Reasonable Magic and Magical Reason (4)

Part IV: Monroe’s Philosophy

What impressed me most about Journeys out of the Body, however, was not the author’s narrative of his metaphysical adventures (as captivating it was), but rather, the underlying philosophy of the narrator. This philosophy would find further elaboration, not only in Bob’s later writings, but also in the creation of Hemi-Sync and this Institute. His pragmatic approach was one of word and deed, because, I believe, he intuitively grasped the central importance of uniting theory with practice.

Bob Monroe–a philosopher? You bet he was.

To be a philosopher, one does not need advanced academic degrees or specialized training. This is what I had learned from the work of R.G. Collingwood, whom I mentioned earlier. As I slowly came to realize, Collingwood and Monroe had several important ideas in common.

Collingwood had watched in dismay as intellectual life in the early 20th century became increasingly specialized and compartmentalized. In former days, it had been the philosopher’s job to articulate an overall interpretation of human existence that would speak to a general audience and have an impact on everyday life. Philosophy, in other words, was supposed to make a real, practical difference.

But the older ideal of the generalist had become obsolete. By aping the reductive, “value-free” approach of the natural sciences, philosophy had transformed itself into what Collingwood dubbed “a futile parlor game” played by, and for, a small cadre of specialists. (24) These researchers talked only to each other in a highly technical vocabulary only they understood. Philosophy, in short, had turned itself into a profession: a private club for an insular intellectual √©lite that prided itself on its ignorance of anything that fell outside the narrow scope of its increasingly abstract and arcane theories.

Collingwood viewed this split between intellectual and practical life as extremely dangerous for both; for, on his view, everyone has a philosophy, whether they know it or not. By this he meant that everyone has a central “ring” or “nucleus” of principles that guides and shapes all their thoughts and actions. The philosopher, properly speaking, is the individual who uncovers and criticizes his or her own core principles. To Collingwood, this process of self-examination was a moral imperative, a test of character. “A man is a great man or a little,” he declared, “a valuable man or a worthless, largely according as this ring is strong or weak in structure, good or bad in material.” (25) In other words, we are responsible for our beliefs.

By this standard of measure, Bob Monroe was a great and valuable man, as his philosophy was comprised of a solid, structurally sound ring of principles that he consciously and deliberately put to the test, over and again, in the toughest of circumstances. This took enormous courage and determination. In the process, that ring became ever stronger and more resilient.

As I see it, the Monroe philosophy is based on two key principles. Expressed in imperative form, they are: (1) “Explore everywhere!” and (2) “Question everything!” I will refer to these as the principles of “radical empiricism” and “radical iconoclasm”, respectively.

Now, by “radical,” I don’t mean extreme–a word that has negative connotations. “Radical” comes from the Latin word radix, which means “root.” To be radical, therefore, literally means to be “deeply rooted.” I would say that Bob’s philosophical roots are so deeply and closely intertwined as to be practically and theoretically inseparable. Like the Taoist root principles of Yin and Yang, each leads to, and complements, the other.

Let’s begin with the principle of radical empiricism. My dictionary (26) defines “empirical” as: (i) “relying on or derived from observation or experiment”; (ii) “verifiable or provable by means of observation or experiment”; and (iii) “guided by practical experience and not theory.” An empiricist is thus someone who believes that knowledge is based primarily on experience. The more experience we have, the faster our knowledge grows. So it’s quite natural and logical that an empiricist is an explorer of new worlds of fact, a patient, but persistent, gatherer of raw data. As the English biologist and philosopher T.H. Huxley famously stated, we should “sit down before fact like a little child,” and “follow humbly wherever . . . nature leads.”

Of course, as Bob learned the hard way, the attempt to equate “experience” with “physical experience” and “data” with “physical sense-data” is not actually supported by our “practical experience.” Therefore, this equation–endorsed by many self-described empiricists–is not itself empirically verifiable. It is based on a metaphysical theory whose key (unquestioned) premise is that only physical matter is real, and that our only access to information about this reality is through the five physical senses (or through instruments that amplify their reach).

By giving priority to his actual out-of-body experience over the ideology of materialism, then, Bob was being more empirical-minded than those scientists and philosophers who put mere theory first. This is why I call him a radical empiricist. He demonstrated that the materialist premise does not stand up to the critical scrutiny of a reasonable individual who is open-minded enough to put the received wisdom to a direct examination.

“To try and test for oneself”: this, after all, is the meaning of experientia, the Latin root of our English words “experience” and “experiment.” Bob would not dismiss out of hand the possible reality of his out-of-body episodes. He tested the twin hypotheses of non-physical experience and perception for himself. When, to the best of his ability, he verified them to his own satisfaction, his previous faith in the completeness and certainty of our scientific knowledge was shattered. This shows that, whereas the principle of radical empiricism was central to his philosophy, his commitment to the metaphysical materialist form of Answerism was not–and so he wisely jettisoned it.

As he continued with his out-of-body excursions, Bob came to the conclusion that often comes to those on the cutting edge of physical exploration: The experience of new places calls for new ideas. Just as the American colonists were forced to re-imagine the concept of democracy for the vast territory of the New World, so, in encountering the expansive interior landscapes of the new lands of consciousness, Bob reluctantly recognized that all the standard definitions and operating rules would have to be scrapped. This was a painful, but inescapable, realization. “The most difficult mental process of all,” he writes in Journeys out of the Body, “is to consider objectively any concept which, if accepted as fact, will toss into discard a lifetime of training and experience.” (27)

Out of sheer necessity, then, the bold pioneering explorer of inner space became an innovative thinker–an emboldened questioner who would smash any idol of belief that got in his way, no matter how “obvious” its truth, or how deeply entrenched the emotional investment of its worship. As he so eloquently states in Ultimate Journey: “What we need to do, whether in- or out-of body, is to ignore or tear down the No Trespassing signs, the taboos, the notice that says Holy of Holies, the distortions of time and translation, the soft black holes of euphoria, the mysticisms, the myths, the fantasies of an eternal father or mother image, and then take a good look with our acquired and growing left brain. