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From Issue Four, November 2010 « Previous Article Next Article »

Metaphysics in Popular Culture

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In the following dialogue, excerpted and adapted from the Institute of Noetic Sciences’ teleseminar series “Essentials of Noetic Sciences,” IONS Director of Research Cassandra Vieten talks with Jeffrey Kripal, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University. Kripal’s latest book is Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (University of Chicago Press, 2010). He also wrote Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion, in addition to numerous papers and reports.


CV: What are you calling the “third realm of knowledge”?

JK: That’s a phrase that actually goes back to the nineteenth century and the English intellectuals who founded the London Society for Psychical Research, near Cambridge. They were talking about something they called the tertium quid (from the Greek and Latin for “third thing”). The cultural wars at that time had really split between the faith of religion and the reason of science. These intellectuals were looking for a way to move between and beyond that polarity. My way of talking about a “third way” of knowing is an attempt to resurrect and revive that notion.

CV: What were the first two realms of knowledge?

JK: The most traditional one, of course, has been religion and knowing the world and human nature through the doctrines of faith. The one that began to supplant it in the nineteenth century was science and the scientific method.

CV: You talk about this third realm as being a place where it’s okay to talk about the paranormal, where scientific and scholarly discussion can take place. Can you say a little bit more about this coming out of the closet?

JK: The paranormal is another very modern term. It seems to appear somewhere around 1900, and, again, it comes out of this psychical research tradition. My own sense of paranormal events are that they involve some objective reality out there in the physical world doing something very strange and corresponding to some kind of mental state or psychical condition. By involving both a mental state and a physical, external state, it violates how the world was divvied up – essentially between matter, which the sciences study, and mental states or forms of consciousness, which the humanities in a field such as psychology tries to study. Those two realms aren’t supposed to interact in any dramatic fashion, but in fact they do. So I think these are very fruitful events to think about and work with to try to move us out of our old ways of thinking.

CV: What have been some of your experiences studying the paranormal and looking into the history of how it has influenced culture?

JK: A lot of these experiences were the subject of great interest by major scientists and thinkers in the nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries, and then they sort of fell away. What I find when I go around the country talking about these issues is that a lot of scientists and really smart people are just as interested in them now, but they feel like they have to stay in the closet. There’s a kind of shaming or humiliation that has gone on around this topic by a number of social forces. The fraudulent stuff that gets thrown in tends to weaken the discussion as well. So there are a lot of things that are stacked up against anyone who wants to talk about these things calmly and in a balanced, intelligent way.

CV: So what do you make of these experiences? All of them are sort of illusory and appear out of the realm of matter. They seem meaningful, but perhaps they’re not. Where do you fall on the materialist versus non-materialist spectrum?

JK: The position I take in my book Authors of the Impossible is that reality is neither simply material nor simply mental. It’s both and neither. I take somewhat of a koan or paradoxical position on this because I think that’s precisely what paranormal events are designed to do: to be sort of living koans or riddles that can shake us out of our desire to understand everything, either through material or mental-spiritual processes alone.

CV: I know you’ve been very involved in chronicling the human potential movement. How do you link this interest in the paranormal with human potential? It seems that these experiences, both in individual’s lives personally as well as culturally, have propelled people to seek something more or to question what they are really capable of or what’s really going on.

JK: These abilities are almost certainly in the species as a whole. They’re not unique, although certain individuals might be more inclined or more gifted, just as some people are more athletic or more musical. I think the whole notion of human potential is woven in to these experiences. In the early sixties, people saw experiences such as psychedelicsas signs or the keys of their own potential.

CV: Tell us a little bit about Authors of the Impossible.

JK: It’s about four authors who have written very intelligently about the paranormal: Frederic Myers, from nineteenth-century England; Charles Fort, an American humorist and writer in the early twentieth century; Jacques Vallee, an astronomer, computer scientist, and ufologist; and a French philosopher named Bertrand Méheust. I picked those four because I thought they had the most to say, and what I try to advance in the book is this notion that the humanities can tell us something about the paranormal as well. In other words, we can use the methods of reading and narrative and meaning to make some sense out of paranormal events.

CV: In some ways it does seem that a storytelling format is a little more acceptable for exploration than a scholarly or scientific context.

JK: That’s right, and that’s why I call this the Trojan Horse Method. You can’t talk about these things in churches and synagogues, but you can talk about them in movies and novels and comics and magazines. And as a culture, that’s what we’ve done. That’s where people go because they recognize echoes or exaggerations of their experiences in these television series and films, and I think that’s precisely what makes them so popular. What drives the box office and Nielsen ratings is that almost everyone has had one of these experiences, and when they see it reflected in a piece of fiction or entertainment, they get really excited.

