evolutionarily selected for their eloquence.14 The degree to which such rhetoric truly or falsely corresponds to reality is biologically irrelevant, since it is precisely the creative appearance of beauty and its boundary dissolving effect as an “attention sink” that has guided the evolution of life on earth, determining through genetic and symbolic inheritance the bodily and behavioral patterns that shape our lives.15 What begins as appearance can in the future become reality. Psychedelics function as “rhetorical adjuncts” for many species,16 and for humans in particular

are involved in an intense inclination to speak unto silence, to write and sing in a time not limited to the physical duration of the sacramental effect…they are compounds whose most persistent symptoms are rhetorical…[such that] language…becomes the occasion for a feedback loop, where utterances and writings that seem to enable the endurance and enjoyment of psychedelic experience are replicated, programming further ecodelic investigations…17

Rather than seeking some form of authoritative disambiguation,18 as Lahood argues the first wave of transpersonalism did by turning to Perennialism, the “anomalous,” ineffable, and participatory nature of alchemical consciousness are affirmed as a fertile source of open-ended rhetorical strategies for both consciousness transformation and cosmological (re)construction. Before tentatively defining religion with help from Robert Bellah, and exploring the rhetorical influence of psychedelics on religious consciousness, I unpack Ferrer’s participatory contribution to the study of human consciousness and spirituality.


The Participatory Turn and the Representational Paradigm

Ferrer’s major contribution to the field of transpersonal studies was to defend the validity of spirituality without basing this validity upon the authority of the Perennialist tradition, at least as this tradition has been interpreted through the subjectivist and scientistic biases of modern Western culture. These biases are rooted in the representationalist paradigm that has held sway, consciously or not, since the time of Descartes. As Richard Tarnas notes in his foreword to Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, despite the radical intensions of the first wave of transpersonalism, its theoretical framework “[retained]…certain essential and usually unexamined assumptions” carried over from the historical background out of which it emerged.19 From within the representationalist paradigm, truth is thought to consist in a correspondence between a subjective picture or concept in the mind and an objective state of affairs in the world. Both the Myth of the Framework (subjectivity constructs reality) and the Myth of the Given (reality is objectively pregiven) are potential symptoms of this representationalist dualism.20

For the initial Perennialist wave of transpersonalism, every genuinely mystical or spiritual experience, despite potential differences in its explicit description, must implicitly refer to a single underlying and so pregiven spiritual reality. The research program for transpersonal theorists within the Perennialist paradigm is therefore to seek scientific validation of spiritual experiences by applying a broader form of the empirical method than that used in the natural sciences, one that includes not only outer, but also inner experience.21 According to Ferrer, though appeals to scientific verification were perhaps “historically inevitable,” and even “methodologically crucial” in establishing the academic legitimacy of transpersonal theory at the time of its founding, such an approach “has become today problematic and detrimental.”22

There are many reasons a representationalist/scientistic approach is problematic for transpersonal studies, several of which have been singled out and skillfully deconstructed by Ferrer in Revisioning. One of the crucial problems with the representationalist paradigm for psychedelic studies in particular is that interpreting alchemical forms of consciousness from such a perspective leaves them especially vulnerable to dismissal as subjective misrepresentations of a pregiven objective reality. Despite the attempts of transpersonal theorists to expand the epistemology of empirical correspondence so as to include inner realities, contemporary academic research on altered consciousness by those outside the field of transpersonal studies has tended to argue for precisely such a dismissive characterization. For example, Revonsuo et al. recently argued that, while during a “normal state of consciousness…the mechanisms of conscious representation in the brain…carry accurate information from ‘world’ to consciousness,” during an “altered state,” “consciousness…deviate[s] from the natural relation in such a way that the world and/or self tend to be misrepresented.”23 Revonsuo et al. go on to explicitly dismiss what they call “higher and mystical states of consciousness”:

…despite their intensely positive emotional tone and significance for the subject, these states…tend to induce a variety of misrepresentations for the subject’s conscious experience.”24

There are many question-begging assumptions here, not the least of which are the dogmatic reduction of consciousness to neural mechanisms, and the substantialist reading of consciousness in terms of experiential “states.” It would appear that transpersonal theorists cannot beat natural scientists at their own representationalist game, since it is all too easy for the latter to reduce “inner experience” of spiritual realities to some kind of neurological malfunction. Instead, it is necessary to change the rules of the game by shifting the critique to the epistemological and ontological foundations of modern scientism.

Ferrer’s remedy for the representational residue in first wave transpersonal studies is his participatory, or enactive, vision of spirituality. Enactivism was first articulated as a paradigm shift in the cognitive sciences by Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch in The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (1991).25 As Ferrer describes it,

Participatory knowing…is not a mental representation of pregiven, independent spiritual objects, but an enaction, the bringing forth of a world or domain of distinctions cocreated by the different elements involved in the participatory event.26

Rather than rooting the foundation of knowledge in a secure, unaffected and largely aloof subject who modestly witnesses the behavior of an external world (as natural science tends to pretend), Ferrer’s participatory approach to human consciousness uproots knowledge from the the solid self, such that the act of knowing is transformative of both self and world.27 Alchemical forms of consciousness are accordingly best understood, not as “states” of the mind, but as world-transfiguring events. As Ferrer suggests:

…this transfiguration of the world is not…a mere change in our individual experience of a pregiven world, but…the emergence of an ontological event…in which our consciousness creatively participates.28

