Acting “as if …”

People whose lives have been shattered in a mental or emotional collapse, have had to reconstruct themslves.  I’m not talking about an outside event, the loss of a partner, death of a child, mutilating trauma, though those things may lead to it.  I’m referring to the catastrophic breakdown of the personal self at the deepest levels, through addiction or depression or psychosis, that leaves the individual unable to function.  People who find themselves in that condition have to rebuild themselves, as it were, from the ground up.  And one of the techniques used is a mental exercise called “acting as if …”.

“Acting as if” involves intentionally performing what one imagines a normally functioning person would be doing in the circumstances, even in the complete absence of any feeling or conviction about it.  The word is appropriate because it is a performance, an act.  It’s based on a Skinnerian, behaviorist theory that mind and behavior are intimately interactive, so that just as attitudes determine behavior going in one direction, behavior can determine attitudes going in the other.  The emotionally integrated individual is generally not aware of this reversibility, because s/he rarely experiences it and never needs to use it.  But the person in a state of personal disintegration does.  Just as smiling and laughing at yourself in a mirror can begin to lift your spirits in even your blackest moods, “acting as if” has an emotional impact that, while it won’t solve your problem, gives you a start: you start feeling what your actions imply.  If you follow through on that start, you can actually change your attitudes and eventually your life.

This is more than a metaphor.  It helps elucidate the fact that human personality is a function of how people perceive themselves in the human world.  We are the roles we play in society.  This implies that at the very center of ourselves, as at the center of an onion, there is nothing there.  An onion — as dense and solid as a book — is simply the sum of its layered leaves which are a result of growth-through-time.  As you go further into an onion, peeling away layers, you only find more layers.  There is no center, no pit, no core.  So with us.  We are what we think we are ... and what we think we are is what others tell us.  Our thinking, starting at an early age in response to feedback from those around us, lays down our “personality” in leaf after leaf of multiple incarnations as we act out our identity in the human world.  We are what may appear to be a dense, solid and centered subject — predictable, identifiable, ready to behave appropriately as expected.  And so we are.  But that perceived solidity is the result of multiple thin, delicate, imperceptible, time-conditioned and phase-related layers of self-definition based on nothing except what we think we are, as expressed and concretized in what we do in the human world at any given point in time.  Even our bodily functions — what one might think were absolute bedrock — can be disregarded, suppressed, reinterpreted, even neutralized by our society’s culture until those functions become completely unrecognizeable.  A case in point is the mandatory celibacy imposed on Roman Catholic clergy.  For more than a thousand years myriads of Christians pursuing “perfection” have told themselves that they not only can but must ignore their sexuality and learn how to function without it because human sexuality was considered “unspiritual” and therefore “not-fully-human.”  Virginity was the “more perfect way” and it was made obligatory in the case of priests — the “will of ‘God.’” Not even the simultaneous belief that it was “God” himself who both designed and created human sexuality could put a dent in that conviction.  Such is the power of the human mind.

Our societies and their cultures, with all the characteristics of an individual organism, operate on the same dynamic.  Some have called these entities “superorganisms.” They claim to be based on bedrock values, reaching for goals established from all eternity by our bodies, our souls and our “God.”  But human social values, like a baseball, are made up only of the strings of cultural choices wound one upon another over and over and over throughout the ages of historical time.  So it is from nothing at all that we have conjured for ourselves national identities, multimillennial institutions, eternal laws, moral codes, age-old customs, political canons, philosophical axioms, theological dogmas that stand like skyscrapers whose stone and steel have replaced the once empty sky and blowing wind.  The building metaphor is apt; for these structures are shelters for us.  We use them to protect ourselves from the wilderness of a random universe; we live as if they were absolutes, we conform to them, and we spend our lives maintaining those conformations.  This is the virtual reality we live in.

This means that the environment within which we work out our destiny has been created by us.  It tells us in great detail who we are to think we are and what we should think the world is.  The faint and distant voice of nature-without-mind can hardly be heard.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  But it becomes a problem when we can so transform the natural environment to which our physical organisms were originally adapted, that our bodies can no longer function in what we have made.  The growing presence of a multiplicity of sythetic substances in our air, water and food, for example, seems to correlate with an increase in diseases which are known to result from gene damage and immune system failure.  Many of the substances whose level of tolerable dosage for humans is simply not known have already been identified as “carcinogenic” for small animals … and we use them everyday.  In another example, the modification of work and mobility habits have rendered the normal exertions that characterized human activity throughout the millennia, completely unnecessary.  Without strenuous exercise, human bodies that were developed for hunting and gathering do not function optimally.  This requires the artificial introduction of exercizes that simulate what we no longer do, or the application of medical treatments and medicines that attempt to compensate for the damage that inactivity causes.

But some of the most jarring changes are in the area of our mental and emotional needs.  We may think our sophisticated technologies extend the range of what we are able to do, but the mathematical rationality that gives these tools their shape and determines their behavior, requires that those who use them must conform their thinking, response time and even their intended goals, to what these machines are able to do.  This means that our tools, in fact, restrict our range of activities.  The phenomenon also insures the social ascendency of those among us who are temperamentally inclined to these priorities.  Rational and mathematical thinking not only comes to dominate the way we do things, it also means the emergence of a new type of human culture and a new kind of humnan being in which instinct, feeling, empathy, compassion, emotional sensibility, esthetics, along with other, more negative, non-rational interpersonal reactions are muted and supressed in favor of a calculating, cold-eyed approach to life-in-society.  Is one better than the other?  I am simply offering an observation about the direction of drift of the human personality as formed by the current techological culture and environment in which individuals achieve “reproductive success” and evolve.

We are what we think we are and we become what survival-in-society requires of us.  The heuristic influence of our technologically dominated environment on the human phenomenon — body and mind, instinct and value, self and society — will become increasingly apparent in the evolution of our bodies and our communities as time goes on.  We have bound our survival to goals that are increasingly determined by the tools we have created to serve us, and our very bodies will adapt to this new environment conjured by our imagination.  The virtual world we create becomes the very condition of our survival.  Biological law requires it.  Our bodies and minds, our attitudes and values, will modify themselves to accommodate the needs of survival, just as behavior affects attitudes.  Many feel that these conditions have obtained for the last 350 years at least and that the process of cultural transformation is well under way.


How has religion integrated into this reality?  Religion, as we have inherited it, does not even acknowledge the presence and power of the dynamic outlined above.  Our religion claims to be based on absolutes, eternal, unchangeable — the unavoidable conditions within which our destiny unfolds.  But if what I say is true, religious goals and values have not been exempt from the collectively subjective conditioning that determine human behavior and social relationships demanded by a techologically dominated environment.  The survival-environment has inevitably modified religion and harnessed it to the new requirements.  It is one more example of the subordination of all human institutions to survival.  The bodily modifications deman­ded by our technology have already begun to  turn us into some version of robot, and religion has found a way to justify, encourage and even require such behavior basing itself, as always, on the “nature of reality” and ultimately reality’s  supposed rational source, “God.”

These things have proceeded unconsciously and therefore inevitably.  But, they are inevitable only to the degree that they are unconscious.  Becoming conscious of them — realizing that collectively subjective choice is really what is functioning behind our perceived bedrock certainties — is precisely what allows us to exercize some control over the process.  And, correlatively: the claim that our values have “come down to us from God” has up to now guaranteed an unconsciousness that has insured inevitability.  But despite all claims, there was never anything inevitable here.  We do not have to become “bionic men” ruled by an autistic hyper-rationality, unable to feel, empathize, contemplate and rest in relationship.  If we want these things in our lives we can and must choose them.  They are values that will not necessarily survive the social transformations being effectuated by our increasing dependence upon, and willingness to conform to, our mechanical and electronic servants.

The Sense of the Sacred

Religion is a tool we have devised to correspond to our sense of the sacred.  The sense of the sacred is the only “bedrock” there is, the one source of everything religious.  It is a corollary to our appreciation for existence itself, identical with the instinct for self preservationIt is one of the few things that are beyond our ability to neutralize.  It is embedded in our blood and our bones.  Spinoza called it the conatus, Freud called it eros.  We are driven … obliged, by the particles of which our bodies are made to love ourselves and to increase and enhance our life.   It is the first law of life, unsuppressible, undeniable, transcendent over all human goals and values: survival — and our sense of the sacred is its corollary.  It is the primary reflective extrapolation of the conatus.  If there is anything that can truly be said is “God’s will,” this is it.

The sense of the sacred is a reflective response to existence itself.  As an appreciation of everything it has no limited concrete reference, no instinct-driven visible target as would a specific urge like the urge to reproduce.  It needs to find visible, concrete references or it evaporates in the clouds.  To maintain itself, therefore, this insight uses symbols — finite concrete objects and actions that represent and evoke the love of universal life and being.  These symbols necessarily stand in the place of something they can only point to but cannot contain.  They cannot contain their object because the sense of the sacred comprehends everything.  Its symbol, however, is necessarily a limited concrete thing; for how do you symbolize “everything” except with “something”?  There is an unavoidable, irreducible distance, therefore, between the symbol and what it symbolizes.  That means, paradoxically, the symbol, however well it does its job, is NOT what it symbolizes.  It is presented “as if” it were the focus of the sacred; it stands in place of its transcendent object and focus that is, literally speaking, more than it can comprehend.

This “as if” quality accounts for the inevitable division of things into sacred and profane.  The symbols, meant “as if” they were “the sacred,” are mis-taken as literally comprehensive.  This recapitulates the familiar process we have seen functioning with metaphors of all kinds.  Metaphors are symbols that refer to but do not comprehend the object of their focus.  They perform the same “as if” function.  So for example, we say “let’s act ‘as if’ ‘God’ is present in this piece of unleavened bread.”  In fact, there is no physical divine presence.  The bread is a symbol even in the most traditional catholic terms; for the presence is called “sacramental.”  The word sacrament means symbol.  These terms can only mean a  virtual “presence” achieved through thought and imagination.  It is a “virtual” presence … that means “as if.”

Don’t be scandalized.  That’s the way the human phenomenon works.  We create virtual worlds and then we live in them.  When they no longer “work” we change them for others.  It’s what we do.

We used to claim our “sacraments” were more than symbols.  We tend not to say that anymore.  The notion of a symbol that physically accomplishes what it signifies is foreign to us; it was part of a world that believed in sympathetic magic.  That ancient mentality thought that by portraying or re-enacting powerful events, their specific energies were made operative.  Our modern mind-set will not accept that.  We have been definitively shaped by scientific thinking and we will not validate any “causality” that goes beyond the direct physical influence of material things or material forces.  Hence, believers take the doctrine of “saxcramental efficacy” literally or not at all, for we do not think “as if” can be effective.  The “power” of the sacraments was really rooted in the conviction that actively immersing oneself in the symbolism brought the effect “automatically,” ex opere operato. 

But I would like to suggest that sacred symbols achieve their “effect” through the same “as if” mechanism that works for mental patients.  Modern psychology’s recognition that “acting as if” has a transformative power that can be used for behavioral and attitudinal modification, is similar.  The sacraments, especially baptism as the ritual immersion in the spirit and life of Jesus, and the memorial meal that symbolizes the significance of Jesus death, constitute an “acting as if” that can be the beginning of a transformed life.  What’s different in the two views is the way it works.  The ancient belief thought it was “God” himself acting on the “soul” through the mimesis of the sacraments; the modern view, in contrast, sees it as the inevitable effect of a mind-body unity where the human material organism self-determines the direction of its own life.  There is no divine activity.  We are the ones who change ourselves, and “acting as if” is one of the tools we use to do it; it’s one of the ways we tell ourselves who we think we are.


Where is “God” in all this?  “God” is not an entity-person, as we understand it, to whom we can relate as we do to one another, or to the individuals of other species.  “God” is not an individual.  “God” is the energy of existence — the LIFE in which we live and move and have our being.  “God” is not far from us at all.  “He” is indistinguishable from very material energy of which we and all things are made — observable to science and to us, and completely accessible.  There is no “other world” of spirits where “God” resides.  There is only this one made of matter … and as we know from our own experience of ourselves, it is a matter that is capable of thinking.  Our immersion in this mystery of matter tells us we are at home in the universe.  We are an intimate part of this mystery for we are made of nothing but matter’s creative, perceptive, all-embracing energy.  We love it for it constitutes our very selves.  We do more than love it, we worship it. 

But how do we define for ourselves what exactly it is that we worship?  We need no reminding of the bitter detail that we are not the source of ourselves.  How do we relate to this “LIFE” that we are made of, that existed “from the beginning” and is more than us, even as it is what we ourselves are?  In our tradition we make symbols to represent it, and we “act as if” we can interact with it, and it with us … “as if” it were a loving parent who gives us our very bodies — our cells and our drive to live — our “Father.”

Other traditions, less tied to anthropomorphic imagery than ours, boldly speak of “the unchanging reality amidst and beyond the world” (the Hindu Brahman), … or, “the primordial essence or fundamental nature of the universe … the underlying natural order … to be distinguished from the countless ‘named’ things which are considered to be its manifestations.” (the Chinese Tao).  These similarities to Paul’s use of the poet Epimenides in Acts 17 are not mere coincidence.  For the material homogeneity and awesome creativity that characterize the world around us is obvious to all.  It was acknowledged long before science confirmed it and identified evolution as the process by which the universe develops.  These religious expressions are entirely compatible with the discoveries of science regarding the material constitution of everything on our living earth; they come as close to a universal agreement on the sacred as we will ever find.

But the attempt to articulate the “obvious” in such abstract terms took eons to occur, and when it did, it found expression in all the high civilizations across the planet at the same time.  It is called “the axial age” and it happened around 500 bce.  We should recall that homo sapiens existed and was culturally active for at least 250,000 years before that.  From this point of view it is a very late development.  The need to express the sense of the sacred could not possibly have waited for it.  Like the conatus from which it derives, the sense of the sacred is urgent, demanding, and ultimately indistinguishable from it.  It was inevitable that from the earliest times, local concrete symbols — statues of gods and goddesses, sacred oracles, shrines, temples — would be generated to stand in place of the sacred, and in their presence we would “act as if” they were.  They would provide the opportunity to express the inexpressible — our awe and love of ‘being here.’  Such was the effect of Paul’s claim that the “God” in “whom we live and move and have our being” was revealed in the person of Jesus and his unique way of regarding “God” as “Father.”

Jesus’ life of generous imitative love was, like so many before him, just another symbol of “God.”  As a symbol, Jesus’ life and death functions like all “as if” realitities: it stands for the creative energy and exuberant attitude from which we come.  If we do what humans have always done since time immemorial  and “act as if” a generous, all embracing, enthusiastic, creative, self-donating, self-emptying “Father” were, as Paul saw so perfectly expressed in the 6th century bce Greek poet Epimenides, “in whom we live and move and have our being,” our attitudes will change … toward ourselves, toward those humans who share this time in this space with us, and toward the planet that spawned and sustains us.  If we treat existence “as if” it really were what we have always supected it to be: sacred, it will become THAT, for we will make it THAT!

Tony Equale


11 comments on “Acting “as if …”

  1. […] Acting “as if …” ( […]

  2. theotheri says:

    Tony – You say above that in “a Skinnerian, behaviorist theory that mind and behavior are intimately interactive,” No, Skinnerian behaviorism is not based on the view that mind and behavior are interactive. It assumes a totally mechanistic view of the mind, so that “mind,” if indeed it even exists as anything more than an epiphenomenon, is not a cause of behavior. Mind is totally caused, totally determined. So paradoxically you are right that in the Behaviorist sense, attitudes, the personality, the “self,” truly is like an onion, laid down layer by layer through socialization. There is no core. We are born, as Aristotle argued, blank slates.
    As a result, Behaviorism assumes that “appropriate” behaviour, is learned, Homosexuality, like heterosexual behavior, and indeed the elevation of celibacy, is totally learned. This view gave rise to some rather awful behaviorist therapies to “cure” homosexuality. Needless to say, they were broadly unsuccessful, just as, in my view, that Church’s teaching about celibacy has been.
    Hans Eysenck was a strict behaviorist psychologist who already had a national reputation when he was still a young man. But in his first address to the American Psychological Association after his first child was born, he began by saying that he had been wrong: that there is no way that child was born as a blank slate, a tabula rasa only waiting to be written on by a socializing world. From day one, he said, relations with him were interactive. We are born with an internal dynamic, obviously not a mature developed self, just as our bodies are not mature at birth. But that self exists just as truly as do ten toes and two hands.
    I am not a behaviorist, and I doubt very much that you are either, Tony. (Dennet, however, may be happy in that camp.) I think that the behaviorists see no evidence of a dynamic, interactive self because they do not believe it exists, not the other way around. Since we are interactive, one can always point to environmental variables that are significant in forming who and what we are. But it is only half the story. The other half is the individual who is interpreting those environmental sources. Yes, culture has an immense influence on those interpretations. But it is not absolute. We too change cultures. Because we are malleable, but not totally malleable. History shows us if culture strays too far from the limits of human needs that does not endure.
    I appreciate that you have been trying to point out in recent posts just how much of what we consider to be obvious “facts” are indeed learned assumptions. I couldn’t agree with this view more fully, having spent at least the last 45 years uncovering layers of such “facts” in my own make-up. But I don’t think one has to resort to Skinnerian Behaviorism to support this view. And I disagree wholeheartedly with the assumption that the self is made up only of layers with no core.

    • tonyequale says:


      Thanks for your corrections and clarifications. I was attempting to emphasize how deep conditioning can go in the formation of socialized individuals, and I was using “acting as if” as a little known example of the malleability of the “self” … in this case malleable to its own manipulations. I wanted to illustrate my constant drumbeat that we can change how we understand and relate to the sacred and I used Skinner’s name “generically,” if you know what I mean, to identify this “reverse” tactic of using behavior to change attitudes. Yes, I know Skinner’s theory is that mind and behavior are one and the same thing, and I should never have mentioned his name at all, because I was not trying to direct myself to that issue one way or the other. I was careful not to claim a total identity and absolute reversability between the two, because that’s where I stand, but I forgot that there are people like yourself for whom Skinner represents something very specific and it was sloppy of me to use him as a “genus.” And for that I stand corrected.

      What I want to convey is that we can change almost anything … we can even radically change how we relate to our most basic natural urges, as evidenced by the “celibacy” phenomenon. I would not dare to try to determine exactly what the ultimate residue … absolute bedrock … might be, because in fact we seem capable of modifying almost anything without eliminating it thus finding a way to simultaneously both change and stay the same. Assigning a “percentage” between nature and nurture in that case would be virtually impossible, even if one wanted to do it.

      Another case of “sloppiness” on my part might be found in my similarly “generic” statement that the “sense of the sacred” is bedrock. I can be scolded for that as well. For in fact it is no more “bedrock” than anything else in our make-up. I say that not because we can make the “sense of the sacred” disappear, but because it can be re-interpreted, modified, nuanced and finally articulated in ways that are wildly unpredictable. It is no different from the conatus itself of which it is a corollary — the supposed “instinct for self-preservation” — which culture can (and has) reinterpreted so radically as to make it virtually unrecognizable. Just think of the self-immolation at Jonestown in 1978. People killed themselves and their children with a passion for self-preservation that was driven by the conatus. The conatus is bedrock in the sense that it will always be there, but “self-preservation” may be so transformed by interpretation as to become, in fact, self-destructive … obvious to all but the “re-conditioned.” Is there anything comparable in our tradition? Just exactly what is “bedrock”?


  3. rjjwillis says:

    I understand, I think, what you are trying to correct. Because of the emphasis in our Western tradition as influenced by Christianity, we tend to equate soul with a “homonuculus,” with a little thing which we are, first and foremost. We enter here into the everlasting argument about which came first, essence or existence; that is, which came first the chicken or the egg. I would reply: “Neither! What came first was the glint in the rooster’s eye as he followed the swaying gait of a comely hen!” Let me elucidate.

    I accept with Kant that there may be an objective world, an essence, but we can never get “das ding an sich” objectively, only subjectively, that is, through our own glasses. Thus essence can be talked about but never experienced; all we can do with essence is experience it in relationship; whenever we talk about it by itself we are in the realm of abstraction.

    We may, therefore, talk about the human essence, the individual, if we wish to do so, but we should realize that in doing so we are abstracting. We do not directly experience the individual; what we experience is a relating, subject-act-object. Just as we cannot experience an object all by itself, so we cannot experience a subject all by itself. Because of this I would maintain that the given is not being (essence,individual, person, self) but being-with. To state it most clearly: being=being-with.

    I understand your onion metaphor as pointing to this. We have no experience of a core of the onion, of a homonuculus or individual there. We can posit such if we wish to do so but we have no proof of it other than our positing. In the same way, we can posit an eternal soul, or we can posit an eternal personal god, if we wish to do so. But these are abstractions, not experiential givens.

    Given the above, it is true that we both get the world that we create as we fashion it through our rose-colored or dark-colored glasses. It is also true that we get the individual that we create through the stances that we take in relationship to that world which we are creating.

    In line with this,I would say with you that we humans use symbols as a way of expressing to ourselves and to one another the sacredness of life, a gift that keeps on giving,a gift that is an energy in which we are existing. Some of those symbols tell us about that gift and help us to understand it better and more completely. I call those symbols “signs,” transmitters that help us approach more closely to.the reality,just as a”railroad crossing” sign alerts to the upcoming tracks. Most religious symbols are in this manner signs, educational tools alerting us to the sacred. However,there are also symbols that are more than signs. Theyare transformers. These are metaphors that open the door into the experience of the sacred, the greater than we are, the who we may be. In therapy, it is not enough to tell someone what is wrong with him or her, not enough to point out what needs to be done in order to get better. In other words, signs are not enough. Therapy rather means entering into an expanded experience,into a larger world, entering into who I may be through being in relationship, not just talking about it. This may start out as “acting as if,” for if one cannot imagine being more than he or she is, that more will never happen. But that :”acting as if” must gradually change into “being in relationship” for healing and growth to occur. So too for religion. Signs may tell us about the sacred; but metaphor as symbol takes us into the sacred,

    Tell me that a giant lives on top of the mountain and I may be impressed. Call me a giant and I just may become one! Bob

    • tonyequale says:


      I appreciate your consistent emphasis on relationship. It confirms my view of the personality and also explains the dynamics of political power. As a conscious organism I know myself in the same way I know other things … I gather data about myself over time. One source of data is my own behavior. Another source is the feedback I get from other people; I see myself mirrored in their eyes, and so come to think of myself as I do. These are all outside imputs. Even my “inside sources” — feelings and urges — are simply a more “interior” exterior source. The real inner-inner “self” — the ipse ipsissimum “me” that gathers and assesses and acts is strangely silent. It’s as if there were nothing there but the seeing.

      The mutuality operating in relationships constructs the homogeneity of culture and society. Agreement prevails because the collective definition of how a “person” should act and feel has been worked out over time in the mutual mirroring of a multitude of individuals-in-relationship. It is essentially an egalitarian democratic process, since all provide this mirroring for one another, even children for their parents. What skews it is coercion. In broadly Skinnerian terms, coercing behavior coerces attitudes over time. Hence the introduction of violence to force compliant behavior, if it succeeds, can eventually change how an entire society thinks of itself, for it forces you to “act as if” you are what you are told to be, and little by little you become what you pretend you are. This is the significance of “political power.” It represents an artificial “short-cut” to culture change, and if it can be maintained over time, it works. Entire populations have changed dramatically — in language, food, customs, world-view, religion, morality — because the coercive power achieved by violent conquest has been sustained over time. Power is also a relationship. It is a one-sided relationship without mutuality, but it still reproduces the basic dynamic of informing you of what someone else thinks you are and eventually you become an active and willing collaborator in your “cultural adaptation.” Latin America with an 85% indigenous or mestizo racial base is a case in point. But there are other examples, less visibly violent, like the sophisticated manipulations of commercial and ideological propaganda, religious indoctrination etc … all of which tell us who we should think we are by directly impacting the imagination.

      My point is that the entire human phenomenon of socialized biological organisms is a plastic, malleable, undefinable thing able to live in virtually any manner at all so long as it also provides food, clothing and shelter for survival. How we live is entirely “our” choice, and I use that word “our” in the most general sense of “the human species” for, in fact, at the “local” level we have little choice but to share our culture’s values, or “act as if” we do, if we are to live in society with others.

      Our symbols, then, concretize for us what otherwise are what you call pure abstractions … imaginative conjectures about the ultimate source and structure of reality. Is it any wonder that in a world so radically capable of being anything we imagine it to be, that we cling to our symbolic certainties as to life rafts in a shipwreck? We are currently in a time of profound cultural shift and we are hewing out the very bricks that will be used to provide the next set of “certainties” — the ones WE need in order to make sense of the world our species has made. One of those transcendent certainties is the sense of the sacred. What form it takes is up for grabs, but its fundamental imperative is not, for it is corollary to the conatus, the self-embrace of existence.

      One last note on “relationship” that might seem a distinct point entirely: relationship, human relationship, is not only a transfer of cultural information, it is also a simple mutual “seeing” simultaneously exercized by two or more “seers.” If the inner-inner self is, as I suggest, simply the power and act of “seeing” without there being any content there at all, the encounter of two such “empty” energies results in a mutual recognition that is just as contentless even though, according to all reports, rapturous. This uniquely blissful contempative experience of encountered “emptiness” constitutes an area that has remained unexplored by our cognitive theorists, but not by our mystics, some of whom, like John of the Cross, attempted a systematic analysis of the phenomenon using the scientific tools available to him at that time. In our time, Sam Harris for one has declared interest in pursuing an analysis of Buddhist contemplation using our philosophical and scientific tools. I don’t think he has done it. But I agree. I think it is time it was done.


      • theotheri says:

        I am a cognitive psychologist and I agree that the mystic “emptiness” you describe has not been described systematically. In fact, I have no idea whatsoever what kind of experience this refers to. I know what it is like to know something which is beyond verbal or perhaps any other kind of communication. I have an inkling of what it is like to experience a sense of unity with the universe. But an experience of emptiness eludes me completely. I’m not unaware of some aspects of Buddhist contemplation, but what I know has not enlightened me, and I’m not familiar with John of the Cross’s writing on the subject.

        Do you have any suggestions about what I might read for further enlightenment? I’m not even distantly a mystic, however, so it may be that, like a color-blind person who cannot see the difference between red and green, it is not something I am able to grasp. But I’d like to explore the possibility.

        Thank you for any thoughts you might be able to share with a scientist who has her two feet on the ground, if not her head even potentially in the heavens.

  4. rjjwillis says:

    I have some suggestions for you regarding looking into mysticism. I think you would find helpful books by a psychologist, Lawrence LeShan. He comes at mysticism psychologically and behaviorally, as well as philosophically. These three come to mind: “The Medium, the Mystic, and the Physicist” (2003), “Alternate Realities” (1987), and “How To Meditate (1994).

    If you want to go directly to some sources of mystical writing, I would suggest as being both readable and open to modern understanding the following: “Revelations of Divine Love” by Julian of Norwich, and “The Cloud of Unknowing,” a modern translation by Ira Progoff.

    I just looked them up on Amazon. All of them are available there. Regards, Bob Willis

    • theotheri says:

      Bob and Tony – A deep thank you for such helpful replies to my request for guidance. They have put the concept of emptiness into a context that is not nearly as unfamiliar as I thought, as well as giving it a grounding in everyday experience which I recognize.

      I am acquainted with LeShan’s work which I greatly respect. I fully share his Kantian assumptions about mind & reality and have long believed that we often know many things beyond the scope of science to grasp.

      I am not sure whether it is a manifestation of self-knowledge on my part or its deficit that has left me with the feeling that LeShan’s way is not mine, however. There are as many roads as there are mansions in our father’s house. One of the things I have found so surprising in recent years is to compare the maps used by others who have so often achieved insights similar to mine by completely different paths. I think of one friend who is a sheer romantic, another a hard-nosed engineer. I am neither of these, and yet we have arrived in quite similar places – not utterly different from many of the ideas expressed in this blog. And you have both travelled by different routes as well.

      Again, thank you. I will go to Amazon. Perhaps the time has come in my life to explore this option once again. I’m open. But not yet convinced.


    • theotheri says:

      Bob, I just want to tell you that I have been to Amazon and looked at LeShan’s prolific output. I find him far more intriguing than I expected and am quite surprised that I was not acquainted with his work during my active professional career. Thank you again for the recommendation. Terry

  5. tonyequale says:


    Thanks for following up on my response to Bob. And thank you, Bob, for your suggestions to Terry.

    But, let me expand on what I meant. “Emptiness” refers to the experience of the encounter of conscious subjectivities, and is not really “empty” at all. The word is a poetic metaphor (of course), that refers to the sheer “act” of conscious recognition between people. It’s actually an experience of fulness and joy as two such “energies” recognize themselves, the one in the other. It’s not arcane, nor does it primarily refer to the “encounter with ‘God’” as it does for John of the Cross. It is interpersonal encounter and we experience it among ourselves all the time. If it goes unnoticed it’s because we are spoiled with so much interpersonal contact. A month in the “desert” (another metaphor) would sharpen our appreciation considerably.

    John of the Cross naturally extrapolated interpersonal experience between humans (lovers?) and applied it to his concept of a personal “God” which he inherited from his tradition. In my opinion, it was his experience of “himself-as-gift,” identified by his tradition as the expresssion of the love of a “person” (God) that obliged him to treat it (his own existence) as an interpersonal interaction, and it naturally blew him away. His “encounter” with this transcendent “lover” had to occur on a “dark night” because there was no palpable interaction as between two human persons. But the “emptiness” (poetry for the “no-thing” [nada] that is pure energy) was the same as one experiences with another human being. John projected (imagined) from human love what an encounter with “God” had to be like, and in so doing provided us with an analysis of interpersonal human encounter. What gave him the right to do that? The fact that he was here … existing … was for him and his readers undeniable evidence of the ongoing active creative donation of “Being itself.” Given the philosophical system that dominated his life and times, his analysis was scientific and systematic.

    For an excellent, very readable introduction to John’s thought, see Thomas Merton, The Ascent to Truth. For Sam Harris’ proposed project, see the last part of The End of Faith. I’m sure there are many more. In the Buddhist tradition there is 2nd century Nagarjuna and others of the “middle way.” Good luck!


  6. Sal Umana says:

    Tony, Terry, Bob,( I have been on a pilgrimage from NY to Tampa), hopefully my last. I just read all your splendid stuff. I am in awe of your energy. I relate to you,I love you , I thank Whoever that I am in the same universe with you. I will follow. Keep leading.
    Love, Sal Umana

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