First Day, Morning.

A world in transformation: taking stock

LASZLO: There is a real question about whether we can go on in today’s world as we are going on today without triggering breakdowns and crises and endangering peace. This concern is growing, and is expressed in the currency the word ‘sustainability’ is enjoying these days.

Everybody talks about sustainability, but not necessarily understanding what is at stake. Most people talk about it as though sustainability was just a matter of changing a bit of a policy here, or adjusting a consumption pattern there, or using one chemical, one fuel, or one textile instead of another. I am afraid that people are looking at symptoms rather than causes, looking at the superficial part of the problem instead of the foundation. The foundation, it seems to me, is very deep. Because if it is really true that our world is not sustainable, then we have managed, for the first time in the history of the human species, to live in a way that we cannot continue to live. It would follow from this that we must change. I am afraid that it is not even a question of whether we change, only how soon to change and how well. So instead of discussing the usual things that all the think tanks always discuss, just how many trees we should cut down or not cut down and other strategic questions and implications, we should look squarely at the fundamental issue. I suspect that we should be asking ourselves where we are, what we are, and how we look at the world and at ourselves.

We may be approaching the greatest watershed in history. Up to now the great watersheds first came and then were analyzed. But doing so is too risky. We should form an idea of what is in store for us, and act to improve our chances. To meet this tremendous challenge we should shed some light on some of the underlying factors.

Let me begin with this idea: that if we are to avoid extinction, and survive and develop, perhaps our very notion of the universe, of the human being, and of the very idea of progress and development need to be re-examined and looked at anew.

RUSSELL: You talk of extinction, but what is it that is being threatened with extinction?. I do not think we are going to destroy life on this planet. Life is very robust. It has suffered several major species extinctions in the past, and has bounced back. Indeed, if it were not for the major catastrophe that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, and 85% of the other species of that time, human beings might never have evolved. It may be that human beings are causing another major species extinction. If so it will be the first time such an extinction has been initiated by one of the planet’s own species, which certainly makes it an unprecedented event, but life will still bounce back. If such a major species extinction were to occur we would of course destroy ourselves, but we are not going to destroy life on this planet.

The worst case scenario is that we destroy the ozone layer. If we do that, life on land would become impossible. Ultra-violet radiation is as dangerous to insects, flowering plants and microorganisms as it is to human beings. But life in the sea would survive; it existed for billions of years before the ozone layer formed. And when the ozone layer re-established itself, life might once again colonize the land.

I don’t think that is the most likely scenario. Far more probable is that we have a series of major economic and environmental catastrophes that lead to the fall of Western civilization. But that would not be the end of humanity. There would probably be pockets of indigenous peoples who survived, and who might well eventually give birth to future civilizations – hopefully wiser than ours.. Even the fall of Western civilization need not mean be the end of us. We’ve seen the fall of the Soviet system, but that did not spell the end of all the people there. It meant a lot changes, and hard times for many. But most of the people are still alive.

That may sound like a pessimistic picture, however I am still very optimistic about human beings, about what we can achieve as individuals in the face of adversity. We may be in for hard times materially, but I also believe we stand on the threshold of great changes in the realm of consciousness.

LASZLO: Species extinction – unfortunately, the possibility is always there. When Western civilization suffers a major hiccup, it could bring with it the rest, because we have so many arms, so much destructive capability that we could, if not destroy all life, we could well destroy all higher forms of life. To regenerate it might take thousands, in the worst case scenario even millions of years. Obviously life will then continue on this earth because the earth, unless there is a cosmic catastrophe, will be around for billions of years.

Let us take a concrete case. We now have about forty days of food surplus capability in the U.S. And this is the only major food surplus country left. If there is a major harvest failure in the poor countries, there will not be the money to buy food imports. Secondly, this surplus would not last very long if it is a large scale problem in Africa or in Asia.

So what happens then? What happens if the carrying capacity of this Earth moves down from six billion, say to five or four billion. What happens if the "extra" people get squeezed below the level of subsistence? Major conflicts would erupt, vast epidemics may spread, massive migrations could unfold. The whole system will be shaken. I do not want to dwell on the doomsday aspect of this, but there is certainly a threat we are facing, a very, very major hiccup. That means that we have to change the Western way of looking at things.

I have come back recently from Asia, have seen once again how little chance there is for very poor people there to change what they are doing. They are just eking out a living. The majority of humankind is living very close to subsistence levels and this, too, is destroying the life support systems.

On all sides we are threatened with a problem, on all sides we have to adapt – and that means changing our dominant consciousness. This is the root of the problem. We have to start thinking differently, feeling differently, and relating to each other and to nature in different ways. Otherwise, the danger we face is enormous. Now we are all in the same boat. Do you think we have the ability to change? Is there a real chance of a major change in consciousness?

