[Being limited to 3 links per post, I've included some as notes - simply replace the [dot]s with actual dots]
I recently posted on KIR
a review and critique of Jed McKenna's first two books, and given the similar theme of this Steven Norquist talk, I'm interested in doing something similar for it.
As in my review of Jed's books, I begin with the core question: this was a talk about enlightenment, so what exactly is enlightenment according to Steven Norquist? He doesn't, as Jed does, use any nifty phrases like "abiding non-dual awareness" or "truth realisation", nor does he claim, as Jed does, that it can't be described in positive terms. Instead, he describes it in simple, experiential terms, which, from my perspective, is far more helpful than Jed's approach, after which, as I concluded in my review, one is left with the impression that Jed simply has nothing substantial to say about enlightenment, and that as such his claim to enlightenment is only self-aggrandisement.
Steven's essential claim is that the process of enlightenment is one of "dissolution" at the end of which one's "self" quite literally dies. I've transcribed the relevant parts of his talk in which he describes the key events and nature of his enlightenment (words and phrases that I didn't hear clearly enough to fully identify I've simply guessed at, following them with a question mark and placing them in square brackets). He relates at about 23m23s that he was reading Ken Wilbur, coming across in particular Ken's thought that "ordinary consciousness IS enlightened consciousness". This thought struck him as being very significant, so he put the book down and began staring at a piece of paper on his desk. He describes what happened next at about 24m00s:
"So I'm staring at this paper, and as I'm staring at that paper thinking about ordinary consciousness being ultimate consciousness, suddenly a profound shock occurred - I suddenly disappeared: I was completely gone. All there was was a paper laying on the table - no one was observing it. There was just [a?] paper. There wasn't Steve here looking at paper there. There wasn't like, 'Oh I'm one with the paper' - there was none of that. It was - there was just a piece of paper there [but?] nobody's observing it - nobody is seeing that paper, yet it is shining with intense presence. That was my first shock. Now of course, you know, it faded after that."
This first experience, he explains, was followed, with his intent, by others, which occurred more and more commonly, until he relates at about 25m50s:
"[F]inally, that was it. There was simply - it was gone. There was no more me observing anything: there was only existence, shining with intense radiance, clarity, precision - but no one present to observe it. No one existing that could ever know all of this. There never was anybody to ever know this. I was not [there?], there was no I to know anything. There never is a person or a being or a lifeform either here or on any planet that has ever known that the universe exists. The universe exists without an observer. This was the nature of reality that I came to know, but truly I did not come to know anything, and I realised at the moment of this recognition that I had known [some of this?], seen always the way it has been. How could I have not seen this? But yet I had always seen it, it had always been there. This is the paradox of awakening, is that it is known in the moment of knowing it that it has always been known. There has never been a deception. No one has ever been deceived. All people have always been enlightened yet there has never been a single person existing that has ever been enlightened, and truly, there are no people in existence."
As I asked of Jed's description, I ask again here: what are to make of this? My initial reaction to it was that it is, on the face of it, absurd - Steven Norquist claiming that Steven Norquist does not exist; a self claiming that it is not a self: self-denial in the most literal sense of the phrase. I had a similar reaction to a descriptive piece
that Nat (going by "Unidian" on this forum) admitted in the Jed thread on KIR was his own. I was reluctant to tell Nat point blank, "What you've written is literally self-contradictory and thus nonsensical", and instead granted him the benefit of the doubt that he had had some
kind of meaningful experience that he had simply failed to convey in understandable words.
It became clear to me in that thread (the Jed thread on KIR as linked to in the introduction of this post), as I explained in several posts in it (#11, #13, and the clarifying #14), that the problem was one of definitions: that from my perspective, consciousness and self are concomitant, and that anyone (i.e. including both Nat and Steven) denying one (the self) whilst admitting the other (consciousness) must
be using a different definition of one or both of those words than I am.
It's implicit in both of their descriptions that they were conscious during these experiences given that they both possess the ability to recall them and do not express or imply any notion of actually being unconscious during the recollected events. It seems, then, that they are not talking about an absence of consciousness
. It took a little pondering to work out what, then, they might actually
mean by the non-existence of the self during those experiences, but I finally have an idea of it might be: I think that what they both experienced was an absence of the sense
of self; of that feeling
of "I am"; of the feeling
of subjectivity, of being an observer looking out at the world. Now, personally, I can't imagine what that experience might feel like, and I'm doubtful that it's even possible, but both Nat and Steven claim to have had it, so for the sake of discussion I'll accept their claims. Again personally, I'm inclined to be skeptical that such an experience is a particularly beneficial thing: an absence of the sense/feeling/subjectivity of self could easily be seen as dysfunctional, and indeed one word that occurred to me along these lines is "dissociation".
According to its Wikipedia article, one symptom of dissociation is depersonalisation
, which the article at that link defines as "a malfunction or anomaly of the mechanism by which an individual has self-awareness. It is a feeling of watching oneself act, while having no control over a situation". This seems to be pretty accurate a description of Steven's experience - he even says somewhere something like (paraphrased from memory), "I am no longer Steven Norquist living his life, I am now the experience
of Steven Norquist living his life".
The article continues: 'It can be considered desirable, such as in the use of recreational drugs [to which we can apparently add "or certain spiritual pursuits" --Laird], but it usually refers to the severe form found in anxiety and, in the most intense cases, panic attacks'. What comes next though is particularly interesting: 'Sufferers feel they have changed, and the world has become less real, vague, dreamlike, or lacking in significance. It can be a disturbing experience, since many feel that, indeed, they are living in a "dream"'. Compare this with (paraphrased) Jed's "life has no meaning" and "enlightenment is waking up from the dream", and with Steven's description of upheaval in the wake of the experience. It's possible that Jed has had exactly the same experience as Steven but simply failed to describe it as clearly as Steven, and it's also possible that both experiences conform to the definition of "depersonalisation".
Also interesting in that article is the link to the Wikipedia article on depersonalisation disorder (DPD), in which that disorder is described as (links removed) "a dissociative disorder in which the sufferer is affected by persistent or recurrent feelings of depersonalization and/or derealization. Diagnostic criteria include persistent or recurrent experiences of feeling detached from one's mental processes or body". Further down are listed the diagnostic criteria for DPD, which I invite the reader to compare with Steven's description of enlightenment. A Google search reveals that I am not the first person to make the comparison between so-called enlightenment and DPD.
Now, I am by no means
a supporter of psychiatry, and I by no means support without major qualification the practice of diagnosing behaviours with a potentially spiritual basis instead as psychiatric disorders, but I do think that it's interesting that experiences of this type can be viewed in different ways, some with positive implications and others with negative implications: that one man's enlightenment might be another man's disorder. Steven acknowledges that there might be negative perspectives on what has happened to him, and even warns people that it is not for everybody, and that the risks need to be weighed against the rewards. In Steven's favour against the interpretation of his state as a "disorder" is that apparently he didn't arrive at it through any trauma or any otherwise negative psychological events, and that he values it to the extent that he wouldn't trade it for anything.
So, the question remains: disorder or not, is this enlightenment? I'm not well-studied enough in the enlightenment traditions to answer that question definitively, not to mention that enlightenment isn't described very clearly in conceptual terms; the best that I can do is to simply point to the Wikipedia article on anatta, Buddhism's notion of no-self, and suggest that it's possible
that what it refers to is what Steven describes. I won't bloat this post by discussing this further or quoting from that article. Instead, I'll examine Steven's claims independently of the issue of whether he's enlightened, and pose a few questions.
I'll start with the apparently paradoxical nature of his claims, as epitomised in the quote above - recall, "All people have always been enlightened yet there has never been a single person existing that has ever been enlightened, and truly, there are no people in existence" - and, also from his talk, along similar lines: "The ego must go but yet the ego has never existed". Frankly, I'm not inclined to grant these paradoxes any meaning: they strike me more properly as simple and gross contradictions. Even assuming I've interpreted his "death of the ego" as a loss of the sense/feeling/subjectivity of self, how could one then say that this self "has never existed"? Clearly he experienced it prior to his "dissolution": how can he then deny after that point that it once existed? What sense does it make to transcend and be liberated from something that doesn't exist? If there is truly nothing and no one to be liberated, then what meaning is there in liberation?
Some other questions that I'd like to put to Steven along these lines are: if people don't really exist then why do you talk to them as if they really do? What is it that you are seeking to awaken if there is no real person to awaken? How can you talk to people about enlightenment if there are no people to enlighten in the first place? How can that which does not exist die?
