The following is the second of two installments. Read Part 1 here.
PART THREE: THE TROUBLE WITH BRAIN STATES
"Canst thou not minister to a mind diseas'd,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff'd bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?"
–William Shakespeare, Macbeth
Mirror Neurons & Unmediated Communication
Neuroscientists have discovered specialized cells in the brain, called mirror neurons, that spontaneously create brain-to-brain links between people. This means that our brain waves, chemistry and feelings can literally mirror the brain waves, chemistry and feelings of those who we are communicating with, reading stories about, watching on television, or people who we simply have in our thoughts. This is perfectly natural and has been happening all along. It allows us to instantly empathize with others and to know what they are feeling and experiencing.
–Teka Luttrel, "Mirror Neurons: We Are Wired to Connect."
The discovery of mirror neurons marks an Archimedean point (a God's eye view) from which all human knowledge can now be rethought and all our models of reality must be reformulated. The reason, in simple language, is that mirror neurons present us with a solid scientific basis for telepathy, and the existence of telepathy changes everything. The twist is that mirror neurons indicate telepathic communication isn't something that can happen, but that it's something that is happening all the time. We are already aware that "body language"–which includes not only tone of voice and gesture but scents and pheromones–means the greater percentage of human communication is nonverbal. Now it would seem as though body language must also take a back seat to direct, brain-to-brain interface. Whatever words and gestures may be happening on the surface, the primary transmission of meaning appears to be the result of the matching of brain patterns.
Outside of the laboratory, what are the ways in which we experience this? How many times do we say something "innocuous" which causes an inexplicable emotional reaction in someone? I would suggest that this is an example of the telepathy of mirror neurons in action, and that all our attempts to be "innocuous," humorous, or ingratiating don't amount to much if our brains are transmitting a different signal. If that's the communication that is really getting across, then the person on the receiving end of the transmission is going to respond to our brain-state and not our words. A large part of passive-aggressive behavior is unconscious: when we say one thing but mean another, it is as often as not without realizing it ourselves–until it's pointed out to us (often rudely). The fact that this happens over the Internet also is proof it's not merely body language that's conveying the hidden meanings. In fact, this sort of weird "misunderstanding" often happens even more dramatically via email and forum exchanges, and the reason may be that physical cues mediate between language and brain-state; when they are absent, it is that much easier for misunderstanding to occur. (As everyone knows, this is why the emoticon had to be invented.) However, there is an inherent contradiction here, because what we think of as misunderstanding, much of the time, is in fact clear understanding, since people use physical cues, facial expressions, and tone of voice (and emoticons) to conceal as much as to clarify.
Marshall McLuhan said the medium is the message. In our present case, the tool that underlies all human communication–the brain–is indeed the message as well as the medium. After all, what we all really want to communicate, with any given message, is who we are and where we are “at.” And this is precisely what we do communicate, without even trying and even against our will. When two computers are networked together, they are making their entire databases available to each other; likewise when two atoms meet and exchange information it is total entanglement that occurs. Two dogs sniffing each other’s backsides are about the same business, so it would seem that only human beings try to do things by halves, and that this half-measure may be a luxury of illusion. As Dick inferred in the earlier quote, privacy may be a valid concept only to "idiots" who have learned to shut down their communication centers, to the extent that all telepathic interface occurs only at an unconscious level. In other words, even while we are constantly swapping all our vital data, we don't actually know it. We stay focused on the ostensible message that is being conveyed, and upon all the "cues" and emoticons that are telling us how to read it, unaware that the media being engaged is also the lion's share of the message: our total brain states.
To understand this requires a whole new way of thinking about communication and empathy. When two people are talking to each other (or communicating by written media), their brains light up in matching patterns and meaning is transmitted. This is analogous to computer file-sharing: you "connect" and download a file that is the exact same pattern as the original, even while it is being sent from another location. As pointed out, this is actually easier to see without the mediation of other signals (physical cues mediate the message of the brain-state), which may be why "flame wars" are so common in forums, when what we transmit (literally our state of mind) gets reflected back unmediated. Passive-aggressive behavior–even or especially when unconscious–is met with an outwardly aggressive response, so our experience is akin to getting slapped in the face every time we try to be nice. The problem is that we are trying to be nice, and as often as not expressly to cover up all the ways in which we don't feel nicely towards the other person. With the new media these old, outmoded social niceties–hypocritical at the best of times–no longer cut it. You can't fake empathy with language or tone of voice because it's physiological, a whole body-brain experience.
The irony of this is that the new media of the Internet, while seemingly a more remote form of human interaction, is actually bringing about an increased level of intimacy between people, and thereby giving rise to the corresponding need for empathy. This is because it is bringing to the surface the actual nature of communication: direct "telepathic" (brain-to-brain) interface, or "file-sharing."
Dostoyevsky and Raskolnikov: Why Affinity Makes Great Writing
"[M]irror neurons are multimodal–they are activated not just by watching actions, but also by hearing and reading about them. An effort led by Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California, found that the brain's premotor cortex shows the same activity when subjects observe an action as when they read words describing it…. This indicates that in addition to execution, action observation, and the sounds of actions, these neurons may also be activated by abstract representations of actions, namely language…. 'Research in the last few years seems to suggest that perception and action are tightly linked rather than separated,' [Aziz-Zadeh] said."
–"Mirror Neurons Also Respond to Language and Sound," SEED magazine Sept 21, 2006
In one study, cited in Up From Dragons: The Evolution of Human Intelligence, a group of people imagining physical exercises increased their strength by twenty-two percent, as compared to a group performing actual exercises whose strength increased by thirty percent. Not a huge difference, then, and no wonder Jane Fonda's workout video was such a success! The implications of this are startling, but also somewhat disturbing. If our muscles can improve simply by watching a fitness video, or even by reading about somebody working out, what about the countless acts of violence which we vicariously experience day after day in movies, novels, TV shows and rap songs? It is perhaps no wonder the military is among the leading researchers in video game technology: if mirror neurons exist, then a soldier in training doesn't know the difference–at a physiological level–between simulated acts of war and the real thing. It's an irony typical of our age that mirror neurons–nicknamed "Gandhi neurons" by Ramachandran because they are responsible for empathy–are currently being used to desensitize us to violence against our fellows. But that's a subject for a whole other discussion, and for now I want to focus on the efficiency of language to communicate (via mirror neurons), not only images (as in King's example) but moods and even altered states of consciousness, and how this occurs in tandem with physiological changes.
When we read Crime and Punishment, we find ourselves inside the mind–under the skin–of Raskolnikov: we identify with the character so much that, for the duration of the book, his thoughts become our thoughts and, to a lesser extent, his actions our actions. Yet since Raskolnikov is the creation of Dostoyevsky’s mind–the child of his psyche–we are not so much being taken over by Raskolnikov but by his creator. A combination of good writing with good (attentive) reading creates a trance state in us which involves matching the brain state of the author at the time of writing. Besides the telepathic connection across space and time which King describes, this implies that, contained in the words themselves, there is a hidden information load, one that survives any number of translations or reprints yet remains invisible and undetectable in the text itself. What makes Dostoyevsky a great writer and a thousand others not so great, I suggest, is that Dostoyevsky immersed himself so thoroughly in the writing process, was so consumed by it, that his brain state effectively matched that of the characters he was imagining so there was very little distance between the creator and the creation. All good fiction achieves this to some extent: it creates in the reader a sense of authenticity, of immediacy, as if the events described were happening spontaneously, as we are reading them, rather than had been worked out over time (years, even centuries, ago) by someone sitting at a desk chewing his pencil. A writer who creates convincing characters and scenes does so by entering all the way into them: the written text then becomes a kind of brain-scan taken at that time, capturing the innermost thoughts and feelings of the writer every bit as much as a recording of a singer or a photograph of someone's face captures what was going on inside them at that moment–provided we are sensitive enough to tune into that information and "decode" it.
While Sherlock Holmes might be able to deduce a large part of such information by studying the text, recording, or photograph, for most of us this transference occurs unconsciously, with neither our understanding nor our awareness. Yet happen it does. We can no more avoid picking up this hidden information load (that snapshot of the author's brain) than the writer can avoid putting it into his writing. The opposite example to that of a consummate artist like Dostoyevsky, then, would be a writer who is unable or unwilling to close the gap between his conscious intent (in writing) and whatever is going on in his unconscious. He or she might be writing about a murderer but thinking about what they are going to have for lunch or whether they paid the water bill; the result will be a diluted, washed out portrait of a murderer, anemic, uninvolving, because the author clearly hasn't allowed him or herself to become fully possessed by the act of creation. The result is what is known as "contrived": we can see the strings, that is, feel the discrepancy between the words on the page and the author's brain state. The words are unconvincing, because while we are trying to believe them or immerse ourselves in them, we are unconsciously matching the author's brain state–and thinking about what's for lunch.
A Personal Example
"To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it's about, but the inner music the words make."
I will now cite a personal example. In 2002 I wrote a book called Matrix Warrior: Being the One. It was a self-help-satire based on the 1999 movie The Matrix and it was intended to be a best seller. My original title for it was "How to Succeed in the Matrix Without Trying," and my inspired idea was that the book would prove its own premise by making me rich. It took me two weeks to write and I had a publication deal two weeks after that. Everything seemed to be going according to plan. But then something started to go wrong. The first thing that went wrong was that the sequel to The Matrix, which came out the same time as my book, was crap and as an almost immediate result, interest in the movie franchise–and the ideas which my book was exploring–plummeted. The other thing that "happened"–and which pertains more to this current piece–was the reception my book got. While some embraced the book as a profound comment on our times, others took offense to it and derided it, using terms such as "Zen fascism," "didactic," "turgid," "humorless," bitter, self-centered, lacking in compassion or originality, and so forth. None of these were accurate descriptions of the book, but they may have got closer to describing the author's brain state. And while there were many readers who found the book enlightening, and even entertaining, very few took it as a satire. The book was taken seriously by almost everyone (supporters and detractors), the reason being that, whatever my conscious design, I myself took the ideas in it (a mix of Matrix mythos with Carlos Castaneda and my own at the time post-Nietzschean philosophy) seriously. I hadn't written it simply to get ahead in the matrix, I had written it to undermine the accepted values and meanings in the world. In short, I was Noam Chomsky (or Jean Baudrillard) pretending to be Douglas Adams. Nobody bought it.
Two years after I wrote the book, and a year after it came out (by which time all hopes had been finally crushed), here's what I said:
"The ingenuity which inspired me to write Matrix Warrior–to use a cultural phenomenon of potentially revolutionary proportions as a way in to the mainstream–this cunning bit of coat-tailing by a writer/artist tired of thriving in obscurity–back-fired on me…. The conscious and unconscious minds run on separate tracks. They work wholly different agendas, and as often as not, those agendas are at odds. Because I really believed in my book and its premise–that this world is an illusion and we are all slaves to it–I couldn't believe in its 'supposed' selling point, its gimmick, that of exploiting the situation for personal gain. Matrix Warrior isn't really about getting ahead in the matrix; it's about getting the hell out. And if its message could be boiled down to purest essence (an essence that makes it so unpalatable to most folk), then it would have all of nothing to do with personal gain…. The book's deepest plea is for us to surrender the obsessions and trappings of our self-serving egomania and hook into a deeper, wider, unimaginably vaster agenda outside of the merely personal, that of the Universe beyond. But since I was determined to conceal such a grandiose and presumptuous plea whatever the cost, I concealed it even from myself. I really thought I was writing Matrix Warrior
to make an easy buck!"
In our present, simpler terms: my text did not match my brain state, and it was this latter which communicated to my audience. Considering the kind of audience which a book of this apparent nature would attract, it's understandable that they wanted nothing to do with the author's brain state. They smelled a rat and stayed away from my buffet. Those who were willing to match the author's brain state (at the time of writing his book) were far less in number, but more importantly, they weren't the audience the book had been shaped and packaged to attract (fans of the movie). This discrepancy between packaging and content mirrored a deeper and more fundamental discrepancy in the book itself, between the text and subtext, the conscious message being communicated and the medium (brain state) by which it was being communicated. The medium and the message were at odds with one another, and so the message, as must always be the case, was lost.
As G.K. Chesterton said, "A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author." Matrix Warrior did both, because the hero of the "novel"–was its author.
PART FOUR: EMPATHY & INDIVIDUATION
"ESP…. You know how you do it? You listen to the other person instead of thinking of what you're gonna say next. That's all, and you learn things."
–Elmore Leonard, Touch
The Transmission: Empathy in Action
"The mirror neuron network is like the WiFi hardware system that connects and intertwines all the brains of all the people in the human family. This hardware network allows for the transmission and reception of holograph content between people. The holographic content is the very thoughts, images and feelings that we are seeing and interacting with, inside ourselves. Hence, each person's inner world is intimately connected to, shared, and supported by other like-minded and like-feeling people–who can be anywhere on the planet."
–Teka Luttrel, "Mirror Neurons: We Are Wired to Connect."
The principal of sympathetic magic is that all things are interconnected–but not equally. Wooden objects are more "sympathetic" (i.e., in subatomic "entanglement" and constant communication) with each other than with plastic or glass, and so on. So it is with empathy: we can empathize more easily with people we identify with, and vice versa. If their experience is too foreign to us, we lack the necessary "database" of prior experience (not necessarily our own, but of people we have known, most especially loved ones) to draw upon, and we come up blank. On the other hand, somewhat paradoxically, if the condition of the person we are relating to is too familiar, we may find it too close for comfort and be less likely to empathize. This is because their emotional "imprints" (wounds) get tangled up with our own and we literally feel their suffering as our own, not empathically but as an intrusion (because of our own lack of boundaries). When there is insufficient distance between ourselves and the other, we are unable to function as the Listener, and are of no help to them. In order to create that distance, we will drop out of empathetic connection–rather like going into a room and closing the door for some alone time.
Empathy is a mysterious phenomenon in itself. Unlike similar qualities such as kindness, consideration, sympathy, or compassion, empathy isn't something we do so much as something that happens. We cannot choose to be empathic, but only whether or not we (try and) express empathy when it does happen (assuming we are capable of it, which not everybody is). The problem seems to be that being empathic and expressing empathy often don't go together that well. While empathy is a seemingly passive state, expressions such as kindness and consideration require a more active and outgoing one. It would seem that empathy happens when we choose to suspend all our prejudgments and just listen to the other person; just as empathy allows us to listen, listening allows us to empathize. Both are receptive states, and it may be that, far from being passive, such receptivity allows for a kind of holographic communication: a form of transmission that has a magical quality to it. Empathy depends on allowing two or more brain states to match completely, without attempting to add any extra, surface "noise" to that fundamental link-up.
Apparently such empathic transmission only happens when we are being sufficiently receptive to allow it to happen. This entails clearing our awareness of the clutter of prejudgments, emptying out all the patterns of our conditioning, and coming fully into the present moment. This "clearing out" (which generally doesn't happen all at once but over a lifetime) is also known as individuation, and as we've already seen, it's a process that can accumulate its own momentum. The more we clear out the old programs of our conditioning, the more space we create within us for real listening, the stronger the empathic transmission grows, and the more that collective (telepathic) signal helps to uninstall the old programs by running them through the new program, that of the Listener.
The advantage of empathy in communication is that it allows us to stay connected to the other person without reactively returning their "data packet." Instead of returning a snark for a snark, empathy brings us constantly back to the moment, back to an "empty," receptive, clear state in which we are responding not merely to what the person is saying but to what they are. Empathy is the highest form of respect, because while it allows the other to be an other, it also allows us to experience their brain state (suffering, confusion, etc.) as being as real, as valid, as our own. Empathy doesn't simply mean taking the other person's feelings seriously, however (that's closer to sympathy and it can often do more harm than good by merely strengthening those feelings). Empathy involves tapping into a larger data base than feelings, which are highly subjective and constantly shifting. Empathy is transpersonal. It extends beyond the merely personal yet at the same time includes the personal. To have real empathy for another means attuning not only to that person but to everyone we have ever seen in a similar state or circumstances in the past.
Everything has memory. Even inorganic objects store data, because the whole Universe is an information system. Sympathetic magic is a primitive description of the same phenomena mapped by quantum mechanics, related to the way in which atoms exchange data across space, and even across time, 'telepathically," via entanglement. Every atom of our bodies stores information about our past, but neurons are specifically designed for transmission of information and so have garnered our special attention. So what do our mirror neurons remember? Presumably the information they are storing pertains to all the previous times we have witnessed others doing things, not just grabbing peanuts but everything, and not just actions but thoughts and feelings also, everything in short that's been transmitted to our brains from other people, starting in the womb and with our first interactions with our mother and father. If this is the case then we all have a "backlog" of empathic memory which we can tap into at any time–and not only can tap into but do tap into, whether we like it or not.
This would be why empathy is so difficult for most people, why it can be so overwhelming for those of us who are capable of it, and also why it can sometimes look like its opposite. (There's some evidence that autistics are highly empathic, but unable to express it, even facially.) As well as an empathic state being somewhat passive in itself, tuning into another person's distress may be more than we can actually express, not least because of all the past associations which such distress would hold for us. Opening empathically to the other would be like opening the flood gates to the past, as well as the present. For a non-individuated being–which is the same as one with no boundaries or clear sense of self–it would be potentially annihilating.
The Group Mind
"The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say."
There is a paradox to all of this, as follows. Only those who have learned to separate themselves off from the collective, and establish their own boundaries and sense of self, would be able to open to the transmission and empathically merge with others. For those of us who have not cleared out the programs of our conditioning, empathy or any real connection to others would simply be too threatening, and so isolation and emotional disconnection would be necessary to psychic survival. Yet, again paradoxically, such non-individuated beings would be very much like extensions of a group mind, having little or no authentic self–hence their fierce desire to protect what little self they do have.
Jean Cocteau once said, "If it has to choose who is to be crucified, the crowd will always save Barabbas." Without individuation, we remain "of the crowd," and so always get it wrong. The reason the crowd always gets it wrong is that the crowd does not have a genuine point of view, because a crowd, by definition, is made up of many different points of view. The crowd-viewpoint (which is that of the non-individuated psyche) is a mash-up in which the "lowest common denominator" rules. All the forms of individual creative and/or ritual expression which we've been discussing are designed–consciously or not–to dissolve this spell, using a counter-spell intended to establish (or reclaim) the individual’s unique point of view.
When we are not anchored in a strong sense of self, the contagious mind of the crowd will inevitably possess us, like in the 1950s movie The Blob. Possession by the blob is not merely common, it is everywhere, and because it is everywhere, we don’t register its existence.  Studies have shown that the "intelligence of the crowd" is determined by difference: a crowd gets smarter–behaves in more intelligent, less blob-like ways–when the people that constitute it have less in common rather than more. Such differences prevent the individuals within the group from being taken over by the group mind, because we do not imitate people we perceive as different from ourselves. Stupid crowds happen when everyone agrees with each other: to dress the same, talk the same, act the same. A mob is formed by a gathering of people who are open to persuasion, who have in fact gathered together to be persuaded, unconsciously seeking refuge in the group mind. Such a group consists of people who are lacking a strong sense of reality or identity: in a word, non-individuated beings. Such non-individuated beings (who needless to say are the vast majority) experience themselves as distinct individuals, and band together precisely to reaffirm this experience. By forming a group identity, they validate each other's reality, usually by using a focal point (whether Hitler or the Beatles) to do so. There is then no room for a more objective voice to challenge that false reality, because collectively, the group has the power to shout down or expel anyone who tries. That is what creates a mob, and why every mob has a natural propensity towards violence.
Joining a group-mind provides a sense of belonging. Yet ironically, when we join a group, we are unconsciously seeking after the original patterns of family life which short-circuited our sense of reality to begin with. The same patterns which have prevented the formation of healthy boundaries and made any kind of autonomous action–individuation–impossible, mean that we can't even conceive of reality being an internal state rather than a set of external social rules. This is a negative recursive feedback loop: non-individuated people seek groups to feel secure within and taking refuge in a group-mind prevents individuation. This is why most of us move from one "matrix" to another, without taking a breath. We go from family life to college, to a job, to a relationship, to raising our own family, without ever discovering a sense of meaning outside of those "patterns." On the other hand, it is only through group interaction that those patterns become obvious to us and we can recognize how inescapable they are. So solitude can be as compulsive as joining, because both are ways to avoid seeing just how compulsive we are.
All groups end up in line with the "family patterns" (early imprints) which the individual members have in common, because these are the patterns which brought the group together in the first place. They are also the patterns which made us crazy, i.e., unable to function as individuals outside of a collective. Mirror neurons add a new, more physiological twist to the idea of family patterns. If our brains match whatever behavior (including moods) we witness while growing up, then our brains (and bodies) must also remember all the times we have matched such behavior. As when an athlete or martial artist remembers oft-repeated muscle movements, such behavior eventually becomes second nature. Primates learn how to act largely via imitation, which also includes language. What we communicate and the way we communicate, therefore, is to a large extent in-formed by people around us. As adults, we then unconsciously seek out individuals who have adopted similar moods and behavioral patterns to our own (due to similar early imprints), so that we can recreate our formative environment. However threatening and distorting it may have been to us as children, it is now what we know; and familiarity, for the non-individuated person, equals safety.
This is why all group activities tend to become cultish, and it may also be why there is so much paranoia about "cults" in today's climate, because they are unwelcome reminders, reflections, of our collective dispensation. The more we despise and condemn "cults," the more we can tell ourselves that we are not susceptible to such behavior. But we are all susceptible. Society itself (and even consensus reality) is a form of group-think so widespread that it is undetectable to its members. It is the ultimate mind control cult, one which no one is ever permitted to leave.
So how does this relate to writing? A collective mindset is maintained by constant reinforcement via words: the group tells its members what to think and then their thoughts tell them the same thing they are being told to think. That's the way programming works, via a self-perpetuating command. Reality becomes what we tell ourselves is real, and what to tell ourselves is real is what we are told to tell ourselves. Writing is a means to take back this power by beginning to compose our own internal dialogue, thereby writing our own program. By writing down our thoughts, about ourselves and our lives, we get to see, from the third person perspective (that of the Listener), the ways in which our perceptions have been compromised by external influences. Writing is a way to develop our voices, and to develop one's voice means to identify and then eradicate any elements that are not our voice, those external influences that distort our ability to express ourselves and leave us parroting other people's ideas and telling them what they want to hear–and telling ourselves what we think we want to hear–instead of simply speaking the truth. Within the context of groupthink, however, speaking the truth can be–and inevitably will be–the most ostracizing thing a person can do. Individuation–which is finding one's true voice–can only come about via exiting the group mind, and since the group mind is maintained by the "loyalty" of its members, individuation will always be perceived as a threat to other members of the group. Thus, by standing up for our own truth and individuality, we invariably risk not only being ostracized by the group, but–by speaking what the other members cannot afford to admit to themselves–being turned into a sacrificial victim by which the group identity is reinforced. In a word: a scapegoat.
PART FIVE: CROSSING THE BORDER
"Writers are not just people who sit down and write. They hazard themselves. Every time you compose a book your composition of yourself is at stake."