GROF: I have been involved for over forty years in research of non-ordinary states of consciousness induced by psychedelics and by powerful experiential forms of psychotherapy, as well as those occurring spontaneously. During this time, I have seen many instances of profound transformation of individuals. These changes included a significant reduction of aggression and general increase of compassion and tolerance. As the capacity to enjoy life was enhanced, one could see significant diminishing of the insatiable drive to pursue linear goals that seem to exert such a magic spell on individuals in the Western industrial world and our entire society -- of the belief that more is better, that unlimited growth and doubling or tripling the gross national product is going to make us all happy. Another significant aspect of this transformation was emergence of spirituality of a universal and non-denominational nature characterized by the awareness of unity underlying all of creation and a deep connection to other people, other species, nature, and the entire cosmos.

I have therefore no doubts that a profound transformation of consciousness is possible in individuals and that it would increase our chances for survival if it could occur on a sufficiently large scale. Naturally, it remains an open question whether a transformation of this kind will occur in a large enough segment of the population in a short enough time to make a difference, whether such a change could be facilitated and by what means, and what would be the problems associated with such a strategy. But there exist mechanisms within the human personality that could mediate a profound and desirable transformation.

LASZLO: We are now witnessing some changes in many people’s thinking that seem to augur the coming of a major consciousness transformation. Is this phenomenon connected with the fact that we are threatened, or is it just an independent and just coincident occurrence?

RUSSELL: I think it is connected. But I don’t think the threat is causing the transformation, so much as they both stem from the same issue – the materialistic consciousness of our culture. This is the root cause of the global crisis; it is not our business ethics, our politics or even our personal lifestyles. These are all symptoms of a deeper underlying problem. Our whole civilization is unsustainable. And the reason that it is unsustainable is that our value system, the consciousness with which we approach the world, is an unsustainable mode of consciousness.

We have been taught to believe that the more things we have, the more we do, the more control over Nature we can assert, the happier we will be. It is this that is causing us to be so exploitative, to consume so much, and not to care about other parts of the planet, or even other members of our species. It is this is mode of consciousness that is unsustainable.

Today only ten per cent of the human population are classed as affluent – meaning that after buying food, clothing, shelter, and other physical necessities, they have enough money left over for various luxuries. But these people are consuming more than three-quarters of the planet’s resources. It is already becoming clear that this is not sustainable – there is no way such a lifestyle can be sustained in the future for the whole human population, particularly for a growing population.

The good news is that there is a simultaneous and widespread deep questioning of this material culture and the material consciousness that underlies it. Here, in the West, where we have the most luxurious lifestyles, more and more people are beginning to recognize that it does not work; it does not get us what we really want. Our system may be very good at satisfying our physical needs. We can get food from the supermarket. We can travel wherever we want, wear fashionable clothes, live in plush houses. But it does not satisfy our deeper, inner, spiritual needs. Despite all these material opportunities, people feel as depressed, insecure, and unloved as before.

GROF: In a sense it is the very fact of saturation and oversaturation of the basic material needs that has created a crisis of meaning and the emergence of spiritual needs in our society. For a long time we were kept in the illusion and false hope that an increase in material goods in and of itself can fundamentally change the quality of our life and bring well-being, satisfaction, and happiness. Now the wealth of the Western industrial countries has increased tremendously, particularly in certain segments of society. Many families live in abundance – a big house, two refrigerators full of food, three or four cars in the garage, the possibility to go for a vacation anywhere in the world. And yet none of this has brought satisfaction; what we see is an increase of emotional disorders, drug abuse and alcoholism, criminality, terrorism, and domestic violence. There is a general loss of meaning, values, and perspective, alienation from nature, and a generally self-destructive trend. It is the awareness of the failure of the mainstream philosophy that represents a turning point in the lives of many people. They start looking for an alternative, and find it in the spiritual quest.

LASZLO: It is almost as if there is something in the collective psyche of humanity that is putting up a warning signal, producing a kind of incentive for change.

RUSSELL: It is something like what the Buddha experienced in his own life, before he became the Buddha. He was born into a very rich family. He was a prince, who had everything he could need – wonderful food, luxuries of all kinds, jewelry, dancing girls, whatever he wanted. But he realized that having all these riches did not end suffering. He saw in his family and courtiers that there was suffering, and he could see suffering in the town outside. So he made it his mission to find a way to end suffering.

Today we are going through a parallel process. In terms of the facilities we have at our disposal most of us are even wealthier than the Buddha was as a prince. And, like him, we are beginning to realize that this does not end suffering, sometimes it only promotes it. There is a deep, collective questioning of what life is all about. Who are we? Why are we here? What is we really want? It is not just one of us, but millions upon millions of people are looking beyond our material culture for deeper meaning, inner peace, and a way to satisfy their spiritual hunger.

LASZLO: There is then a sign of hope? If people would still believe that their happiness is bound up with their current material standard and with improving it along the usual notions of progress – as having more and more of everything – then we would be a lot worse off than we are at present. If there is a real change in people's way of thinking, there is hope that another culture is emerging.

GROF: I have worked with people who had a major goal in life that required decades of intense and sustained effort to achieve. And when they finally succeeded, the next day they became severely depressed, because they expected from it something that the achievement of that goal could not give them. Joseph Campbell called this situation "getting to the top of the ladder and finding that it stands against the wrong wall."

This obsession with linear pursuits of various kinds is something that is very characteristic for us, individually and also collectively for the entire Western culture – pursuing the fata morgana of happiness that always seems to lie in the future. Things are never satisfactory the way they are and we feel that something has to change. We want to look different, have more money, power, status, or fame, find a different partner. We do not live fully in the present. Our life is always a provisorium, a preparation for a better future. This is an empty, insatiable pattern that keeps driving our life irrespectively of our actual achievements. We see around us examples of people who have already achieved what we think would bring happiness -- Aristotle Onassis, Howard Hughes, and many others – and realize it did not work for them, but we do not learn from their example. We keep believing that it would be different in our case.

At the same time I have repeatedly seen people who were able to discover the psychological roots of this pattern and were able to break it or to reduce its power in their lives. They typically realized that this attitude toward life is closely connected with the fact that we carry in our unconscious the unfinished gestalt of the trauma of biological birth. We were born anatomically, but have not really digested and integrated the fact that we escaped the clutches of the birth canal. The memory is still alive in our unconscious, as we can find out in experiential psychotherapy. This imprint then functions as a stencil through which we see the world and our role in it. Like the fetus struggling in the confinement of the birth canal, we cannot enjoy the present situation. We seek a solution in the future -- it always seems to be ahead of us.

The existentialists call this strategy autoprojecting – imagining oneself in a better situation in the future and then pursuing this mirage. This is a loser strategy whether we achieve the goal or not, since it never brings what we expect from it. It leads to an inauthentic way of life that is incapable of bringing true satisfaction – a 'rat race' or 'treadmill' type of existence as some people call it. The only solution is to turn inside and complete this pattern in experiential work, in the process of psychospiritual rebirth. Full satisfaction comes ultimately from the experience of the spiritual dimension of existence and of our own divinity, not from the pursuit of material goals of any scope or kind. When people correctly identify the psychospiritual roots of this pattern of insatiable greed, they realize they have to turn inside for answers and undergo inner transformation.

LASZLO: Is this phenomenon on the increase?

GROF: It certainly seems to be. I feel that it has something to do with the fact that more and more people are coming to the conclusion that autoprojecting is a bankrupt strategy that does not work, since they have experienced the failure of material success to bring satisfaction or, conversely, their pursuit of external goals runs into insurmountable trouble. In either case they are being thrown back on themselves into their inner world and begin a process of inner transformation. Also, the failure of the strategy of unlimited growth on a global scale might be a contributing factor in this process.

Unfortunately, many people who are experiencing a radical transformation of this kind are misdiagnosed as psychotic by psychiatrists and put on suppressive medication. My wife Christina and I believe that there is a substantial subgroup of individuals currently treated for psychosis who are actually in a difficult psychospiritual transformation, or 'spiritual emergency', as we call it.

RUSSELL: In a way our whole culture is going through a spiritual emergency. Much of it can be traced back to the changes that went on in the late sixties. For the first time a large section of society began to challenge the current worldview; they saw another way of operating, another way of relating to people and to the world that was not based on the old materialistic paradigm.

In hindsight a lot of what was going on then may appear to us now as naive, but the key insights have not changed, and have affected our culture very deeply. Back then, meditation was seen as something pretty weird. Now lots of people practice some form of meditation–you even find meditation being taught in corporations. It has become a respectable activity. Similarly with yoga. In the sixties it was avant garde; today it is practiced by millions of people.

Or take therapy. In the past, being in therapy suggested you had major psychological problems; there was something seriously wrong with you. Today in California there is something wrong with you if you are not in therapy. Even those we regard as psychologically healthy are seeing that they may still not be living their full potential, and are recognizing that they need help in discovering the attitudes and thought patterns that may be holding them back.

Thirty years ago there was very little interest in self-development. Today it is mainstream. When I was a student at Cambridge in the sixties, the main bookstore, one of the largest in Britain, had just one shelf where you could find books on esoteric and spiritual teachings. Today you can go into any city and find at least one, and probably half a dozen, bookstores devoted to consciousness and metaphysical ideas.

This growing interest is reflected in the best-seller lists. For several years now, somewhere around 50 percent, and sometimes more, of the top-selling books have been books on self-development, spirituality, or consciousness. This is what people are reading, this is what they are really interested in. You can see similar patterns in movies, television, magazines, even the Internet. It is a groundswell that is growing rapidly.

LASZLO: There are several questions here. One is the speed with which this change is occurring. There is another related question that always fascinated me and continues to fascinate me more and more, and that is the possibility that we, as individuals are not prisoners of our own cranium and locked in our skin, but are intimately tied in with one another, and possibly with all life on this planet. So that when you have a situation like we have today, where there is a real danger facing us, there is something which most people are not aware of consciously, something that is penetrating their mind, putting up warning signs, focusing on change, providing impetus. Perhaps it is not entirely exaggerated to say that there is such a thing as a mind of humanity, something like a noosphere, a collective unconscious operating in and around all of us, which is now beginning to show up in the consciousness of individuals. If so, then there are other forces operating beyond the usual economic and political and social factors. This is important for our survival, for the situation looks almost hopeless if you look only at the usual factors, with them we will never change in time.

