Protoplasmic Consciousness

Halfway down the first sickening slope of my one and only roller-coaster ride at age 11, I vowed if I ever got off that contraption alive, I would never get on another. And yet, as a college student in the 1960s, I did not hesitate to experiment with psychedelic drugs that could be just as terrifying and far more exhilarating than any amusement park ride. I must have taken LSD or mescaline dozens of times -- but not primarily as a thrill-seeker or at least not entirely so. For me, these drugs were a Get Out of Jail Free card from a prison I did not realize I occupied until my cell door first sprang open and I was free to roam at will in the wider world of being. Dropping acid was not exactly an out-of-body experience, since there was still a body there; however, the boundaries between me and not-me had disappeared, if only temporarily.

On one memorable occasion I was tripping with a group of friends in a park, and it was as if we had merged into a single organism with numerous arms and legs and eyes. My roommate Danny started to speak, but no sooner had he uttered the fateful “I” than he was suddenly thrown back into his cell, looking bewildered. He had unwittingly summoned his old self back into existence by invoking the first-person pronoun, and there he was again with all his old mannerisms and nervous tics. As soon as he realized what he had done, he laughed uproariously and fled the confines of himself once again. Was the self so fungible that you could put it on and take it off like a suit of clothes? Apparently so.

Many terms are used to describe that peculiar state of mind where one’s self overflows its banks. My favorite may be “protoplasmic consciousness,” because it so neatly captured my experience with my friends in the park that day. Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget used the same term to characterize the undifferentiated world of the newborn, before there is a “me” and a “not-me.” Mystics sometimes call it oneness, but of course there can be no awareness of oneness until we have first experienced manyness. Coming at it from the other direction as a newborn, with no distinction between subject and object, there is nothing to count and no one to count either the one or the many.

Since my long-ago adventures with mind-altering drugs, neuroscientists have done experiments suggesting that mystical states may be the result of diminished activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe of the brain, which controls the body’s orientation in three-dimensional space. If the parietal lobes are suppressed, whether through drugs or meditation, the boundaries between the self and its surroundings are dissolved, giving rise to a sense of oneness. With hallucinogens, the feeling is temporary, because the drugs wear off. Much later in life, I had spontaneous experiences of oneness without chemical inducement, often for extended periods, and fully expected to leave the self behind for good. This did not happen.

Eventually I figured out why. Most spiritual traditions conceive of oneness as a higher form of reality and our feelings of separateness as an illusion. But reality is neither one nor many; they are merely alternative ways of looking at the same thing. Think of that famous optical illusion known as the Rubin vase, which can be interpreted as a vase or two faces in profile, depending on how you look at it. Our initial experience of oneness (not counting the newborn’s protoplasmic state) is usually accompanied by powerful feelings of illumination, as if we had found God or the secret of life. Scholar Neal Donner has written that nirvana, as Buddhists call it, “is merely a fiction created to liberate us from our small-minded habits of thought.” We must be careful not to allow one illusion to replace another. As Zen Buddhists so tersely express it: “Not one, not two.”

Sometimes it is better to see things through the lens of the self. When we are hammering a nail, for example, it makes a difference whether we hit the nail or hit our thumb. Pain is nature’s way of reinforcing the boundaries of self. In evolutionary terms, self-preservation is a good thing. The genes found in any organism’s gene pool are invariably the “selfish” ones, to borrow a phrase from Richard Dawkins. They don’t necessarily operate with selfish intent; they just happen to be the ones that are agile enough to find a seat when the music stops in nature’s great game of musical chairs.

“Not one, not two” appears to leave us with a bit of a conundrum, but only if we think reality has to be one or the other. If we are searching for metaphors to resolve our difficulty, a roller-coaster ride might do the trick. There is that first slow climb to the heights, the sweeping view that seemingly takes in everything, the brief moment of exhilaration when we feel on top of the world, then the sickening plunge as gravity takes hold, bearing us inexorably down and around, up and down again and again, until we find yourselves back where we started from, our heads spinning. Which is the truer experience of reality, the heights or the depths, the one or the many? Is it not both?

Neal Donner, Ph.D., Mysticism and the Idea of Freedom: A Libertarian View

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