CV: To oversimplify it, that makes me think of the right brain–left brain dichotomy. It’s okay to encounter these things through stories and art and poetry, but when we direct a logical or scientific lens toward them, that’s when it becomes a bit taboo and dangerous.

JK: I actually end Authors of the Impossible with current left brain–right brain research and with Jill Bolte Taylor, the neuroanatomist who had a massive stroke that shut down the left side of her brain. She basically fell into a mystical state for the next few months and then came back and talked about these two modes of being that are in us all [see her book, My Stroke of Insight]. I don’t think you can overemphasize the fact that we all have, essentially, two different people in us, one on the left and one on the right. Yes, they communicate and are connected in billions of ways, but they’re also very different. I think the rejection of this narrative, mystical way of being is the left brain not wanting to tolerate the right brain.

CV: In some ways, I think the Institute of Noetic Sciences and places like Esalen are trying to provide communities and resources for people to take a shot at coherence, to saying, “Hey, I’m one whole being. I’m really not two brains. There isn’t really mind and matter, that’s not my experience,” and coming up with tools and technologies and ways of languaging to validate this.

JK: I think people do long for a greater wholeness, for an integral nature, as the human potential movement puts it.

CV: Tell me about your interest in Esalen and what role you’ve seen it play in forwarding the human potential movement.

JK: I’ve been involved with Esalen in some form since 1998. Michael Murphy, the co-founder, read my first book, Kali’s Child, about the great Hindu saint Ramakrishna, got very excited about it, and we began to correspond. Then sometime after the turn of the millennium, I was struck by how rich a history it had and how important and influential it was. I proposed to write a book about that called, simply, Esalen, because I’m a historian of religions by training. I think I was looking for a kind of spiritual home, having been exiled, as it were, from my native Catholicism and then Hinduism. I was looking for a place that would embrace me, and Esalen did.

CV: The subtitle of that book is The Religion of No Religion, and that’s always been captivating to me because I think a lot of people have a deeply spiritual or sacred orientation but they’ve been disillusioned with organized religion.

JK: That phrase actually comes from a professor of comparative religion at Stanford who taught both Michael Murphy and Dick Price, Esalen’s two founders. His name was Frederic Spiegelberg,a German historian of religions. As a young man in 1917, he was walking through a wheat field in Holland and had a profound experience of the divinity of the whole universe – an experience of God in and as nature. As he continued on this walk, he came upon a little gray church, and he was absolutely horrified by the sight of it because he knew that the cosmic being he had just known directly could not possibly be stuffed into that little building or its teachings or its history. So he developed this notion of a religion of no religion, which essentially is what people mean today when they say “I’m spiritual but not religious.”

CV: Huston Smith is another great religious scholar who has taught at Esalen, and he’s sometimes been critical of this new wave of spirituality. Although he sees the commonality among religions and he’s one of the pioneers of that, he’s used the phrase “cut-flower traditions” to mean that these new amalgamations of long-standing religions are beautiful but have no roots. How do you respond to that? What do you think about these new forms of encountering the sacred and the freedom from dogma that aren’t firmly rooted?

JK: I think that’s probably true in a lot of cases, but you also have to understand the broad history. If, for example, you compare Tibetan Buddhism to Sri Lankan Buddhism, they look nothing alike. When Buddhism moved from India to Nepal and Tibet over a period of hundreds of years, it fused with a thousand different things. It amalgamated but also ignored a thousand other things, and then it became its own thing. The same is true with any religious tradition that moves or is alive. So from my perspective, these flowers need to be cut because a lot of those roots are dark, such as when it comes to being a woman or a free-thinking individual or living in a democratic society. There’s a lot in these religions that I don’t think we want to keep. A truly living religious system is always amalgamating, always assimilating, always rejecting. We also have to recognize that people become “spiritual but not religious” not because they’re anti-religion or flippant or superficial. It’s almost always because they’ve been deeply hurt or disillusioned by their native tradition. I think that’s the real driver of this, and we have to recognize that and see it as a sincere response to their own lives.

I’m reminded here of a retreat I had with some Quakers last spring on the East Coast, and we were talking about this very thing. After the conversation, this elderly woman came up to me said, “Well, you know what we say about being spiritual and being religious?” I said, “No, I don’t.” She says, “Well, being religious is for people who believe in heaven and hell, and being spiritual is about people who have been to hell and have come back.” And I think that’s exactly right.

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  • Jerry Kays Nov 12, 2010

    I love the article, and relate to everything said in it ... probably because I see it as the Truth that I have experienced through my own Spiritual Awakening ... which I wrote a book about and explain my take on the "Third Way" by equating it with the Spirit of GOD symbolized by the (=) in the BET of (+=-) ... (BET~Basic Equation of Truth)

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