The time-lags built into the dynamics of our world are considerable. We would have had to change yesterday, so to speak, to head off the crisis tomorrow. But if there is something in our collective unconscious which can penetrate into our individual consciousness, then the situation is more hopeful.

GROF: I could not agree more. The events in the world do not always follow a logical linear progression. Both you, Ervin, and I are from Eastern Europe and have been following with great interest the political developments there. I think you agree that had somebody told us a week prior to the Berlin wall going down that this was going to happen, we would laugh and dismiss it as a silly fantasy. It would have seemed equally implausible that after forty years of totalitarianism and despotic political control by the Soviet Union, Gorbachev would simply lose interest in the satellite countries, such as Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and the others, and give them freedom. And it certainly would not have been easy to predict that practically overnight, the Soviet Union would simply disintegrate and cease to exist as a superpower. There was no way these events could have been anticipated and foreseen simply by extrapolating the past. There had to be some other factors at work.

LASZLO: That these processes occur in a nonlinear, leapwise fashion, we should know, knowing the way complex systems operate and transform, but we do not put our knowledge into practice. But is this leapwise change also operating in our mind? Is there also a change in consciousness coming, a change that is strong and pronounced already in the new few years, even though right now we have only the faintest indication of it. Could we be on the threshold of a major leap in consciousness?

RUSSELL: It is certainly possible. If interest in personal development keeps growing at its current rate, and this interest is translated into a real change of consciousness, then we could see a process of positive feedback leading to an exponential acceleration in inner awakening. The more people wake up, and the more we learn about what fosters inner awakening, the more conducive the social environment becomes for further awakening, encouraging yet more people to awaken, and even faster – which in turns makes it even easier for more people to undergo a change in consciousness. This could well culminate in a collective leap in consciousness.

Signs of a transformation in consciousness

RUSSELL: A collective leap in consciousness is possible. Yet there are many other scenarios as well. We must remember that we are living in unpredictable times – probably the most unpredictable times ever. The pace of change is so fast, and the world so complex, that no one can predict what the world will be like in ten years time, or even five years time. The only thing that is certain is that we are going to see many unexpected changes. Some of them may be disasters, some of them may be major political turnarounds, and some of them could be major shifts in consciousness. But I do not think we can predict exactly what will happen or how. As Stan just pointed out, no one predicted that Eastern Europe would change as it did in 1989, and so rapidly. We have to be prepared for the totally unexpected, and that could be anything.

LASZLO: Or it could be nothing. That would be worse.

RUSSELL: It will not be nothing.

LASZLO: I mean we may not be there to experience it.

RUSSELL: We may not. And this is certainly a very real fear. It is also a fear that we need to look at more deeply, because it is clearly tied in with the fear of death.

Our personal death is the only thing we are certain of in our lives. Being aware of it is a price we pay for having being conscious of our own individuality, and being able to look ahead into the future. Death is the only inevitability; yet most of us live our lives as if it were never going to happen. We avoid thinking about it. We live our life in denial of the one thing that cannot be denied.

The same is true on a collective level. We fear the end of our world, the end of our civilization. But maybe that, too, is inevitable. After all, no civilization in the past has lasted forever. Why should ours be any different? Both therapists and spiritual teachers tell us that accepting and even embracing our own personal mortality is one of the healthiest and most liberating things we can do. Perhaps we should do the same collectively – accept and even embrace the end of the world as we know it.

Usually we do the opposite. We deny it, try to fight it. We do not want it to happen – probably because we do not want to let go of the comfortable lifestyles to which we have become so attached. But we may have to accept it in the end. And that acceptance may be the trigger that opens us to new possibilities, to a much richer, more spiritual way of looking at life.

LASZLO: Yet I believe that humanity as a species has the capacity to transfer and renew itself.

RUSSELL: In principle, yes. But I think we also need to open up to the possibility that it is too late, that time has run out.

LASZLO: That is a feeling I, too, am having increasingly. Indeed, time may be running out.

RUSSELL: Yet we should be open to it. The greatest danger may lie in repressing it.

GROF: Based on the experiences and observations from my work, I tend to see death in a larger context, from a spiritual perspective. In non-ordinary states of consciousness, the psychological encounter with death is the key element in psychospiritual transformation. When death is confronted in a symbolic way in inner self- exploration, it is conducive to a spiritual opening, a mystical experience. Encounter with actual biological death can be used for the same purpose. For example, in the Tantric tradition in Tibet and in India, one has to spend some time in cemeteries and burying grounds and experience contact with dying people and corpses. It is seen as an important part of spiritual practice.

When we confront death internally, what happens is that we do not experience biological demise but what can be called ego death. We discover in the process that we are not the body ego or what Allan Watts called the 'skin encapsulated ego.' Our new identity becomes much larger – we start identifying with other people, with animals, with nature, with the cosmos as a whole. In other words, we develop a spiritual or transpersonal self. This leads automatically to a greater racial, cultural, political and religious tolerance and to heightened ecological awareness. And these are changes that could become extremely important in the current global crisis.

Something similar happens also in people who have near-death experiences (NDE). Typically they are profoundly transformed, with a new set of values and a new life strategy. They see life as being very precious and do not want to lose a single minute of it. They do not want to waste time by auto-projecting. This means they really live in the present, in the here and now. In retrospect, all the time we spent chasing some mirage of future satisfaction is wasted time. When we can look at our life retrospectively, from the moment of imminent death, only the time when we lived fully in the present appears to be time well spent. This is the great lesson that comes from confrontation with death, whether this is a brush with biological death or a symbolic encounter with it during mediation, in psychedelic sessions, holotropic breathwork, or in spontaneous psychospiritual crises.

RUSSELL: I have just been through a related experience with a close friend who died just a few weeks ago. I knew she was dying of cancer and had been prepared for it for over a year. When she did pass away, my immediate reaction was, I, too, need to die. I didn’t quite understand the feeling at first, but as I let it in, I saw it was about needing to die on the ego level in order that I could live more fully.

A few weeks later I met her boyfriend and found that he had had a very similar experience, though much more profoundly. He said that when she died, he also died. The realization of how inevitable death is and what it means affected him so deeply that he has come alive in a new way. He said, "I'm not going to waste another moment of my life. I'm not going to refuse another opportunity to really live life." In a way, part of him died and part of him came alive through having his beloved die. It was a very powerful and moving experience.

LASZLO: I had a profound personal experience recently, when I was in Auroville, India. One day I could not sleep all night and I did not know why. The next morning I got the news that my mother had died. The following day I went up North, to Dharamsala, to see the Dalai Lama. I spent three days there, including what the Tibetans consider the critical day, the fourth day after someone has died. This is the day the spirit of the departed begins its transition. Being with the Tibetan lamas, my experience was that, no, this is not the end. There is a continuity.  It was a very profound experience, and it was very different than it would have been in a Western setting. It has stayed with me in some way ever since. The loss is there, but the sense is that it is not an absolute loss, not the end of something, but a transformation.

GROF: This sounds very much like the kind of awareness with which people emerge from powerful transformative experiences: death is not the final and absolute end of existence; it is an important transition into another form of being.

LASZLO: In the East knowledge about life, death, and rebirth has been handed down for thousands of years. Now we are rediscovering these insights in the West.

GROF: Indeed, much of this has been known for centuries or even millennia in different parts of the world. When I started doing psychedelic research some forty years ago, I came into it equipped with Freudian psychoanalysis, which was a very narrow and superficial model of the psyche. In serial LSD sessions, all people that I worked with sooner or later transcended the Freudian framework, which is limited to postnatal biography and the individual unconscious. They started having a wide rage of experiences uncharted by Freudian analysis and Western psychiatry. I spent three years patiently mapping these experiences, believing that I was creating a new cartography of the human psyche. As I saw it then, this was made possible by the discovery of LSD, a powerful new research tool. However, when I completed this map to such an extent that it included all the major experiences I was seeing in psychedelic sessions, I realized that the new map was not new at all, but a rediscovery of a very ancient map.

Many experiences included in my cartography were described in the anthropological literature on shamanism, the most ancient healing art and religion of humanity. In shamanism, non-ordinary states of consciousness play an absolutely critical role both in the initiatory crisis, that many novice shamans experience at the beginning of their career, and in the shamanic healing ceremonies. Similar experiences were also known from the 'rites of passage,' important rituals first described in the book of the Dutch anthropologist Arnold van Gennep.

Rites of passage are conducted in native cultures at the times of critical biological and social transitions, such as the birth of a child, circumcision, puberty, marriage, menopause, aging, and dying. In these rituals, the natives have used similar methods ('technologies of the sacred') for inducing non-ordinary states as the shamans – drumming, rattling, dancing, chanting, social and sensory isolation, fasting, sleep deprivation, physical pain, and psychedelic plants. Typically, the initiates have profound experiences of psychospiritual death and rebirth.

Many experiences featuring in my extended cartography of the psyche can also to be found in the literature on the ancient mysteries of death and rebirth which were popular and widespread in the ancient world from the Mediterranean to Mesoamerica. They were all based on mythologies describing death and rebirth of gods, demigods and legendary heroes -- the stories of Inanna and Tammuz, Isis and Osiris, Dionysus, Attis, Adonis, Quetzalcoatl, and the Mayan Hero Twins. In the mysteries, initiates were exposed to various mind altering procedures and had powerful death and rebirth experiences.

The most famous of these rites were the Eleusinian mysteries conducted every five years for a period of almost two thousand years in Eleusis near Athens. A fascinating study conducted by Gordon Wasson (who brought the Mexican magic mushrooms to Europe), Albert Hoffmann (the discoverer of LSD), and Carl Ruck (a Greek scholar) showed that the key to the events in the Eleusinian mysteries was the sacred potion kykeon, a psychedelic sacrament made of ergot and similar in its effects to LSD. When my wife Christina and I visited Eleusis, we found out that the number of people who were initiated at Eleusis in the main hall (telestrion) every five years exceeded three thousand. This had to have an extraordinary influence on ancient Greek culture and through it on European culture in general.

