Whitehead and death, Whitehead and psychedelics, Whitehead and sobriety. Three different subjects woven together in a single life: that of John Buchanan in his Processing Reality: Finding Meaning in Death, Psychedelics, and Sobriety.
How refreshing. Whitehead’s philosophy is often presented in overly abstract and distant terms, as if it pertains to quantum events and galactic happenings, but not to lived experience. Not here, not with Processing Reality. Buchanan's lived experience sets the stage for a consideration of Whitehead's ideas. His approach to Whitehead's philosophy is indeed cosmological but also, in his words, "semi-biographical."
What is this lived experience? In Buchanan's case it includes the death of his father early in his life; experimenting with, and learning from, psychedelics; and undertaking a journey into sobriety after a struggle with alcoholism. This makes the book interesting! It’s the kind of book that you can pick up, turn to almost any page, and find something that keeps you going. The book will appeal to many different kinds of people, but perhaps especially to those those among us who have also suffered the death of loved ones, or struggled with addiction, or wondered what lies beyond the doors of ordinary waking consciousness.
On psychedelics, Buchanan knows their potential dangers. His own approach is sober and qualified. He offers "some words of caution" early on, speaking of the risks involved in people undertaking psychedelic adventures. He appreciates that they can be used therapeutically, medicinally, and religiously; but also emphasizes that they should be used "very judiciously" and ideally in sacred contexts. Still, he makes clear that they can help provide us with insights we desperately need as a species. We need to realize there is an unconscious dimension to our minds, in which archetypes and energies dwell that shape our behavior; that there are many non-ordinary states of awareness to which we have access, some of which can be deeply healing; that even the most ordinary experiences carry within it the very history of the universe, such that we are connected to all that exists; that wherever there is energy - in inorganic as well as organic matter - there is something feeling; that the universe has a soul - God - who is real and who can be directly experienced; These are but a few of the ideas you will find in this marvelous book.
The process tradition speaks of four values that can animate our lives: whole persons, whole communities, a whole planet, and holistic thinking. Buchanan's Processing Reality embodies each of these values in vivid, semi-biographical form. It is a book about Whitehead and process philosophy; but also, and more importantly, about hopes we can live by.
We, too, can deal with loss without falling apart; we, too, can have minds that are open to many wisdoms of the universe; we, too, can live soberly, free from addictions to what harms us, so that we can love neighbors as we love ourselves. Our animal neighbors and plant neighbors and our human neighbors. And, yes, we, too, can trust in a God of love.
Want to get started with the book? Below are some excerpts, shared with his permission.
Processing Reality: Finding Meaning in Death, Psychedelics, and Sobriety
by John H. Buchanan
excerpts from Chapter One and Chapter Five
Chapter One: Waking Up
Over forty years ago, an epiphany from a psychedelic experience launched me on an intellectual and spiritual adventure. This book, in its way, is the culmination of this amazing journey. The pivotal moment occurred sometime in the spring of 1972, several months after my first experience with LSD, while walking through the living room of “The Apartment”—a run-down rental house typically inhabited by teens escaping from family supervision. In the midst of this early LSD trip, I had a sudden and vivid insight: the essence of psychedelic awareness lies at the intersection between psychology, philosophy, and religion. More precisely, I envisioned psychedelic enlightenment as a direct experience of the hidden meaning that lies within the area shared by three overlapping circles, representing the domains of psychology, philosophy, and religion. Out of this innermost realm flow psychological insight, philosophical illumination, and religious revelation. It seemed crystal clear to me that the deepest experiences, questions, and feelings related to all three of these regions arise out of a common psychic space, and that psychedelics could open the door to the mysteries that lay at their heart.
While many of my psychedelic experiences did not involve this kind of decisive insight, they invariably involved a feeling that the depths of the psyche were opening up and more of reality was starting to pour into conscious awareness. This “more” might manifest simply as a far richer perception and appreciation of colors and sounds. Or it might entail a surge of new insights about myself, my past, and my relationships— suddenly revealed with extraordinary depth and clarity. And then, if egoic consciousness released its grip even more fully, feelings from still greater depths might flow in, revealing an unexpected and sometimes unwanted panoply of images, entities, and revelations about a universe far vaster than previously imagined.
Although many of my psychedelic experiences were terrifying, I was also fascinated by what I was encountering. From an early age, I had been intrigued by extraordinary experiences and powers, be it in science fiction stories of super intelligence, portrayals of magical powers, fantasy about other worlds and beings, accounts of mystical faculties, or just the superheroes of Marvel and DC comics. Now, much to my shock and delight, I had stumbled upon a little pill that brought these other dimensions within my grasp, or so it seemed. Needless to say, I wanted to learn all I could about this new realm that was being revealed to me.
Inspired by my psychedelic insight into the “heart” of reality, I started to study psychology and philosophy over the summer at a local community college and continued to focus on these fields throughout my rather protracted undergraduate and graduate careers. My search eventually coalesced into two streams of thought that have proven most helpful for understanding this realm of deep inner experience—and understanding most everything else, for that matter. First, during undergraduate school, I encountered transpersonal psychology: the study of extraordinary experiences such as mystical and meditative states, psychical phenomena, spirituality, and higher states of consciousness. Not surprisingly, transpersonal psychology has a lot to say about the psychedelic experience. In fact, one might say that transpersonal psychology is the study of the states of consciousness and the varieties of phenomena that appear during psychedelic journeys. These tend to fall within the domains of psychology, philosophy, and religious experience—just as I envisioned during my psychedelic epiphany. Stanislav Grof’s theories, especially his phenomenology of nonordinary experiences and his cartography of the unconscious psyche, play a central role in my understanding and contextualization of these phenomena.
Then, early in my doctoral studies, I was bowled over by the possibilities of process thought, especially as articulated in the speculative philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (although William James’s ideas were also influential). Whitehead is still not widely appreciated today, but he is certainly one of the great minds of recent centuries: a brilliant mathematician, logician, mathematical physicist, historian of ideas, philosopher of science and nature, and a metaphysician. Whitehead is probably most generally recognized as Bertrand Russell’s teacher and collaborator on the Principia Mathematica. He was also a very humane being: the Encyclopedia Britannica makes the uncharacteristically sentimental claim that Whitehead was “universally beloved.”i
A major reason for my excitement over Whitehead’s metaphysics was my rapid realization of how superbly his ideas could serve as a sophisticated philosophical foundation for transpersonal psychology, as well as provide a rational link between spiritual and scientific concerns. Whitehead took this linking or synthesizing function very seriously, as exemplified in this emphatic statement from Process and Reality, his magnum opus: “Philosophy frees itself from the taint of ineffectiveness by its close relations with religion and with science, natural and sociological. It attains its chief importance by fusing the two, namely, religion and science, into one rational scheme of thought.”ii This idea of fusing religion and science within one philosophical system, of course, has important implications for my “interdisciplinary” vision into the deep underlying connection between spiritual, psychological, and philosophical insight.
But my search, though crystallized and energized by a desire to understand the meaning of my psychedelic experiences, was broader in nature. I was also looking for a way to positively reconcile my psychedelic insights and experiences with a rational and scientific understanding of the world, including how to coordinate these exceptional experiences with everyday life and values. Whitehead’s speculative philosophy—as an “endeavor to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted”iii—seemed made to order for these ambitions as well. Articulating a worldview of this kind has proven very useful, intellectually and pragmatically. It has helped me live through, or become reconciled with, some of life’s more difficult issues, which is an important test. For according to William James’s pragmatic principle: if you cannot live it, it is meaningless.iv
This book has evolved out of a desire to understand and come to terms with five pivotal events that were life changing for me in many respects. All five had major psychological and spiritual impacts. All raised important questions about life, the universe, and the nature of reality. They all influenced what I studied academically and experimented with experientially. And all of these pivotal events made essential contributions to who I was and who I have become. Echoing Kant’s famous formulation, each of these events in one way or another woke me from my “dogmatic slumber,” ushering in a new understanding of some important dimension of life and reality. There are many things to “wake up” from, and to, in this life—and it is often a major crisis that galvanizes the awakening.
These five pivotal events can be characterized and summarized by the nature of the crisis each induced and the kinds of questions each raised:
First, my father’s sudden and unexpected death when I was eleven brought about an existential crisis: can one have a basic trust in life? I found myself faced with profound and difficult questions. What is the meaning and purpose in life, given the capriciousness and inevitability of death and loss? If there is a loving God, how can we reconcile this Love with such tragedy and suffering? Or as William James succinctly couches it: Is the universe friendly? In short: “Is it safe?”v
Second, discovering the effects of alcohol and drugs led me to an epistemological crisis: How do we know ourselves and the world? What does it mean for who we are that taking certain drugs dramatically changes our perception of the world? How malleable are the mind and emotions, and the world? Is how one feels the most important thing?
My early LSD experiences brought about a third crisis: metaphysical. What is Reality? Is there more to reality than our everyday world? How are mind, body, and the world interrelated? What are “altered” states of consciousness? What do spiritual intuitions of “higher” states of awareness mean?
My “Big” psychedelic experience paved the way for my fourth crisis: theological/cosmological. What is the ultimate nature of the universe? How do we understand “mystical” experiences of God? What spiritual entities, forces, and dimensions might make up the universe? What constitutes an adequate Cosmology?
Fifth, getting sober crystallized a spiritual crisis: What is the meaning and purpose of existence? How can the insights from extraordinary experiences be effectively reconciled with everyday life? How does one integrate all these dimensions into a unified life?
Olaf Stapledon—British philosopher, psychologist, and my favorite writer of science fiction—sometimes speaks of the universe as a “beautiful and terrible” place. Besides the obvious implication of the universe having a dreadful and frightening aspect, Stapledon is also using the word terrible to mean “awe-ful,” that is, inducing a terrifyingly powerful sense of awe. And although I mostly felt shock and grief at my father’s sudden passing, this eventually turned to awe at the capriciousness of life and the frightening universe that had been revealed. Awe and amazement also accompanied my discovery of the power of alcohol and drugs to miraculously remove my anxieties and change my feelings (and to get me dreadfully ill, though that was just plain awful). I was far more overwhelmed and astonished by my first LSD experiences and, if possible, even more so by the psychedelic revelations of my “Big Trip.” Although getting sober at age thirty-one was necessarily a slow process, it too started with a series of shocks accompanied by a growing sense of awe at my amazing good fortune in escaping an ugly fate and then finding many of the answers and the community I had been seeking.
As a search for knowledge of the nature and meaning of reality, this book is perhaps best understood, and told, in terms of a quest. This quest is not so different from those that have been undertaken by many of my generation, and those of many generations before us (and certainly those to come). The questions and ideas that emerged out of my experiences do not seem idiosyncratic, but rather are almost prosaic in paralleling many of the key issues that have been troubling the Western world for at least the last several centuries, and some for much longer than that.
More importantly, I believe that these experiences, properly understood, point to some revolutionary possibilities—new possibilities that our troubled world desperately needs. What seems most important for our civilization at this critical juncture is acknowledging, understanding, and responding to our planetary crises of environmental degradation, resource depletion, overpopulation, ever-more dangerous wars, and the more general problem of how to reconstruct human society in relation to these multiple, overlapping challenges. I believe this will require, among other things, a spiritual and philosophical reenvisioning of ourselves, the nature of reality, and our place in the cosmos—for the old vision is faltering. Many of the ideas and tools for just such a new vision are found in the spiritual and scientific possibilities offered by transpersonal psychology and the novel metaphysics and cosmology of Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy.
This new envisioning must be experiential at its roots, both in being grounded in experiences that reflect and create this new vision and in developing a coherent view of the universe based upon a new understanding of how experience itself is fundamental to all reality. By recapitulating my own intellectual and spiritual journey—and presenting the two revolutionary systems that I have found most helpful for providing theoretical and experiential guidance and synthesis—I hope to illustrate analogically the more general application and importance of these ideas for society at large.
