We Can’t Pull the World out of a Description of the World

Rupert Spira joins Bernardo Kastrup, scientist and author, in a deep exploration of science and spirituality and how they inevitably meet on the same path to truth.

Rupert and Bernardo began corresponding about six years ago. Eventually, they met for dinner in Amsterdam, which led to a deepening mutual respect. Rupert describes that occasion as like meeting an old friend, with that sense of knowing and recognition between two people who share the same understanding, while having come to it via different routes. They’ve been sharing ideas ever since.

Bernardo has two PhDs, one in computer science and another in philosophy. He was employed first at CERN, the European council for nuclear research, where he began working in artificial intelligence (AI) in connection with the Large Hadron Collider. Then he moved on to artificial consciousness (AC), wondering if he could build an artificially conscious entity, which piqued his interest in philosophy. He says he cannot remember a time when he was not interested in philosophy. Having carved out a place for himself in the world as a man of science, he then turned to the deeper questions.

Bernardo defines metaphysics as that which lies behind physics. Science in general and physics in particular tell us how nature, or matter, behaves but not directly what is behaving. That is the concern of metaphysics. He says, however, that the new priestly caste of physicists conduct themselves as though they’re qualified to pronounce on metaphysical questions. Whereas, as Rupert points out, what is referred to as ‘the perennial understanding’ (non-duality, the Consciousness-Only model) is an attempt to both explore the nature of reality and address its implications in our lives.

Simon Mundie, moderator for the conversation, opens this wide-ranging and far-reaching dialogue by stating that most people’s everyday, ordinary experience is that they are themselves an entity that happens to contain a mind, within a world of entities. The two-hour conversation that follows is all about how this so-called common-sense perspective is, in fact, false.

It begins with an explanation of how we actually construct a picture of reality by way of the information filtered through our sense perceptions. Reality, therefore, appears as sights, sounds, smells, tastes, etc. The perceptions may be accurate, but all they do is describe the appearances, and these appearances are shaped by the limitations of our organs and faculties of perception. We mistake the appearances for reality.

As Rupert says, ‘Reality precedes the finite mind or its observation’, and the fact that we perceive the world from one localised point of view implies that our view of it must be limited. ‘Perception is by definition limited and inaccurate’. An accurate view of reality would be the simultaneous perception of it from all possible points of view.

Bernardo adds that ‘we have evolved in order to generate a representation of the world that is conducive to our survival, not necessarily one that reflects the truth of how the world is in and of itself; that would not be amenable to survival’. And there is a difference between accuracy, at which we have become pretty expert, and truthfulness. Appearances are not the world.

They go on to address the philosophy known as ‘idealism’ and the often-raised criticism that it is solipsistic. Solipsism is the belief that nothing exists outside one’s own finite mind. Idealism, however, says that reality is the activity of universal consciousness, in which all finite minds appear. This reality cannot be ‘known’ in the ordinary sense of knowing. But it can be experienced as the ground or basis of our being when all the activities of thinking, feeling, and perceiving have subsided and have been understood as nothing more than insubstantial phenomena, like clouds passing in the sky.

Bernardo describes the mind as the image of a particular localisation within the stream of consciousness, just as the contours of a whirlpool seem to be defined within a river. There is nothing to the whirlpool, ultimately, than the water of the river. Similarly, the body does not generate consciousness in the form of a mind whose parameters are clearly defined within the greater consciousness; rather, the mind is a localisation of the singular consciousness, and the body/brain system is what that localisation looks like from the outside.

According to materialism, perceptions are generated inside the skull by the brain, and therefore the entire world of experience lies within the actual head. In this material model, the world has no defining qualities or subjective experiences; it has matter. Although no one has any idea how, qualities are all generated by our brains inside our heads. Approached in terms of the materialist paradigm, this ‘hard problem of consciousness’ – explaining how subjective experience can be deduced from physical objects made of matter, such as our brains – reveals an internal contradiction that is unsolvable within the paradigm. The solution is to take a couple of steps back and try another way of viewing it.

Bernardo gives a detailed account of the historical development of science and how it had to part company with the Church; then its ascent to infiltrate the domain of the psyche, previously held by the Church; he cites Diderot, the co-creator of the Encyclopédie (encyclopaedia) and one of the 18th-century’s leading figures of the Age of Enlightenment, as saying ‘materialism doesn’t quite work, but we need it in order to fight the Church’; so there was the awareness then still that this was not actually a philosophy founded on reason, but on politics.

At some point that awareness was lost, and, as Bernardo puts it, ‘we replaced the territory with the map, and then we started trying to pull the territory out of the map’. And yet, although you can’t pull the world out of a description of the world, this model of reality has persisted.

And if it wasn’t for suffering, most people would now have no reason to question what passes for common sense. This ‘common sense’, Rupert reminds us, was described by Einstein as ‘a series of prejudices that most people acquire by the age of eighteen’. It is often only when life seems to fall apart that many of us realise that something fundamental isn’t working. That is when the door opens.

The rest of the conversation continues around purpose in life versus nihilism; individuality, the mind, and the illusory separate self; an exposition of studies on what used to be called ‘multiple personality disorder’ but is now known as ‘dissociative identity disorder’ (DID) and the view of the separate self as a possible dissociative state within consciousness; and finally, deep sleep and death as states not of total unconsciousness or cessation but of lack of meta-cognition and memory.

See below for the transcript of the full conversation between Rupert and Bernardo (moderated by Simon Mundie).

Simon
Rupert and Bernardo, lovely to see you both. Let me start with you, Rupert. How are you?

Rupert
Very well. Lovely to see you, Simon. Bernardo, good to see you. Lovely to see you again, too.

Simon
Bernardo, you and I have never met, so I have to say it’s an honour and a privilege. Are you well?

Bernardo
I’m doing well. Feeling good and looking forward to this conversation.

Simon
I’m very much looking forward to it, too. There’s that saying that there’s nowhere I’d rather be. On the one hand, that takes care of time, on the other hand, obviously time is pressing, and we’ve got a lot to get on with. Let’s dive straight in, and I want to ask my first question, which is how and when did the two of you first meet?

Rupert
We met in Amsterdam. Bernardo, you’ll probably remember the date. It was on one of my pre-COVID meetings. I used to go to Amsterdam twice a year and Bernardo and I had been in correspondence. We met one Sunday evening for dinner. Do you remember which date, which year it was, Bernardo?

Bernardo
I also don’t remember.

Rupert
Five years ago, was it?

Bernardo
Easily.

Rupert
Five or six, maybe even seven. Anyway, we met, and I think we already intuited that we had a lot in common. It was one of those lovely meetings where there’s almost no impediment to understanding, no need to explain your terms. You say half a sentence and it’s not necessary to complete it. The other just knows immediately what you are saying. It certainly was, for me, a very special meeting. I felt it was like speaking to an old friend. The conversation just flowed so readily and easily. It was such a pleasure to meet someone who had come to this understanding in a completely different way from the way I had come to it. And yet there was such a deep shared understanding and resonance.

Simon
You’ve clearly developed a beautiful friendship. What is interesting, as you mentioned Rupert, is where you have arrived in your understanding of reality, your lived experience of it, and that you each have come to it from these two apparently different directions. You could say, for example Rupert, that a lot of people would think of you in spiritual terms, and Bernardo, your background is certainly very much hard science. You worked at CERN at the Hadron Collider. Could you give us a bit of a backdrop of your scientific credentials?

Bernardo
My original education was in computer science, but immediately after my graduation, I found myself working in a large physics experiment doing part of the data position stream for the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland. I started thinking about artificial intelligence because it was one of the techniques we were working on to recognise relevant physics events from the data stream and, separating those events from the trash in the background that any physics experiment generates. 

After that, I started thinking that if I can build an AI, then can I build an AC – an artificial conscious entity. That got me back to philosophy, which was something I have been interested in… since birth. I don’t remember not being interested in philosophy. I then got a second doctorate in philosophy and started thinking about the deep questions – especially when you get to a point in life where you have already carved out a space in the world, so you aren’t in that desperate need for having a place to live, a good job, a partner, a dog, a cat and all that. 

And then suddenly I find myself here, next to Rupert, which is for me a massive cosmic irony. It’s like God looking at me, having a laugh and saying, ‘Ha-ha, you didn’t see this one coming, did you?’ I never thought of myself as even remotely spiritually talented. I still don’t think of myself that way. Deep inside, I still feel slightly ashamed for being next to Rupert in a situation like this. Having a dinner with Rupert is something else. That’s a situation in which I’m in learning mode, but to appear as an equal next to Rupert is a massive cosmic irony for me.

Simon
That’s useful.

Rupert
Can I just say something quickly to that, Simon? What is also ironical, Bernardo, is you say that you don’t really feel that you are spiritual or qualified, but I don’t feel that I’m a spiritual person. I dislike intensely the label spiritual teacher because the word ‘spiritual’ implies something ‘other’. I’m not talking about something other, I’m talking about this - this ordinary everyday experience. I’d rather agree with you, Bernardo, I don’t feel spiritual. I just feel like an ordinary person that’s interested in the reality of our ordinary everyday experience.

Bernardo
Then we share that. I’m also interested in this world right now.

Simon
That’s why this is so exciting because ‘spiritual’ is something of a loaded word, particularly in scientific circles. To be able to bring the two together, in terms of pure experience, is very exciting now. In terms of my own qualifications, as it were, I’m uniquely unqualified – I failed my physics test. So, to be able to explore these terms, particularly perhaps from a scientific point of view, I’m hoping to bring you down to my level.

In terms of the man or woman on the street and their understanding of reality, experience and science, someone in Britain, who is very much the figurehead in that area at the moment, is Brian Cox. You could say he is a celebrity physicist. He worked at CERN as well. Bernardo, in terms of the publications you’ve written about idealism in scientific papers, how would you compare you and Brian? I don’t mean to be leading, but just out of interest.

Bernardo
Brian worked at CERN as well at some point, I think. I don’t have much sympathy for him, even in his efforts to communicate physics. I think he’s more focused on drawing a flabbergasted reaction from his public rather than actually explaining what’s going on. He’s more focused on the ‘Whoa, wow, what is this?’, rather than explaining things. He seems to be married to a particular metaphysics without even thinking of it as a metaphysics. That metaphysics, of course, is physicalism or materialism.

Simon
And metaphysics, that just means reality?

Bernardo
Metaphysics is what is behind physics. Physics is how nature behaves; metaphysics is what is it that behaves. So, it is behind or beyond the physics.

Simon
Am I right in saying that science doesn’t tell us what reality is, but it tells us how it behaves?

Bernardo
Correct. Of course, you can derive some implications regarding what nature is from nature’s behaviour, but that’s an indirect step. Science doesn’t provide a direct answer to what nature is since it only studies nature’s behaviour.

Simon
Now Rupert, in terms of the perennial understanding, as it were, does this then explain what reality is in a way that science can’t?

Rupert
Yes, the perennial understanding is more a philosophy than a science, because philosophy is more concerned with what nature is, rather than what it does. The perennial, non-dual understanding is an attempt to explore the nature of reality, to recognise the nature of reality, and then it addresses the implications of that recognition in our life, both internally, that is, what it means for us internally in relation to our suffering, our love of happiness and peace, emotional experience. But it also has implications for our external experience, that is, our activities and relationships in the world.

Simon
You often say reality is one single, indivisible whole, so there’s nothing separate from that. It’s also described as the consciousness-only model, non-duality or idealism. You’ve both arrived, am I right in saying this, at exactly the same spot?

Bernardo
Pretty much. Yes. 

Rupert
You would have to put Bernardo’s and my understanding under a very powerful microscope to find any differences between us.

Simon
That’s a fantastic place to start. Let’s begin with a bit of a dismantling process. What the culture at large believes about what reality is brings us to materialism or physicalism, as well as our intuitions about reality. 

So, for me right now, I feel like there is a world out there. I can see out the window, there are cars, houses, pavement, sky. It’s cloudy. I, in the form of a body, would walk out the door. Inside that body, there is a mind and a self that is deciding to walk down the road and perhaps get in a car or go to the shop. It’s a world of things. I am a thing within it that just happens to have a mind within it. That seems to me to be the everyday understanding of reality.

Bernardo
That’s the average understanding.

Simon
But it’s wrong.

Bernardo
It’s certainly wrong.

Simon
Could you explain, Bernardo, how are intuitions then mislead us?

Bernardo
Nature has provided us with a set of sense organs. Sensors – eyes, ears, nose. The result of this sensing of the world is presented to us as what we call perception. If you think of it, perception is just a dashboard of instruments. It’s like you’re a pilot in an airplane and instead of having a transparent windshield, there is only aluminium and all you can see is the dashboard of instruments in front of you which provide you with sense data. There are sensors outside the airplane providing you with sense data, accurate information, about the world. Of course, the dashboard doesn’t look like the world. It provides relevant and accurate sense data about the world, but it doesn’t look like the world as it is in itself. 

The problem is we are born inside that cockpit. We have never peaked out a transparent window to see the world as it actually is. All we have is the dashboard. We talk in terms of the language of the dashboard. We don’t talk about the storm outside, we talk in terms of wind speed, direction of movement, air pressure, which is what the dashboard of instruments provide us. We end up concluding that the world is the dashboard because that’s all we ever had. Our language and thinking evolved around that. 

Of course, the dashboard is useful, you can fly by an instrument and use the sensors, dials and dashboard to navigate life and survive, but the world, as it is in itself, is not a dashboard. It doesn’t look like a dashboard. That’s where things go wrong because we are cooped up in that cockpit. We think in terms of the dials, and we forget that the real world is that which is being sensed, that which is being measured, not the needles inside the dials inside your dashboard of instruments.

Simon
Rupert, Bernardo mentioned our perceptions. When I go outside and see cars, houses and people, actually what I’m experiencing is the perception of seeing, the perception of hearing, the perception of feeling, et cetera. So can you just talk a little bit about that, about how that is what we are seeing, but superimposed on top of that is the idea of things.

Rupert
Yes, there is experience. We’re having an experience, or we are experiencing. We extrapolate from this fact a model, which as you rightly described in your introduction to this question – the model of a mind or a self inside the body, looking out through our sense perceptions at what we consider to be a transparent windscreen through which we look and get an accurate picture of reality. Whereas, as Bernardo has just explained, our sense perceptions are limited. They filter reality and they make reality appear in a way that is consistent with their own limitations, just like one who wears orange-tinted glasses sees orange snow. If you wear orange-tinted glasses when you’re skiing in a mountains for long enough, you forget you’ve got these glasses on and you think that the way you are seeing the snow is the way it really is. Then, at the end of the day, you take your glasses off and you think, ‘I had forgotten that I was viewing a filtered picture of the reality. The glasses are so close to me that I had forgotten, and I thought that I was just looking through the clear windscreen of my eyes.’

Because our sense perceptions, as Bernardo said, are so close to us, we’ve forgotten that we are wearing them. Like glasses or a VR headset, we presume the model of reality that they present to us is how reality actually is. No, it’s just how reality appears when it’s filtered through the limitations of a human mind.

Simon
You mentioned the senses – we’ve got seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling. We have five ways of experiencing and then we also have the equivalent number of organs to help us in that. Is the coincidental nature of that anything worth commenting on?

Rupert
Absolutely. You are right. As human beings we experience seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling, and we experience the world in the form of sights, sounds, tastes, textures and smells. Is that a coincidence? Of course not. There’s a direct correlation. 

Let’s say we had a sixth way of perceiving – seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling and let’s call it X-ing. Let’s say there was some experience called X-ing. We would experience Xs out there. Or if there was something called Y-ing, we would experience Ys out there.

Bernardo
And then we would say, that’s how the world really is. 

Rupert
In other words, the world is not what we see. It is the way we see. Bernardo and I both make this point, over and over again, to prevent this understanding from sliding into solipsism. I’m not saying, and I know Bernardo is not, that all there is to reality is our individual experience of it. Reality precedes the finite mind or its observation, but the finite mind filters reality and makes it appear to us in a way that is consistent with the limitations of our sense faculties. It’s what William Wordsworth beautifully expressed when he said, ‘we half create and half perceive the world’. 

We perceive it in the sense that what we are looking at is what’s real. It’s the reality that precedes the mind, but we create it in the sense that we lend it its appearance, this beautiful understanding that the world as we experience it is an interaction between reality and the finite mind. The world borrows its reality from something that is way bigger than the finite mind, but it borrows its appearance from the finite mind.

Simon
I’ll come back to that solipsism point very soon but quickly, Bernardo, can you just explain why perceptions appear as they do? Why do they not more accurately reflect reality?

Bernardo
Perceptions may be fairly accurate in the same sense that the dial in the dashboard of instruments of an airplane provides accurate information about what’s going on outside. Information that you can react to and fly safely by instrument. But that of course doesn’t mean that the world outside looks like a dashboard, and that’s the key difference. The world outside may not be material – and I’m highly convinced it’s not because there’s plenty of evidence for it – in the way we think of it, as discrete objects in the space-time scaffolding. That’s the paradigm of the dashboard. It’s accurate in the sense that it allows us to survive, allows us to react timely to environmental challenges by presenting what’s relevant about the world to us at-a-glance on the screen of perception. It helps us avoid unlimited increases of entropy in our internal states. 

Now, this is complicated. It only means the following: if we saw the world as it actually is, in other words, if our perception mirrored the world as it actually is, then our internal states would be as unbound as the states of the world, which we have no control of. And that means that seeing alone could kill you. It could increase the dispersion of your internal states to the point that you would melt into hot soup. That’s thermodynamics for you. 

It has been shown mathematically already, by a person from the United Kingdom, that perception cannot mirror the world. We would die very quickly if it did that. Perception is an encoded at-a-glance overview of what is salient and relevant about the world, but it may look nothing like the world actually is, although it conveys accurate information about the world. So that’s the critical difference. The information is accurate, but it’s presented in a way that is not the same as the world is in and of itself. It could not be the same.

Rupert
Can I add something to that? Just to reiterate what Bernardo is saying, the fact that we perceive the world from one localised point of view implies that our view of it must be limited because to get an accurate view of reality, we would have to perceive it simultaneously from all possible points of view. All we would perceive, then, is utter blackness. Just the fact that the perception always takes place from a localised point of view, but what is perceived is always relative to that point of view, it can always only be a limitation of what is really there. Perception is, by definition, limited and inaccurate. I’m not invalidating it. It has a purpose, as Bernardo says, but it must give us an inaccurate picture of reality.

Simon
Something I’ve heard you say, Bernardo, that made sense to me, was the idea, for example, that you’re playing a computer game and let’s say you’re moving your character around and he can go through a world, but if he saw the actual world of the computer game, it would be all these ones and zeros and it would be absolutely nonsensical. So, there’s an equivalence there?

Bernardo
We have evolved in order to generate a representation of the world that is conducive to our survival, not necessarily one that reflects the truth of how the world is in and of itself. That’s not amenable to survival. So, there is a difference between accuracy and truthfulness. We perceive largely accurately, but not in a truthful way in the sense that the appearances are not the world. Why would they be? There is absolutely no reason for them to be.

Simon
So, take reality seriously, but not literally.

Bernardo
Correct.

Simon
Rupert, just to go back to that solipsism point. What I found quite interesting, while doing research for this, is how it can be easily misunderstood. Solipsism, correct me if I’m wrong, is the belief that nothing exists outside of our finite mind, outside of my own finite mind. Some people believe – I’ve seen this on threads, it’s actually quite common – that, for example, idealism is in line with that. Actually it’s the other way around. Materialism is more in line with that than non-duality. Rupert, can you field this one?

Rupert
Yes. The belief that idealism is synonymous with solipsism is, at best, a misunderstanding of what idealism entails and, at worst – and as you say, it’s very common nowadays – a complete misrepresentation of idealism. It’s pernicious because many people who would genuinely be open to the possibility of idealism dismiss it on the grounds of its association with solipsism, which is a philosophy that doesn’t even get off the ground. 

Solipsism, as you say, is the belief that all there is to reality is not the content of our individual minds, it’s the content of my mind. All I can be sure about is the content of my own mind. Therefore, you two, for instance, are just images on my screen. You are not having experience now. All there is in existence is my study in Oxford. There’s no other house, there’s no other beings, that’s it. It’s a form of madness.

It’s remarkable how often, in the circles that I operate in – perhaps more than Bernardo, although there’s quite a lot of overlap more and more these days – how many people misunderstand idealism or the non-dual philosophy and equate it with solipsism and, in this way, bring it into disrepute. 

What idealism or the non-dual perennial understanding suggests is not that reality is contained in an individual mind, or even the sum total of all individual minds. It suggests that reality takes place in a universal consciousness and is ultimately made of, or is the activity of, that universal consciousness. So non-duality or idealism states that everything is in consciousness, not that everything is in the finite mind. There’s a big difference.

Simon
The best metaphor for me is the dream metaphor. Could you illustrate it with that, at this point?

Rupert
Yes. It’s the analogy that I use most often. It’s my equivalent to Bernardo’s dissociation identity disorder (DID) metaphor. 

Imagine Mary falls asleep in London, and she dreams she’s Jane on the streets of Paris. (Now some people object when I say this because they say they are the same person in their dreams as they are in real life, so why give them two different names? My response is that it is only for ease of communication.) Mary falls asleep in London, and she dreams she’s Jane on the streets of Paris. Jane represents the finite mind. All of us are like Janes in the dream or in the imagination of universal consciousness. From Jane’s point of view, she closes her eyes and the streets of Paris disappear, and she opens them again and they reappear. She reasonably concludes from this that whatever it is that is perceiving the streets of Paris lives just behind her eyes. This is corroborated when she closes her ears. Everybody on the streets of Paris, all her friends, think the same thing. From this they build a model that whatever it is that knows my experience lives in my brain, and everything that I experience externally – the world – is outside of the consciousness that I believe is located in my brain. The name we give to that is matter. 