Religion as Participation in Non-Ordinary Realities

In his study of religion in human evolution (in a book of the same title), sociologist Robert Bellah attempts to define “religion” in the context of a wider discussion about non-ordinary realities, like those encountered in quantum physics, cinema, dreams, play, after ingesting a psychedelic chemical, or when approaching death.29 He contrasts such non-ordinary realities with the ordinary (or at least culturally dominant) reality of “waking, rational consciousness,” or what he, following Alfred Schutz,30 calls “the world of wide awake, grown up men.”31 Unlike the participatory consciousness of religious realities brought forth through ritualized symbolic play and/or chemical alteration, the solid self of the “grown up” world of instrumental rationality tends to bracket the ontological implications of such “offline” activities, while attending instead to everyday practical needs and desires.32 In this everyday world, a world Bellah connects with a felt sense of lack or deficiency, space is experienced as discretely separating my body from every other body (and so my mind from every other mind), and time passes in a linear fashion according to the minutes and hours of a clock and the days and weeks of a calendar. The world of rational consciousness is the world of isolated bodies colliding in a crowded container, bidding for survival in the course of neutral (i.e., non-teleological) time, all the while haunted by a fundamental anxiety rooted in the fear of death. But, as Bellah is careful to point out, “nobody can stand to live in [such a world] all the time.”33 Ordinary reality is inevitably interrupted and overlapped by non-ordinary realities, typically with dramatic effects:

It is one of the functions of other realities to remind us that…bracketing [the vague sense on the fringes of rational consciousness that other forms of reality are possible] is finally insecure and unwarranted. Occasionally a work of art will break its bounds, will deeply unsettle us, will even issue us the command ‘Change your life’–that is, it will claim not a subordinate reality but a higher reality than the world of daily life.34

In the case of religious realities, the distinguishing feature is that they emerge from what Bellah refers to as “unitive events.”35 Such events bring forth worlds of non-standard space and time, where the boundaries between bodies and minds becomes porous and the flow of events is inherently creative and meaningful. Accordingly, unitive events are notoriously difficult to describe in a predominantly representational language, which tends to construe such events after the fact as subjective experiences. Bellah, like Ferrer, is sensitive to the modern Western tendency to speak of experience in terms of something “had” by a private, inner self, and so chooses the term “event” deliberately to avoid the implication that religious realities are somehow not “objective” or real. It is also important to note that by designating non-ordinary religious consciousness as “unitive,” Bellah does not mean to equate all such non-ordinary events with the realization of some nondual ultimate reality. Rather, “unitive” refers to the way in which the dichotomous subject-object consciousness of ordinary space and time is transformed, such that formerly sharp boundaries become relativized in a whole variety of ways.

As for a simple and unambiguous definition of religion, Bellah admits that cultural biases make this difficult. Following George Lindbeck,36 he lists three current alternative approaches to defining religion: 1) the propositional, 2) the experiential-expressivist, and 3) the cultural-linguistic.37 The propositional theory of religion holds that religion is essentially a series of conceptually stated beliefs concerning what is true. Bellah argues that this approach is inadequate since, while the conceptual/propositional aspects of religion are important, they are not essential to religious practice. The experiential-expressivist theory holds that a universal human potentiality for religious experience underlies all particular cultural manifestations of religion. The perennialist, quasi-empirical approach of first wave transpersonalism owes much to this theory. Finally, the cultural-linguistic theory holds that the symbolic forms of religion are primary, though

not so much as expressions of underlying religious emotions, but as themselves shaping religious experiences and emotions.38

This theory emphasizes the irreducible plurality of religions, and so also tends to bracket the ontological significance of religious symbolism. Bellah does not believe it is necessary to choose one approach over the other, but suggests that both the experiential-expressivist and cultural-linguistic theory can be utilized as “coordinate approaches.”39

In their introduction to The Participatory Turn (2008), Ferrer and Jacob Sherman construe the field of religious studies in a way similar to Bellah. They critique the “linguistic Kantianism” of postmodern scholars who would deny the possibility of real religious knowledge by pointing out the ethnocentric presuppositions underlying such dismissals.40 There is no privileged neutral ground from which to judge the metaphysical claims of religious practitioners, since academic scholars are no less ambiguously situated within their own cultural and historical contexts. In keeping with the participatory approach, Ferrer and Sherman gesture beyond the scholar/practitioner dichotomy by suggesting that

some kind of personal engagement or even transformation…may be required for both the apprehension and the assessment of certain religious truth claims.41

The “linguistic rationality” of ordinary consciousness simply is not capable of judging the non-ordinary unitive events at the generative core of the world’s religions. Ferrer and Sherman’s approach to the issue nicely complements Bellah’s, in that while none of them want to dismiss the experiential component of religion all together, all three call attention to the ways in which language and experience mutually transform one another. “In short,” says Bellah, “we cannot disentangle raw experience from cultural form.”42 Rather than seeing this entanglement as an unescapable epistemic limitation, Bellah argues that religious symbolism is potentially a way of knowing capable of reaching beyond the “dreadful fatalities…[of the]…world of rational response to anxiety and need.”43 In a similar vein, Ferrer and Sherman call into question the skeptical postmodern claim that non-ordinary religious consciousness is “overdetermined by cultural-linguistic variables” and therefore cannot possibly refer to “translinguistic” realities.44 At the same time, they call for a “resacralization of language,” such that religious symbolism is understood to carry its own “creational weight,” since it arises out of the semioticity of reality itself.45