I have chosen a semi-autobiographical style for this book for two main reasons: first, to present the key philosophical issues and ideas as they pertain to my own search for meaning; second, to offer personal examples of the psychological and spiritual phenomena under consideration. These ideas and events provide an experiential touchstone for the theoretical explanations and speculations explored in this book. Such an exposition seems only appropriate when discussing Whitehead’s philosophy, given that he considers immediate experience the foundation of all thought and philosophy. Staying close to experience also helps avoid the errors associated with what Whitehead calls the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness,” that is, confusing abstractions with more basic underlying realities.vi
In the field of transpersonal psychology, two outstanding works from the 1970s serve as precedents for this type of personal approach to introducing and contextualizing important theoretical material. The Invisible Landscape, by Terrance and Dennis McKenna, takes the reader on a journey through the authors’ psychedelic adventures in South America and their incredible intellectual speculations into the source and meaning of these experiences, spelled out at the physiological, biochemical, metaphysical, mathematical, and mystical levels.vii I was surprised—and delighted—to discover that the metaphysics used as a philosophical touchstone is none other than Whitehead’s. Thus, I am happy to acknowledge the McKenna brothers as the first (as far as I know) to employ Whitehead’s philosophy as a meta-psychology for the transpersonal field. Even more impressive is that they wrote such a tour de force while still in their twenties: a tribute both to their brilliance and to the power of their psychedelically-enhanced vision.
Michael Harner’s The Way of the Shaman is another remarkable book that boldly begins with Harner’s own adventures among the shamans of some indigenous South American tribes and the psychedelic initiations in which he eventually is allowed to participate.viii By inviting the reader into the heart of his own experience, Harner brings to life shamanic practices and helps the reader to understand more intimately the lived meaning of the theories he proposes. When dealing with extraordinary intuitions and feelings, direct personal revelation of this kind is useful, perhaps even necessary, to help convey their stamp of deep meaning, importance, and reality.
The power of a personal narrative should not be taken lightly, as it is often the more intimate story that inspires the most interest. And interest is very important. Whitehead makes this rather extraordinary claim, especially for a logician, regarding interest: “But in the real world it is more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true.”ix Whitehead immediately follows up this maxim about the importance of interest—which lures us into entertaining new possibilities—with the rejoinder: “The importance of truth is, that it adds to interest.” For the sake of the truth-value of Whitehead’s ideas, and that of the other theories discussed in this book, I will do my best to entertain and interest the reader as we plunge into the occasionally heady propositions and challenging ideas residing in Whitehead’s process philosophy and Grof’s transpersonal psychology.
By blending my life story with my life’s work in the following chapters, I hope I have found an effective way of conveying the results of my quest into the nature of reality.
Chapter Five: A Complex Amplifier
My journeys with psychedelics were as bewildering as they were illuminating, and so I was eager to discover what different writers and researchers had to say on this topic. One of the first and best books I came upon was Masters and Houston’s The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience. x The title, of course, is a play on William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience: an appropriate reference in a number of ways, including an allusion to James’s use of nitrous oxide to alter his own consciousness. Among other things, Masters and Houston’s interdisciplinary effort brings together fascinating insights from psychology, philosophy, and mysticism, meshing well with my intuition that psychedelics access the experiential intersection of these domains.
Apparently, I had mentioned my interest in their work to my mother at some point, for during the spring of my first year at college, she alerted me to a month-long seminar in Switzerland taking place the following summer. Jean Houston was to be part of the faculty, along with other notables including Harvey Cox, June Singer, and “the Yogi of Australia.” The location was near Lugano, on the grounds of the American School in Switzerland, where all my sisters had spent some time and I had once visited briefly. Near the former home of Herman Hesse, the location was befitting for a conference named after the setting of his final novel and magnum opus, The Glass Bead Game. xi The conference theme was the writings of Hesse and Carl Jung, which of course allowed for a wide range of topics in the areas of psychology, philosophy, religion, myth, and literature. Not coincidently, Hesse and Jung had already become two of my favorite authors.
