Experience of the subtle realms: Contents page
Chapter 6. Paradoxes of the arbitrary
I now come to one of the most baffling and bizarre of two worlds phenomena. It is the entry into a totally new world of meaning through chance, or by the adoption of what seem to be quite arbitrary decision principles. It is as if everything looks the same, but speaks of a different order of reality – whose frame of reference from beyond is invoked by irrational activity here below.
What I mean by a ‘Tantric window’ is not an opening into the other world of the kind I discussed in Chapter 4. The window is onto this world as if suddenly seen in terms of the meaning of another kind of world. The paradox is that things are unaltered in appearance, while being contained within some fundamentally different parameters of intelligibility. They make sense, but the sense is no longer common. A mantle of magic has transformed the ordinary view. The further paradox is that this happens out of some relatively meaningless choices. Let me give an example.
I was on a summer holiday in the Vendee region on the west coast of France with a close friend. We had decided to devote some portion of each day to meditation and ritual, exploration of altered states of consciousness, and of the relation between the two worlds. Our rented cottage was about a mile from the coast on the Ile d’Olonne. This is not a real island, but a strip of land fully joined to the main coastline north and south, and separated for some kilometres in the middle from the mainland by the ‘marais’ – an irregular network of narrow waterways separated by small fields.
One day – and I have no idea how – we conceived the following plan. We would try to find a place, a particular spot, within a few miles radius of the cottage, that was specially open to the other world (see Chapter 4, section 5). And we would try to find this place by choosing a starting point somewhere near at hand, and then, by car, taking every sixth left turn.
I can’t remember why we decided to adopt such an arbitrary decision-procedure. But I do remember that we agreed it was so rigid and unpromising that either of us could propose, when the journey was underway, to break out of the sixth-left-turn rule and take any other turning, if we felt a sufficiently strong hunch about doing so.
We had some shopping to do in the next village, including a visit to the drugstore. My friend then proposed that our starting point should be the road immediately beside the drugstore. I agreed and we drove off, meticulously counting the lanes and roads on the left hand side, and taking every sixth left turn. The rule became fascinating, and we lost any wish to abandon it.
The sixth time we took the sixth left turn we entered a narrow lane that had no more turnings off it and that came to an end after a quarter of a mile or so in an open space beside a small river. We parked near a footbridge which led over the river straight into the marais, about a further mile inland from our cottage. Then indeed we saw that the marais, with its curious lattice-work of fields and waterways, had an uninhabited openness to inner space.
It was as if the whole extended, intricate pattern of edges between water and earth made physical space more porous to the other world. And we thought it very odd that such an arbitrary decision-rule should have such a precise outcome: the sixth sixth left turn being a dead-end and on target. We decided to conduct a further experiment the next day. But first some sceptical thoughts were in order.
We had been studying a map of the area on and off for some days before this first sixth-left-turn experiment. We could have unconsciously noticed the lay-out of roads and lanes; and on the basis of this subliminal knowledge we could have chosen both the starting point on the road beside the drugstore, and the sixth-left-turn rule, in order to end up on the other side of the marais.
But this account, even if plausible, doesn’t explain anything away. On the contrary, it just adds an extra layer of the bizarre and the unusual. For how come we soaked up this pattern of roads and lanes from the map? And how come it was there on the map, and in the world, in the first place?
A better, if more cavalier, sceptical attack on the whole fanciful business is to say that anyone turning always to the left at regular intervals is going sooner or later to end up in a dead end. The fact that this occurred on the sixth, sixth left turn was pure coincidence. And since we started out to the south of the marais, faced east and then took left turns, it was predictable that sooner or later we would turn into a lane that ended at the east side of the marais. And so far as the marais was concerned, we were simply having occult phantasies about a physically unusual area.
Curiously, none of this obviously healthy, rational analysis, made much difference to the feeling that it was as if the arbitrary became a precise key to the intelligible; as if we had stumbled into a paradoxical and magical dimension of meaning in the world; as if it had patterns written into it according to the logic of a totally different order of reality.