Alchemical Consciousness and Cosmological Hybridization

The entangled relationship between symbolic formation, alchemical consciousness, and the generation and regeneration of religious realities has been fruitfully explored by a number of thinkers, to whom I now turn. As mentioned above, Lahood has argued persuasively that, by aligning themselves with a hybrid form of “psychedelic perennialism,” the “sorcerers and shamans” of first wave transpersonalism effectively participated in “the emergence of a novel mutating religious process on the West Coast of the United States.”46 While Lahood praises Ferrer for “re-booting” transpersonalism by destroying the perennialist “idol” worshipped by its first wave of theorists, he criticizes Ferrer’s “Ocean with Many Shores” metaphor for its “tacit appeal to religious purity”:47

Ferrer’s redeployment of distinct cultural/spiritual shores…may inadvertently reify a subtle fetishizing of cultural boundaries (instead of an appeal to one purity [the nondual One of Perennialism] we have an appeal to many purities, albeit in dialogue with each other).48

Following cultural theorists like Bhabha, Rosaldo, and Roof, Lahood articulates an approach to religious studies and transpersonal theory within which the default condition of every human culture is to be in open-ended transcultural mutation. In this sense, orthodox purity cannot be opposed to heretical syncretism, since there has never been a time when hybridity did not go all the way down.49 As Roof has argued:

…religions are anything but immaculately conceived; purity is a fiction…they are unfinished creations, always evolving, their boundaries drawn and redrawn to fit new circumstances.50

Such redrawing of boundaries remains especially pronounced in the “contact zone of late capitalism’s religious borderlands,”51 lands like the West Coast of California, where for more than half a century, psychedelics have functioned as “rhetorical adjuncts” bringing forth novel forms of hybridized spirituality. First wave transpersonalism, though helpfully deconstructed by Ferrer for its universalist assumptions, can nonetheless be read as “an early attempt at coming to terms with globalization and its related phenomena.”52 This first wave’s psychedelic perennialism was “a legitimate but largely culturally contextual project”53 whose major shortcoming was failing to recognize the extent to which it had cocreated a novel form of cosmological hybridization, rather than simply rediscovered a pure traditional source.

Historically, psychedelic consciousness has a marked tendency to generate rhetorical strategies for

…blurring…religious boundaries; breaking apart while, at the same time, binding together multiple cosmological postulates.54

This is what happened in the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s among the “educated theory-making literati,”55 as well as in the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece,56 which almost certainly involved chemical alterations of consciousness57 and represent

the most important religious experience of anyone who could speak Greek…for close to a thousand years.58

In his study of the tension between Plato’s development of the dialectical logistikon and the ecstasy-producing pharmakon of the Eleusinian rites, Rinella describes Plato’s discovery of the psychedelic qualities of language itself:

…the spoken word does not simply effect the audience–it has a ‘feedback’ effect that affects the rhetor himself.59

Plato, an alchemical initiate, was also one of the most literate and rhetorically skilled men of his age. Like later intellectual sorcerers of the 20th century, he was empowered by both the alphabetic and psychedelic technologies available to him to bring forth a novel, countercultural religious reality.60 Unlike later sorcerers, however, he did so not just by making new theories, but by disentangling theory itself from a heretofore polytheistic and mythic consciousness.61 He stepped out of the cave in which the rites were performed in an attempt to integrate what he had learned into the “waking” world of daily political life. All subsequent attempts to theorize our human participation in religious realities are, in one way or another, indebted to Plato’s original form of participatory cosmological hybridization.62

If, historically and logically, alchemical experimentation has been closely wed to participatory transpersonal research, then it is to be expected that new forms of more relaxed spiritual universalism will continue to emerge from its theorization. These forms will be “more relaxed” because researchers who adopt the participatory approach become more self-aware of the way their ambiguously situated bodies and the languages they speak have the potential to cocreate hybrid worlds with others.

As Doyle has suggested, psychedelics (or as he prefers to refer to them, “ecodelics”) function as “transhuman technologies,” or again as “deeply participatory media technologies.”63 By this he means that they intensify the everyday “problem” of awareness, a problem that waking, rational consciousness tends to repress, namely, “its inability to narrate its own conditions of emergence [and submergence]”:

This difficulty of observing the conditions of observation…leads to a further difficulty of observing the conditions of observing the observation, and so on into an infinite regress of observation, until observation forms the entirety of both the subject and the object of observation and all other objects disappear from consciousness and only a mandala…can orient the attention.64

Though often characterized as ineffable, Doyle notes the paradox encountered by many alchemical experimenters, that the rhetorical challenge of psychedelics–“the continual disavowal of language in language”–itself becomes an endlessly fertile site of open-ended cosmological inquiry.65

Ferrer’s metaphorical Ocean with Many Shores is a crucial corrective to the Perennialist longing for the One Destination. Adding the psychedelic “trip trope”66 to this oceanic analogy may open up even more possibilities for spiritual exploration. The origins of the rhetorical trope of a psychedelic “trip” can be traced back to analogies made in ancient Homeric Greek culture between drinking alchemically-enhanced wine and setting out on a nautical journey.67 Norman Mailer may have been the first to use the noun “trip” in an attempt to describe his indescribable encounter with mescaline published in 1959.68 By the mid-60s, it had spread throughout the psychedelic counterculture to become the trope of choice.

According to Doyle, the trope succeeds in that it

…[maps] the whorl of space-time characteristic of psychedelic experience…[and thereby] recuperates a psychonaut’s capacity to articulate by compressing a thoroughly distributed experience into a serial one. 69

Alchemical consciousness is “thoroughly distributed,” straddling sea and shore at once. Psychonauts are never again able to plant both their feet on the seemingly solid ground of everyday, rational consciousness. The trip trope functions not simply to describe psychedelic events to others, but to relativize one’s own consciousness by rendering into language recipes for self-transformation.70

Logos itself–that which, following Aristotle, has been said to define the human71–is, according to Corey Anton, best described as “a never ending tide of ambiguous merger and division.”72 Anton, building on the work of Ernest Becker and Kenneth Burke, brilliantly explores the way our human capacity for speech and so self-consciousness implicates us in an anxious search for some prevailing authority who might relieve our fear of dying, of becoming permanently lost at sea:

Logos transforms an otherwise submerged transpiring of organismal [birthing and dying] and vegetative [dreaming and sleeping] processes into a highly abstract, complex, and agonizingly lived-through drama enacted by personae whose lives play out within bids for cosmic relevance.73

But even these submerged biological processes are recognized by Anton to participate in the ambiguous mergers and divisions of non-conscious logos, as when a sperm merges with an ovum, which then divides within itself before merging with the uterine wall on its way to becoming a baby that will eventually divide itself from the mother through the process of birth. In other words, “logos [is] already rooted in the body.”74 Or, as Ferrer and Sherman put it:

In our poetic powers, we do not leave the world behind but create after the manner that nature herself creates.75

When logos becomes routinized in the form of instrumental rationality, it tends not only to estrange us from our earthly embodiment, but to struggle to authoritatively disambiguate the ineradicable mystery of our cosmic situation. However, logos can also, given the right religious or alchemical conditions, “reunite us with nature on a higher realm of contact”76 by granting conscious participation in unitive forms of space-time, or even participation in eternity. Rational consciousness, of course, can never,

with one summative and eternal word, say all of our different mergers and divisions.77

But research on chemically-altered, spiritually-attuned consciousness suggests at least the possibility of “rhetorical patterns consistent with…an epic eloquence,” verging on “eternal speech.”78 According to Doyle, participating in alchemical experiments to “[listen] for the logos” requires

subjects…willing to be healed, perhaps even subjects willing to be healed of being subjects.79

As much contemporary research is also suggesting, psychedelics provide the spiritual practitioner with a potent technology for overcoming the fear of death responsible for the fundamental anxiety dominating the world of ordinary rational subjectivity.80 Alchemical consciousness has the “disorienting ability to negate any essentializing voice by merging its symbols,”81 and so unlike an exclusively rationalistic consciousness, need not continually seek out authoritative forms of death denial. Their role in the ancient mystery traditions of Greece, not to mention the Vedic traditions of India,82 the shamanic traditions of South America,83 and perhaps even the Biblical tradition of Israel,84 shows that their influence upon the birth and development of transpersonalism in the 1960s is hardly a new religious phenomenon. As more scientific research is conducted, legal barriers restricting the free expression of psychedelic religion are sure to be broken down, and the open-ended cosmological hybridization so characteristic of transpersonal theory has the potential to blossom even more, gently grafting various branches of the world’s spiritual traditions together with its own creative discoveries into some as yet unrealized form of planetary mystery religion, a single cosmic tree producing an endless variety of salvific fruits.


Postface: A Book Sweet as Honey

After the dream with which this essay opened, I came across Mazatec curandera Maria Sabina’s identification of psilocybin mushrooms with the logos, referring to them as “a Book”:

A book that is born from the earth, a sacred Book whose birth makes the world shake. It is the Book of God that speaks to me in order for me to speak. It counsels me, it teaches me, it tells me what I have to say to men, to the sick, to life. The Book appears and I learn new words.”85

May these new words continue to be learned in dialogue with sacred chemicals, with a multiplicity of unique others, and with the universe itself.



1 Richard M. Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noösphere (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011), 21, 33.

2 William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York: Viking, 1982), 388.

3 An analogy that many psychonauts have found appropriate, including Stanislav Grof [in Higher Wisdom: Eminent Elders Explore the Continuing Impact of Psychedelics, ed. Roger Walsh and Charles Grob, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005), 125], Ralph Metzner [Ayahuasca: Human Consciousness and the Spirit of Nature (Philadelphia: Running Press, 1999), 81] and Alan Watts [preface to The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness (New York: Vintage, 1965)].

4 Gregg Lahood, “The Participatory Turn and the Transpersonal Movement: A Brief Introduction,” Revision 29 (2007): 4.

5 Gregg Lahood, “Paradise Bound: A Perennial Tradition, or an Unseen Process of Cosmological Hybridization?,” Anthropology of Consciousness 19 (2008): 159.

6 See The Perennial Philosophy (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1945) and The Doors of Perception and the Marriage of Heaven and Hell (New York: Harper & Row, 1954).

7 See The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead (New York: Citadel, 1964).

8 See The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness (New York: Vintage, 1965).

9 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 159.

10 Jorge Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002),183.

11 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy.

12 Michael A. Rinella, Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens (Maryland: Lexington Books, 2012).

13 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 121.

14 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 127-173.

15 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 146, 170.

16 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 165-166.

17 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 114-115.

18 Corey Anton, Sources of Significance: Worldly Rejuvenation and Neo-Stoic Heroism (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2010), 28.

19 Richard Tarnas, preface to Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, vii. 

20  Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 156-157.

21 Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 69.

22 Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 70.

23 Antii Revonsuo, Sakari Kallio, and Pilleriin Sikka, “What is an Altered State of Consciousness?,” Philosophical Psychology, 22 (2009), 194.

24 Antii Revonsuo et al., “What is an Altered State of Consciousness?,” 200.

25 Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1991).

26 Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 123.

27 Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 122.

28 Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 118.

29 Robert Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 1-43.

30 Alfred Schutz, “Multiple Realities,” in Collected Papers, vol. 1, The Problem of Social Reality (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1967), 207-259.

31 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 2.

32 “Offline” activities take place outside the strictly biological context of Darwinian survival. Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, xx-xxi.

33 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 3.Italics are Bellah’s.

34 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 4.

35 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 12-13.

36 George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine (Philadelphia: Westminister Press, 1984), 31-41.

37 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution,11.

38 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 11.

39 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 12.

40 Jorge Ferrer and Jacob Sherman, ed., The Participatory Turn: Spirituality, Mysticism, and Religious Studies (New York: State University of New York, 2008), 26.

41 Ferrer and Sherman, ed., The Participatory Turn, 26.

42 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 12.

43 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 9.

44 Ferrer and Sherman, ed., The Participatory Turn, 29.

45 Ferrer and Sherman, ed., The Participatory Turn, 17.

46 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 160-161.

47 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 163, 179.

48 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 181.

49 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 167.

50 Wade Roof, “Religious Borderlands: Challenges for Future Study,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 37 (1998), 5.

51 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 159.

52 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 182.

53 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 181.

54 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 161.

55 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 160.

56 Camille Paglia has compared the “transnational mystery religions” of the ancient world, like that at Eleusis, to the marginalized and subversive psychedelic movement of the 1960s (see “Cults and Cosmic Consciousness: Religious Visions in the American 1960s,” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and Classics, 10 (2003): 57-111.

57 Rinella, Pharmakon, 85-87.

58 Rinella, Pharmakon, 137.

59 Rinella, Pharmakon, 214.

60 See Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 29-31, where Doyle analogizes the co-evolution of writing and human consciousness to the co-evolution of plant and fungi-based psychoactive chemicals and consciousness. See also Rinella, Pharmakon, 192-195, where Rinella discusses Plato’s mobilization of philosophy as a form of counter-magic.

61 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 387-398.

62 As Alfred North Whitehead suggested, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists in a series of footnotes to Plato” [Process and Reality (New York: The Free Press, 1978), 39]. See also Jacob Sherman, “A Genealogy of Participation,” in The Participatory Turn, 81-112.

63 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 43, 51.

64 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 77.

65 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 45.

66 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 21.

67 Rinella, Pharmakon, 9.

68 “…a long and private trip which no quick remark should try to describe.” Norman Mailer, Advertisements For Myself, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 245.

69 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 49.

70 “Trip reports are fundamentally rendering algorithms, clusters of recipes to be tried out, sampled, and remixed by psychonauts.” Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 50.

71 Humans are the zoon logon echon, “the speaking animal.”

72 Anton, Sources of Significance, 28.

73 Anton, Sources of Significance, 38.

74 Anton, Sources of Significance, 38.

75 Ferrer and Sherman, ed., The Participatory Turn, 20.

76 Anton, Sources of Significance, 42.

77 Anton, Sources of Significance, 43.

78 Doyle cites an international study (Beach et al., 1997) wherein “over 35 percent of subjects heard what they called ‘the logos’” (Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 109).

79 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 110.

80 Lauren Slater, “How Psychedelics Drugs Can Help Patients Face Death,” The New York Times, April 20, 2012, accessed April 21, 2012,

81 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 176.

82 The Rigveda describes a psychedelic drink named “Soma”: “We have drunk Soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered. Now what may foeman’s malice do to harm us? What, O Immortal, mortal man’s deception?” (8.43.3, transl. by R. T. H. Griffith).

83 Archaeological evidence of psychedelic sacraments being used in South America dates back to at least 1500 BCE. Dennis McKenna, “Ayahuasca: An Ethnopharmacologic History,” in Sacred Vine of Spirits: Ayahuasca (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1999), 42.

84 See Benny Shanon, “Biblical Entheogens: A Speculative Hypothesis,” in Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness, and Culture, 1 (2008), 51-74.

85 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 108; and “The Vaults of Erowid,” accessed April 23, 2012,




Anton, Corey. Sources of Significance: Worldly Rejuvenation and Neo-Stoic Heroism. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2010.


Beach, Horace. “Listening for the Logos: A Study of Reports of Audible Voices at High Doses of Psilocybin.” Newsletter of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies 7, 1:12-17 (1997).


Bellah, Robert. Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.


Doyle, Richard M. Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noösphere. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011.


Ferrer, Jorge. Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.


Ferrer, Jorge and Sherman, Jacob, ed., The Participatory Turn: Spirituality, Mysticism, and Religious Studies. New York: State University of New York, 2008.


Grof, Stan, Higher Wisdom: Eminent Elders Explore the Continuing Impact of Psychedelics. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005.


Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception and the Marriage of Heaven and Hell. New York: Harper & Row, 1954.


Huxley, Aldous. The Perennial Philosophy. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1945.


James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York: Viking, 1982.


Lahood, Gregg. “Paradise Bound: A Perennial Tradition, or an Unseen Process of Cosmological Hybridization?,” Anthropology of Consciousness 19 (2008).


Lahood, Gregg. “The Participatory Turn and the Transpersonal Movement: A Brief Introduction,” Revision 29 (2007).


Leary, Timothy. The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. New York: Citadel, 1964.


Lindbeck, George. The Nature of Doctrine. Philadelphia: Westminister Press, 1984.