Full Circle: Profaning the Sacred, Sacralizing the Profane
"I will conclude with a metaphysical question that cannot be answered by science. I cannot decide whether the question is utterly trivial or profound. I call it the 'vantage point' problem foreshadowed by the Upanishads, ancient Indian philosophical texts composed in the second millennium BC, and by Erwin Schrödinger. I am referring to the fundamental asymmetry in the universe between the 'subjective' private worldview vs. the objective world of physics. Physics depends on the elimination of the subjective: there are no colors, only wavelengths; no frequency, only pitch; no warmth or cold, only kinetic activity of molecules; no subjective 'self' or I, only neural activity. Physics doesn't need, and indeed doesn't acknowledge, the subjective 'here and now,' or the 'I' who experiences the world. Yet to me, my 'I' is everything. It's as if only one tiny corner of the space-time manifold is 'illuminated' by the searchlight of my consciousness. Humankind, it would seem, is forever condemned to accept this schizophrenic view of reality; the 'first person' account and the third person account."
Returning to the opening example (that of pornography and shamanic ritual), what the shaman represents in our present context–and why identification with a shaman is potentially so powerfully healing–is the other, the outsider. Traditionally, shamans were not part of the community which they served, the reason being that they quite literally belonged to another world: the world of the spirits. A shaman is a soul rescuer, an astral traveler, a dreamer, a psychopomp (as Christ was a psychopomp when he travelled to Hades, after the crucifixion). The shaman journeys, not physically but as awareness, into subatomic matter and into the inner worlds of DNA, and there has congress with the intelligences (accesses the information) concealed within. In simple terms, a shaman is another word for a fully individuated being–one who has died and been reborn in life. Hence, "individuated being" is another word for a shaman. To match a shaman's brain state, then, as in our opening example of mirror neurons, is to experience temporary "exile" from the group mind, but also an empathic connection to the collective unconscious. It might be argued that we all have a connection to the collective unconscious, since that is what makes it collective. The difference is that the shaman, or individuated being, makes conscious that connection, via empathy, and so shifts allegiance from the group mind (which is something like a crust that has formed on top of the organic body of humanity) and to the collective psyche. The shaman thereby moves from a "first person account"–that of the isolated individual–to a third person account of the universe at large. By this means, the shaman moves from subjective to objective reality.
Returning to the subject of empathy. A shaman's healing powers come from his or her own wounds. Whatever a shaman has suffered in life is what gives the shaman the understanding needed to assist others with similar patterns of wounding. In simple terms, if as a child a shaman was sexually abused or bullied, and suffered the resulting psychological imprinting, those experiences become the knots that must be unraveled for the shaman to individuate and heal his or her own psyche. By healing himself in this way, the shaman develops an ability for healing, specific to those original wounds which required healing. That shaman will then attract people with similar or matching wounds, magnetically (the universe as well as our brains being a mirror), and thereby develop those powers and complete the healing process. It will quickly be seen how all of this relates to empathy and mirror neurons. The "backlog" of empathic memory already discussed becomes as it were the shaman's qualification as a shaman. When a shaman encounters someone with similar patterns–a similar program which they want uninstalled–the shaman matches the brain state of the patient and empathically accesses his or her own experiences of that same or similar program. The shaman then remembers and/or reenacts (ritually, and through dialogue with the patient) his own deprogramming, and the patient, in turn, matches the shaman's brain state and is freed from their conditioning. In a word, healed. The healing is not so much the end as the means of this ritual: the end being that of individuation. Otherwise simply to heal a person would only be a temporary measure, because if the conditioning remains, the program is still running, then the system will sooner or later malfunction as before, or even in new, more advanced ways. A shaman isn't really in the business of healing, but of deprogramming people: fishing them out of the group mind and introducing them to the spirit realms of the collective unconscious, also known as Hades. The old English word hele means "unconscious," and is the source word for the Christian Hell, but also the root of "heal." That's the whole equation in a nutshell–or pomegranate.
"This Narcissus of yours
doesn't see himself in the mirror
because he is the mirror itself."
If shamanism is the third person (transpersonal) perspective, pornography is the first person perspective, as writ large and lurid on the psychic mirror of the species. Pornography is all about the "money shot": what's in it for me? There is one single end which porn moves towards and that is release, the gratification of desire. And desire–most especially sexual desire–is what binds the group mind together. It is both the current and the signal that keeps the program running. Sex is what we all have in common; it is what everyone wants. We all agree (openly or not) that sex is good, and therefore desirable. So of course everybody does it, and if we can't do it, then there's porn to make us feel like we are doing it. This program of sexual desire includes all the things required to get sex: wealth, status, success, image, beauty, fitness, confidence, social graces, and so forth. All these things are desirable to us as the means to a single end: sex. Advertising is as constant a reminder of this as porn. Nowadays the two have almost seamlessly merged: advertising is often pornographic, and pornography (as well as dating) sites and their advertisements have literally flooded the Internet. Pornographic imagery reinforces sexual desire and creates an energy feedback loop: by capturing our attention and triggering sexual responses within us, the energy of our attention and desire is "siphoned" off and fed into the group mind (of which the internet is a kind of concretized representation). This keeps the "grid" charged and humming with all of that attention and desire. It magnetizes the group mind and prevents its "members" (actually inmates) from ever leaving, from individuating. In simple terms, the promise of sex keeps us coming back for more, no matter how suffocating living in Hotel Californication is.