From Jane’s point of view, her experience is divided into mind on the inside – which in this context we can use synonymously with ‘consciousness’; in other contexts I would make a distinction. We can say Jane’s experience is divided into consciousness on the inside and matter on the outside. Moreover, she believes that the world made out of matter precedes the consciousness with which she experiences it, so she believes, along with all her friends and colleagues, that the matter which exists outside of her mind gives rise to consciousness. Hence the materialistic model grows out of this point of view. 

Of course, when Mary wakes up, she thinks, ‘Oh, that’s just how it appeared from Jane’s limited localised and ultimately illusory point of view. What was really taking place was that the single indivisible field of my own mind – consciousness, albeit a limited consciousness – was in itself. It was assuming simultaneously the form of the dream and the form of the subject in the dream from whose perspective the dream was known. The distinction between mind and matter, between the subject and the object, was only real from the localised perspective of Jane in the dream, but when Mary wakes up, the whole thing is one infinite indivisible, whole made out of pure consciousness.

Simon
The dreams that we have at night are just a microcosm of reality at large?

Rupert
Yes. All we need to do is take the analogy I’ve given and just raise it one level up. In the waking state, we are all Janes, localised perspectives of infinite consciousness within infinite consciousness from whose point of view infinite consciousness perceives itself – its own activity as an apparently physical universe.

Simon
Bernardo, I want to come to dissociative identity disorder later because the research was fascinating, but could you share your beautiful analogy of the infinite river with whirlpools within it, which is another way of saying the same thing.

Bernardo
The motivation for that was a model that some people use – the transceiver model – that the brain doesn’t generate consciousness, it just receives it. The problem is that there is a built-in dualism to that. If you have a coffee filter, the filter is not made of coffee, so if the brain is a filter filtering consciousness, then presumably the brain is not made of consciousness. I think that would be a wrong conclusion as Rupert just beautifully explained. Everything is in consciousness and of consciousness. 

What’s actually going on? The analogy of the whirlpool is an attempt to solve this seeming dilemma. If you go to a river and you find a whirlpool, you can delineate the boundaries of that whirlpool precisely and say that the whirlpool is here and not there, and these are the boundaries of the whirlpool. It has an obvious individuality to it, an obvious localisation to it. The water in the whirlpool keeps turning around the same point, the same centre, while the rest of the river flows away. 

The idea is that our brain and its activity, the rest of our body, is not generating consciousness, it’s the image of a certain localisation of the stream of consciousness in the same way that the whirlpool is the image of a certain localisation of water in a flowing stream. Brain activity correlates with experience because it’s the image thereof. The image of a phenomenon, of course, correlates with the phenomenon it’s an image of. The body doesn’t generate consciousness, it’s just what a localisation of consciousness looks like from the outside. You can delineate the boundaries of the body and say, ‘Here is the body’ in the same way that you can delineate the boundaries of the whirlpool and say, ‘Here is the whirlpool’. Yet, just like there is nothing to the whirlpool but water –you can’t lift the whirlpool out of the river, there’s nothing to it but the same water as the river – in the same way, there is nothing to the body but consciousness. It’s just the image of a certain localisation of conscious contents.

Simon
Before I go on to solipsism and how it’s actually closer to physicalism and materialism, can you just define in the simplest terms you can, what consciousness is, Rupert?

Rupert
Consciousness is that with which our experience is known, it is that within which everything appears, and it is that out of which everything is made or of which everything is the activity.

Simon
That was nice and concise. Bernardo?

Bernardo
It’s difficult to add something to that. Maybe another formulation: consciousness is that whose excitations are experiences. If you mean by define consciousness how I use the word, then I use the word in a sense of phenomenal consciousness without entailing or requiring any higher-level mental functions, such as self-awareness, meta-cognition, and so forth. If you have experience, then you’re conscious. Even the simplest experience does already imply consciousness. Technically this is called phenomenal consciousness, and that’s what I mean when I use the word consciousness. 

If you mean by it, give me a way to explain consciousness in terms of something else, then I draw a blank because I think consciousness is primary. I can explain everything else in terms of consciousness but not consciousness in terms of something else because you cannot reduce one thing to another forever. At some point you hit rock bottom in reality. I think consciousness is that rock bottom. There is nothing I can explain consciousness in terms of. That’s why I prefer to say consciousness is simply that whose excitations are experiences.

Simon
So, it’s experience experiencing?

Bernardo
Our language and our way of thinking tries to say what consciousness is as if it were a thing that you could point to and say, ‘There is consciousness. Here it is. It’s a thing of some sort.’ Of course, that’s contradictory with consciousness. Consciousness is that within which things appear, it’s not itself a thing, it’s not itself a substance in the literal sense. Consciousness is pure subjectivity. If you need to think in terms of things, whatever you do there will be wrong. 

But what is the least wrong way to think of consciousness in terms of things? Think of it as empty space. It’s still completely wrong, but it’s less wrong than to think of it in terms of an object or a substance. Think of consciousness as empty space and experiences as excitations of that empty space, which creates the world.

Simon
You mention things which brings us neatly to physicalism and materialism. I came across a few comments on various forums that dismissed the non-dual or idealism understanding in terms of this solipsistic outlook. Actually materialism, the current model of reality, has more in common with solipsism than idealism or non-duality because the implication is everything that we experience is taking place in our brain, in our mind. Can you explain that in the simplest terms possible?

Bernardo
Under materialism, the qualities of your perceptual experiences – all the colours you see, the sounds you hear, the smells you taste, the textures you touch and feel – are generated by your brain inside your skull. If you look up to the sky at night and you see a bright star, say Sirius, that quality, that star you see, that thing you perceive, all those qualities, all of that perception is happening inside your skull. 

Under materialism, your skull is above the stars as you see them. Materialism would say there are real stars out there, but they are not what you see. They have no qualities; they are pure abstraction. You cannot visualise them because if you visualise them, you are already bringing qualities into the picture, and under materialism qualities are created by your brain inside your head. Under materialism, the world of your experiences is entirely within your head.

Simon
Bernardo, can you just elaborate a tiny bit on qualities? What do you mean by that?

Bernardo
Colours are qualities. Melodies are qualities. Flavours are qualities. The world as it is in itself, under materialism, has no qualities. It has no colours, no tastes, no smells. It has matter. And what is matter? It’s something entirely defined in terms of quantities of numbers. It’s an abstraction. You cannot visualise it, but theoretically, if you provide a long enough list with the relevant numbers, you will have said everything there is to be said about matter. As defined under materialism, it has no qualities. Under materialism, all qualities are somehow – nobody has any clue how, not even in principle – generated by your brain inside your head.

Rupert
Can I ask you a question, Bernardo? I know it’s not what you believe, but if I were asking a materialist – someone that has this view that you’ve just given that the world really exists inside our head – what about the head itself? Surely if the world exists inside the brain, inside the head, then the brain and the head must exist…the argument falls apart there.

Bernardo
A materialist would say the head you see in the mirror is not your head. It’s an internal representation of your real head created by your brain.

Rupert
And what about the brain then?

Bernardo
The brain you see if you crack my skull open is not my real brain. It’s an internal representation of my real brain created by your brain inside your real skull. The real brain, the real skull, under materialism, has no qualities. They have no colour, no qualities whatsoever. They are pure abstraction. They are defined in terms of a list of numbers and mathematical relationships between these numbers, like spatial-temporal position, mass charts, ping momentum, frequency amplitude, and all that. 

Most casual materialists don’t notice because if they knew they would say, ‘This is absolute nonsense. I mean, I’m replacing reality with an abstraction, which happens to also not work because there is no coherent and explicit way to tell how quantities can generate qualities.’ It’s an absurdity, it’s an inversion of reasoning. 

Simon
Rupert, I’ve heard you dismantle the materialist model in very simple terms. I’m going to challenge you to do that again. I know that you’re not going to be pulling something from memory, but I’ve seen you do it in a couple of sentences before, so I’m going to challenge you to try and do that again.

Rupert
I’m not sure I’ll manage two sentences, Simon, but I’ll do my best.

The only thing we can be certain of is the knowing of experience. In fact, not even the knowing of experience as if the knowing of it were one thing and experience itself was something other than knowing. All we can be certain of is knowing. That’s the only absolute certainty. I’m using ‘knowing’ synonymously with ‘consciousness’, but I use the word ‘knowing’ to try and bring it close to our experience. 

There is the knowing of the sound of my voice, the knowing of the sight of your screen, the knowing of the temperature of the air on your face, the knowing of whatever emotion you may be experiencing. There’s just the knowing of experience. Knowing is the only substance that is ever known or experienced. Anything that we posit outside of knowing is an abstraction, a mental abstraction that can never be verified because if we were to come in contact with it, all that we would know of it is the knowing of it. 

Knowing is the only certainty. It’s the only thing, which is of course not a thing, that has ever been experienced or could ever be experienced by anybody. I’m implying that knowing is known by a person – I don’t mean that – knowing is that which knows. This knowing is known by itself. That’s all we can be sure of. If we want to build a model of reality that is anything other than, or could ever be anything other than, a mental obstruction unrelated to our experience, why don’t we start with what we know, with what we have in our hands – knowing, consciousness – and only resort to something outside of that if our current experience cannot be satisfactorily explained using only consciousness, which it can. Not only can our current experience be explained very satisfactorily referring only to knowing or consciousness, but there are also so many aspects of our current experience that cannot be satisfactorily explained under the prevailing materialist paradigm. I think that’s…

Simon
The best known of which, of course, is the hard problem of consciousness. I believe it was David Chalmers – who I believe you know, Bernardo – who came up with that. Could you give a brief explanation of what that is in simple terms, and why it’s not just a hard problem, but a completely unsolvable problem under the current paradigm?

Bernardo
Dave Chalmers framed the problem as follows: there is nothing about physical parameters in terms of which we could deduce, even in principle, the qualities of experience. In other words, in the gap between the qualities that are nature’s given – our qualitative experience, that’s pre-theoretical, it’s what is given to us, it’s how the whole thing starts – there is nothing about what we call physical parameters in terms of which we could deduce experience. Whatever brain arrangement you come up with, whatever pattern of brain activity we come up with, it may correspond to the quality of warmth or to the quality of coldness, but there is nothing about those physical parameters in terms of which we could deduce that this is a hot experience, or this is the experience of coldness. It’s a completely arbitrary gap between the two.

