A Conversation with Dr Mark Vernon on the subject of the Evolution of Consciousness

This was such a great conversation that I want to post it here:

Discussion on the Evolution of Consciousness
recorded 18th December 9.30am on the Zoom App.
MV = Dr Mark Vernon
IM = Ian Mobsby

IM: So thinking about the evolution of consciousness and the idea of awakening, and the importance of imagination to conceive of spiritual things, I have a question stemming from Thomas Merton’s writing, about humanity’s propensity not only for spiritual awakening but also to self-delusion, how does this propensity towards self-delusion fit with this picture of original participation, withdrawal and then final participation?

MV: In Barfield’s schema original participation is the experience where meaning, identity, delusions as well as truth and clarity, basically come from the ‘outside in’ rather than from the ‘inside out’. That it predominates in cultures around 500 BC or before in Hermetic cultures and in early Hebrew culture, or indeed in indigenous cultures now that haven’t really been affected by shifts of modern consciousness. It is not that these cultures are any less sophisticated it’s not a developmental model.  it’s just done very differently and so you would track your delusions and your confusions and ‘so-on’ through the festivities of the year or the collective mythmaking or the events that happened to you.  For example, the City-state gets cursed, or and the tribe loses touch with its gods and rituals requiring cleansings and so on. Here sacrifice is the way that you deal with the confusions, where as now, when I say now I mean the cultures that experience consciousness from the ‘inside out’,  where it where it feels like the primary place of clarity, quest, identity understanding divine experience and so on is from the interior. There are inner corelates to that, so rather than making a literal pilgrimage or literal sacrifice to clarify some sort of relationship with the deity, there will be some sort of inner ‘letting go’. So there is a form of self-sacrifice that is under gone in order to clarify a distinction between delusion and truth and so on.

IM: I’m thinking about the shift from withdrawal to final participation and thinking about how you and Barfield talk about the Kingdom and about this shift in consciousness and spiritually seeking  and about God making the God-self known and people encountering God in radical connection as a form of final participation and how that relates Thomas Merton’s concern, that as people seek spiritual experience from the ‘inside-out’ forms of consciousness as awakening and also equally the danger of self-delusion – I am wanting to explore this insight around awakening and delusion with that shift from withdrawal to final participation?

MV: This is a question you asked me at the Evolving Consciousness Conference that I didn’t quite answer. One thought that I think you get in Merton as much as Barfield’s writing in the mystical Christian traditions it is often taught there are two pathways to spiritual awakening. There are two ways, the first being a direct way and then the second being a more progressive way. So the direct way is when you have the moment of profound experience or realisation leading to new knowing – like Merton’s famous realisation on the streets of Kentucky where he suddenly sees everyone blazing and it’s a moment where in a way reality turns or opens up to him in a new form of the direct in the now. But what that means, and the process that follows this direct experience and encounter, the exploration of meaning that beds down into his life and so on, this process of embedding down then switches from the direct moment to the progressive moment.  It is in this progressive moment where the delusions might kick in. So, he might have delusions of grandiosity having had this vision for example and so that needs to be worked through in order to you might say, so he can become a more purified container for the revelation.

IM: So that’s taking quite contemplative approach and I think touches the Christian contemplative tradition – so would you say that what we are talking about then is based on a more mystical theological understanding?

MC: Yes, I think that all this is in the Christian Contemplative tradition, in the Mystical tradition, yes, it’s all understood within that frame.

IM: Thank you. OK next question.

IM: I am a bit confused about how Jesus fits with the process of original participation, withdrawal to final participation and the Axial age – is his coming/incarnation to open up withdrawal to open up final participation and reconnection as expressed in the Kingdom – is that right?

MV: I think Jesus comes when the withdrawal is in full flow and shows the way to final or reciprocal participation. So, it’s the experience of exile for example and what that unfolds. It’s in the Greek tradition – it’s the experience of the collapse of the Greek City States, with the hedonistic empires, the political manifestations. But within that, the Deuteronic reforms would be the Hebrew correlate of this, where the coming of the Patriarchs switches from original participation, where Moses for example becomes the focus. Also, synagogues start to appear, so the centrality of the temple is lessened, and the focus becomes much more on the individual. We see this shift from original participation to withdrawal similarly with philosophy with the Greeks – the onus is on the individual to devise a way of life that reveals things to them rather than participating in the old city state. All that goes on, so that’s the period which is co-terminus with the coming of Jesus. In Jesus’s life you have I think these two elements. One is everything that shakes you up whether it’s the Cross, the parables, the prophetic proclamations, all of that is about withdrawing from the old ways. But then Jesus makes the space for reciprocal or final participation through the resurrection, the new birth, the new realisation. So when Jesus askes ‘so who do you say I am?’ comes after that, but what Jesus is really asking is ‘who do you think you are?’ It’s always got this inner element. Another thing which you see through Jesus’s teaching as it’s in the gospels and then also in the New Testament writing from Paul, is the move from expecting something ‘outside to come in’ to something being realised ‘within’. So apocalypticism, which develops in the inter-testamental period, expecting rescuers to appear ‘from without’, and I believe that Jesus reforms this. This will be more controversial because there’s clearly external apocalyptic events that happen in the gospels as well, but I think that you can track a history of development that sees people wrestling with what Jesus meant as recorded in the Gospels when he said, ‘it’s not here it’s not there, the Kingdom of God is within’.  All this is also reflected in Jesus’ practices and teaching on prayer that survives, is all about going to the secret place and speaking to your Father in secret, and ‘not letting the left hand know what the right hand is doing’ and all of that is talking about thew shift in consciousness from withdrawal to reciprocal participation apart from the Lord’s prayer which is the one everyone remembers of course.

IM: So just to check. You are saying that Jesus came in a time of place of withdrawal and then opened up the idea of relationship with God and withdraw by the God that can experienced from within linking this to the idea of the Kingdom.

MV: Yes, life is understood from its inner element rather than from its external element.  It’s not necessarily a sense of physical withdrawal, although you might want to go and live in a desert for a while because it helps to clarify, but this form of withdrawal, it’s to see that the cosmos is pulse and then you are alive but within this new dispensation it’s known primarily as an inner experience – the inside of the whole world as well.

IM: When you talk about encountering Jesus from within as part of final participation do you think this is a connection with more contemplative knowing, or what are you and Barfield talking about when you talk about discovering God from within as part of a new reconnection? Is this not just some form of multifaith and New Age?

MV: One way perhaps in something like this, is the role of the individual and the difference between individuality and individualism. I guess a lot of Christians get nervous because they feel that this is ‘individualism on stilts’ and then they associate that with the New Age. The New Age is many things actually, but anyway, let’s put that aside for now. I think this is about individuality and it’s the way that the monotheistic God, the God who is ‘I AM’, this old revelation. I take it that this God who is ‘I AM’ wasn’t really well understood until much later from a moment of withdrawal. I think Judaism developed a way of understanding it and then Christianity as an offshoot from Judaism developed an understanding of it. The basic principle is that you need to have a sense of your own ‘I AM’ness, your own individuality, in order of that the oneness of the divine can mirror within you. So, you can know it.  Without that, the birth of the sense of individuality which underpins our sense of self, there would be no monotheism. So, paganism is of course the experience of the divine that’s had amongst non-monotheistic cultures, because they see their sense of individuality as being different, shared across kin and city state and so on.

IM: So, it’s about someone having an ‘IAM’ness as a sense of self from within to then be able to encounter God from within?

MV: That is right. This individuality is also the awareness that ultimately everything is one, so by discovering your own ‘oneness’ you discover everyone else’s oneness to which is shared. It’s often talked about in terms of awareness or consciousness, pure consciousness, so that when you become aware of your own awareness you understand the irreducibility of this ‘oneness’. You realise that your neighbour shares the same awareness. It’s not that we are not monads – all separate and bouncing around – the awareness has the quality of being the common thing. So that’s the linking thing, that’s why it’s not individualism which makes the oneness into atoms.

IM: So that neatly links onto my next question. So thinking about God as I AM and Trinity, would you say that understanding God as I AM is part of the withdrawal as understanding that God has a self?  And is the idea of Trinity a part of final participation – the sense of self and radical interdependence at the same time?

MV: Trinitarian wisdom is a way of understanding individuality and it’s in these triads that individuality is properly understood. So you know, one would be the knower, what’s known, and then the knowing which would be like Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is how I know my own capacity to know, I know that you’re knowing the same thing, and then the knowing is what is the shared known. Of course the thing about Trinitarianism is that the known always becomes the knower which becomes the knowing, so there is a revolution they revolve around as well. Another way of articulating this is with love – the lover, the beloved and then the loving would be a similar thing and in the same way that you know you can be a lover with the beloved but when there’s real loving the beloved is also the lover and you become the beloved, so there’s a circularity within the oneness of the relationship.

MV: Saying all of that though I think it is a mistake to think of Trinitarian Theology as a social model, I think it’s an ontological model. If you forget that it’s a way of understanding the unity then you start to lose the roots really and it becomes a bit of a moral imperative like we should be relating like perfect monads. Whenever I get the feeling that interpretations of Trinitarian Theology are edging in that direction, then I be clear I don’t like this myself.

IM: So how do you feel about then the more Greek theological understanding of perichoresis, about the dynamism of God, the idea of the inner vibrancy of God, where God is less of a thing but more of an event.

MV: Well I guess when you use the language of being, that’s where it has that more event quality. Another way of putting it which I think final participation understands and withdrawal struggles with, is that truth actually is always subjective. Ultimately, it’s what’s known from within. It’s the phenomenology that counts, and withdrawn participation struggles to find objective proof as if you aren’t part of it. The minute you get to be part of it you are somehow compromised. So, whether it looks to texts for objective proof or scientific evidence and rejected proof and so on, but it seeks this view from nowhere. I think that final participation understands.  So it may be a necessary phase, but it’s ultimately a mistake to think that things are only known for sure with certainty and in eternity, and unchanging. Actually everything can only be known subjectively, it’s what you know, it’s the language of simplicity or essence in the spiritual sense.

IM: Finally, thinking about the evolution of consciousness and the three cyclical stages of Barfield, would it be fair to say that pantheism is part of original participation? And what about the idea of unitive or collective consciousness?  Is that original or final participation?

MV: All these terms, pantheism, panentheism, unitive and pure consciousness and so on – they are all terms wrestling for final participation within some sort of degree of withdrawn participation. I think original participation would not have understood any of these terms at all.

IM: Even Pantheism? the idea that God is everywhere and in everything and apart with an in and out flow between in and out?

MV: I think it’s too unitive for original participation. I think original participation is much more about animism for example. It’s a huge array of deities, from the grandest to the smallest, relating in all their complicated ways, courting rituals and myths and place and all that. I think Pantheism is something different, it is trying to describe everything as a kind of unity within some sort of theistic notion. Then panentheism adds the element that there’s a deity that exceeds what is manifest. So they are attempts to try to nudge a way towards final participation.

IM: OK, so you think that ideas like pantheism are not associated with original participation even though it may have been around in some of the Old Testament with the prophets and all the battles going on between the Hebrew God and the other gods?

MV: I think the prophets are within the withdrawn state for the most part.  They spam the period. The earlier prophets and their obsession with Kings is very interesting, because Kings are an intermediary state. They are a single figure that are supposed to represent the whole, so the prophets get very upset when the Kings don’t include the whole. For example I think the sense of what justice means in the Old Testament for the most part, is that the King is supposed to be the figurehead within which everyone has their place. But it’s not in the sense that we understand justice where everyone is going to have an equal place and rights, not at all. To the contrary, it is that everyone had their place within the hierarchy and that’s what upsets the prophets.