This is a fact that has not been acknowledged by historians. The list of the initiates in the Greek mysteries reads like a ‘Who Is who in Antiquity.’ It includes the philosophers Plato, Aristotle and Epictetus, the poet Pindarus, playwrights Euripides and Aeschylus, the military leader Alkibiades, and the Roman statesman Cicero. Considering these facts, it became obvious to me that our discoveries in the research of non-ordinary states of consciousness were actually rediscoveries of ancient knowledge and wisdom. All we did was to reformulate them in modern terms.

RUSSELL: Yes, we are rediscovering a wisdom that has been rediscovered many times in many cultures. What we are exploring is the nature of the human mind – and the essential nature of mind has not changed significantly over human history. What has changed is what we are conscious of, our knowledge, our understanding of the world, our beliefs, our values. These may have changed considerably. But the ways in which the mind gets trapped; the way we get caught by fear, sucked in by our attachments, driven by our desires have changed very little. The essential dynamics of the mind are the same today as they were 2,500 years ago. That is why we can still derive so much value from reading Plato or the Upanishads.

Throughout human history there have been those who have recognized that there are great untapped potentials of human consciousness. Many of these have discovered for themselves a different mode of awareness, one that leads to a greater sense of inner peace and a richer, more harmonious relationship with the world around, less restricted by fear and self-centered thinking patterns. These are the saints, sages and shamans that have arisen in every culture. Many of them have tried to help others awaken to this more liberated mode of consciousness, and have developed a variety of techniques and practices aimed at freeing the mind from its various handicaps. In one way or another they were all seeking to help people step beyond the egoic mode of awareness.

LASZLO: Could the spread of these insights and techniques in the Western world have a major effect on what we are doing? On how we are relating to each other – how we are relating to nature?

GROF: I certainly believe that it could profoundly influence our world view and change our practical approach to life. If we look at the world view of the Western industrial civilization and compare it with those found in ancient and native cultures we find a profound difference. One aspect of this difference involves the depth and quality of our knowledge of the material world. Western science clearly discovered many things from the world of astrophysics to the microworld, all the way to the quantum level, that the ancient and native cultures did not know anything about. That is quite natural, something that comes with time and progress and something that one would expect.

However, there is another aspect of this difference that is truly extraordinary and surprising. It is the fundamental disagreement concerning the presence or absence of the spiritual dimension in the universe. For Western science, the universe is essentially a material system that created itself. It can be, at least in principle, fully understood with reference to natural laws. Life, consciousness, and intelligence are seen as more or less accidental side-products of matter. In contrast, ancient and aboriginal cultures have a concept of an ensouled universe that has many ordinarily invisible domains and includes the spiritual dimension as an important aspect of reality.

This difference between the two world views has usually been attributed to the superiority of Western science over primitive superstition. Materialistic scientists attribute any notion of spirituality to a lack of knowledge, superstition, wishful fantasies, primitive magical thinking, projection of infantile images to the sky, or gross psychopathology. But when we take a closer look, we see that the reason for this difference lies elsewhere. After forty years of consciousness research, I feel strongly that the true reason for this difference is the naïveté and ignorance of Western industrial civilization in regard to non-ordinary states of consciousness. All the ancient and native cultures held non-ordinary states of consciousness in high esteem. They spent much time developing safe and effective ways of inducing them and used them for a variety of purposes – as the main vehicle for their ritual and spiritual life, for diagnosing and healing diseases, for cultivation of intuition and extrasensory perception, and for artistic inspiration.

People living in these cultures regularly experienced non-ordinary states of consciousness in various socially sanctioned rituals. They experienced identification and deep connection with other people, with animals, with nature, and the entire cosmos. They had powerful encounters with archetypal beings and visited various mythological realms. It is only logical that they integrated these experience and observations into their world view. This has nothing to do with speculation, it is based on the direct experience of certain realities. The world view of traditional cultures is a synthesis of what people experienced in everyday life through their senses, and what they encountered in visionary states.

Essentially the same thing happens to people who have the opportunity to experience non-ordinary states of consciousness in our own culture. I have yet to meet a single person from our culture, no matter what his or her educational background, IQ, and specific training, who had powerful transpersonal experiences and continues to subscribe to the materialistic monism of Western science. I am the founding president of the International Transpersonal Association (ITA). We have had fifteen international conferences with a stellar list of presenters, many of them academicians with impressive credentials. When they had personal experiences of non-ordinary states and studied them in others, they all found the Newtonian/Cartesian world view seriously lacking. Sooner or later, they all moved to a much larger alternative vision of the cosmos that integrated modern science with perspectives similar to those found in the mystical traditions, Eastern spiritual philosophies, and even native cultures. They embraced a world view that describes a radically ensouled universe permeated by Absolute Consciousness and Superior Cosmic Intelligence. I believe that something similar would happen to our entire culture if non-ordinary states became generally accessible.