Dave formulated this very precisely in 1994. He puts himself down. He has said that he didn’t do anything, that people already knew it and he just chose certain words. But of course, framing the problem is halfway to the solution, and the solution, in this case, is to take a couple of steps back because we took a wrong turn at some point. We need to retrace our steps back and try a different understanding of what’s going on because what the hard problem shows is that there is an internal contradiction in the materialist way of thinking. There is no way to solve that in the sense that we can continue in the materialist path and account for experience in terms of quantities. That’s already incoherent in principle, let alone in practice. We have to trace our steps back and try a different road.

Simon
The one thing we know for sure is experience, and it comes from something that is outside of experience, namely matter, with no reason why experience should rise from matter. So why has this leap been made, that there’s these things, stuff, and then bang out of nowhere comes experience?

Bernardo
Look, if you were born inside of the airplane cockpit, and all you have ever had are the dials, your language evolves around the paradigm of the dials, and you try to make sense of everything in terms of dials. That’s what we are doing. It’s a little bit clueless, but it’s understandable. It’s wrong, but it’s understandable to some extent. 

Our brain activity seems highly correlated with our experiences. If I put alcohol in my system, something changes in my experience. If a neurosurgeon goes around my brain poking it with an electromagnetic probe, he will induce all kinds of experiences in me. We don’t need to go that far. If I’m punched in the head, something happens to my experience. We have all these correlations between experience and what we call physicality. The easy intuition is that experience arises from physicality. Of course, there is a completely different way to see this. And once you get that, it’s obvious that that other way is the way to go, but I understand the common superficial intuition that the arrow of causation goes from matter to consciousness because there is such tight correlation between patterns of brain activity, and even anatomy, and the contents of our interal experience.

Simon
Rupert, you talk often about the perennial understanding. This is not new, it’s thousands of years old, yet physicalism or materialism, the current model, is actually relatively new, is it not? And Bernardo, can you explain a little bit from a historical point of view, the role the church and scientists, who didn’t want to be burned at the stake, played in the development of that?

Bernardo
Okay. In the sixteen to early seventeenth century, at the beginning of science, scientists realised that it was very handy to describe the qualities of perception in terms of numbers. If you assign a number of kilos to a piece of luggage, it’s a nice description of how it feels to lift that piece of luggage. So numbers arise as descriptions of the universe of perceptions. At some point in the fight between science and the church – because the church started burning some scientists, like they burned Bruno at the stake in 1600 – it became convenient, socially and politically speaking, to try to carve out a space for science that left the church feeling unthreatened. Descartes was instrumental in that. The story that they came up with was the following:

Instead of these numbers being descriptions, let’s make them a thing in themselves. Let’s make them a reality. Let’s say it’s matter. The numbers became not only a description, now they were a thing in themselves called matter. That was the domain of science, and everything that had to do with qualities and consciousness – in other words, all we have – became the domain of the church. Of course, the church leaders probably thought, ‘Okay, go ahead in your fool’s errand. We are happy if you leave the psyche, the soul, the mind, the qualities, the consciousness to us, because we know that’s all that exists.’

In the beginning, the people of the enlightenment in the eighteenth century were still aware that this was a political move, so scientists wouldn’t be burned at the stake. Diderot, one of the two authors of Encyclopédie – perhaps the founding document of the enlightenment – is on record saying that materialism doesn’t quite work, but we need it in order to fight the church. That awareness was still there that this was not a philosophy motivated by reason, but was largely motivated by short thinking and politics. Important politics if you are afraid for your life, but at some point, halfway into the nineteenth century, we had lost the notion that this was a political move. We started thinking that this is really what’s going on – there are only quantities. 

That was the moment when we replaced the territory with the map, and then we started trying to pull the territory out of the map. That’s the hard problem of consciousness. It doesn’t work. You can’t pull the territory out of the map. You can’t pull the world out of what was a description of the world. Instead of acknowledging that we are totally off on a tangent, we say that it’s a problem, and in version two, three or ten of the map, we will be able to pull the territory out of the map. Well, go ahead and try. Pull up a chair while you wait.

Simon
Rupert, I’m going to give you two questions, and take your pick. Could you either say something about pulling the territory out of the map, that analogy, or can you say something about the fact that this habit has continued over the last few centuries. Why, in your opinion, has this model continued and been passed down without much introspection.

Rupert
It’s been perpetuated simply because it seems to be consistent with the way we perceive. As Einstein suggested, the evidence of our common-sense perceptions is a series of prejudices that most people acquire by the age of eighteen. It’s Jane on the streets of Paris – everything about her experience and her friends’ and her colleagues’ experiences seem to corroborate this belief that her experience is generated by matter. 

Going back to Bernardo’s analogy of being punched in the face, someone slaps Jane on the face, and her internal experience correlates with that. She feels pain. What caused the actual experience, the knowing of her experience? It was a physical hand on her physical face. It seems that most of her experience seems to be explicable by this paradigm. It seems to hold up until you start questioning it. 

What is it that causes most people to question it? Suffering. If we didn’t suffer, there would be no reason to question our view of the world. On the contrary, we would think the happiness I experience is a confirmation that my view of the world is correct, we would never question anything. That’s why so many people are first open to the possibility that we are discussing here through the experience of suffering. Their life falls apart. They realise something’s not working, and it’s not just today that it’s not working. It gets worse the older you get. As Henry David Thoreau said, ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’. You get halfway through your life and it’s not working. You’ve experienced enough suffering to no longer be able to keep it at bay through objects, substances, activities and relationships. You’ve been failed by life sufficiently often to probe a little bit deeper. Could there be something about my attitude that is responsible? Might I have got something wrong? For most of us, it’s suffering that opens this door. 

Although I had this very early intuition at age seven that everything is a dream in God’s mind, I forgot that intuition, and as I grew up, it was suffering that reignited my interest in these matters. In my case, it was a very particular experience when my first girlfriend – with whom I thought I would get married and have four children and live happily ever after – ended our three-year relationship in a two-minute phone call. For the first time in my life, I became aware of the extent to which I had invested the thing that I loved the most, namely happiness, in objective experience.

This cracked my world. My world had already been cracked by my parents’ divorce, but this was a crack that I could no longer plaster over. I asked, ‘Am I going to spend the rest of my life investing the thing that I love most in life, which is peace or joy, in something which is inherently unstable?’ This brought urgency to these matters. I was already interested in this, but it became a passion. I thought there must be something wrong about my model of reality. I thought, ‘What can I know for certain is true, and if I were to start there, and hold onto that, and only lead a life that was consistent with that, what kind of a life would that be?’

Simon
Two things: firstly, suffering can be very much a blessing, even though it’s not perceived in that way, and secondly, through your understanding of non-duality, of the nature of reality, and through choosing to live in accordance with it – and I know you say it’s a never-ending journey – to what degree, if your suffering was previously at a hundred percent, where would you rate it now?

Rupert
Simon, I’m reluctant to put a number on it, but let me say this: suffering arises less and less frequently, it lasts for less and less time, and fewer and fewer experiences have the power to provoke it. Now, I would never say that it never happens. I can be triggered in a situation, and it can create emotional resistance in me. That’s what suffering is: emotional resistance. But I notice that fewer experiences have that capacity. They have to be quite intense, so it happens less and less frequently, and when it does happen, when the experience of suffering is triggered, this understanding kicks in quite quickly, and I’m able to trace my way back to my essential being and its innate peace that lies behind, so to speak, the content of my experience.

Simon
How about you, Bernardo?

Bernardo
This is the point where comparison between me and Rupert…look, Rupert radiates peace. Once I took him for a walk around some shady areas of Amsterdam, and he didn’t lose his centre. I’m not there. I don’t radiate peace. I still have my anxieties. What did happen for me – and I’m extraordinarily grateful for that because I think that’s what makes all the difference – is the banality, the meaninglessness, that most people experience as their lives is completely gone for me. I’m not in peace profound, I have my demons, I have my anxieties and I suffer with things that there’s nothing I can do about, some of them physical in my own body, but I never have that notion that all this suffering is for nothing, that life is meaningless, that everything comes to a total end and it’s all for nothing. That I don’t have. My life is infused with meaning. In particular, the suffering is infused with meaning. Suffering is a great drive. It’s what keeps us moving in the direction of depth. Otherwise, life would remain so shallow. We wouldn’t be asking the deep questions.

Rupert
I feel compelled to say something here, and I’ve said it to Bernardo before, but I want to say it again.  I think the fruit of this understanding is peace on the inside, an absence of suffering on the inside, and love on the outside. When I say love, I don’t just mean a warm, cosy feeling. When I use the word love, I mean the recognition that we share our being or our reality with everyone and everything. In other words, it is the felt sense of the understanding that we are speaking of here. These two experiences are, I would suggest, the fruit of this understanding – peace on the inside, love or beauty, oneness, on the outside. 

I have always felt with you, Bernardo, that you share this understanding profoundly, but that the fruit of it, at least on the inside, has been delayed in your case. Why? Because as you’ve just said, suffering propels us to go deeper and deeper and deeper. It’s the fuel for this investigation. I think you have a unique role in the world to share this understanding in a way that nobody else can, and in a field that nobody else can, for instance, that I’m not qualified to speak in – the world of science. For this reason, I feel that the fruit of this understanding – although I see it in you more and more over the years – is being withheld from you precisely to keep you motivated to do what you are supposed to be doing in the world. I think as time goes on – I see it happening in you already – this peace will gradually emerge in your experience. Its absence, I do not in any way consider to be a failure of your understanding. I think it’s necessary for you to be able to do what you are doing so beautifully in the world.

Simon
Yes, you’ve got work to do in the meantime, Bernardo.

Bernardo
What Rupert is saying, of course instils hope in me, but even if Rupert is wrong – and what I’m going to say now will seem like a contradiction, but there is a sense in which it’s not – I am at peace with my lack of peace. You know what I mean? I don’t double my suffering by not being at peace with the suffering, because if you’re suffering and then you tell yourself, ‘I should not be suffering’, then you just multiply it by two. You make it worse. I don’t make it worse. I don’t have that voice telling me I should not suffer. I’m at peace with my suffering. It’s part of nature. I’m aware that life is sacrificial. I’m opening a door here that is a rabbit hole, but I am okay with it. I do suffer, but I don’t make it worse than it needs to be.

Simon
And you don’t personalise it. 

Rupert
You’re absolutely right. Bernardo, it would appear superficially to be a contradiction from what I’m saying, but it’s not. It’s another way of expressing beautifully what I’m saying. This is what is meant by the word ananda in the Vedantic tradition. It’s the peace that lies behind the content of our experience – the peace that passeth understanding – the peace that has nothing to do with what is taking place. Your suffering is in the foreground, it’s the content of your experience, and for most people’s experience of suffering, that takes up the full picture. But there is this peace behind your suffering that enables you to say I’m at peace with my suffering. I suspect the peace behind your suffering will grow and will progressively outshine the suffering in the foreground. That’s my intuition. And as you say, even if it doesn’t, in a way it doesn’t matter because the meaning of our lives is so much bigger than our own personal experience.