IM: Following on, one person in one of the groups talked about non-duality, and that this way of understanding fundamentally did not believe in any form of ‘self’. Is that a devolution of consciousness to an original participation?

MV: I think this is very tricky but I think that there is quite a confusion about ‘no-self’ around at the moment, and I think part of the problem comes is that the texts from which the ideas come they do go back to periods of original participation where the sense of the self being extinguished would be to join the rich ecology of the original participatory world. Whereas I think now we’re in a different period where the notion of ‘no self’ is not very helpful.  It is a little like the explorations of some on ‘emptiness’, wrestling with what emptiness means. I think basically what it means is your sense of self is being realigned so that rather than experiencing life primarily from your separateness, your ego, however you want to describe it – you and me as it were. You gradually realise that your sense of self arises first from that which is shared. So, you do literally see you in the other as much as in yourself. But then, coming from the pure consciousness the awareness itself. So you know, like William Blake,  when he sees the sunrise he doesn’t see the Guinea which is him and the Guinea trying to relate, he sees the ‘holy, holy, holy’ and so on because he realises that his praise of God is actually just the kind of reflection of the divine praise that he sees in the praise of the sunlight. So, in those moments at least, he knows of himself, as part of the whole self rather than as a separate self, trying to relate to the whole self. So I think in a way it’s a it’s an extinguishing of the separate self but it’s not an extinguishing of the self completely.

IM: The other idea that keeps emerging is that of soul, and I notice Barfield uses the idea of soul a lot.  In the fieldwork I completed there was a lot of talk of an individual soul and a collective or unitive soul. I am trying to get my head around these two forms of the use of soul?

MV: For Barfield the word ‘soul’ it just means ‘aliveness’ so anything can have a soul because if anything feels alive then it can have a quality of soul. So for Barfield words can have a soul. For example the word light has a different quality of soul from the word dark.  So it’s anima, it’s the animated aspect of life, so it’s not on ontological category, it’s not a bit of you exist somewhere. There might be other words that would capture that, sometimes people use ‘spirits’ to mean that, but then sometimes people will use the word spirit to mean a more collective sense as well. so they are slippery terms. So you basically have to work out what people are saying I think.

MV: I try to go for images more than terms. So I am reading the Divine Comedy a lot, and I think one of the things that really strikes Dante in the paradise is how he sees individual souls. So he sees individuals and yet he recognises them keenly as themselves.  Because the completely know themselves, they are completely one with the divine. Their love, their knowledge, their sites, their movements, are completely harmonious. So I think it’s an extension of the Trinitarian idea that the unity is actually multiple, true unity is multiple and not singular. The unity that is singular is actually tyrannical as it erases everything and ultimately it is nihilistic, I think.  In contrast, a unity that is multiple it can be profoundly spiritual. For example if you meet someone who really transmits the divine, they are completely themselves as well, they are not a ‘non-human being’. For example Desmond Tutu is completely Desmond Tutu. You know the minute he walks in the room you would feel Desmond Tutu, and yet at the same time, you would feel so much more as well. I think that is part of the mystery of all this that of final participation.  It’s when people become more and more and more themselves that actually they transmit more and more of this kind of particularity all these things that revolve around this issue.

IM: Right, that is really helpful thank you.

MV: So these things are really complicated, so try to get people to reflect on their experience rather than just an idea, because it can become very complicated. People can get very hooked on the idea of the ‘no-self’.  I mean I think it’s partly a reaction against the individualism of modern times and you know the ego is bad period. Take them to the Maudsley hospital, then they will see people with no egos and it is a complete disaster, it is an absolutely hideous experience.

IM: Thanks Mark, this has been a really helpful time of clarifications.

Transcribed by Ian Mobsby

19th December 2020.

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