Three Transcendents, part 4: Mind

Separation, by H. KoppDelany

Reaching inward, we discover our participation in something greater than what we normally call ourselves.

– by B. T. Newberg

This post concludes the series on transcendence in naturalism.  Part 1 introduced naturalistic transcendence, part 2 covered nature as a source of transcendence, and part 3 explored community.  Now we conclude with mind.

In our recent poll on symbols of transcendence, nature proved the most popular, with cosmos a close second.  One that didn’t rate highly was mind.  Perhaps it should come as no surprise.  On the face of it, the very idea of it seems absurd: how could you possibly find something greater than yourself in, well… yourself?

But that’s exactly the misconception I seek to challenge: mind is not ourselves, or at least not what we routinely think of as such.

We are not our minds

What most of us, most of the time, think of as ourselves is more or less our conscious ego, especially the part where we feel like we’re thinking, willing, imagining, feeling, remembering, deliberating, and so on.  It’s our most immediate experience, and it’s what we may fear ceasing to exist after death.  However, this represents only a tiny fraction of the total process of an individual’s mind.

The unconscious is far more vast.  To give a taste: cognitive psychologist Timothy D. Wilson estimates in Strangers to Ourselves that our minds assimilate some 11,000,000 pieces of information per second from our sense organs, but only about 40 can be processed consciously.  The rest, according to Wilson, are handled by the unconscious.

There may even be parts of the mental process external to the individual body.  The field of embodied cognition studies the mind in its holistic interaction with body and environment.  Clark and Chalmers even go so far as to ask whether there is any difference between storing information in memory or in a notebook.  Such mental prostheses, they argue, free up mental processing space by offloading some of it into the environment.  This is a controversial claim, but one worth a moment’s pondering.

By mind I mean the whole mind of the individual, conscious and unconscious.  You could also say psyche, a term more popular in Jungian psychology.  It is the root of psychology, and originally meant “soul.”  Psyche is one of many words that have been thoroughly naturalized, just as “god” and “spirit” may one day come to be.

Deep and vast

So, the other parts of the mind do a lot, but do they do anything interesting, or just take care of the tedious stuff?

Consider this: Where do your words come from when you speak?  You may have a vague plan of the idea you want to convey, but do you consciously decide the words or even the nuances of the ideas?  Or do you discover these things in the process of speaking?

Ancient poets like Homer and Hesiod claimed to receive their lines from a muse.  Perhaps, in some sense, they were right.  The “muse” lies in the unconscious.  In a similar vein, Carl Jung said we are not the authors of our thoughts; they are handed to us.  I tend to agree.

Jung also felt that messages from the unconscious await us in our dreams, and such content somehow “compensates” or balances the conscious mind.  I’m not sure how to test that claim, so I remain skeptical.  It may be a case of seeking pattern where there is none.  But there is one thing that experience has proven to me time and again: my unconscious mind can do certain things that “I” can’t.

A power beyond “me”

When I sit down at my Isis altar with an emotional knot that I’ve been working on for days without resolution, and that knot looses within minutes of chanting and talking to Isis, it’s hard to argue with that.

Somehow, an unconscious process is facilitated by the images and actions involved in devotion.  Perhaps the image of a supernormal mother figure like Isis and the bodily actions of rhythmic chanting, gift offering, and intimate confession are mental prostheses in the manner proposed by Clark and Chalmers.  Ritual devotion may not be unique in its ability to facilitate this, but it appears to be one way to do it, and an effective one in my experience.

I’m sure other people’s experiences with ritual may be quite different.  Regardless, this example demonstrates, like a pebble cast into a well, just how far down the unconscious mind goes.  It is not “me”; it is radically “other.”  It is greater in both degree and kind.  To sound its depths is indeed to discover something greater than oneself.

So, although mind did not rate highly on our poll, I’d like to suggest reconsidering it, not only because it is perhaps the most well-established among naturalists (via Jungian Paganism), but also because it helps us to discover transcendence “closer than your own jugular.”

16 Comments on “Three Transcendents, part 4: Mind

  1. Wow B.T. this series on transcendents is really great work! I think you really have something here – a good articulation of the “theological” environment that composes naturalistic/humanistic paganism. I really think you should consider putting a link to this series in the About section of HP, because I think this is what we are about – seeking to transcend the limitation of our individual ego selves, to connect and develop right relationship to the nested holon of self/mind, community and nature/cosmos.

    • Thanks, M. Jay. Great idea – the “about” section needs a lot of updating, now that you mention it. So much has changed and grown since our first days…

  2. I was thinking the same thing as M. Jay. This whole 4-part series has been incredible. And I agree, it seems like it could be foundational.

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  4. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. It had a lot of good points to it. So before I go on, I want to point out anything that I don’t touch on I did like and for the most part agree with.

    There are a few things I want to touch on for the untying the emotional knot. Often, it is simply acting out the internal feelings that provides the ‘untying’ whether it be speaking, gestures, or other acts. Having an non-judgmental ear is also beneficial in this. In my case I most enjoy talking with fellow creatures, even though I know they don’t understand me I know they won’t judge me based on what I’m saying and are really great at providing their full attention – unless they’re cats 😛 (jk). In your case it appears that the listening ear is a fictitious one, but none the less it provides that avenue. Another thing is that we’re are often conditioned (via society, family etc.) or condition ourselves in a way that we personally respond to a specific set of actions. i.e. Pavlov’s dog. I’ve learned not long ago about one way I was conditioned. Where one action from another causes a seemingly unrelated reaction from me. Which upon exploring this unusual response discovered it was externally conditioned through family life. Now knowing the source I can now work toward removing this unwanted conditioning. This is an example of external conditioning. Internal conditioning would be what you appear to be doing, common to that of meditations where the person intentionally conditions themselves to certain reactions through specific actions/poses. As these actions/poses are continuously reinforced with a certain state of mind. So later on when that state of mind is wanted that action or pose sets it off. Martial arts would be another good example of this. Where blocking is trained to become instinctive – where a visual cue causes the blocking reaction without consciously thinking about it.

    “It is greater in both degree and kind. To sound its depths is indeed to discover something greater than oneself.”

    So I don’t think its about something ‘greater’ than yourself, just another part of yourself.

    As in my comments on the post with the poll. I don’t particularly see any need for ‘transcendence’ or ‘the next level’ as it implies one thing is better than the other or previous, which I don’t think is the case. Nothing is greater or better, it just is. Each degree having something harmful and beneficial. Not becoming more orderly as each has its own form of chaos. What we perceive as order is just chaos giving way to patterns. So this idea of ‘transcendence’ comes across as saying this pattern is better and greater than this pattern that precedes it. As you cannot have one without the other, I fail to see how there can be ‘transcendence’ since everything is a network or web of interactions, having no hierarchy.

    • >Often, it is simply acting out the internal feelings that provides the ‘untying’ whether it be speaking, gestures, or other acts.

      No disagreement here. How wonderful, then, to be able to do this on your own, with no other presence necessary than your own unconscious mind. I believe talking to animals, as you bring up, is a very close analogy to what I described.

      >Internal conditioning would be what you appear to be doing, common to that of meditations where the person intentionally conditions themselves to certain reactions through specific actions/poses.

      Agreed here too. Conditioning is a large and important part of it, and it is conscious and intentional. I do think there is more involved than that, e.g. rhythmic chanting facilitating an altered state of mind, supernormal mother figure encouraging a certain open and empathetic mood, etc., but conditioning is a very significant element.

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  6. I came back to this series recently and reviewed the ideas. I found them very helpful in preparing for a faculty development session here at the University where I work. We brought in a speaker who talked to us about a contemplative practice from the Christian tradition. I was called upon to explicate how one might approach the practice from a naturalistic or humanistic perspective. So, I used the Three Transcendents. And it was very well received. Thank you so much.

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