The next day we decided to test the sixth-left-turn rule again. We set out in the late afternoon and chose a starting point nearer to the cottage, to the south, and on the west side of the marais. After the sixth, sixth left turn, we found ourselves in front of the church in the village of Ile d’Olonne, and the hands on the clock on the church tower stood at exactly six minutes past six. We went into the church. The service book on the lectern was open at the marriage service.
The paradox of the arbitrary as magical meaning now became quite compelling. It was the exhilarating sense of entering an unusual luminous pattern, ordering events in space and time in a way that cast off the expectations of ordinary life like an old skin. A new world glistened, exciting and liberating. All talk of mere coincidence became foolish. I wondered what it would be like to live in the world all the time in this mode.
Nor was the excitement just in the mind. Being in the world felt different. Its perceptual texture was closer to the heart. Events spoke with intimate authority. As I looked at the village shining in the evening sunlight, I saw it coded with new values, telling me a story I had never heard before. All we had to do was get the angle of action right, and we would encounter the world under new auspices. The sixth-left-turn practice was only a start, a kindergarten exercise to get us going. A bold new way of life beckoned.
How long would the magic last? We made a third expedition, choosing as our starting point a sign bearing the image of a woman and a man that was on a gate leading into some school or college in a nearby town. Again we took every sixth left turn. The first two sixth left turns took us into church courtyards; and on each occasion the church bell was tolling. The third sixth left turn took us down to the edge of a long lake, whose shape and lay-out were porous to inner space. The fourth and fifth sixth left turns took us again into church courtyards while the bells were chiming. We were impressed.
By now we were tired and pushing it, and also losing it. But we persisted. The sixth sixth left turn took us into a cul-de-sac of dull suburban houses. And this was definitely a place that was more closed to inner space than open to it. It was a psi dead end, a subtle no go area. The power had gone, the magical paradox of the arbitrary had evaporated. We were back in the ordinary, everyday pattern of events with a glum thud. The Tantric window had quite decisively slammed shut. But with precision, according to its own bizarre six by six logic.
I have no real idea what made this particular Tantric window open – if indeed there was such a window and it was open. Perhaps it was something to do with the nature of our relationship; with the sustained commitment over several days to ritual, invocation and meditation; with the location itself.
But a haunting and inescapable sense remains: that there had been mysteriously reflected into this world the magical order of another kind of world altogether. And that this world becomes inherently revelatory of the values of the other world if you are bold enough to adopt rules of action that radically change your perceptual framework. This thought certainly gives the sceptic within a hard time.
Jung and the Jungians have given this concept a lot of publicity. The experience is one in which I suddenly find that the without reflects the within. It is as if an external event symbolically mirrors an internal mental event, or symbolically dialogues with, comments upon, a psychological state. There is a colloquium of meaning between the psyche and its immediate physical environment.
The synchronous event out there in the world appears to crop up by mere happenstance. I never seek it out. As I stumble upon it, it unexpectedly lights up with a message. An open door, an open window, an open book, may suddenly mean a concurrent state of soul. On the minatory side, a road sign stating ‘Danger, men at work’ reports imminent psychological hazard on the inner journey. A chance perceptual encounter is paradoxically charged with significance.
For me, a genuinely synchronous experience is attended by a small but noticeable shift from an ordinary to an altered state of consciousness; as if a little bit of seership has enhanced ordinary perception. And the reason I include it as a two worlds phenomenon is because the resonance between the psyche and its environment is more typical of the other world. It is as if the meaning of that world is suddenly reflected into this: synchronous events seem to have the frame of reference of another order of reality.
Belief in synchronicity can clearly be overdone. It then degenerates into a superstitious reading of spurious psychological meanings into all kinds of everyday events. I knew a Jungian psychotherapist who slipped too readily into this pseudo-resonance with the external world. Every trip to the supermarket became an excursion around the soul, every stroll through an airport fraught with archetypal material.
The charm of the physical world is that it seems to resist any excessive assimilation to what is going on in the psyche. At a deep level this may be an illusion, since what we experience as the physical world may in part be the result of belief-systems which earlier in life we learnt to choose. But at a more superfical level of immediate subjective experience, the relative separation of self and world provides for the development of a good deal of healthy psychological autonomy – unencumbered by the constraints of too much synchronicity.
With synchronicity you just happen to stumble on the paradox of arbitrary significance. With divination procedures you quite intentionally set out to generate it.
So the I Ching, the Tarot, tea leaves at the bottom of an emptied cup, cracks in the baked collar bone of an ox, are all ways of deliberately choosing to read meaning into apparently arbitrary patterns. And there are two basic sorts of such divination procedures.
There are those in which the arbitrary pattern is related to symbols already accorded meaning by the divination system – as in the I Ching, and the Tarot. And there are those in which neither the pattern nor its elements are already symbols, as with the use of tea leaves, or cracks in a bone.
The former sorts of procedure have to have some rules about generating an arbitrary pattern. So in the I Ching you throw three coins six times to generate your hexagram, which is interpreted according to the traditional meaning of that hexagram. The fact that you get this hexagram rather than that, out of the 64 possible hexagrams, is the result of the arbitrary fall of the coins. The paradox, of course, is that how they fall is not regarded as arbitrary, but as highly significant in relation to the question you asked and your state of mind when throwing them.
Similarly with the Tarot. You select blind a certain number of cards from the pack and arrange them blind in a certain pattern; so you don’t know which cards you have selected or what card is where in the pattern. This gives you an arbitrary arrangement of basic symbols, which is then disclosed, and, paradoxically, regarded as highly pertinent to your question and state of mind. The pattern and the symbols are interpreted according to their traditional meanings.
With tea leaves, of course, you just drain your cup to get at your arbitrary pattern of leaves; and with the collar bone of an ox, just pop it in the fire for a bit to get your arbitrary pattern of cracks. Then it’s a free-for-all in finding significance in the result.
I have experimented quite a lot with divination procedures, take none of them with total seriousness, yet nevertheless find that something quite interesting is going on. I have certainly found a paradox-of-the-arbitrary effect. I will describe my most extreme experiment first.
I was running an experiential week-end on altered states of consciousness at a growth centre in a country house in Cornwall. The house is on the site of an old iron-age settlement and has a fogou in the garden. The workshop was residential. On the Saturday evening about 12 of us were still seated around the long wooden table in the kitchen, after dinner. The table was littered with the aftermath of the meal.
We had been talking about divination procedures, and I proposed that there was simply no need for elaborate rules and classic symbols. The shift from the arbitrary to the meaningful could be achieved anywhere, at any time, with appropriate mood and intent. To demonstrate this I suggested that someone take a turn in selecting any small number of items from anywhere on the table, and arrange them in any kind of pattern on the part of the table just in front of her or him. I would then find meaning in the apparently arbitrary pattern.
A woman in her forties was too intrigued to hold on to her scepticism. She chose a dirty plate with remnants of food and a fork on it, a banana, a salt cellar, a sprig of leaves from the table decoration. I then gave a prescient reading of how the arrangement of these items symbolised her current psychological state and life situation. My first sitter was amazed.
Now my seership bloomed. Person after person took their turn and became enthralled with synchronous revelations leaping up from bits of kleenex, cigarette butts, pieces of cucumber, fragments of wax from the candle base. Time and again quite arbitrary patterns of bizarre items sprang into significance.
The eight year old daughter of the owner of the house wanted a turn, her eyes alive with fascination. She spotted the cat prowling around the kitchen. With typical resourcefulness, she picked it up and put it on the edge of the table in front of her, along with other sundry inanimate items. Untouched by the girl, the cat stood silent and obligingly still throughout my reading, a true familiar, at home in the warlock’s craft at last. As soon as I had finished speaking, it jumped back onto the floor to continue its prowl.
Of course, it was all a game, and a wonderful game too. And yet it was also as if brooding over that intense concentration, that strangely elevated mood of magical meanings, there was the subtle ambience of another order of reality. The game seemed to thrive on the ambiguity. Take the presence of another world too seriously, then our game would die the death of excessive credulity. But dismiss that possible presence totally, and the game would lose all heart, all warmth, all vigour, and die the death of excessive scepticism.
I have frequently experimented with more formal divination procedures, simply to show that there is nothing particularly sacrosanct, or unusually effective, about the ancient, classic ones. So here is another good ‘game’ for a dinner party evening.
The first thing is to devise a small pack of 8 to 12 basic symbols. Sometimes I improvise such a pack on the spot, or invite the assembled group of ‘sitters’ to do that. The selection of symbols can be quite arbitrary, although usually I put in one or two that are a bit ambiguous, such as mud; and one or two that appear more sinister or threatening, such as a knife with blood dripping off it. Each symbol is drawn as a picture on a card. A typical pack of symbols might include: the sun, a road, a woman, a man, mud, a coffin, a flower, a tiger, a knife with blood dripping off it, a cathedral, the moon.
The sitter is invited to formulate an important question about their personal development or life situation. Or simply to present their psyche for whatever synchronous revelation about it that is thrown up by the draw. The cards are turned upside down on a table and the sitter moves them about until they are ‘just so’, that is, in a properly arbitrary array. The sitter then chooses, again in a quite haphazard manner, five cards, and without looking at them, places them upside down in form of a cross – one card in the middle, the other four cards forming the arms of the cross.
The cards are now turned over, and I commence my interpretation. I explain that the card in the middle represents the sitter’s present state or status, the card on the left of it relevant influences from the past, the card below it relevant current psychological, internal factors, the card above it relevant current circumstantial, external factors, and the card to the right of it relevant future possibilities. My interpretation cashes the symbols out in terms of these five categories and their interactions.
Once again, my mood and intent is pitched in that ambiguous zone as if what is going in is caught up in the rationale of another order of reality – which casts meaning from beyond into the arbitrary here below. Then provided none of us take them too sceptically or too seriously , excellent and luminous readings will flow, generating the brooding, ambiguous conviction that something important is happening that should be taken with a grain of salt.
Oracles are notoriously ambiguous in their genesis – do they come from this world or the next, or from some mish mash of the two? And in their content – do they mean this or that or something entirely different? Divination procedures yield one class of oracle, and have the same kinds of ambiguity. But such ambiguity is our protection. It means we should never take oracles too seriously.
So a proper response to them is to embrace the logic of ambiguity. This new logic requires us to transcend the the law of contradiction in Aristotelian logic – which asserts that something cannot be both A and not-A. For we need to say of a divination procedure that it is both only a game and more than a game. And we need to say of the oracle it yields that we will both not take it seriously and take it seriously: we will conduct our affairs as if we had not heard it, although we know we have.
This tantalising irresolution of thought is often characteristic of living at the interface of the two worlds. However, it is in the ambiguity of the divide that we sometimes find the luminosity of the source. As we face two different directions at once, we are illuminated in the blind area that unites them.
I have discovered an interesting way in which a person’s oracular power can be released by a quite arbitrary procedure, and also by the allocation to them by others of special status and function. The person’s presence too can be greatly enhanced by this method, and I could equally well have included this item in the previous chapter, where I discussed the phenomenon of presence.
I have used this exercise several times in workshops on altered states of consciousness so that participants can explore the dynamics of oracular power and presence. And I invite them to engage in the whole process while embracing the logic of ambiguity.
We are seated in a circle on cushions on the floor, without shoes. I ask everyone to remove their left sock. On all the occasions I have done this, everyone in the group has been wearing socks. Had they not been, I would simply have chosen some other common item everyone had in their possession.
All the left socks are put in a bag or other container and then stirred or shaken. The bag is slowly passed around the group. Each member picks out, blind, without looking into the bag, one sock. The last sock to be picked out identifies the group member who is to become the guru. So if the last sock belongs to you, this arbitrary effect appoints you as the guru to the group.
The guru now sits on top of a throne made of a large pile of cushions. Any group member who is moved to do so is invited to go and sit in front of the guru and ask her or him any basic question that comes to mind. It may be about the nature of reality, about personal destiny or some personal problem, about inner development, or whatever. And the guru answers.
What is interesting about this piece of theatre with its arbitrary election procedure is how much oracular power it bestows upon the person in the guru-role. Of course, you must not take what the person says seriously. But equally, you must not dismiss it as irrelevant and unimportant. You must embrace it and discard it all at once.
I remember an elderly retired solicitor, thin and stooped and short of height, engaging in manner, but extremely diffident about his capacity to participate in group activities of this sort. Needless to say, his sock was the last to come out of the bag. Our arbitrary procedure had elected as our guru the most improbable member of the group – or so it seemed at first.
With great reluctance he accepted the guru role. But once active within it, he became transformed. He spoke with spiritual authority and insight; his bearing became potent with charisma. His modesty was the vehicle for great oracular power. So much so that it was difficult to retain a hold on the logic of ambiguity. Even more extraordinary, after the whole exercise was over and we were all back to normal, his archetypal self disappeared effortlessly back into the chrysalis of his diffidence – as if it had never been born.
What is arbitrary in the guru game, of course, is the election procedure, with the added improbability that it is used to cast someone into the guru role. And it is as if this bizarre combination reveals non-ordinary meanings in what an ordinary person chooses to say.
Now for Occam’s razor, and the application of a little healthy scepticism. A divination procedure is nothing but the exercise of a fertile imagination by a charlatan in the presence of credulous dupes. You can read anything into anything: a coffin and a tiger can be read as imminent death from aggression, or as the birth of the noble id from the death of the superego, or as mourning for the loss of physical vigour, and so on and so on.
Furthermore, the symbols used in all divination procedures are so general, that anyone can identify with any combination of them, and with almost any interpretation of any combination of them. The credulity of the listeners will make them search out and magnify precisely those aspects of their experience which support the interpretation. And in any case, the clever diviner can get enough information from the physical appearance of a sitter to avoid making obviously stupid statements about him or her.
Still wielding Occam’s razor, let me give an example of how the generality of divination symbols can cause a fickle transfer of allegiance among them. This story tells how easy it is for people who identify with one basic symbol to identify with a quite different one, when given a sufficiently esoteric reason for doing so.
Many years ago I used to cast horoscopes, and had a circle of friends all of whom believed in astrology, without having any very deep knowledge of its technicalities. One evening five of these friends were gathered in my living room, and I decided to conduct a most interesting experiment. It was to do with personal allegiance to that sign of the zodiac known as the sun sign. This is the sign the sun is in on the person’s birth date, and the sign which is considered to make a major psychological statement about the person. Everyone in the room knew what their sun sign was.
I started to talk technically about astrology. I explained that western astrologers used the signs of the zodiac determined by the vernal equinox: that these signs are 30 degree segments of the ecliptic, measured from the point of the vernal equinox, starting with the sign Aries. I also explained that owing to the very slow conical rotation of the earth’s axis occurring once every 24,000 years, there is the phenomenon of precession of the equinoxes. This means that the point of the vernal equinox moves very slowly in relation to the fixed constellations of stars.
I then came to the crunch of the matter: because of this precession, the signs of the zodiac as determined from the point of the vernal equinox are now displaced from the fixed constellatons bearing the same names by over 24 degrees of arc. But Hindu astrologers use the zodiac of the fixed constellations.
So we have two quite different zodiacs, each using the same twelve names, but displaced from each other by over 24 degrees, that is, by almost one whole sign. There is the fixed zodiac of the constellations, of the actual star groups named Aries, Taurus and so on – used by Hindu astrologers. And there is the moving zodiac of 30 degree segments measured from the point of the vernal equinox – used by western astrologers, and also called Aries, Taurus, etc.
I told my friends that for most people – only excluding those who fell into the 6 degrees of overlap between the fixed and moving zodiacs – their sun sign as calculated by Hindu astrologers would be different from their sun sign as determined by western astrologers. The fixed zodiac sun sign would in fact be the sign before the moving zodiac sun sign. The sun in Aries on a western chart would turn up, for the same person, as the sun in Pisces on a Hindu chart. And so on round the zodiac.
So far, so good. The analysis was quite correct. Now I introduced the spurious bit, unbeknown to my friends. I drummed up all sorts of plausible reasons (none of which I really believed) why it is better to use the fixed zodiac as the Hindu astrologers do to this day, and as indeed all the astrologers of the ancient world, east and west, did. And when my friends seemed to be persuaded by these arguments, I pointed out that all their sun signs had been derived from the moving zodiac of western astrologers, and that from the ‘proper’ fixed zodiac point of view, each person’s sun sign was the one previous to the one they currently had allegiance to.
I went round the room, telling my Taurus friend she was really Aries, my Libra friend he was really Virgo, my Cancer friend she was really Gemini, and so on. What was astonishing was the way in which each person so readily identified with their new sun sign. Not only did they switch their allegiance to the new sign instantly, they did so with evident relief, liberation and enlightenment – as if at last they were getting at the real truth about themselves. I have never forgotten this telling demonstration of categorial fickleness.
Finally, I confessed to what I had been doing, and a furious discussion was let loose about the implications of my experiment. I also said that in reality I could not find any good reasons for adopting one zodiac rather than the other, and hence no good reasons for adopting either. I have long since given up casting horoscopes, because of the incoherence of the technical assumptions of astrology.
The credulous soul will very rapidly do business with any set of basic symbols, especially when they are presented within the theatre of authority. And once inside the set, the believer will quite happily shift allegiances around in order to save the basic addiction. Like they used to say of the Quabalah: ‘Once inside it, it is difficult to get out of it’.
For centuries, the Chinese were locked inside their five element law, classifying everything under fire, air, water, wood or metal. They crammed all experience into the system, not looking to see what was actually going on. And there is no doubt that human beings have, in many cultures and in many epochs, preferred categorial dogmatism to the risk and uncertainty of genuine inquiry.
Divination procedures, too, can rapidly become the domain of those who match credulity with arbitrary dogmatism, who collude with superstition as a defense against the challenge of real autonomy of thought and choice. People can surrender their souls in inappropriate ways to sets of symbols. But I do not think this sceptical account is the end of the matter.
Provided we grasp the logic of ambiguity and apply it to divination procedures in the way I suggested earlier, then they are a fruitful area for studying what seems to be a real paradox-of-the-arbitrary effect. One way of partially demystifying the paradox, is to argue that the arbitrary pattern of symbols, or tea leaves, or astrological elements, does two things.
First, it distracts the rational, practical mind – disarms and deposes it, so that an intuitive, even extrasensory faculty can tune in directly to the psyche and situation of the sitter. Secondly, it provides a systematically ambiguous framework – capable of receiving innumerable different interpretations – on which this faculty can project its findings.
The real function of the elaborate system of symbols and rules is to occupy the distracted mind. It thinks it is engaging with some ancient wisdom that portrays the world as it really is at a deep level, without realising that the system is fundamentally incoherent.
And the while the rational mind is thus busily deluded, the divinatory faculty can get to the heart of the matter quite outside the constraints of the system. Once the direct divination has done its work, it is not too difficult to fit its findings into the symbols and rules. This analysis applies particularly well to astrology, which has so many interacting elements to interpret.
While I accept this argument as a highly plausible, positive account of what really goes on in the best use of divination procedures, it is still as if there is a paradox-of-the-arbitrary effect that transcends it. And this effect is something to do with the fact that what is a genuinely arbitrary pattern from the point of view of this world, becomes as a pattern significant when caught up in the perspective of another world. And this becoming significant as another world sort of pattern, while it does not exclude the factor of projected psi insight, cannot be reduced to it.
In other words, when you arrange the items on the table into an arbitrary pattern, and I give you a reading, it is not only that I project onto that pattern my psi hunches about your state of life and soul. There is something else going on. The tacit universe is decoding its values in the explicit universe. The other world declares the logic of its forms in this world.
The implications of all this for daily living are interesting. If you live in this world from the point of view of this world, there is good deal of the arbitrary going on. And this means there is plenty of scope for real choice and autonomy. If there is no genuine chance in everyday life, there is no genuine choice.
If you live in this world from the point of view of the other world, there is a good deal of the significant going on: events in this world become subsumed within a logic that precludes real chance and so real choice. The moral of all this seems to be: healthy human autonomy depends on a proper separation of the perspectives of the two worlds most of the time. But if you do adopt the other world perspective on arbitrary patterns in this world, protect yourself with practising what I have called the logic of ambiguity.
Perhaps, after all, opening Tantric windows is not an all weather activity.
Experience of the subtle realms: