In the following 1998 discussion with one of the greatest American psychiatrists, for example, many of the themes to be found in their masterwork, Human Givens: A new approach to emotional health and clear thinking can be seen in embryonic form.
In it Joe Griffin talks with Dr Arthur Deikman about how an understanding of what constitutes consciousness impacts on daily life and you can see some of questions arising that became the heart of the answers provided in their recent book Godhead: the brain’s big bang – the explosive origin of creativity, mysticism and mental illness.
Interview with Dr Arthur Deikman: All in the service of meaning
GRIFFIN: I'd like to start out by quoting a key passage from your book, The Observing Self, to set the frame for our readers. "The fundamental questions, “Who am I?”, “What am I?” and “Why am I?” arise increasingly in the struggle to find meaning and purpose in life. Therapists hear them as explicit queries or in indirect form: 'who is the real me?' or 'I don't know what I want – part of me wants one thing and part of me wants something else. What do I want?' Western psychology is severely handicapped in dealing with these questions because the centre of human experience – the observing self – is missing from its theories. Yet, at the heart of psychopathology lies a fundamental confusion between the self as object and the self of pure subjectivity. Emotions, thoughts, impulses, images and sensations are the contents of consciousness: we witness them; we are aware of their existence. Likewise, the body, the self Image, and the self-concept are all constructs that we observe. But our core sense of personal existence - the 'I' - is located in awareness itself, not in its content."
How did you get interested in this area? It is, after all, a relatively unusual subject for a psychiatrist coming from the medical model to be interested in.
DEIKMAN: Well I guess it really began after I had graduated from college and prior to my entering medical school. I spent the summer camping in the Adirondack Mountains in the Eastern United States. I was camping by myself in a somewhat populated lake, but essentially I was alone in a tent and I was puzzling over the problems of my life which at that time consisted, as they do, of things like: "What do I want?" "Why am I dissatisfied?" And I came to the conclusion that there was something I wanted very much, which had a source that I often found in music, art and literature but that I really needed to get closer to it.
So I spent a half hour each day sitting on the edge of the lake with my eyes closed trying to feel my way somehow to that source, only not knowing what it was. It was all quite blind. I didn't know anything about meditation at the time. And then, after a week or two, some changes started happening, I began to see more of the details in things, colours were brighter, but most importantly I began to experience an emanation coming from the sky and trees and the water. It was a very powerful experience, intrinsically valuable.
The experience lasted until I left the Adirondacks and I entered medical school. Unfortunately, medical school is not 'mysticogenic' and I almost quit to pursue what I then called the intuitive line. No one seemed to know what I was talking about back then. This was in 1950 or 1951, pre-Beatles, you couldn't get the Tibetan Book of the Dead in the drugstore back then, you had to go to Tibet.
But I stayed at medical school and, when I finished my psychiatric residency the first chance I had to do some research, I turned right back to my experience in the Adirondacks, which I knew by then was called a 'mystical experience'. I began reading literature on the subject and developed some ideas about it. Then I decided there must be something there because so many people throughout different cultures and ages have reported basically the same experience - and, indeed, the same techniques for achieving it. But I wanted to understand it in a way that didn't throw out my scientific training.
GRIFFIN: One of the things that comes out in your book on cult formation, The Wrong Way Home, is that it's almost as if the culture of today is breaking down into those who are rabidly atheistic in their outlook in life and those who are overly 'spiritual' in their outlook in life. You explain how those who get sucked into cults do so to meet the dependency needs we all carry from childhood - the need to feel total security, which it isn't actually appropriate to seek as an adult. So, in cults, people are regressing to a childlike state, where they are protected and can feel secure - and in fact it is nothing to do with spirituality – rather than accessing the type of experience you are talking about – which, as you say, it might be possible to have alongside a rational scientific view of the world.
DEIKMAN: I am working towards developing a model that encompasses both the mystical and the scientific view of the world, and I think I have some key steps for doing that. My aim is that we can proceed to understand and integrate these experiences in a very straightforward way; a way that' s not really mysterious in the sense that you can't understand what's going on, but also not reductive, not over simplifying what's complex.
GRIFFIN: That certainly seems to me to be the crucial step for the progress of humanity and for the progress of science itself. We have to find a way of integrating the observer into science. Physics has got to the stage where it knows it can't eliminate him; it seems to be a part of the experience. If you set up an experiment to show that light consists of particles, that's what you prove. And the alternative theory that light consists of waves can be proved too, if that is what you are setting out to do. Somehow or other we have to meaningfully be able to integrate that understanding while still retaining some repeatability of experience, or at least rigorous analysis. But how to do that?