Metzner, Ralph. Ayahuasca: Human Consciousness and the Spirit of Nature. Philadelphia: Running Press, 1999.


Metzner, Ralph, ed. Sacred Vine of Spirits: Ayahuasca. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1999.


Paglia, Camille. “Cults and Cosmic Consciousness: Religious Visions in the American 1960s,” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and Classics, 10 (2003): 57-111.


Revonsuo, Antii. Kallio, Sakari. Sikka, Pilleriin. “What is an Altered State of Consciousness?,” Philosophical Psychology, 22 (2009), 187-204.


Rinella, Michael A. Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens. Maryland: Lexington Books, 2012.


Roof, Wade. “Religious Borderlands: Challenges for Future Study,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 37 (1998).


Schutz, Alfred. Collected Papers, vol. 1, The Problem of Social Reality. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1967.


Shanon, Benny. “Biblical Entheogens: A Speculative Hypothesis,” in Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness, and Culture, 1 (2008), 51-74.


Varela, Francisco. Thompson, Evan. Rosch, Eleanor. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1991.


Watts, Alan. The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness. New York: Vintage, 1965.


Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. New York: The Free Press, 1978.

Thinking with Steiner Beyond the Brain: Reflections on My Bildung and the Philosophy of Freedom

Part 1: Remembering Childhood

Until about age seven, children seem to be naturally aware of the reality of a world beyond their physical senses. As they age, most of them seem to lose touch with this deeper dimension of the world. According to the common sense of our materialistic age, this is because their once overactive imaginations eventually come to be properly educated so as to distinguish objective fact from subjective fantasy.

If I think back to my own childhood, it was around seven years old that I first understood that my mother would die. This made me so sad that I cried on and off for three days. On one of these days, I was so choked up and distraught that she had to leave work early to pick me up from my second grade class just a few minutes after the school bus had dropped me off in the morning. I told the teacher my tears were the result of a stomach ache, but really I just couldn’t bear but to spend every remaining hour by my mother’s side.

Given the new knowledge I had acquired, all of the sudden life had weight and became quite serious. The games I played in what now seemed to be the “inner” world of my imagination could no longer be taken seriously in the “outside” world of toil, tax, and tomb. It wasn’t long after awakening to the devastating fact that my mother would die that I began to pay attention, instead, to the fact that this meant I would eventually die, as well. This wasn’t exactly a sad thought. On the contrary, at first being confronted by my own death was a relief: if my mother died before me, at least my own death would eventually bring a stop to my grief. But my initially nihilistic response to the fact of my own death never fully satisfied me. The question was never closed in the same way that my mother’s death had come to seem. To the extent that I kept the question open and continued to contemplate the meaning of my own death, the grief I had needed to escape from resulting from my mother’s death was increasingly transformed into awe and wonder in the face of the wide world she had bore me into. Sadness became curiosity. Wonder carried me through grade school: I drank up as much natural science as I could, especially the cosmology of Hawking and the biology of Dawkins. By 15, I was beginning to speak up about what I perceived to be the blindnesses of “religion,” even calling myself an atheist. I began to forget about the mystery of death, though it was still hovering just behind and to the side of all the new knowledge I was acquiring. At 17, I was exposed to the thoughts of Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Jung, and Alan Watts. Prior to that point, I’d never explicitly studied “thoughts.” I’d only studied the pictures provided to me by popular science books about the way the outside world really is, despite whatever I may “think” about it. Quarks, quasars, genes, neurons… I believed these had to be the final real things of which the world was made. It could not be made of mere ideas, mere words! These, I thought, were prone to fantasy and illusion, while only physical things could be real.

It was these three thinkers who first made me aware of the power of the word to transform our consciousness of reality. Their inquiries into the freedom, the depth, the spontaneity, and the cosmic dimensions of the psyche drew my attention back again to the abiding mystery of death. Taking another look at death, this time as a portal rather than a pit or an abyss, all my scientific picture-knowledge of a machine-like world came to seem petty and stupid. None of it mattered, since the ego pretending to master it all was subject to death, and to the deeper, more creative and intelligent spiritual power that preceded my birth and will survive my death. As a result of passionately pursuing the threads of these men’s thoughts–and of philosophizing in my own right–death’s mystery opened out into my first glimpses of immortality. By 21, my idle curiosity about the world had been transfigured into a love, not only for my mother’s, but for the whole of the world-soul’s sacrifice for me. This I consider my opening to the “other side,” and it remains to this day, at least so long as I keep both love and death in mind while thinking into reality.

But it wasn’t until Rudolf Steiner, at age 23, that I found a truly coherent and practical way of thinking the relationship between life, death, and love. Nietzsche was too individualistic and iconoclast, Jung too metaphysically coy, and Watts a rascal-trickster whose only stated aim was to “entertain.” Steiner, on the other hand, provided a way of consciously seeing beyond the sense-bound limits of my materialistically educated soul and its fancied clock-work world. Nietzsche, Jung, Watts, and by this time many others, too, had succeeded in convincing me of the falseness of the film of mundane familiarity I had been raised to take for granted as real. But only with Steiner did I begin to realize that scientific knowledge of a reality beyond the sensible–on the other side of the threshold of death–is possible.

Part 2: Thinking with Steiner

Rudolf Steiner was a child with an extra-ordinary awareness of the spiritual world. Not only was he probably aware of the reality of his mother’s and his own death at seven, he was in touch with the ghost of a dead relative.1 This awareness did not subside as he became an adult, even after a comprehensive education in natural science and philosophy. His commitment to scientific thinking did not dispel as illusory the supersensory perceptions he had been experiencing since childhood, but on the contrary deepened and developed them. At 27, in 1888, he met the philosopher Eduard von Hartmann, with whom he had already had a long correspondence.