Jean Houston, as it turned out, was only scheduled to be at Castalia for a short time. But I was so eager to meet her, I was happy to spend a month at Castalia just to have this opportunity—which, incidentally, led to my eventual participation in a number of her intensive workshops. Jean turned out to be a fount of information and inspiration that helped guide my search and stabilize my life. No need to go into much detail on the seminar itself, which I found fascinating at the beginning, but somehow less so as the weeks went by and my drinking escalated—especially after locating a nearby source of gin. However, I do want to recount one day of particular consequence.
The day in question involved three events—all psychedelically enhanced—that culminated with me nearly leaving all I knew behind, or at least it certainly felt that way at the time. It all began rather benignly. While getting off on some LSD, I joined a small group of Castalians who were listening to a presentation by a beautiful Radcliffe student.
Her lecture, as I recall, was on the phenomenology of being lost. The exact timetable of that day is likewise lost in the mists of time. But as I was already beginning to feel the effects of the acid, I think it safe to say that it must have taken place sometime in the afternoon. All I really remember about her talk was that it felt eerily pertinent to my situation: both to my general sense of feeling a bit lost in life and to the more specific psychedelic sense of feeling my normal ego boundaries slipping away. Although this experience of “losing myself” was always frightening, it was exhilarating and freeing at the same time. Thankfully, the cloistered gardens, beautiful buildings, and hillside setting overlooking Lake Lugano and the Alps provided a soothing and serene background to my growing psychedelic turbulence.
Tellingly, the more the acid came on, the less concerned I became with how appealing the lecturer was. In my case, at least, when under the influence of LSD, the powerful feelings surging through my body and soul overrode my normal urges for other kinds of exciting stimulation, even the erotic. Also, while in the grips of psychedelic intoxication, I often found it difficult to stay intentionally focused on anything for an extended time, as my awareness was largely at the mercy of deeper psychic currents. (This brings to mind an American I met in Afghanistan, who told me that he loved sex on heroin because he could go on and on; but he did not like making love on LSD, as he kept losing track of what was happening. On the other hand, Timothy Leary often describes the pleasures of psychedelic sex. But I suspect that such encounters occurred before or after the peak period of the acid trip—or perhaps I should say that I suspect this would be true for most people. Leary is somewhat of an anomaly, in many regards.) In any case, I left the lecture psychedelically charged and psychologically roused for the next event.
Jean Houston’s workshop on “Your Death” met late that afternoon. Earlier in the day, Jean had asked me if her group could use the large balcony off my room, which overlooked the manicured grounds. I was happy to oblige. So, a little before sunset, about a dozen of us gathered in the fading light to imagine the circumstances surrounding our own death. I suspect Jean thought that a vivid confrontation with our existential boundaries would be a revealing psychological exercise. Our assignment was to describe in detail how we might want our own funerals or memorials to be carried out.
This became a deeply poignant experience, especially given my LSD-enhanced state of heightened emotion and imagination. Even more striking, though, was watching how others performed this task. People’s faces, when viewed psychedelically, often appear to be transparent masks, revealing both the surface charade and the hidden emotions within. Being privy to people’s naked psychic depths is a powerful experience: both fascinating and disturbing. Some were playful, some more serious, but all appeared to me to be consciously or unconsciously avoiding their deeper authentic feelings about death. I departed this session emotionally primed by these recent confrontations with “being alone” and “one’s own death,” two key issues for me—and for most people, I would hazard.