Steven says, "So, each person must look within themselves and determine the cost. Obviously the less a person already has in their life, perhaps, the more easy it is to make the decision to approach that, but the more a person has - much more difficult". Now, cost implies some sort of valuation post-enlightenment, but supposedly post-enlightenment there is no self remaining to be subject to value. He also talks about personal preferences changing post-enlightenment - that you may no longer like to do things that you once liked - but, again, preferences imply a self which is subject to those preferences. Along similar lines he talks about "reconstructing" your life after enlightenment: in all of these instances he speaks as though there is some self which either values, prefers or can have its life reconstructed. This is in blatant contradiction to his claim that post-enlightenment there is no self. Paradoxical? Only in the second sense of that word: flat-out self-contradictory. The best I can make of it is that he is equivocating on the definition of "self" - using for one meaning some conscious referent for the word "I", and for the other meaning the sense/feeling/subjectivity of self.
Another question I'd like to ask Steven, particularly given that I'm posting this to GF, is whether post-enlightenment he feels any emotions. His position here seems again to be equivocal. On the one hand he talks about enlightenment as though it were beyond the poles of pain/suffering and happiness/joy/bliss: "There can never be pain or suffering. There is only endless existence, perfection", and "Happiness is a feeling you feel when the truth is not known. When the truth is known, there is emptiness, which is a million times beyond joy, happiness, bliss". On the other hand he talks about the possibility that post-enlightenment one might "hate" their spouse, and in his introduction he talks about checking out his hotel room and saying to himself, "This is cool", as though he were experiencing some kind of personal satisfaction. This issue could do with some clarification, as could the question: does he experience physical pain?
His metaphysic also suggests further questions. In the following two quotes he equates existence and consciousness ["you know"s etc removed]:
"Now, one of the things that people have a problem grasping is the nature of existence-awareness. Our natural assumption on what consciousness is is it's a perception. 'I can see that book. I'm a person staring at a book. That's what consciousness is. Awareness is something being aware of something.' Something, whether it's disembodied consciousness or the universal mind going 'Oh there's a book', whatever it is - that's what we think consciousness is. That's not what it is. Awareness is not something being aware of something. Awareness and existence are one. The very act of existence is consciousness. There is nothing aware of anything. The act of existence is consciousness. Awareness and existence are one. It is nothing aware of something, but nothing is aware. In order to experience that, all that's required is complete destruction. But then once that destruction occurs you realise there was never anything to destroy."
"Existence and consciousness are one. This is just the way the universe is. There is nothing to be discovered on the other side. There is simply silence and matter moving spontaneously but yet perfectly."
I'll ignore here the "paradox" implied by "there was never anything to destroy", as I've already dealt with that. What concerns me more is this notion of existence and consciousness being identical. It would seem that the implication is that nothing exists outside of consciousness, and yet in the second quote we see reference to "matter" which is "moving spontaneously but yet perfectly". Is this matter outside of consciousness or inside it? Exactly what is the relationship between matter and consciousness-existence? I can see two possibilities: (1) that matter is "internal" to consciousness-existence, or at least synonymous with it, and (2) that matter is "external" to consciousness-existence, perhaps comprising the material out of which consciousness-existence is built.
Now (1) seems to reduce his metaphysic to strong solipsism, which I don't believe he actually maintains, so we can probably dismiss that possibility, and (2) seems to suggest that there is an existence that is not consciousness (i.e. the matter out of which consciousness is built), which contradicts his claim that consciousness and existence are synonymous. Neither option seems to work well for him.
Putting that aside, here's another question for Steven: has there ever been a time in the universe when there was no consciousness (e.g. assuming he is a believer in evolution by natural selection, then prior to any life-forms having evolved)? If so, given that he sees existence and consciousness as synonymous, are we to infer that there was no existence at that time? If so, where's the sense in that - surely this is a redefinition of the word "existence"? If not, then how can existence and consciousness be identical given then that existence can exist without consciousness?
One final question I'd ask along these lines and which might clarify Steven's metaphysic is: what is the relationship between bodies/brains and consciousness? Does he believe that consciousness emerges out of the neurological workings of the brain, or does he believe that the brain is instead created/imagined by consciousness, or something else?
Steven's claim to enlightenment raises a lot of unanswered questions, and his paradoxes seem to be paradoxical not in the sense of being meaningful indicators of truth but rather in the sense of being self-contradictory and nonsensical. The question as to whether he really is
enlightened (whatever that might actually mean) is open in my mind; I'm not convinced, though, that what he experiences is desirable rather than dysfunctional, and he even seems to agree that at least for some people, although not for him, it would be an undesirable experience.