This is why celibacy is so common to spiritual disciplines: inhibiting sexual response is a way to reduce sexual desire, over time, and allows us to put our attention elsewhere than on what everyone else is doing–inward rather than outward. We then discover the extent to which our sexual desire has been hard-wired into us by our conditioning, and how our hormones (which are really the least of our problems) have been hijacked by the soul-sucking apparatus of society. At the other end of the spectrum, shamans traditionally are often polygamous, having many wives, which is presumably an alternate way to swim against the current. Our present culture preaches monogamy, on the one hand, while subtly encouraging promiscuity on the other, and the result is that most modern individuals practice serial monogamy. By having many wives, a shaman solves this dichotomy, but also (perhaps) avoids the real issue, that of emotional as well as sexual dependency. (A celibate also avoids this issue, unless he or she were to practice celibacy within a marriage, which would be a whole other kettle of fish.) Shamans, unlike celibates, tend to be earthy beings, but while they may be fully engaged with the lusts of the flesh, everything a shaman does is directed towards individuation, and to strengthening his or her connection to the other side–existence outside the group mind. So for the shaman, sex is a means to a transpersonal or collective end, and not an end in itself.
Eros and Thanatos: The Two Faces of Love
"Seek the you that is not yours
and never can be."
Sex and death are the twin forces of existence. Yet to the shaman–and to anyone who has begun to see beyond their social conditioning–the two are strangely reversed: everything appears as backwards once you pass through the looking glass. For the average person, being a slave to biology, it is the death instinct that constantly fuels sexual desire. We are programmed to want sex because we are programmed to die, and without sex the species would not continue. On the other hand, it can also be said that we die because we procreate. Adam and Eve were immortal and innocent before the Serpent opened their eyes, so death is the price we pay for sex. In a curious reversal of this biological law, for the individuating being, sex is the price we pay for "death." Sexual addiction and indulgence–of which pornography is a symptom but not a cause–is a way for people to stave off death, not physically but emotionally and psychologically. This is the deeper context for understanding diseases such as AIDS (whatever it actually is): that the collective sex drive is really a sublimated desire for death (through le petit mort of orgasm, we get to die to ourselves for a moment or two). In more Freudian terms, and for men at least, sexual desire is all tangled up with an unconscious desire to get back to the womb, literally as well as symbolically; as such it is the only real alternative to individuation, the only one that will satisfy us (temporally at least). If we cannot go forwards, we must go backwards. Those afraid to face the reality of death will do whatever they can to get back to their birth.
A writer, true to his or her calling, is a shaman: their job is to explore the "netherworlds" of the collective unconscious, congress with the spirits, and bring forth healing and transformative knowledge for the community to which they belong. Like shamans, true writers are beings devoted solely to individuation, and as such have no personal affiliation with the community which they serve. From the point of view of the community–tending its crops and taking care of its daily living needs–a shaman (just like the gunslinger in Western films) is an agent of death. In a sense, this is accurate: a shaman's loyalty is not to the world of the living but to the world of the dead. As Paul Bowles described it, "he's merely a machine for the transmission of ideas. In reality he doesn't exist–he's a cipher, a blank. A spy sent into life by the forces of death. His main objective is to get the information across the border, back into death." The reason shamans appear to the group mind to be loyal to death is that, from a shamanistic point of view, there is only life after death, that is, only once complete individuation has allowed all our ties to the group mind to be severed can we begin to really live.
From a shaman's point of view, what ordinary people are engaged in maintaining their livelihoods is not at all what it seems. Socially programmed reality is all part of a great, messy, millennia long factory process, by which "souls" are recycled in order to keep the group mind replenished, fixed, and unchanging–just like the computer generated reality in The Matrix. What shamans do is to reverse the polarity of life/death, Eros/Thanatos, and use their sex drive as energy or fuel to enter into the realms beyond death. Their aim is to cross over to "the border" and enter into "third person" existence, outside the false idea of the individual self, as defined by the group mind. This is the ultimate paradox of earthly existence: that individuality is an illusion which only true individuation can dispel, and that only by dying to the self can we begin to live as our selves. In the same way, the first person perspective of "I, me, mine," which we are all trapped inside, is actually being generated by the group mind; as such, it is anything but autonomous. The self we identify with is actually a fictional construct very much like a character in a novel. On the other hand, the third person identity, since it allows our individual selves to be what they are–momentary arrangements of molecules within a vast, infinite and eternal tapestry of cosmic awareness–is the only true "I" that exists. And so the dreamer awakes and becomes the dreamed, and what we once dreamed as "the other" becomes the dreamer, dreaming us. Leaving the group mind is the true "little death" for which the greatest orgasm in the universe is no substitute. But it can be the means.
When shamans enter into the subatomic realms of DNA, it is in order (like Neo) to read the code and access the true, fundamental text of existence. This furnishes them with the option, now they have reduced themselves to nothing and entered into the everything, of changing that script and rewriting the program of creation. Shamans then become the authors not only of their own reality but of everyone else's too, by means of that empathic transmission sourced in a full body merging with the collective, for the good of all. Lucid dreamers inside the waking dream of the group mind are in the world but not of the world. These shamans are not merely skywalkers but skywriters.
"In the beginning was the Word."
We have now come full circle and back to the word. I referred above to the Internet as a reflection of the group mind, but it is also more than that–or perhaps more accurately, as a reflection of the group mind, the Internet is also possessed of its own unconscious. Potentially–and in small pockets this is already happening–the Net is a subculture that has formed within the larger matrix of consensus thought, one in which the rules, mores, and forms have yet to be fully established or "written in stone." Within this new-forming virtual/ritual environment, learning the art and science of invocation and spellcasting–communication via text–and of empathetic magik is more essential than ever before. Writing is key, because it is via written (as well as verbal) expression that we establish our own individual truth within ourselves, and eventually in the world.
At present there are several primary kinds of text-based ritual spaces on the Net, most of which we are all familiar with. There are blogs, usually journal-style updates for public consumption (including video logs), which usually allow for feedback via the comments section. There is IRC (internet relay chat) and instant messaging (Skype, Gmail, etc), micro-blogging on Twitter (massively influential in the recent Middle East uprisings), and comments sections on news sites, YouTube, Amazon, and any number of commercial websites. Then of course there is Facebook, which is the ruling online community and which has much to answer for, and answer to. Facebook has a rule of identity and there is a limit to how many Facebook accounts you can have, as well as warnings about using false names. Participation both requires and inspires identity-reinforcement, as is common to most groups. At the other end of the spectrum, as obscure and mysterious as Facebook is promiscuous, there is the 4chan, where identity is erased (the virtual activist group Anonymous was probably spawned at 4chan). 4chan is the opposite of Facebook, an anti-social social network where anyone who tries too hard to establish an identity is likely to be derided as a "name fag." If Facebook is for people who want to be part of a community while remaining within the comfort and safety of their homes (and identity tunnels), 4chan is like the id of the Internet: a buzzing hive of activity and a mosh pit of thrashing bodies. Channers self-identify as a "Stand Alone Complex" or "herd of cats," signifying that they do not make up a group mind but are just a collection of units who happen to be going in the same direction. While made up of individuals who mostly reject the established social values–starting with identity–and who appear to abhor group-think, paradoxically it is a space that frequently hatches real-world activism–albeit usually in the name of "lulz."
All these virtual ritual spaces are the means by which we both observe ourselves and allow ourselves to be observed, as a collective "mental" body, via language and image (and since everything is being mediated via computer code, it is all language). The Net provides invaluable clues as to the nature and rate of the transmutation of consciousness currently underway in the collective organism. Yet since the medium is the message, the media, means and forms being employed are secondary to the end that is being mediated, namely: that same transmutation of consciousness. But since the observation affects the outcome of the experiment, the more attention that is given to the transformation underway, the more rapidly it will occur.
The Internet is a stand-in for the collective unconscious as it becomes conscious. One of its hidden functions, maybe even its primary function, is for developing the tools by which we may slowly disengage from the group-mind, and begin to navigate greater awareness. The internet then serves as both a testing ground and a launch pad for that definitive leap into the unknown. As a culture created entirely out of words, sounds, and images, it offers up a ritual space for interactive dreaming and shamanic healing, and for group projects with no external focal point but with an ever-changing blend of internal directives, sourced in individuals drawn together by their differences as much as their similarities. What's forming, just below the surface of the collective's awareness or group mind, is an intelligent crowd whose intelligence grows as it increases in numbers. What this spells is an opportunity for accelerated individuation and shamanic initiation on a mass scale.
Read the writing on the sky.
"The real secret of magic is that the world is made of words, and that if you know the words that the world is made of you can make of it whatever you wish."
Aeolus Kephas © 2011
Images by Lucinda Horan