Steiner, according to his translator Michael Wilson,

“describes the chilling effect on him of the way this philosopher of pessimism denied that thinking could ever reach reality, but must forever deal with illusions.”2

Six years later, after the completion of his doctoral dissertation in philosophy, Steiner published The Philosophy of Freedom (1894) in an attempt to prove, using spiritual scientific methods (i.e., something like a phenomenology of thinking in every day life3), that the human being is a free spirit capable of true knowledge of the world and real love of others. Hartmann seems to have provided Steiner with precisely the adversarial resistance he needed in order to strengthen his own grasp of the issues at stake. He came to feel the desperate need for human beings to understand their own consciousness in a scientific way, for otherwise, science lacks a solid epistemological and ontological foundation. Science without such a foundation in genuine philosophy (i.e., the love of wisdom and the search for self-knowledge) is reduced to what Owen Barfield later called “dashboard knowledge,”4 a sort of technological means of manipulating physical phenomena without understanding their underlying spiritual causes. Ignorance of the work of spirit in ourselves and in nature has ethical implications, as well: global consumer capitalism and ecosystem collapse are the chief results of several centuries of ever advancing socio-techno-scientific5 power in the absence of spiritual wisdom.

Steiner wanted to show others not blessed with his innate clairvoyance how it is possible to achieve conscious knowledge of oneself as a spirit so as to act freely out of no other desire than that of love for the deed itself. In short, his aim in The Philosophy of Freedom is to teach us how to think beyond the limits of the brain by leading us to an immediate awareness of our own thinking.

“While observation of objects and processes, and thinking about them, are both everyday situations that fill my ongoing life, the observation of thinking is a kind of exceptional state.”6

Without an intuition of the freedom of their own self-consciousness, the thinking of the average person reverts to mere “dashboard knowledge.” From the dashboard perspective of the sense-bound ego, the body becomes an automobile and the world a paved highway or parking lot to be driven over. Even consciousness itself becomes objectified into an electro-chemical neural correlate, something we can now medically modulate with pharmaceuticals and observe on computer screens using fMRIs. The philosophically naïve neuroscientist will argue that neurons are stimulus-response machines, and that the only reason we think a salmon, a pig, or a human being is any less determined than a rock is that we see the cause of the rock’s motion (being kicked) but not the cause of the thinking of these beings (neural activity), since their thinking takes place out of sight hidden within their skulls.7 Such a scientist forgets that it is only their own thinking that initially supplies them with this explanation. They thereby ignore the self-evidently spiritual nature of their own thinking activity by falsely explaining an inner noetic reality in terms of an outer appearance.

When the human scientist is not aware of their own thinking in a living way (i.e., as free), they have no other option but to conceive of the physical world as dead and deterministic.

“We can only find nature outside us if we first know her within us. What is akin to her within us will be our guide.”8

The self-conscious, and so living thinking capable of finding nature Steiner would later come to call etheric. Etheric thinking intuits the formative forces flowing through the natural world behind or within its outward sensory appearances. Such thinking represents the individual’s discovery within themselves of the same living spiritual power underlying nature (natura naturans), that which is always in dynamic motion, sloughing off “external” nature (natura naturata) like a snake shedding its skin. “Nature alive” as Whitehead called it,9 never sits still long enough to be caught in the conceptual net of the sense-bound understanding. To think nature alive, our own thinking must come to life. Etheric thinking is not generated by the brain, and so is not limited to what the physical senses reveal about the external world. Etheric thinking is the expression of a higher dimensional process that is itself responsible for generating the physical brain. Steiner calls this the etheric body, but the term “body” can be misleading to the extent that we are tempted to imagine something that exists in extended, three dimensional space.

The etheric “body” is a four dimensional entity, more aptly conceived of as an ongoing process than as a finished thing. It is best pictured, if we insist on picturing it at all, as an undulating torus fluidly turning itself inside out to leave the living, breathing organism in its wake. Picturing it is impossible (since pictures are derived from sense experience of extended bodies), but the toroidal images seems to me better than imaging some kind of gaseous cloud floating around and guiding an otherwise mechanical physical body.

The mental pictures we form through brain-bound thinking are subjective, relative to our own perspective as distinct organisms separated from others and the world. My mother literally “bore” my organism into the world: I awaken initially as a hole in the world, a sort of split off part seeking reconnection with the whole. I find temporary reconnection through concepts, which struggle to complete the perceptual world by teaching me about the causes underlying its behavior. Eventually, if I am at all interested in thinking about my experience of the world, I end up tracing the causes of that experience back to my sensory organs and neural tissue, as though thinking we “in” the skull looking “out” through the senses at the world. Brain-bound thoughts stop at this picture, pretending to be satisfied with an explanation of thinking, a noumenal activity, in terms of something phenomenal. Such thinking falsely assumes one phenomenon can explain another phenomenon (i.e., that neural activity could explain “redness”), when what was sought were the causes of phenomenality itself.