RUSSELL: I mentioned earlier that much of this current growth of interest in consciousness can be traced back to the sixties. Its interesting that much of this change was triggered by non-ordinary states of consciousness. This was the first time in our history that psychedelics had been used on a wide scale, and it led to a large number of people experiencing the states that we are talking of. And it had a very deep impact. Many of these people came away profoundly changed by that experience. And it didn’t go away.

I remember Timothy Leary being asked in the early eighties where all the flower children had gone. His response was they have gone to seed. And that is exactly what happened. Today those people are in their late forties or fifties. A few did drop out, but most dissolved back into society, got married, had kids, and built a career for themselves. Quite a few have now risen to respectable and powerful positions in society. I know some who are presidents of large corporations, some are senior figures in the entertainment business, others hold important positions in education, government and health-care. For many of them, the vision and insights they gained in the sixties remain. And some are quietly using their newfound influence to let a little of that vision seep into the world.

Another interesting development in recent years has been the growing scientific interest in consciousness. In the past science left consciousness to one side. And for good reasons. You cannot measure it like you can other things; you cannot pin it down; you cannot even define it easily. The physical world seems to function perfectly well without any need to include consciousness, so there was little pressure to explore the subject. But today things are changing. This is partly the result of our increasing knowledge of brain function, which is bringing the question of consciousness into focus. Scientists and philosophers are beginning to ask: What is consciousness? How does it relate to brain activity? How has it evolved? And where does it come from? In the last few years we have seen a series of international scientific conferences devoted to the issue, and a new scientific journal, The Journal of Consciousness Studies.

This opening to the exploration of consciousness is partly the consequence of scientific developments, but I think it also owes a lot to large numbers of people having the experience of non-ordinary states of consciousness. If there is one thing that these experiences do it is to revolutionize one’s attitude to consciousness. As Stan said, you cannot have a profound experience of this nature and not come away realizing that there is something severely missing from our models of mind and reality.

I think that we are now in the middle of a profound and widespread revolution in our view of reality. The old materialistic models are beginning to lose their grip, and we are gradually piecing together a new understanding. And the direction we are going suggests that the new model will be one that includes mind and consciousness as a fundamental aspect of reality.

LASZLO: This change is coming about in spite of most scientists not knowing it, or even wanting it. Sometimes one does not know the real origins or causes of the changes in one’s thinking and consciousness. In my own case, I had an experience about six or seven years ago that is relevant here. I came across an idea that I thought was just a fleeting notion, yet perhaps interesting to explore. I wrote a small essay on it that was published only in Italian, called "The Psi-Field Hypothesis." Then I forgot all about it, but other people would not let me forget. When the book came out people kept calling and referring to it, doing research on it. Then it occurred to me that maybe there is something more to it. I am not rid of the idea yet... on the contrary, it has got hold of me unexpectedly. I am working on it now, and the more I work on it, the more I find that there is really something in the cosmos that corresponds to a psi-field – an interconnecting natural information field.

Such intuitions are not entirely conscious. I am not sure why I got involved with this concept; there was nothing in my mind before that which would have prepared me for it.

I find that this sort of things is occurring increasingly in today’s world. It is almost like one would be driven to carry out some explorations. This may also be a sign of the times, a consequence that we are living in a particularly unstable and transforming era in history. The question is, are these changes fast enough? Could they have a sufficient effect? Of course, they are not entirely predictable. But can we be reasonably hopeful about the effect these changes will have?

RUSSELL: Let me tell you about something that happened to me around four years ago, which had a major impact on me and my work. I was traveling around the United States on a lecture tour, promoting my new book, The White Hole in Time. The basic theme of my talks was very much along the lines that we have been touching on here. I was suggesting that the global crisis we are facing is, at its root, a crisis of consciousness, and if we are going to save the world then we need to be doing more than just saving the rain forests, curbing pollution, reducing carbon emissions and stopping the destruction of the ozone layer. We also have to free ourselves from the egocentric, materialistic mode of consciousness that is giving rise to these problems. Otherwise we are only tackling the symptoms of the problem, not the root cause; we would only patching over the deeper problem.

I found myself listening to myself talking and thinking, there is something wrong here. There is a dissonance between what I am saying and what I am actually thinking. I was not saying what I really believed. It was what I had believed in the past, but my views had gradually changed and I realized I no longer felt quite the same way. I was talking out of my past, and that made me uncomfortable.

It came to a head one day in Dallas. I was doing a radio show – one where people phone in with their questions and comments – and I was astounded to realize that most of the callers were denying that there was any environmental crisis at all – or at least not one that affected them or that they had any responsibility for. They firmly believed that the greenhouse effect and the thinning of the ozone layer were a left-wing conspiracy. If there were any environmental problems they were not here in the USA, and there was no way they were going to consider changing their lifestyle. They were not even prepared to listen to anyone who questioned the American way of living.