The evening lecture was in the main lounge, where a German Egyptologist was giving a presentation on the meaning of the symbols of ancient Egypt. In a somewhat discombobulated condition, I stretched out on a sofa at the end of the large room. I sensed this was going to be a powerful talk. Hearing these ancient symbols colorfully described affected me strongly. Curiously, his German accent seemed to add to the efficaciousness of his words. In fact, I began to feel that he was somehow invoking these symbols, that they were actually becoming alive inside of me in some palpable way. When he arrived at the symbol of the Snake, describing how its serpentine energies rise up into the sky, pulling one up into the heavens . . . well, I was right there along with him for the ride. I was slip sliding away to somewhere else with that snake, and with each passing second, I was climbing further and further from this reality. My entire world seemed to be rapidly fading away. When I realized that nearly everything was gone and that I no longer could feel any sense of attachment even to my family—I could still vaguely remember them in some abstract fashion, but felt no personal connection whatsoever—I suddenly became concerned about where this all might end up. I did not want to be discovered on that couch in a catatonic stupor, being trapped in some astral realm beyond my ken. The trouble this would cause for the Castalia organizers, and the pain that my family would feel, seemed unacceptable. This fate appeared to be a distinct possibility at the time, although in retrospect, this was more likely my ego grasping at straws to protect its already haggard boundaries. In any case, I pulled myself back from the brink somehow and struggled up to my room, where I lay in bed and held on for dear life until the psychedelic peak had passed.
Never before had I experienced so vividly the direct efficacy of what might be called a living symbol. It was as if some kind of “snaky” catalyst entered into my being and reshaped my psyche.
This encounter with the power of the symbol raised a number of questions, such as: How can symbols help transform inner experience in such a dramatic fashion? Also, if one does not believe that symbols are all there is to reality, then how do symbols mediate our interaction with a world beyond ourselves? From a transpersonal perspective, this problem becomes one of understanding how symbols might help open up experience to the deeper aspects of the universe. When I felt myself ascending up towards some transpersonal realm, was this purely a subjective fantasy or hallucination? Or might my psyche actually have been opening up to a larger reality residing beyond the threshold of everyday awareness?
The larger issue at hand involves not only the psychodynamic and transpersonal power of symbols, but also what role symbolism plays in all experience. I believe that Whitehead’s philosophy holds the key to addressing these questions—and others as well—through his revolutionary theory of perception. Before examining Whitehead’s theory, I want to relate a story about how Paul Ricoeur’s views on symbolism have influenced my thinking. While working on my master’s degree at West Georgia College (now the University of West Georgia), it was my good fortune to take a course on Paul Ricoeur with Myron Aarons. Mike founded the humanistic psychology program at West Georgia and studied under Ricoeur while completing his doctorate in Paris. The main text for the class was Freud and Philosophy, Ricoeur’s hermeneutic reading of Freudian theory.
As I poured over the course material the night before our final test, which was a group oral exam to be held at the house I was renting, I had a sudden epiphany about Ricoeur’s theory of symbolic transformation. This rapidly evolved into a vision of how the chakra centers are symmetrically, but inversely, interconnected. The root chakra energy at the base of the spine transforms into the spiritual awareness of the crown chakra at the top of the head; the second chakra energy flows into the third eye; the energy from the solar plexus energizes the throat chakra; while the heart chakra acts as the center of transformation for the more primitive energies of the lower chakras as they transmute into higher spiritual feelings.
I do not know if this insight has any basis in reality, as impressive as it seemed at the time, but it did help me understand one of Ricoeur’s central points: symbols act to transform emotions about a past object (“desire”) into feelings about a present one. For example, if we take early childhood emotions related to one’s mother—feelings of protection, warmth, love, envelopment, and a generally nourishing and supportive environment (ideally)—and redirect these feelings or qualities into some aspect of our adult life, we might obtain a symbol like Mother Earth, thereby generating a felt sense of the planet as a loving, nurturing environment that deserves our respect and mutual care. On a more personal level, when we project our early feelings towards our parents onto a potential romantic partner, we are endowing these partners, for better or worse, with the symbolic possibility of rediscovering these long past feelings of ultimate intimacy. As Proust would have it: a recovery of lost time.
Stanislav Grof’s accounts from psychedelic sessions provide vivid examples of these kinds of symbolic transformations of past experience. Under psychedelic stimulation, people frequently relive episodes from very early on in their lives, sometimes reportedly regressing all the way back to their birth and even into experiences from the womb, and thereby dramatically alter their adult orientation to objects in their life as well as to life in general.