“Only if I could perceive how the percept of an object affects the percept of the subject, or–conversely–only if I could observe the construction of a perceptual form by the subject, would it be possible to speak like modern physiology and the critical idealism built upon it…The link between the subjective and the objective is not built…by any perceptible event. It is built by thinking alone.”10

When our thinking is permeated with spiritual life, we recognize the universality of the ideas underlying our individual mental pictures. I know longer stand apart from the world struggling to subjectively represent it. I do not think about ideas; rather, cosmic ideas think in me.11 An idea cannot be “mine”: ideas are universal and so belong to everyone or no one. Etheric thinking cannot be grasped with subjective percepts or objective concepts, since it is the source of both. From the Ether comes all conceptual intelligence in the mind and all conceptual intelligibility in nature. Either the mind and nature share in its One Life, or mind is imprisoned in the skull and nature ruled by death.

It is important here to mark the difference between ideas, concepts, and mental pictures. A mental picture is an inner representation of a percept. Mental pictures are already mixed with concepts, of course, but it takes free self-consciousness of supersensory ideas to realize this. Without etheric thinking, that is, consciousness remains unaware of its participation in the realm of ideas, becoming limited instead to sensory perceptions of the outer world and habitual responses regarding them. Many people speak of concepts and ideas as if they were mere words, scribbles on paper or sounds in the air. This is the mistake of nominalism. The nominalist forgets that logic, the universal laws of thinking, can never be reduced to the rules of some particular language. If logic were reducible to language, no free thoughts would ever be possible, since I’d only be able to parrot what I’d heard from others. Language is the husk of logic, the skin it is always outgrowing and transforming in its creative pursuit of the truth. similarly, mental pictures are not the limit of thinking’s knowledge of reality.

Thinking can reach deeper, since the same logos that thinks in me, grows and evolves in the cosmos. The Ding an Sich that remains always beyond the grasp of naive ego-consciousness becomes, with the cultivation of an imaginal organ of etheric thinking, identified with my own inner most nature (and thereby, with the true nature of all things).

Part 3: The School of Spirit

The dawning of my own self-consciousness occurred only once I had separated from my mother. Becoming aware of her mortality forever altered the sense of identity I had up to that point assumed. My feelings of immense sadness made life seem like a trap, a cruel joke with no escape. But as my awareness of my mother’s death shifted to an awareness of my own death, feelings of sadness became thoughts of wonder. The prospect of my own death raised all sorts of questions, questions that brought me beyond the subjectivity of my own feelings and into the objectivity of thinking. I realized that life was a deep mystery, and not a tragedy. As Socrates suggests in the Apology, wisdom begins in the knowledge of one’s own ignorance. When it comes to the matter of death, only the ignorant are fearful. For those properly prepared, death may turn out to be a blessing.

Wonder, and the learned ignorance it engenders, can be further cultivated in order to produce what Steiner called “spiritual science.” Spiritual science, unlike natural science, is not undertaken in abstraction from ethical concerns, since, as a way of knowing, it is “the power of love in spiritual form.”12 Spiritual science is a kind of active thinking that is also a loving.

Those trapped in the benumbed world of abstract concepts cannot grasp the meaning of the teachings of a Socrates or a Jesus. They lose all moral imagination and become utilitarian nominalists who drink only from the well of the senses. But as Steiner makes clear, it is only after we’ve become self-conscious by divorcing ourselves from the chaotic womb of cosmogenesis that we can hope to re-marry the life of the whole willingly. Without first securing an ego by confronting death, we cannot crucify it to be resurrected in Christ. The only way to God is through me and out the other side. Steiner teaches that the soul has another side, not opposite but dimensionally internal to the outward facing senses. To perceive the world of the spirit that lies hidden beneath the world of the senses, the soul must cultivate the proper organ. We are born with physical eyes, but must birth within ourselves the I of the spirit.

As a child, I was taught in school that the brain produces consciousness. Steiner offers another teaching, that behind or beneath neural tissue there is something to us not created in the cranium. As we have seen, this is the etheric body of formative forces, that which is not produced by the brain but in fact produces the brain. The brain’s mortal perception of external space and of the passage of clock-time are imaginations originating in the etheric body. If ordinary consciousness turns inward to contemplate its own limits, it finds there a passageway to the ethereal. This door is the Imagination, the first stage in the development of the organ of spirit. Imagination is akin to seeing the outside, the surface, of inner spiritual realities. Further development is needed to penetrate to the core. Seeing the reflected image in the still water at the base of the soul, one then hears the voice of what speaks from within it. This is the stage of Inspiration. We not only see the light of the Word, but hear it in our own heart. We are warmed by Its Love. Finally, in the stage of Intuition, the organ of spiritual perception/cognition is complete. We are born through the water of the soul into spirit. We become one with the Word.


1 5, The New Essential Steiner, ed. by Robert McDermott

2 viii, The Philosophy of Freedom transl. by Michael Wilson, 1970

3 Though also more than a phenomenology of the life-world, since Steiner sought to catch thinking in the act, as nous, rather than to simply track the phenomenal products of thinking (i.e., thoughts, images, etc.).

4 See Saving the Appearances, 1988

5 See The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment (2001) by Alf Hornborg to learn about the links between bourgeois social relations, industrial machines, mechanistic science, and the ecological crisis.

6 31, Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path: A Philosophy of Freedom, transl. by Michael Lipson, 1995

7 15, Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path: A Philosophy of Freedom, transl. by Michael Lipson, 1995

8 25, Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path: A Philosophy of Freedom, transl. by Michael Lipson, 1995

9 See Modes of Thought (1938)

10 91-92, Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path: A Philosophy of Freedom, transl. by Michael Lipson, 1995

11 As Paul put it, “It is not I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:19).

12 133, Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path: A Philosophy of Freedom, transl. by Michael Lipson, 1995