That made me realize that the only people I was actually having any real communication with were those who were already thinking as I was. I was preaching to the converted. While that does have some value – we all need inspiration, and reminding of the things we know deep within – it was not going to have any significant effect on the vast numbers who currently have no interest in changing their consciousness.

The initial reaction to this experience was one of hopelessness and depression, and it brought to awareness a number of things that I had not been looking at. I thought, supposing that we do manage to get the majority of people interested and motivated in this area, how rapidly can consciousness change? I looked at myself. Here I am, a person who has for some 30 years been practicing meditation, and exploring consciousness in various ways. I have certainly benefited from it, and have changed in various ways; but I'm still a long way from being enlightened . I am still caught in many of my old thinking habits, my ego-mind is still in control for much of the time, and I am still far from being a model citizen. After all these years, I still have a long way to go – and I am somebody who has been deliberately working on his own inner growth. If it is such a slow process, what hope is there for people who aren't even consciously trying to move in that direction? Is there really any hope that humanity can wake up in time?

Then I thought, suppose that by some magic we were all to wake up right now, would that be the end of our problems? Suppose extraterrestrials were to land tonight and miraculously change our consciousness, or a new Buddha were to appear on television and we all "got it" overnight. Even then, if we all woke up and become fully enlightened beings, the crisis would not disappear. The problems we have already set in motion, the environmental devastation, the population explosion, the decimation of the rainforests, the greenhouse effect – these are all going to take a long time to turn around.

As you can imagine, this added to my despondency. Then I remembered some work I had been involved in with the oil company Shell, on future scenarios. Shell has a group of futurists dedicated to looking thirty years ahead and mapping out possible scenarios. The goal is not to predict the future – that they know is impossible – but to explore a range of scenarios, and to take these into account in major decisions. If you are thinking of building a new oil refinery in Venezuela, for instance, you are making some very long-term decisions, and want to look at how that decision might pan out under a range of different economic, political, social and environmental scenarios. You want to make sure you have all your bases covered.

I realized that I had been totally focused on the "we can save the world if we change our consciousness" scenario. I call it scenario A. I had been totally suppressing scenario B – the scenario that says it is already too late, the shit is hitting the fan, and there is nothing we can do about it. It is not a pleasant scenario at all, which of course was the principal reason I had not been willing to let it fully into my awareness. But uncomfortable as it is, it was clear that it is also a very possible scenario, and therefore one that should be given full consideration.

So I decided, Okay, let’s look at this. What would the world be like under scenario B? Well there’s a lot of possible sub-scenarios, but what is common to them all is that there would be a lot of hardship, and a lot of suffering. There would be a lot of psychological pain; things people were used to doing may not be possible anymore, many comforts to which we have been accustomed may no longer be available, life might become very difficult indeed. There may also be physical pain and suffering. Who knows what will happen if the food supplies start dwindling, as Ervin suggested they might?

So I asked myself, what is going to be needed in those circumstances, what is going to help? It became clear that one area that would become very important would be caring, compassion, and community. I remembered a Yugoslavian friend from Zagreb, who lived through the war there amidst the social chaos and devastation produced by the bombing. I asked her how she managed to come through it, and she said what it made it bearable was being able to sit down with friends, have a cup of tea and some caring human contact.

How do we develop caring and compassion? That brought me right back to the core of Buddhism. How do we let go of our attachments, our desires, our fears, and all the other ‘stuff’ that keeps us locked in our own private worlds, concerned only with our own well-being. Then the realization hit me – and this was totally fascinating – I realized that this is essentially the same path I had been arguing for under scenario A. If we were going to heal the planet and save ourselves through a change in consciousness, then we have to free ourselves from our egocentricity, from our attachments to things. Scenario B was pointing in exactly the same direction. To survive these hard times we need to free ourselves from our attachments and self-centredness, and become more loving, caring beings. Either way the path is the same–the same inner awakening is called for.

Seeing this freed me up. If the work we need to do is the same in either scenario, then which scenario actually occurs is not so crucial. For me it is no longer a case of raising consciousness in order to save the world, or in order to cope with a failing world. Either way raising consciousness is important; either way the same kind of inner work is needed. As a result I found myself free to carry on the same path, but without an attachment to a particular outcome. That was a big shift for me.

LASZLO: On the worst case scenario we would certainly need much compassion even to stay alive. Do you think such compassion would arise in the world on its own?

RUSSELL: No, I think it takes a lot of inner work. Sometimes hardship can foster compassion, but not always. It depends how open and ready a person is. So we still need to focus on the inner work, on freeing our minds from fear, from out-dated belief systems, from the controlling grip of the ego-mind. We still need to develop greater inner stability, and free ourselves from our material attachments. The more we do that now, the more flexible and compassionate we are likely to be when the need arises.

The turning point for me was the realization that the inner work was the same, and that was what I needed to get on with in my own life. Changing consciousness is valuable in itself. Maybe it will lead to a world in which we can avoid some of the catastrophes. Maybe it will not. But either way it is absolutely essential.

Date created: 3-Sep-05