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An Interview with William Irwin Thompson, Part 3

Conscious death and the mind of light
An Interview with William Irwin Thompson, Part 3

Part 3: Approaching the Mind of Light

BC: Let me press the issue, because I need help. I mean, the panpsychism idea I can kind of process as a religious idea. And I’m perfectly fine with the mind as an emergent phenomenon from the brain. But it’s the idea of communication that puzzles me, because you do seem to work with these metaphors of message and transmission and reception at that metaphysical level.

WIT: So what’s the question?

BC: It’s—how?


WIT: How what?

BC: How can there be communication at that metaphysical level? I have no experience there.

WIT: Well, let’s just take a tentative answer with dimensions. There are four levels to mind. We can start with the world of objects, the glasses of beer in front of us, which are located in three-dimensional perspectival space, for some cultures, aperspectival, for others—according to guess who’s cultural history. Then there’s the transitional world of the hypnogogic, where the muscle inhibitors kick in so you no longer move in three-dimensional space. And in meditational yogic practice you watch your mind and your body, you notice the point at which the images surface, youfirst see just patterns of visual noise, and then they resolve into images, and then you notice that right when the images come in, the muscle inhibitors kickin. And you’ll have a proprioceptive perception of your body in the posture it’s in in meditation. And that’s called the hypnogogic in sleep research.

Then there’s the world of images, which are located in a much more plastic stretchable relativistic space, where your consciousness of self is not proprioceptively limited to your body and your posture. The first stage is you dissociate with the body, and you have a floating feeling, and you’re floating out of your body. Now, sleep scientists say they can produce that experience and so they’re trying to say,out-of-the-body travel is all nonsense, we can just activate that lobe and produce that experience. But they activate that experience, not the next one where I’m going.

So in the second ontic realm—the first being objects, the second being images, the hypnogogic being the transition between the two—you move freely in elastic space and time, and you will have the familiar surreal world of objects that melt together, beings that are two beings at once, you know it’s your Uncle Fred and it’s also your colleague Joe,and somehow they’re both two at once. And this is the kind of surrealistic logic that some painters got into, like Dali and some of the other surrealists.

And then you go off on all these archetypal adventures moving through time and space.

And you reach a certain point where that particular personality stops, and you confront another level of consciousness,that is not actually formed by your personality or your ego with its specific life history. Different traditions have different names for this. Steiner calls it das Ich—the I. Some people call it the Daimon, which is the name from Socrates and Plato picked up by Yeats in A Vision. Others will call it the Doppelgänger. And this being has its own agenda, and you can’t drive it like driving a vehicle. You notice in lucid dreaming you can change your dreams and say I want my beer to be red, and a second later it is red in the glass, and you realize then you’re lucid dreaming and these images are a construct of consciousness. And so that’s kind of a sleep-dream practice. Even non-yogis do lucid dreaming, there are even pop cults on that now.

But this other being does not run on your agenda, and so there can be a total discrepancy.

And you get the feeling that it has its own life and lives in a parallel universe to yours and had just been waiting for you to go to sleep as it activates. And some people—Aurobindo calls it the psychic being—that is the being that is the sum of all your incarnations, not just this one. So there is this discrepancy of the field of awareness.

So one has to just stop or surrender and there’s this change of vehicle, like getting out of a car and getting into an airplane. And time and space begin to be much more cosmically magnified. Then there reaches a point where that being stops, like the airplane lands, and you move out of the world of images and movement into a world of absolute pure sound. I talked to Stockhausen about this once in Paris, and he would go through this experience every night and go to this realm of music and then try to bring it back for his compositions.

Even Francisco Varela as I think I described in one of the books [Imaginary Landscape], where Cisco, when I had the intuitive flash that the bacteria seen in Lynn Margulis’s videos are the little people, and I connect the mythological discourse of animism and my Irish mythological heritage of Celtic animism to bacteriology and modern science, that the microbes are the little people under the leaf mold, and the images are just cultural image-transforms, the way our mind generates images from a sound or a dream.

Steiner talks about having his pocket watch on the bedside as he’s sleeping and it’s going tick-tock, lightly reverberating on the bedside table, and hearing that tick-tock as the click-clack of trains, and suddenly he’s in a train in a dream, because he travelled everywhere by train,all over Germany and Austria. So the dreaming mind will take a sound it hears in the room and turn it into an image-transform. So a lot of mythological systems work on that image-transform logic.

Microbes in a Lynn Margulis video

So, I didn’t realize that until I was at that ’81 meeting with Lynn Margulis, until I communicated my enthusiasm to Varela, because I was flush with one of these highs of connecting stuff and being really excited. And of course the purpose of my bringing these people together is to sort of get off that way. That’s the fun of the jazz. And he said to me, dismissively, in Spanish, “O god, Thompson, I can’t do anything with that. I am a scientist.” I like to hang out with you and I like your mythic play. But when I go back to the lab it’s got to be real science. And this is just Thompsons Irish blarney bullshit.

So, he had a dream that night, and he dreamt that he saw the bacteria from Lynn’s visual film presentation to the group, and he heard the music of the spheres, this cosmic music, and went into a state of what he called cognitive bliss, and saw the beauty and aesthetic transport of  the interconnectedness of everything. And he woke up in a state of exaltation. And he was nice enough to come back and tell me that, and sort of confess that, after all, though my discourse was a different level of discourse, it still has a validity as discourse.

So, in this realm one experiences stopping moving, because you’re in Borges’s hypersphere, or what Nicholas of Cusa—and Borges is quoting Cusa—calls “the center is everywhere and the circumference nowhere,” which is a good description of the hypersphere, which is a higher-dimensional object, which is why I’m basing all this stuff on dimension theory. Each of the subtleties actually has a different dimensionality-value to it. It’s only the waking consciousness that is “simply located”—Whitehead’s phrase—in three-dimensional object space.

In this other level you’re in a hypersphere, where you don’t have to go anywhere, because every existent is actually sounding its ontic note. I’ve written a poem on this, it travels from this experience of doing dream yoga in Cambridge. It’s called “Awakened Dream of Sleep in Cambridge”—with the paradox of Cambridge being the intellectual capital of the world, and I’m sitting a block away from Harvard yard.

So, you hear the proteins folding in the cell, the coil of the amino-acid rings, you hear the neutron stars, you hear the galaxies turning, you hear everything in this ecstatic hallelujah chorus to the nth power. And that, Yogananda calls the Holy Spirit—divinity manifest in the universe. This is the feminine divinity, this is the Mater, this is the existence of everything. And this is an experience that one has when practicing dream yoga. And I’ve met other people who’ve had this, and others I won’t mention because you know them and I don’t want to betray their confidence. And Stockhausen—since he’s dead, I can mention Stockhausen.

And then, that world reaches its limit, and you come to a kind of image, generated again because the experiences you’re having are so subtle. The image is like a currency. You know an American dollar is not real, it’s paper. But it’s a consensual instrument that enables a nonlocated global economy to come into play. So it’s misplaced concreteness—again a Whitehead phrase—to say that value is stored in Fort Knox as gold. No, it’s a consensual instrument that allows this non-membrane autopoietic emergent phenomenon of the economy to come into play. And this is where Heinz von Foerster is right, and this is where Varela and I diverge. I wanted to talk about an autopoietic economy, and Cisco says, no, you can’t do that because it has to be membrane-bounded. So that’s the divergence philosophically between the two of us, with me applying these ideas. Which again, I say he doesn’t own, because auto and poesis are terms from literature, and so I’ve got as much right to them as he does.

So, at this next level you experience the seraphim, the angelic coral reef around a hypersphere of light. And they are probably not, quote, “really there.” This is something that you are generating so that you’ll have a palpable instrument for memory to bring back to consciousness. Because memory is really an organ of perception—Blake and Aldous Huxley tried to explore that. And, at the particular point you pass through this coral reef like coming to an island, as if you were swimming to Hawaii and swimming into Hanauma Bay, and as you come into this bay there’s sort of this coral reef protecting it, and you go into this other area, privileged kind of area. Then you enter into this rising sense of light, and you realize that this hypersphere of light is what is conventionally in culture called Buddha Mind or God—or Godhead, which I like better, because God is this parental projection,and cultural construct, it has nothing to do with anything ultimately serious—and generates more noise than message, to put it back in Shannon’s theory.

As one moves into this mind of light, all subject/predicate syntax, object/subject relations melt. And it’s almost impossible to generate a memory, because the memories are what you have as you leave the state, and you’re returning. It’s the difference membrane that actually generates it, exactly like if you watch your mind, when you’re waking up, what they call the hypnopompic state in sleep theory, all the dreams are generated at once, and you’re generating them as the brain is reassembling its waking consciousness. So as you leave these states, it generates an image that helps you transform it into an experience. The way a consensual instrument like a dollar bill would enable us to enter into an economic relationship in which you buy me a bottle of beer.

So in that state, one’s in a perfect state of translucent rest, but no activity, no thoughts. This is why they say—no mind, no heart, no tongue, no eyes, no nose, face, no this, no that. It’s always versed in the via negativa as the denial of all predication.

One doesn’t stay in that state, if one’s still alive, unless one is in the process of conscious dying, and you just don’t return to your body, you just go out in the interval between each heartbeat. One then reverses the cycle and goes back through the steps that one has taken, and then eventually, you awaken back in the meditational state aware that you’re watching your dreams and lucid dreaming and transforming the memories into little narratives and short stories. And then you become aware of your body again proprioceptively, and then you open your eyes and it’s morning.

And so, in the diurnal cycle, one goes through that every day. And so there is a realm of deep dreamless sleep, which in the Vedic systems is called Atman and Brahman, that is, the self-similar fractal architecture in which the foam bubble is part of a larger thing. So fractal landscapes capture this kind of geometry of being pretty well.

So one is aware that mind is an ontic phenomenon,that in every day one returns to Brahman, to call this Godhead, or mind of light—“mind of light” is Aurobindo’s phrase—that this is a kind of diurnal cycle, that goes through every day. And you can do it consciously through yogic meditation. And in a larger sense, one goes through it in every life. That there is birth and finally death. And the ultimate yogic experience is to have a conscious death, where one just simply says my life work is done and I’m through, and then you just stay at those levels of laminar flow that are not so identified with the body.

Each tradition offers a mythological system for explaining that—using sometimes densely culturally-specific stuff. And so, if you adopt a religion—which is why I’m in favor of post-religious spirituality, of trying on a dialogue between meditational practice and neuroscience, with the Dalai Lama picking up on stuff that really started at Lindisfarne before the Dalai Lama started it—this was in the ’70s with Varela and Rinpoche, from Tibet. Each religion picks up a lot of noise, a lot of ritual, a lot of dos and don’ts, a lot of hierarchy and priests taking power over people’s lives, gurus who are screwing you over as well as pretending to help.

So the prospect—now that all the cultural systems are in paperback and you can compare Tibetan Buddhism to Sufism, to Christian mysticism and Steiner, to Aurobindo, to neuroscience—is that there is a kind of new post-religious spirituality in which these opposites of mysticism and science are not opposed, they are different levels of discourse, like the difference between music and painting, or music and poetry.

So Lindisfarne basically tried to energize that as a cultural emergence, and now after thirty-four years it’s done its work, and it’s in the process of passing the torch to a new generation, and seeing come forth a new contemplative institution, where rather than being based on the Great Books, which is the miniaturization of a civilization, like the University of Chicago and Hutchins, it’s based on contemplative practice.

And so, in places like Upaya, college kids have to be drop-outs. They come there, they don’t have to be Zen monks. They learn how to go through a rigorous training. But there’s also a lot of bells and whistles and incense and robes, and a lot of stuff that I and Evan don’t want to put up with. Though we respect that it does produce results, and it does have great maps, and it can if properly performed take them to the experience of this mind of light. And it took Cisco to the process of a conscious death. So he’s dying, held up from back with his wife sitting in meditation, meditating in death with the phone in his ear with the monks at Dharamsala chanting the Bardo Thodol, the Book of the Dead, in his ear as he’s meditating and dying. And that’s how Cisco died as a neuroscientist.

So that’s been the Lindisfarne interval, and now there’s something else emerging. Hopefully this meeting will enable it to take one step further toward manifestation. That’s my hope, but it might not, it might take more and be slower to come forth. Does that make any sense?

BC: (laughter) Um, yeah— . . . I could roll with all that. I don’t know—maybe I’m tying myself in unnecessary knots. Because the process of rising through these levels as you’ve just narrated it remains something I could conceive as a . . . self-unfolding of your own mind. And so, in that, it was just this beautiful kind of opening flower toward this apex. But you didn’t leave your own mind, you just expanded it.

WIT: But, you see, you’re using that three-dimensional model as a metaphor for describing something . . . . Because the experience is actually the dissolution of personal mind into more of a mind as a higher multi-dimensional geometry, like moving from a cube to the tesseract or from the circle to the hypersphere. The question is precisely what we mean by mind. When we examine what you call “your own mind,” you’re speaking to me in English, you’re speaking in a culture, you’re speaking to me with a lot of cultural baggage of interpretations which you take for granted, in which you think you know what “your” and “own” and “mind” is. It’s like Bill Clinton on trial, saying, “It depends on what ‘is’ is.”


So, the process of discovering what is Eigenheit—ownness—and what is ego and what is mind is what this contemplative educational process encourages, what it’s about. One can say, well, this is just a higher-order dream, you’re just generating an epistemological narrative, you’re generating your own movie. But one could say the same thing for any experience. You could say, you think you love your wife, but it’s just pheromones and chemicals. You think you had anorgasm but it’s nothing but a muscle twitch, a genital sneeze. You think it’s a good poem but it’s nothing but arbitrary signs. So, that level of reductionism is its own culture, it carries its own particular baggage.

It’s getting off in the act of denial. That’s the basic thing that Milton explored in Paradise Lost with Lucifer’s Non serviam! That one step higher makes me highest, and O God, he’s just presented me with Christ as the emanation and not me. And I’m pissed and it should be me. It’s the ego crying out pissed off at God because it’s got its own agenda. You know Milton and Blake explore that kind of psychology pretty thoroughly.

But ultimately, one sees what captures one’s love or commitment as a mystery of the personality—why do you fall in love with one and not another, why do you fall in love with an instrument, why do you play guitar and not violin or piano, why do some choose literature and not molecular chemistry? You know, ultimately these things are unanswerable and so it just comes down to, How do I wish to live my life? And there is this definition called “death,” but death can’t teach you how to die. So part of the quality of life determines the conscious art of dying. And a lot of these cultures have spent a lot of time in this landscape.