Bernardo
Life is not about me. Life is not about any one of us, right?

Rupert
Exactly. It’s sacrificial, as you say, yes.

Simon
I had a conversation with a gentleman I know, and I explained, in my own limited way, the consciousness-only model, and his conclusion was that it was nihilistic. That if we don’t have individuality, if there is just one, what is the point? And my argument was that I would suggest the current approach to life is you’re born, you work, you die. That doesn’t feel hugely meaningful. I was wondering if you have a more sophisticated answer for that particular criticism.

Rupert
No one is denying individuality. Individuality flourishes as a result of this understanding; it is not diminished. By ‘individuality’, I mean, the unique expression of each of our minds and bodies. When it is liberated from the tyranny of materialism, the character flourishes. 

Just commenting briefly on nihilism. It’s what the filmmaker Pasolini said about the purpose of his films: ‘I’m trying to restore to reality its original sacred significance’. This is not a diminishing of reality; it’s an upgrading of reality. It’s nihilistic in a very limited sense in that it denies the discreet independently, existing objects made out of matter that is the foundation of the materialist model. It starts with a denial, yes, that things don’t exist in and of themselves, but that is just a preparation. There’s much more to this understanding. It’s not just a denial of the reality of appearances. It is the penetration through appearances, the recognition of their reality. It is restoring to reality, if I can use religious language, its sacred nature, it’s universal nature. 

This gentleman you spoke to, may have got this idea that this perennial non-dual understanding is nihilistic by listening to some contemporary expressions of this understanding on the non-dual scene that are nihilistic, that deny that there is anything apart from this current experience. These are misrepresentations of this understanding and do lead to nihilistic conclusions, and then everybody on the internet says that everybody’s expressing the same understanding. No, that’s not true. They’re not. It all comes under the umbrella of non-duality, but if you look carefully, you have extreme opposite understandings purporting to be the same recognition. This gentleman, I would suggest, has either misunderstood what is being said or has been watching the wrong videos.

Simon
Bernardo, how has this understanding infused your own life with meaning, so that anyone listening could perhaps absorb some of that?

Bernardo
Just a quick comment before I get there. I think what Rupert just said is the most important thing of this entire event today. It is imaginable that if suffering in your life has come to a point where it has become so completely unbearable that nihilism seems like paradise, it’s a way out of that – there’s no point in this whole thing, there’s no point to the suffering, it’s all for nothing anyway so why worry.  Milan Kundera called it ‘the unbearable lightness of being’. There is a character in his book – Tomas – who is sort of the embodiment of this lightness of being, of this denialism, which gives a certain lightness to what’s going on, and that can be alluring to some people if they’re desperate enough.

My own relationship with the core of my being and the world and other people and life in general is not nihilistic at all, much to the contrary. For me, materialism was highly nihilistic: there is only matter. Whatever insights you have come to a complete end when you die, so whatever you learn, whatever maturity you accumulated, it’s all for nothing anyway. That’s nihilistic.

Today, I live the reality that there’s tremendous meaning to whatever suffering I have because they are the conduits to insights, and these insights are eternal in the sense of being outside time. Life is what provides the universe with a perspective, a point of view on itself, that it would otherwise not have. Therefore, life is pregnant with purpose and meaning. The world of appearances is now a book to be read. It’s the superficial image of a deeper truth. There is a dimension of depth, meaning and significance to the entire world that wasn’t there before. Everything you are surrounded with now is a dance of symbols that point at something beyond themselves, that point to something fundamental to mind, the mind of the universe, to consciousness, and there is a point to this particular seemingly individual state we are in right now in trying to make sense of this. This is the antithesis of nihilism. This is the universe pregnant with meaning, this is life pregnant with purpose. It is baffling that someone would equate this with nihilism.

Simon
People often talk about purpose and the need for purpose and how it provides happiness. It’s correlated with longevity and all sorts of things. I’m reminded of that Alan Watts quote about how the purpose of life is simply to be alive. Yet everyone sort of runs around in a blind panic feeling they need to achieve something beyond themselves. Under this model, is the simple fact of being alive purpose enough in itself.

Rupert
I would suggest not because, if that were the case, everyone would feel fulfilled, their purpose had been accomplished. That’s not the case. Most people do not feel fulfilled. What is the overarching drive in most people’s lives? To get rid of their suffering, which, stated in the positive, means to find happiness, to be at peace. 

I think we have two purposes. I don’t think it’s enough to simply say the purpose of life is to find happiness – I think that is our primary motivation, and it relates to our inner experience, but there’s a symmetrical purpose that relates to the way we live, act and relate in the world. I think we could say that on the inside our purpose is to find peace and happiness, but our purpose on the outside is to express and live this understanding, to communicate and demonstrate it, to share it and celebrate it in our activities and relationships.

Simon
The hunt for purpose as it’s currently understood though, might that not be a way of seeking to alleviate the unhappiness that is instigated by the misunderstanding of reality as it is?

Rupert
I’m sorry, I haven’t understood your question, Simon.

Simon
People talk about purpose or goals. When I find my purpose, or I achieve a goal – let’s say it’s running a marathon – then I will be happy. That understanding, is that not a misunderstanding of the alleviation of unhappiness.

Rupert
In that case, if we stated our purpose as winning a marathon, that would be a superficial purpose. If you said to the person, ‘If you could be guaranteed that winning the marathon would make you miserable, would you still train for it?’ They would say, ‘no’. If you ask somebody what they want above all else, and they say, ‘I’m longing for an intimate relationship’, and then you say, ‘Okay, I can give you an intimate relationship, but I guarantee it will make you miserable. Do you still want it?’ No way. 

In other words, it’s not the intimate relationship, the million dollars, the two children, the beautiful house. We only want these things because we believe that the happiness and the peace, which is what we really want, will be derived from or provided by them. 

Simon
Bernard, anything to add? 

Bernardo
I’m passionate about this point. I think we go wrong when we imagine ‘purpose’ to be something that we determine and define when we sit down and make a list of things that we define as our personal goals. Those purposes are false purposes, and they are ultimately not fulfilling. Once you realise those goals, you become cognisant that they were ghosts. You don’t get the fulfilment that you were expecting from them. When you buy the big house, when you drive your Ferrari, when you have your trophy wife, these things turn out to be gaseous – you run your fingers through them, you can’t grab hold of them. 

I think these kind of projected ego purposes are illusions that will lead to disillusionment because their power resides in their not being achieved. Then you project the true meaning, the true purpose of nature, on to them. Then they have luminosity, they have that drive, but once you achieve them, you realise that was not it. 

I do have a teleological view of nature. The universe is dynamic. It’s changing, it’s unfolding, it’s evolving. If all of that is the image of conscious processes, there seems to be a conscious impetus behind it. Otherwise, the universe would remain in whatever state it is because that would be good enough. 

I think the key is when you realise that it’s not about you, it’s not about your little egoic goals. It’s about surrendering to what nature wants to do through you, to what nature wants to manifest through you or learn through you. This kind of purpose is not something that you can write down on a piece of paper and say, ‘I will have achieved this purpose by year X’. It doesn’t work like that. It’s a continuous unfolding. You don’t know where it’s going. You only know, if you develop the sensitivity for it, where nature wants to be next with you, what you’re supposed to do next. 

You don’t have the global picture of a super plan. I don’t think nature has it either. It’s a game of warm and cold. You’re getting warmer. You’re getting colder. You correct your path. But there is a richness, a bottomless richness of purpose when you surrender goals. 

Simon
Could I summarise it thus: ditch the five-year plan and learn to trust your intuition?

Bernardo
Yes. Trust in your intuition. My own experience maybe distorts my view on this, but it’s extraordinarily tricky to discern what your ego is surreptitiously trying to make you do out of its own narratives and views about what should happen, who you should be and where you should go, from the true impersonal whispers of nature. 

There are several clues for how to discern them. Usually, the impersonal whispers of nature don’t give a damn about whether you’re happy or not, whether your ego will be satisfied or not, whether you get respect or not. It can almost be self-destructive from an egoic perspective. It doesn’t give a damn about your safety. This is one of the clues. There are other clues. It’s tricky to listen to your intuition because that can be a straightforward way to deceive yourself into the knot of narratives of the ego expressing themselves in a more subtle way than just a five-year plan.

Ultimately, I think – if you get enough hard knocks in life – you come to a place where you learn to discern them. You know what the impersonal whisper is, what nature wants next through you. You don’t really exist, you’re just a part of nature. You are, at best, a tool, but you are not even that because you’re not individualised enough to even be a tool. To surrender to nature’s telos is reaching for purpose, and at the same time, it requires a complete abandonment of your goals, your personal goals, of your five-year plan, of your new year’s resolutions, all of that. It’s a total surrender to the now, to that subtle whisper, which at first seems to be a complete abandonment of any purpose, any goal, because you’re in the present, and goals and purposes seem to be future-oriented. 

So, at first it seems like everything became purposeless, but the next level of subtlety. when you get there, is pregnant with a kind of purpose that has nothing to do with personal goals. It is bursting full with that. It’s the engine of everything. As Dante said, it is ‘the love that moves the sun and the other stars’. And it can move you.

Simon
In my experience. I feel like I’ve increasingly learned to tune into that – perhaps I’m still getting confused with ego – but if I were to refine that, Rupert, what would you suggest?

Rupert
Whenever I’m faced with a decision or choice, large or small, I briefly refer back to my deepest love and understanding, such as it is. I make the best attempt to make a decision or a choice that is consistent with and expressive of that love and understanding. The more one does that, one’s ability to do so becomes progressively refined by doing so.

Bernardo
Yes. That’s it.

Simon
Okay. Now I want to just go off on a bit of a backtrack, just a couple of short points before we then leap forward. This may feel like we’ve slightly already trodden on them, but I just want to get them done. 

To return briefly to physicalism, materialism – that model, Bernardo – you talk about all the key enlightenment values that are held up to be important when any view of reality is considered – coherence, simplicity, et cetera. We haven’t got time to delve into all of them. Can you pick the strongest one, in your view, for why materialism does not tick the enlightenment box?

Bernardo
Explanatory power. It doesn’t explain experience, which is all we have. There is a sense in which it explains nothing. Internal consistency, by definition, defines matter as that which has nothing to do with qualities, and then it tries to explain qualities in terms of matter. It’s an internal inconsistency. I could go on and on and on, but you asked for one, I gave you two.

Simon
The fact that you laughed, I mean you do find it laughable once you’ve looked at it, it seems to me.

Bernardo
Yes. Materialism is the worst option on the table right now. It is literally laughable. The reason we don’t laugh about it in the culture is that culture has manufactured plausibility for it.

Simon
Now just a quick word as well on the brain, and the whole view of it. My experience of my brain and your experience of my brain – I think this is a key point – would you mind explaining the brain from my point of view and from your point of view.

Bernardo
The brain is what your conscious inner life – especially the metacognitive part – looks like when observed from the outside. If you observe combustion from the outside, it looks like flames. It’s the image of the phenomenon, and therefore it correlates with the phenomenon, but the image is not the cause, the image is an appearance. That’s what the brain is. From my experience, there is no brain because my experiences are experienced directly by me. I have a first-person perspective on my conscious inner life. But if you were a neuroscientist taking a FMRI scan of my brain, you would see certain patterns of brain activity. That’s your point of view on my experiences. In other words, that’s what my direct experience looks like to you when you observe me from the outside.

Simon
Perfect, nice and simple. That propels us forward into non-dualism and idealism, Rupert. I mentioned individuality and you addressed it – individuality is very much true. Even as you live this understanding more and more, perhaps even that flourishes and becomes even more rich in its own way, in its own form. But can you distinguish then – you talk a lot about the separate self, other people know it as the ego, the thinker of our thoughts, however you want to define it – what the difference is between individuality, the mind and the illusory separate self?

Rupert
Let’s start with the mind. The finite mind – that is, the collection of thinking, feeling, sensing and perceiving that each of us feels ourself to be – I would suggest that it is the localisation of infinite consciousness, within infinite consciousness, from whose perspective or through whose agency it perceives its own activity as the universe. 

In fact, there is no real entity called a finite mind. A finite mind is not a bounded entity in reality. There are no bounded entities; there is just one unlimited whole whose nature is consciousness. Just as a thought is not a bounded entity in your own mind – it is a process in your own mind, it is not clearly defined – each of our finite minds are not really bounded entities within the universal consciousness. It is, let’s say, a cluster, a localisation of thinking and perceiving and, as such, it is not problematic. It is simply the means through which the universe perceives itself in the form that we perceive it. 

The finite mind is not synonymous with the separate self, or the ego. What is commonly referred to as the separate self or the ego would be the belief that that finite mind defines who we are.

Bernardo
Exactly.

Rupert
They are two different things. The finite mind is the impersonal functioning of thinking and perceiving that each of us feels we are from the inside. One such thought of this impersonal functioning and perceiving, one such instance of thinking, is the belief that I am this discreet independently, existing entity. That’s the ego or the separate self. 

It is on behalf of that one that suffering arises on the inside, conflict arises on the outside and, by extension, the degradation and the exploitation of the earth. 

The individuality is present in both cases. In other words, the individuality can be used either in the service of ignorance or in service of truth. When I say ignorance, I don’t mean that pejoratively. I mean the ignoring of the nature of reality. So, individuality can be informed by and an expression of the belief in the separate self – such an individual brings conflict and misunderstanding, and so on into the world. The same individuality can be used in the service of love and understanding. 

That would be the relationship between those three. As we go more deeply into this understanding, we could say that our individuality is liberated from the tyranny of the ego, or of egoic thinking, and flourishes as a result of this understanding. It is not diminished by it.

Simon
For some people, the idea that their ego is illusory – for example, they are not the thinker of their thoughts, that thinker is just a thought amongst many – can be, in my experience, a little scary. Yet that would contrast with conflict on the outside and suffering on the inside. Why is there that tension?

Rupert
Can I use the analogy of the moth and the flame? The flame is the only thing the moth really wants. And as long as the flame is at a distance, the moth longs for it. It approaches the flame until it gets three inches away, and then there is this recognition that in order to achieve what it long for, it has to die, and it moves away from the flame again. But all it wants is the flame, so it comes back, and it gets to within two inches of the flame, and then this fear again: in order to have what I want above all else, I must cease to be as a moth. I must become the flame.

The flame, of course, is the happiness for which all people long; the moth is the separate self. All the separate self truly longs for is to bring its own illusory existence to an end – that’s called happiness. That’s why this separate self goes again and again and again towards happiness. But as you say, it pulls back at the last moment from surrendering into that for which it longs because it realises if it does this – not that it will cease to be, on the contrary – it will be liberated from a limitation. But from the perspective of the separate self, the separate self feels ‘I will cease to be’. No, it won’t cease to be. We just lose a limitation. It’s not that we become what we truly are, but we recognise what we truly are. It only feels like a death from the point of view of the separate self or ego. That’s why the separate self is always ambivalent. The one thing it loves above all else it fears above all else. Hence this dance we do, until at some point we are so fed up with the dance that we are willing to go into the flame

Simon
Bernardo, can I ask you – I’m very familiar with Rupert’s work and have followed him for many years, and I am very familiar with seeing through the separate self in the way he describes it – what your take on the ego is, and how one can recognise its illusory nature.

Bernardo
I’m completely in agreement with Rupert that there is a difference between an individualisation of consciousness and the ego – the narrative of a separate self. It’s very important to be aware of this distinction to avoid the seemingly nihilistic implications of idealism and non-duality. The fact that the separate self does not exist does not entail or imply that there is no point to an individualisation of consciousness. That is the key point. 

Now, how do you recognise the difference between the two? I can only draw from my own experience over the years. It has become so straightforward for me now to picture myself in the shoes of other people, even animals sometimes. It’s easy for me now to put myself in the shoes of a cat. I have cats. I’ve had cats all my life. I’m very familiar with felineness, if you know what I mean.

So that ability to imagine yourself being someone else makes it so clear that what you are is just this pure subjectivity, and everything else is ancillary. It’s what happens to be happening within that subjectivity. 

How do I put in words how you can make that differentiation? I think this is the best exercise. If you come to the point where you can truly feel yourself in the skin of someone else and yet recognise that I am still me, that’s when you realise the distinction between the seeming separate self – or a narrative, a story of the ego – and an individual point of view, because it’s the same you in every individual point of view. Fundamentally, it’s the same you. I have been so many people in my life. I have been a scientist, a philosopher, businessperson, an entrepreneur, a husband. I have been so many people, and so many of them, I look back now and I think that was not me at all. And yet that was me. The real thing behind all of them was me

So, I think, if you pay attention, if you remain sensitive on purpose, life brings you naturally to a point where you realise that all those things that you think are you, have an uncanny tendency to fall off and be left behind along the way. You don’t even notice, and yet you still keep telling yourself that these other things that have grown around me right now, and I still haven’t allowed them to fall off, it’s me. And then ten years later, they all fall off as well. Others grow, and you think that that’s you. I mean, once you’ve been through this loop a few times, you realise that’s just ancillary stuff. 

Now the real ‘me’ is the pure subjectivity. And it’s the same in you. And it’s the same in my cat. And I can imagine me being both of them so easily. Then it becomes so bloody obvious what you are and what you are not. Why isn’t everybody realising this? I don’t know. It’s baffling.

Simon
You mentioned what is happening in subjectivity, and that would include all thoughts or feelings, the story of me, our self-image, everything comes and goes. Rupert, how would you enable someone unfamiliar with this to really recognise that?

Rupert
Throughout our lives we think and feel and say, ‘I’m five years old,’ ‘I’m fifteen years old’, ‘I’m forty-seven’, ‘I’m studying at school’, ‘I’m falling in love’, ‘I’m eating dinner’, ‘I’m walking down the street’, ‘‘I’m having a conversation’, ‘I’m cold’, ‘I’m tired’, ‘I’m single’, ‘I’m married’. Always the same ‘I am’, qualified temporarily by various ages, feelings, states, activities and relationships. All of these are the temporary clothing, like Bernardo says, that we wear, but there is one element of our experience that remains consistently present throughout all changing experience: the awareness of being: ‘I am’. 

Now, if we take off, so to speak, all the layers of experience that are not essential to us, when we’ve taken off everything, if we go to the place in our own experience that is unconditioned or unqualified by the content of our experience – that pure naked being, the pure ‘I am’ before it is coloured or qualified by experience – it is without agitation, hence its nature is peace. There is no sense of lack in it, hence it is what we call joy or happiness. The more deeply we sink into it, the more it loses its apparent limitations because it borrows its apparent limitations from the content of experience. 

Divested of the content of experience it, so to speak, expands. It doesn’t really expand, because it is always fully expanded, but it seems to grow wider and wider. And at some point, it’s as if it flows out beyond the limitations of us as a person, and there is this – you described it beautifully, Bernardo –ability to feel your own core subjectivity, your own being, as the being of another. That’s love. That’s what love is: to be able to feel one’s own being as the being of another. 

It even goes beyond people and animals. At some stage there is this recognition that the being, the isness from which everything derives its apparently independent existence, is the same unqualified, unlimited being from which we derive our apparently independent existence. That’s the experience of beauty: this identity with the object, this recognition that the amness of the self is the isness of things.

Simon
I’m just going to ask you to do one of your quickfire answers, if I may, Bernardo. We’ve talked about non-duality and idealism and the illusory separate self and the pure subjectivity, its nature, being peace and wellbeing. You gave some quick examples why materialism falls down, as per post-enlightenment values. Could you just give a few explanations as for why idealism doesn’t?

Bernardo
Idealism doesn’t postulate a kind of existence different than nature’s given, which is conscious experience. It admits that there is more than our individual experience, just like the earth continues beyond the horizon. In other words, beyond the horizon, it’s more earth, not something totally different from earthiness. Beyond the individual mind is more mind, not something of a different kind than mind. Because it does this, it circumvents the hard problem of consciousness altogether because you don’t need to reduce experience to something that is non-experiential in nature. There is no such a thing. It’s all experience. It’s just that experience continues beyond the horizon of the individual centre of awareness, that point of view we occupy in life. That’s one point. 

The other point is it’s much more consistent with the latest empirical data from the neuroscience of consciousness and foundations of physics because what this data is contradicting in foundations of physics, for instance, is the standalone existence of physical entities. That’s contradicted by laboratory evidence. It doesn’t contradict idealism because under idealism, physical entities indeed do not have standalone existence. They are mere appearances, dashboard representations of a deeper layer of reality. That’s another point. 

There’s a point of parsimony. It makes less postulates about what’s going on than the other theories on the table.

Simon
Just quickly: parsimony means the simplest explanation.

Bernardo
Simplicity, yes. Parsimony means that you require the least number of postulated entities beyond immediate experience. If you can account for everything with the least postulates, that’s the simplest explanation and the more likely to be true.

Simon
Okay. And quickly, the laws of science aren’t made redundant by all this?

Bernardo
Of course not, science is the study and modelling, and then the prediction of the behaviour of nature. The understanding of how nature behaves remains the same regardless of what nature is. Whatever it is, it behaves the way we know it does. Now, that knowledge is very limited. There are many things we do not know about the behaviour of nature, but none of the things we do know becomes invalidated by idealism. Science is still just as valid. What falls through the cracks and then maybe refuted is ‘scientism’, an attempt to create a hidden metaphysics out of certain scientific prejudices about what the world should be for it to behave the way it does. But science itself remains intact.

Simon
Okay. When Sam Harris – who has got the Waking Up app, neuroscientist, et cetera – when he describes these ideas as highfalutin, what’s your reaction to that?

Bernardo
I don’t think Sam Harris knows what he’s talking about, which is surprising for someone who brandishes a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Stanford. He conflates idealism with solipsism and therefore burns a straw man, which is a philosophical term to say that what he’s refuting is not idealism but his own hallucination and misunderstanding of what idealism is. He’s refuting his own hallucination, which is fine if he didn’t have a large platform and weren’t perceived as somebody who may actually know what he’s talking about because he’s just perpetuating a pernicious misunderstanding, and he seems to be largely unaware of his own ignorance. All in all, I think he is quite a negative force in the cultural dialogue right now because of this mismatch between how he’s perceived as a deep thinker and the immaturity, shallowness and vast ignorance of what he has to say.

Simon
Bernardo, something that you introduced me to was the difference between phenomenal consciousness and meta-consciousness, meta -consciousness being that you know you are having an experience. So right now, I know I am talking to the two of you. I was very surprised when I heard that a lot of scientists confuse meta-consciousness with phenomenal consciousness. For example – correct me if I’m wrong – phenomenal consciousness could be that my cat could come and sit over here and, at the corner of my eye, I might be aware of it, but I might not have picked up on it. That would be an example of phenomenal consciousness, would it?

Bernardo
Yes. That would be an experience that you have. You are experiencing it, but you are not telling yourself, ‘I am experiencing it’.

Simon
Rupert, when we’ve spoken about flow and things like that, and when experience becomes so intimate that you can’t separate yourself out, are you talking about – and the inherent peace and joy and all those things in that – phenomenal consciousness and not meta-consciousness there?

Rupert
Yes, because we are intimately one with the entire content of our experience without necessarily having to represent it to ourselves. For instance, the tingling sensation at the soles of your feet, the moment I mention it, meta-consciousness begins, but your experience didn’t begin. You were experiencing the tingling vibration at the souls of your feet, but because of your focus on the content of our conversation, the sensation of the soles of your feet was just a faint whisper on the extremities of your experience. You don’t represent it to yourself, but you were experiencing it. 

Even more subtle than the tingling sensation of the soles of feet, is your breath. As soon as I mention it, you become aware of your breath. Actually, you didn’t become aware of it; it just came out of the background. It came out of the shadows of your experience, and you become meta-conscious of it, and you represent it, ‘Oh, I’m aware of my breathing’. You don’t become aware of it, you become aware that you were previously aware of it. 

Now go one step further back. The awareness of being. Our being is even more transparent, even more silent, even more veiled by the content of experience than is our breath, which is, we could say, the most transparent of all our experiences. Just the simple awareness of being is even more transparent. If I were to say to you now, be aware of the fact of simply being, you would suddenly become meta-conscious. You would suddenly become aware of being. No, you were always aware of being, but being was, if not completely eclipsed, largely obscured by our awareness of objects. By objects, I don’t mean physical objects, I mean thoughts, feeling sensations and perceptions. 

When I say we become aware of being, I don’t mean that being is something we can become aware of, like a table or a chair. We are essentially that being. It is we, this being, who is inherently aware of itself, but overlooks its awareness of its own being in favour of the content of experience, and we seem, as a result, to forget or lose ourselves. Therefore, we have to engage in this process, which is called self-enquiry or prayer or meditation, where we return from the adventure of experience and trace our way back to the simple fact of being

Simon
Right. We’re in the final straight. Before we get onto the implications, which is a pretty important thing, just a couple of other quickfire things for you, if you wouldn’t mind, Bernardo. First of all, the evidence that the structure of the brain is uncannily similar to the structure of the universe.

Bernardo
If the brain is what conscious experience looks like when observed from the outside, from a third- or second-person perspective, then if all the universe is actually the appearance of one universal mind, you would expect to find a structure in some way similar to that of the brain because both are appearances of mentation, of experiencing. Is that the case? It turns out that is the case. Studies have been done to avoid comparing misleading pictures because if you’re comparing just pictures you can crop a picture in just the right way, do some colour filtering so that anything looks like anything else. But these things were studied with the tools of information theory, network topology, where we can derive specific salient properties about the structure of the universe at its largest scales, and the structure of brains, the network structure. They are uncannily similar, and there is nothing known in physics that could justify this similarity. So that’s curious.

Simon
Yes, that’s very curious. Another thing you introduced me to was the dissociative identity disorder. I was phenomenally conscious of it to a degree, but I wasn’t really familiar with it. I want to tie this in with an objection to idealism – because there are lots of objections that you can swat away, I’ve seen you do it, and there are places for that –but a very obvious one is that I can’t read your thoughts and you can’t read my thoughts. I was wondering if you could relate that to the dissociative identity disorder, particularly the Harvard paper, and the woman who couldn’t see. I’ve given you a lot there, but if you can tie them all together with a nice little bow, that would be great.

Bernardo
There is this psychiatric well-known condition called dissociative identity disorder in which what was originally one centre of awareness, seemingly splits into multiple and separate centres of awareness, which used to be called multiple personalities or multiple personalities disorder. Dissociative identity disorder is the new name in the DSM IV, the new psychiatry manual. 

Until the beginning of this century, there were doubts whether this condition really existed because all we had was what patients reported, being different people, having different ages. Some doctors thought this is just an attempt to get attention, this condition doesn’t really exist. 

Since the advent of neuroimaging – the ability to image the brain activity – we know that the condition is real. One example is this study done in 2015 in Germany, a woman with a dissociative identity disorder had multiple alters, or split-off personalities, a couple of which claimed to be blind, and the others were not. The host was not blind. Her visual system was intact. 

They had this brilliant idea of instrumenting her with an EEG cap to measure her brain activity. And when a blind alter was in executive control of the body, brain activity in the visual cortex at the back of the brain would disappear, even though the woman’s eyes were open and there was nothing wrong with her visual system. That’s something you cannot fake. When the host personality, or one of the other alters, would assume executive control, normal brain activity would resume in the visual cortex. 

So, dissociation is literally blinding. If it is capable of rendering you blind to what is right in front of your eyes, even though your eyes are open and working, of course, it can render me incapable of reading your thoughts and the other way around, even if we are part of one universal mind, one universal consciousness. We know that one mind undergoing this empirically established phenomenon of dissociation can seemingly split into different centres of awareness that become blind to what’s happening in the rest of that mental context.

Even though at the fundamental level, it’s all one mind. We know that’s the case because people with DID can be cured. Those alters can be reintegrated into one host personality, which then remembers the memories of each alter as the person’s own integrated memories. My hypothesis is that this is what’s happening right now. There is only one universal consciousness, and we are dreamed up avatars, like in Rupert’s metaphor. 

Keep in mind a dream is a dissociative state. You think you are your dream avatar, and you are not creating the streets, cars and houses around you in the dream. In fact, it is your mind doing the avatar and the streets, cars, and other houses and everything. It’s one mind doing the whole thing, but in the dream state, you become disassociated from yourself. You split into the part of mind doing the context of the dream and the part of mind doing the avatar. That’s an example of dissociation. 

We are disassociated alters of this universal mind, and that’s why we seem to be separate, but the underlying subjectivity in all of us is not only identical – it’s one, it’s the same. Just like it’s the same underlying subjectivity doing the streets, cars and houses in the dream and the dream avatar.

Simon
You’ve shared a story elsewhere about a woman with several dissociative avatars or alters, and she had a dream, and they were all in various positions within this dream. It was a bit of a gruesome scene, but it perfectly matches with Rupert’s notion that we are one dream in consciousness.

Bernardo
Yes, that was research by Deirdre Barrett from Harvard. She studied the dreams of patients with dissociative identity disorder, which is just an extreme form of dissociation. We all undergo dissociation. If you don’t remember something you know you know, you are disassociated from yourself, but DID becomes pathological because it becomes dysfunctional. Studying the dreams of patients with DID, the researcher realised that one quarter of them had dreams in which multiple alters were present, and each altar was experiencing the dream from its own point of view, then relating the dream in the waking state from their own point of view. Each alter could see the other alters in the form of their own dream avatars. Actually, there was a dream in which one of the other alters clubbed the other over the head with the stick. You see in your own mind, one mind, you can have multiple distinct centres of awareness that not only see each other but can club each other over the head. That happens in the mind of a person. 

The hypothesis here, as Rupert suggested, is take this one level up. This is what’s happening in the mind of nature. We can see each other and interact with each other within the dream we call life, and we can even club each other over the head.

Simon
Right. Let’s move on to the implications, the so-what question, because this does have implications for the end of dissociation, AKA death, the ways we relate to other people, the planet, ourselves. Rupert, can you kick us off with what you think is the most profound and important implication of this understanding?

Rupert
I think there are three implications. The first, in relation to our interior experience, and that is the peace that is the nature of our essential being, begins to progressively outshine our afflictive emotions. In other words, suffering reduces dramatically and is replaced by this quiet or causeless joy. That is a joy that is not derived from anything that takes place in the content of experience, which is derived directly from its source, namely being. 

Secondly, in relation to people and animals, as I suggested earlier, at some point there is this feeling that our being extends beyond the limitations of us as an apparent individual. There is this felt sense that we share what we essentially are, being, with all people and all animals. This doesn’t mean to say that we no longer have disagreements with people. We can still have opposing points of view, discuss them and even argue about them, but there is increasingly this felt sense that we share our being with all people and with all animals. That’s the experience we refer to as love. This recognition of our shared being informs the way we treat people and animals. 

Then the third consequence of this understanding is that we intuit or recognise that we share our being not only with all people and all animals, but all things, all of nature. This recognition restores the proper relationship with nature, and we live in harmony with our environment because we don’t just understand, but we feel that what we essentially are is what it essentially is. The exploitation and degradation of our environment diminishes, and we live a life individually and collectively that is in harmony with nature.

Simon
Bernardo, in terms of the death problem, it reminds me of something else I wanted to mention to you, but I previously forgot, which is further evidence, I believe, for analytic idealism and nonduality, which is two examples you give.  The example of a fighter pilot who does the centrifuge thing and blacks out, so the blood is gone from his brain, and you’d expect there to be no experience, but the experience is reported to be even richer. Then there is the case of psychedelic experience. Anyone who’s done psychedelics knows that the experience is rich beyond imagination. You would expect, in that case, that the activity of the brain would go up, but actually the opposite in both cases happens. I don’t know if those are relatable to the broader question.

Bernardo
Totally. Under analytic idealism, if not idealism in general, what we call life, biology, metabolism, organisms is just what a dissociative state in the mind of nature looks like when observed from a certain perspective from across a dissociative boundary. That’s what life is. It’s the appearance of a dissociated state. It’s what that dissociated state looks like. If death is the end of life, then it’s the end of dissociation, so you would expect that if your ordinary brain function is fully compromised – in other words, you died – you would expect your dissociation to end, and your inner life would then be reintegrated into a broader context. What you would experience is an enrichment of awareness, not the extinction of awareness. Precisely the opposite of the prediction of materialism. 