While these findings fly in the face of the conventional medical view that prenatal neurons are not sufficiently myelinated to support memory consolidation, abundant psychological testimony and evidence call this mainstream position into doubt—as do recent discussions concerning some type of memory being present in simple organisms devoid of any nervous system at all. And as we have seen, memory, from a Whiteheadian perspective, is not based solely on brain storage mechanisms, but rather involves direct feelings (prehensions) of past events.
When perinatal memories erupt into adult consciousness, they tend to give rise to experiences such as floating through the vast reaches of outer space, swimming through the ocean, or enjoying tropical paradises. It is not difficult to see how the feeling-tone of these images flows easily out of the vicissitudes of intrauterine existence. At the other end of the spectrum, various manifestations of hell-like images—witches and demons, fiery torment, vast scenes of war and destruction—often arise to symbolically convey the painful and frightening experiences surrounding the more violent aspects of the birth process. Again, past feeling is symbolically transformed to create images and emotions in the present that capture the essential qualities of those memories.
Past feeling can pertain to more than just our personal past, or even our perinatal past. It can also involve intuitions into the broader depths of the universe. In Grof’s research, the transpersonal dimension opens up into an astonishingly diverse realm of experiences, including past lives; direct insights into the structure and experience of animals, plants, and microscopic and inorganic forms; mythological and archetypal entities; parapsychological phenomena; mystical states; and more. But what do these extraordinary experiences mean? Are they “real,” in the sense of revealing objective information about our universe and the nature of reality? Or are they merely subjective imaginings that hold no broader cosmological or metaphysical implications?
If we are to take seriously transpersonal experiences—and everyday experience as well, for that matter—we require a theory of perception that coherently explains how objective reality enters into our personal experience, thereby obviating the modern paranoia that human consciousness is isolated within its subjective, purely symbolic moments of experience—what Santayana calls “solipsism of the present moment.” This anxiety provides fertile ground for fictions like The Matrix, where the protagonist discovers that his whole world is a virtual reality. (The careful film viewer will, however, observe the plot holes that appear while trying to make a coherent story based on a notion that violates what David Griffin calls our “hardcore common sense”—in this case, our lived conviction that the world and other people are objectively real.xii)
Whitehead’s theory of perception provides an excitingly novel understanding of how feelings from the immediate past of the larger environment and from the body are symbolically transformed into subjective experience, vanquishing the ghost of solipsism that has been haunting the West since Descartes’s radical division of mind and matter.
Equally important, for my quest, Whitehead’s theory also furnishes a rational, coherent interpretation of how parapsychological and mystical perceptions could provide real knowledge about the universe. The key idea, similar to the one described in Ricoeur’s interpretation of Freud, is that feelings related to objects lying beyond everyday awareness are unconsciously perceived and psychically transformed to create new, relevant experiences in the present.
i Lowe, “Alfred North Whitehead,” 636. ii Whitehead, Process and Reality, 15. iii Whitehead, Process and Reality, 3. iv The reader will have to excuse my rather facile translation of James’s views on the lived importance of truth and meaning. Citing a passage from pages 413–14 of James’s Collected Essays and Reviews, Gerald Myers provides a more precise summary of James’s view on this subject:
“The single most important point in his version of pragmatism is that the meaning of a philosophical proposition resides in what it provides or predicts as a practical consequence. . . . There can be no difference that doesn’t make a difference. . . . The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the one which is true. (Myers, William James, 295–96.)
v “Is it safe?” is, of course, the infamous pivotal question of Marathon Man. vi While this approach may sound like an attempt to adopt a “deconstructionist” strategy of sorts, my sympathies lie primarily with the kind of constructive postmodernism that is allied more closely with Whiteheadian thought. But I think it is fair to say that both kinds of postmodernism understand the importance of narrative—and of telling a good story. vii McKenna, Invisible Landscape. viii Harner, Way of the Shaman. ix Whitehead, Process and Reality, 259. x Masters and Houston, Varieties of Psychedelic Experience. xi Hesse, Magister Ludi. xii Griffin, Parapsychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality, 101–3.