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DEIKMAN: Early on, I published a paper called ‘Deautomisation and the mystical experience’ that explained how, when you meditate, after a while the effect is to de-automatise the perceptual filters in the mind, so that you can see more clearly. You see more of reality; it looks richer, more varied. And so, by meditating, we can perceive more, take more in.
That was the starting point for a model based on developmental psychology. As we get more mature, everyone develops the ability, to a greater or less degree, to see reality from more than one perspective – to see from other points of view besides self-interest. There is an innate drive towards that. And then, as you know, the idea of 'the observing self’ is central to my work and was a way of integrating the spiritual traditions and Western psychotherapy.
GRIFFIN: Yes, the idea of the observing self really first came into psychotherapy from your work. We have found here in Europe, particularly in England, that it is incredibly useful not only as an explanatory device, but as a psychotherapeutic device. Even just to tell people who are emotionally troubled: "Look, you are not your depression, " or "You are not your Parkinson's disease," can have dramatic effects. At our fundamental core we are centres of awareness to whom such experiences may happen but they are outside of us. Just explaining that can be enormously liberating for people.
DEIKMAN: Yes, that's true. I'm glad to hear you do that.
GRIFFIN: We've also found that we can take the concept further in terms of other types of problems. For example, with trauma, getting people to go back into the traumatic experience and then imagine that they can actually float out of it into a centre of awareness from where they can just look at themselves in the experience, creating some distance from it. And that enables them then to alter the dimensions of the memory. It's possible to resolve all kinds of phobias and traumas very quickly, all in one session, just using that concept.
DEIKMAN: I am delighted to hear that. I wasn't aware you were having so much success in that way.
GRIFFIN: Well, that's what prompted us to get back in touch with you for this interview. Because we are using these ideas in our seminars and workshops and because our journal publishes a lot of papers about breakthroughs in psychotherapy, we wanted to find out more about where you might be going with these ideas.
DEIKMAN: I sent you a paper called ‘I = awareness'. To encapsulate what that paper says as simply as I can, ‘I’ is identical to awareness and this ‘I’ should be differentiated from the various aspects of the physical person and its mental contents which form the 'self’. Most discussions of consciousness confuse the T and the 'self. We have the experience both of the 'I' and that which is being observed. The identity of awareness and 'I' means that we know awareness by being it. If we really take that seriously, it has important implications as to the nature of the self, who we are, who we may be, and how we are different from the tangible world around us.
GRIFFIN: Straightaway it seems to resolve an incredible amount of confusion both in the philosophical and psychological literature. Currently there is a big debate within the evolutionary and philosophical tradition about whether consciousness or awareness is a higher recursive faculty in the brain, with the ability to be aware of and analyse our experiences, or whether it is simply the percept ion of raw sensations. But using your analysis, it is possible to see that these are the wrong tacks to take; that the ability to analyse and the perception of sensations are simply the contents of consciousness, and that awareness is prior to any experience.
DEIKMAN: And the interesting thing is, as I indicate in the paper, the knowledge that ‘I’ = awareness solves the problem of the infinite observer. Because if you are 'awareness ', you know it by being it instead of observing it.
GRIFFIN: Can you just elaborate on this a little bit? How does that solve the problem of the infinite observer?
DEIKMAN: Well, I'm talking about the well-known philosophical problem, defined by Gilbert Ryle, of the infinite observer. As soon as you try to figure out who you are, it's as if there is another 'you' behind, observing you doing the thinking about who you are. And then another one behind that, observing the ‘you’ that's observing. But if in fact you are 'awareness', instead of perceiving it, you experience it by being it. Now this is quite a different notion and we don't have any model for that really, as to how it works, just the idea that it could be the case. Experiential data would seem to indicate that it is so. If you close your eyes, the rich visual world is replaced by blackness but awareness doesn’t change. You remain aware of changing thoughts, memories, fantasies but you can't be aware of awareness. So, if it is the case, then it opens up an entirely different theory of knowledge.
GRIFFIN: It certainly does. It also seems to imply, at least if I understand your writings, that 'awareness' itself is of a different nature from sensory reality. It is fashionable to think in terms of 'everything is one' but you appear to be positing a sort of fundamental dualism, with awareness completely separate from the material world?
DEIKMAN: Well, I am working on something that I think gets around that problem. I don't have it developed enough to discuss it now but I think there is a way of treating it so as not to be involved in dualism. Though I must admit I don't find dualism so horrifying as many people seem to. Both positions, dualism and monism, have big problems.