Now, we cannot talk to people who really died for obvious reasons. They are no longer disassociated, so there is nobody here to talk and tell us. Near-death experiences may be, but I cannot ask my father who died when I was twelve, what it was like. What can we do instead? We can look at things that approach the death state, severe compromises of brain activity, and ask ourselves, do people report an extinction of awareness or an expansion of awareness. 

When you put pilots in a centrifuge and they become unresponsive because the centrifugal forces drain blood out of their heads, and their brain activity becomes highly compromised, much reduced, and they come round, they report ‘memorable dreams’ – those are the words used in the academic paper that related this study. Here you have an instance of severely compromised brain activity being correlated with enriched experience, which is what you would expect if life is a dissociative state, and death is the end of the dissociation. 

Psychedelics. Until 2012, if you would have done a study and realised that psychedelics light up your brain like a Christmas tree, materialist would say, ‘Of course, we always told you so. It can’t be any different. The brain generates experience.  If I have a mindboggling experience, my brain is lit up like a Christmas tree.’ 

From 2012 until today, we have tested multiple psychedelic substances in multiple institutions, multiple groups, multiple testing, procedures and protocols, and the one major and consistent result is that psychedelics reduce brain activity quite significantly, and they don’t increase brain activity anywhere else. The suggestion that I would make is that the brain activity that is being reduced by psychedelics is the brain activity that is the appearance of the dissociative process itself. 

It’s a model for death. It’s a quasi-death. You enter the death process, but you don’t go all the way into it. You come back in to tell the story, and the stories people tell are mindboggling. It’s not only G-force or G-force induced loss of consciousness, which is not a loss of consciousness at all. It’s a loss of responsiveness. In psychedelics, there was a study in Brazil about psychography – some people claim that they can enter a trans-state and write down all kinds of things that they’re not supposed to know, but somehow know them – and it turns out that people who can actually do that, write very complex text while brain activity related to language, logic and text writing is severely reduced under their trans-state. 

Or teenagers playing the dangerous choking game in which they partly strangle themselves in order to have a high. If you see the descriptions of that high, it’s like they’re going back to cosmic consciousness. How do they do that? By restricting blood flow to the head and severely compromising ordinary or normal brain function. Nobody should do that. It’s unsafe. You can die if you do that, but teenagers do that. 

I mean, the list goes on and on. Bullet wounds to the head correlate with acquired savant, enhanced cognitive skills, because of bullet wounds to the head. I’m not saying that every time you wound your brain, your consciousness will expand. No, most of the time you will compromise the contents of your dissociated alter, and your cognitive skills will reduce, your memory will reduce. Almost all the time that will happen. But if that damage happens in the part of this image we call the brain that correlates with the dissociative process itself, as opposed to the mental contents of the dissociation, then in those rare cases, you should have an expansion of awareness under idealism. Under materialism, there should be none of such cases, not one. Even one contradicts materialism. It turns out that there are loads of such cases. The literature abounds with such cases.

Simon
Just one last thing, Bernardo, and this is something you talk about a lot, Rupert: deep sleep, the awareness of absence. Bernardo, you say when people are in deep sleep, hooked up to a machine and are woken up, they report some pretty funky stuff.

Bernardo
People dream, we know that, but dreams have a particular signature on an EEG, a tool that allows scientists to read your brain activity. What is new in this research is that they woke people up when they were not dreaming, and they knew that because the EEG reading did not have the characteristics of a dream state. They wanted to know when people were asleep, but not dreaming, whether they are really unconscious. Dreamless sleep, is this a lack of consciousness? Under idealism, it shouldn’t be because consciousness is all there is; there is no such a thing as total unconsciousness. There is only dissociation and lack of meta-consciousness, but not phenomenal unconsciousness. They would wake people up when they were not dreaming and ask them quickly, ‘Were you unconscious or were you experiencing something?’, and people would systematically report that they were experiencing things that were in dreams and they categorised those things in three different boxes. 

Firstly, dream thinking, it turns out that you can think while you’re dreaming. Secondly, subliminal perceptions, maybe feeling the wind when your window is open. Even though you are asleep, you are still having that perception. Thirdly, what they called selfless states of awareness, by which they mean a state of awareness in which you do not have the identification with an individual self. Apparently, throughout the night you are experiencing things during your sleep, even if you are not dreaming.

Simon
Okay, that very much correlates with what you say, Rupert. Just to finish then. If this, the perennial understanding, reasserted itself and became the typical understanding of reality that most people had across the world, what do you think would happen to the world as a result? Rupert?

Rupert
I think people would be generally much happier. There would be much less depression, anxiety, fear, despair. There would be much less conflict in the world between individuals, either in intimate relationships or friendships, between families, communities, nations. Take the conflicts that exist now between nations, they are all perpetrated by people who do not understand or feel what we are speaking of here. Those conflicts would come to an end. 

As I said earlier, it doesn’t mean that we would necessarily agree with everything. There would still be points of view and discussions, and those discussions may be heated, but they would be informed by this understanding. There would be more tolerance, more openness, more ability to listen and feel another point of view and not be stuck in one’s own perspective. We would be a more compassionate society. We would take care of our animals much better. We would have a more harmonious relationship with nature. There is literally no area of society that would not be profoundly affected by this understanding. It would infiltrate education, commerce, government, economics. It would transform everything from the inside.

Simon
This is what you’re working towards isn’t it, Bernardo?

Bernardo
I have a more realistic view of what I’m doing. Look, analytic idealism as a conceptual theory doesn’t change anyone’s lives in and of itself because it’s something of the head, it’s conceptual, it’s thought stuff. It doesn’t sink into the rest of your felt being and into your heart, into your emotions. The lived presence your life is not directly affected by it. 

So, what I see as the role of what I’m trying to do, or what nature’s trying to do through me, is to help people give themselves permission to truly listen to Rupert and others like him. It’s a secondary role but nonetheless, I think it’s an important role because there may be people who listen to Rupert and their intuition is screaming to them, ‘This man is right, he’s saying something important’, but then in comes the intellect and says, ‘Wait a moment, if a surgeon cuts into my brain, my experience changes, so how can experience be primary?’ The intellect is the bouncer of the heart. My role is to give yourself permission to keep that bouncer under control, to not let him rule the pen. 

However, real transformation comes from feeling it directly, and I can’t help people do that. Rupert can. So, I think my role is to…

Simon
Pave the way?

Bernardo
For people who are intellectually driven – which is not the majority, but it’s a group of people who are disproportionally represented amongst the group that has their hands on the knobs and levers of human civilisation – that group is prone to having a bouncer, an intellect driven bouncer of the heart that is totally out of control. Those are the people I’m trying to reach to not really prime them, but to make them more receptive to the transformative direct experience of non-duality that Rupert can help them achieve. 

I don’t want to come across as putting myself down too much. It’s a secondary role in the sense that it is indirect, but I think for this particular group of people it is something that is needed. I don’t want to come across as unduly or artificially modest. I’m just aware of what my role is. 

Simon
This group of people you mentioned though, if they became more open to this, it would trickle down far more easily. You talked about the intellect is the bouncer saying what about the surgeon scalpel, but there’s also that wanting to fit into a tribe, isn’t there? Of not wanting to stand against what is the perceived correct way of viewing things. I know this even as a sports reporter. I pretended to be a football fan for many years for the exact same reason. That’s a fundamental thing as well, isn’t it Rupert? It’s the tipping point.

Rupert
Yes. I think all three of us can identify with this now because none of us are beholden to institutions for whom we are dependent for our livelihood. Nobody is telling us what to think or what to say, and that gives us great freedom. We don’t have to compromise. We can all speak our understanding, such as it is, without fear of being censored. In this day and age, you don’t get executed for it, but you lose your job for it, you lose the respect of your peers if you are in academia. I think all three of us are free of any such external pressure. It’s no coincidence. It’s because, in each case, because of our love of truth. Let’s put it this way, the universe has cooperated with our love of truth and has, provided circumstances for each of us where we can speak freely without fear of censorship or condemnation. That’s one thing. 

And then there’s another thing, which in a way is possibly a deeper reason that enables us to do what we do: our sense of self is no longer invested, at least to a large degree, in the amount of respect we derive from our colleagues, whether we are admired or not, how many Facebook likes. Our sense of identity is derived from our intuition and recognition of truth, and that gives you great courage. It doesn’t mean that you necessarily go out fighting or that you become very argumentative, but it gives you this quiet courage to stay with truth, such as you understand it, and to speak it, irrespective of the consequences for your personal life

Simon
Which is what you…

Rupert
Devotion to the truth is stronger than your devotion to yourself as a personal entity.

Simon
Right. I’ve asked everything I want to ask. Before I lay out a final thought, is there anything either of you, Rupert or Bernardo, would like to throw into the mix?

Bernardo
I’d love to do this again. I mean, I love to listen to Rupert. His choice of words is always so precise, and he systematically hits the bullseye with the minimum number of words. It’s a delight, isn’t it? I’d love to do this again. Absolutely.

Rupert
I would love to do this again. The quality and content of this conversation gives me the same joy I experience when I listen to a Bach Sonata. It’s the same quality of intelligence and sensitivity that I experience in that music, which gives me this joy. I experience the same joy and, for me, that is the hallmark of truth. Somehow truth and joy, they’re always connected

Bernardo
Plato made the same point you just made. It’s a universal human intuition.

Rupert
Exactly. Yes.

Simon
I would agree. As Roger Federer retires, here we are. That’s for me. 

One thing I’d like to add is Steve jobs – and I was looking for this quote just a minute ago – said something along the lines of something comes along every once and a while that changes things. He was obviously talking about an iPhone, and he was right. It has changed things. I would suggest that the work you are doing – both of you – and the collaboration, the potential impact of that could be far more profound. I just want to say that what a joy it’s been to talk to you both, and just to tip my cap and say that what you’re both doing is very important, very special and very appreciated. Thank you.

Rupert
Simon, thank you for saying that. I just want to add one thing. Please don’t exclude yourself. Thank you for orchestrating and moderating this conversation. Your own very particular quality to draw out threads of conversation and understanding is important. Bernardo and I have known each other for several years. We’ve had several conversations in private and have often talked about how much we would like to do this, but we’ve never managed it. We’ve had various ideas, but it’s never crystallised into a form. Both of us have wanted to do this, we intuited just how rich it is and could be, so thank you. It’s a very particular skill for drawing out the conversation.

Bernardo
I share the same sentiment.

Simon
Well, that’s very much appreciated. You’re both very kind, which doesn’t come as a surprise. It has been a joy. Thank you very much, indeed. And until next time, goodbye. 

Bernardo
Thank you.

Rupert
Thank you, both. Lovely to be with you. Thank you.

 

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