GRIFFIN: If one starts thinking about 'awareness' as a separate dimension of reality, then surely the question of creative intelligence turns up. We all have a kind of mechanical intelligence which allows us to work with existing ideas and concepts, and that can be quite a material process. But the actual original perception of an idea, that moment of seeing something suddenly in a new way, is clearly a non-material process. You know, if you take for example those ambiguous figures – say a dot pattern of a giraffe – and you just see a mass of dots, and then suddenly you see the giraffe. In that moment of perception, what you are looking at is exactly the same as it was before but something has happened inside of your consciousness. It is as though your consciousness has in fact reorganised itself so that you can see the giraffe.
DEIKMAN: Yes, that is a good point.
GRIFFIN: Might it be, therefore, that there is some kind of a link between the unfolding of awareness and the perception of new meanings – albeit that once these new meanings are perceived, we have to translate them into more mundane mechanical representations of intuition, such as words or symbols?
DEIKMAN: I don't know, it might. It raises an interesting point. One of the ways that I am not satisfied with my own model of the observing self is that it seems a bit too passive. I am wondering about the vital activity of our lives, of ourselves, quite apart from the behaviour patterns we adopt to survive. It seems to me that there is something there that is active. I have tried to deal with it by suggesting the model of the pond. Imagine a pond, cut off from the ocean, with ripples across its surface. The ocean has its own rhythms but if the pond can generate the same rhythm, then resonance takes place, contact, between the two. I use this idea to explain how activities (ripples) within our individual consciousness (the pond), can connect with those of a greater consciousness.
GRIFFIN: Just taking that metaphor for a moment. The pond idea is somehow suggesting that individuals can, as it were, encapsulate a centre of awareness somewhere within them and that that centre somehow has to reconnect with a greater awareness and maybe even wants to do that. And then this question would arise: if this awareness is an independent dimension of reality, existing prior to any sensory content (as your writings seem to imply) then surely this centre of awareness would have a capacity for survival after the mind-body organism is dead?
DEIKMAN: I think that possibility is certainly presented by the model because whatever is said about awareness must therefore also apply to the self. Now it might be that survival after death does not mean survival with your memories because we have good reason to think that a lot of that is based on neurological processes, which deteriorate and vanish with death. But, if awareness is fundamentally different or of a different order, and particularly if awareness is sequestering, as it were, the larger ocean, then, as the mystics say, do you rejoin the ocean? An immortality that is selfless? Well I suppose we will find out!
GRIFFIN: But somehow that seems, in a way, just as unattractive a prospect as seeing our survival as continuing in the immortality of the genes. It somehow feels rather disconnected from our everyday sense of self. If awareness is also innate intelligence – which is the potential to perceive differences, organisations and connections in reality – and if one learns to perceive certain patterns or subtle dimensions of reality, perhaps that order of perception could survive death. So that, if there are further dimensions to reality, one could survive, as it were, because one has developed one's awareness to perceive those dimensions of reality which may survive physical death.
DEIKMAN: When you say one can survive, what do you mean by that word?
GRIFFIN: I don't mean the ego surviving but that centre of awareness that recognises itself and may have developed itself to a certain extent by virtue of the perceptions it has developed. So that centre of awareness could perhaps have an endless evolution.
DEIKMAN: In a recent paper I wrote, called ‘The spiritual heart of service’ I presented a definition of the spiritual as the connectedness that underlies reality. So we can say something is a spiritual experience when we can experience that connectivity, that connection, because that's what the mystical experience really is in essence. It's a very broad ranging, in-depth increase in the experience of connectedness with reality. And from that point of view it might be that you rejoin that connection or you experience it in a much greater depth after death because you don't have the constricting 'survival self that sequesters it. (I use the term 'survival self to mean the instinctive and conditioned strategies and attitudes we develop to survive).
GRIFFIN: But might it also be that the centre of awareness actually has to further its own evolution somehow, after the death of the organism. That it isn't just a passive rejoining of the ocean?
DEIKMAN: As we look over the history of life on this planet, there certainly seems to be an evolutionary thrust but far beyond that simply of survival mechanisms. And of course mystical philosophers such as Pierre Tellhard de Chardin and others had some sense of things as extending.
I think the next step in evolution is moving from self-centred consciousness to other centred consciousness. If we are going to survive as a planet, as a life sphere, I think that is going to have to happen because the problems we are facing now really call for that kind of consciousness rather than the more primitive self-centred kind.
GRIFFIN: And would it also follow that, if we succeeded in evolving this other-centred consciousness, a lot of the problems we experience now would resolve themselves as well - psychological problems that people have?
DEIKMAN: Oh yes, I think meaning depends on connection, basically. One of the things that the 'survival self’ does is dictate a form of consciousness that' s focused on objects and differences and separation. I mean it does that through necessity. You have to manipulate the objects of the world, you have to respond to the world and its connected aspects. But if you want to experience the connected aspects of the world, what you have to do is shift out of that self-centred consciousness. You have to have a different intention, because consciousness is, I think, basically functional. It serves our intention. So one of the things I am exploring with the idea of 'service' to others, is that it permits you not just to do something for other people (perhaps for the wrong reasons such as kudos or feeling good), but to respond to the needs of the task. That is different from responding to ego, survival needs, such as receiving approval or praise.
GRIFFIN: It certainly is. It's a completely different way of looking at any piece of work that one might be doing. To ask yourself, “well, what is it that needs to be done here?" rather than what can I get away with doing.
DEIKMAN: Yes, exactly, and that is an opportunity. The service becomes an opportunity for people to shift out of a mode of consciousness that otherwise is always selfish. Some people have said that if you do something for someone else, you end up feeling good yourself and that's a kind of selfishness. But that isn't the only way we can operate. When we are doing what is called for, that call is outside of ourselves and gives us a chance to respond in quite a different way and to have a different experience.
GRIFFIN: Yes. In fact what you are saying there is that, if meaning comes from connectedness, then to the degree that we are selfish we are going to lack a sense of meaning.
DEIKMAN: Yes, in fact if someone comes to me complaining of meaninglessness in their life, particularly if they are getting older and are facing death, one of the things that I now look at rather closely is how their life is being conducted. How connected are they to other people? Are they doing anything to benefit others other than themselves? Not from a moralistic point of view but strictly from a rather straightforward point of view. If you are running your life to such a way that you are relatively isolated and you are just serving your own needs, you have a loss of meaning. You can't have it both ways. You can't cheat on that.
GRIFFIN: So, is it difficult to get this idea across to people?
DEIKMAN: Well, let's say I present it and it makes sense to people but they don't immediately shift into that kind of mode. So I don't know. Taking this approach helps me to look at their life. But I don't think you can work on it so directly, you can't say to someone: "Look! You need to do service in order to find meaning and shift into a different consciousness". I don't think that works too well! But you can point out to them that they seem to be occupied only with their own needs and ask if they have considered activities, which actually benefit others and how they feel when they do that.
GRIFFIN: One of the ways I suggest something similar to patients is to tell them that research studies show that the happiest people, and those most content with their lives, are those that do something for their community, make a contribution to it in some way, however great or small.
DEIKMAN: Yes. Well, I have been interviewing people for whom service has been a major focus of their life. They say that they have received as much or more than what they have given. It is a very consistent experience.
GRIFFIN: So we could almost say to a patient, just try it on an experimental basis. Try it and see if you find that, In fact, you end up getting back more than you actually give.
DEIKMAN: My wife had an interesting incident with our daughter. She was in the city and our daughter was in bad mood. They were passing a beggar in the street and my wife said: "Here, give the panhandler something." So my daughter did, and she came right out of her bad mood.
So yes, it does make a difference to people. One of the problems is that the notion of service is so mixed up with moral injunctions and religious teachings that almost everyone feels some ambivalence. It is as though they should do this, not something that feels positive.
GRIFFIN: And we have all got our own individual conditioning with regard to religious morals: either we are for them, or against them or suffer from them, and it gets in the way. Another thing that blocks people, I think, is not to do with past conditioning, religious conditioning, but the idolatry of emotion that seems to exist in the Western world: looking for meaning in emotionally intense experiences all the time. This is what fuels the consumer society and addictive processes.
DEIKMAN: Yes, it does seem to me that there is this wish to substitute the intensity of experience for meaning, so people will do extreme things often because there isn't meaning in their lives. And often they'll do very dangerous things, too, for what they would call the adrenaline rush, for something that pulls them out of their usual preoccupations.
GRIFFIN: Now that's interesting. We have talked about the observing self and how it is awareness of being aware, which is a different dimension of reality from sensory reality. We've also talked about how the observing self is connected to meaning. The idea that seems to counterbalance the observing self, in a way, is the idea of the trance state – that state of focused attention, when listening to music, for instance, when you are not thinking about yourself. So that you can, as it were, lose awareness of yourself and get so absorbed in the music, or in a sport or in your chemical high, that you lose the burden of self consciousness, and that seems to be a great relief to people.
DEIKMAN: Certainly sport does that at times, when people have what one psychologist, Csikszentmihalyi, called 'the flow experience’, in which they become indistinguishable from the action for whatever period of time.
GRIFFIN: So how does that experience link up with awareness do you think? What is going on there?
DEIKMAN: I don't know.
GRIFFIN: But in some sense one is obviously ego-less at that moment and...
DEIKMAN: I like the term 'survival-self’.
GRIFFIN: Yes that's nice. It doesn't have the same negative connotations as 'ego' has. So the 'survival-self’ is not operating so much there. And in a sense you could characterise it as responding to the demands of a situation. If you are playing a sport well, you have stepped aside from the survival-self.
DEIKMAN: Yes I think so. Because, if you are very concerned about winning, that often causes an interference. It is particularly true in golf, I think. Any attempt to do the stroke destroys it.
GRIFFIN: Well, I have certainly found that out. Golf and I have a love-hate relationship. I can go out with some people and they have the most wonderful experience even when they are playing badly, but it seems to intensify my sense of self-awareness and self-deficiency and my survival-self gets very much involved!
DEIKMAN: Yes, it's a terrible sport! You get one or two shots a round and you think maybe you could do that all the time...
GRIFFIN: So, just to balance the observing self, which opens up our awareness we have trance where we focus down our attention for the sake of our survival-self. In order to achieve anything in the world, very often we have to focus our attention and that is appropriate. Our awareness also gets focused down when our survival-self is activated through becoming emotional about things. But it seems that the key skill is developing the flexibility of being able to dissociate and associate to the survival-self as and when we need to.
DEIKMAN: Both modes are needed I think, survival self and observing self. The survival self is definitely needed but it is a question of dominance. Whatever is the dominant intention of the organism at any one time will dictate what mode you are in. The great thing about service or doing a task for its own sake is that you get a certain liberation. You can decrease the intensity of the survival self's concerns and therefore open up consciousness to some different source of knowledge.
GRIFFIN: I think what you are saying is highly relevant from the point of view that a lot of counsellors and psychotherapists and other helping professionals will be reading this article. Not only do we need in our own lives to have the notion of service but also it can be immensely useful for us to somehow communicate this in a way that can help our clients.
DEIKMAN: Yes I think so. And also to alert them to what may be going on or not going on in another person's life. Certainly encouraging them to see what it is like if they spend a couple of afternoons in an activity that is of benefit to others.
GRIFFIN: A wonderful liberation, not that I do it that often, is that of getting away from oneself.
DEIKMAN: Well yes, that's true. Some people do a service like fundraising, which I think is very good, but there seems to be no substitute for direct person contact with others where you actually encounter the other people's spirit and engage them. And of course it becomes a test situation in itself because one of the problems when people start doing service is that in some sense they want to feel respected, appreciated, and that the other person recognises how good they are being. But the other person of course may not respond that way at all!
GRIFFIN: You've made that point in one of your books, that if you are looking for appreciation, then you are engaged in a commercial transaction in the furtherance of the survival-self and not actually doing what you are talking about here.
DEIKMAN: Yes that's right. But all these situations are really learning experiences too. You have the opportunity of observing your own intentions and thereby influencing your consciousness and sense of meaning.
GRIFFIN: Just one final question Dr Deikman, which suggests itself to me from what you have just been saying, And that is, if service to the task can, as it were, lower the dominance of the survival self within us and create a bit of spare capacity to see more of what exists in reality, if that is how it operates, then it would seem to be very important that our leaders generated some spare capacity to enable them to do just that? In other words, unless leaders are to some degree hands-on, and do real work as well as delegate, they won't be able to perceive meaning and the wider picture?
DEIKMAN: Well, hopefully, they would be operating that way. We'd see that in John Kennedy's famous call: "Don't ask what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country". You would hope that they would do that and I think actually that people recognise it when it is taking place. I think some of the so-called smart political thinking is really very wrong in that it underestimates people's capacity to perceive and respond to someone who really is serving the task and doing what is called for.
GRIFFIN: So people have a natural perceptive capacity to tell the difference between what's genuine and what is not, and when others are working for selfish interests rather than for what the situation really demands?
DEIKMAN: That's right, if they have been able to perceive such motivations in themselves. And hopefully that might have benefits for our educational system, if these ideas about service and consciousness could be part of what is taught. Then people would, I think, have a much better framework for acting in a way that enables them to contribute without getting caught up in issues of guilt or pride or doing good, which is quite irrelevant.
(This article was taken from Vol 5, No 4 of the Human Givens Journal)
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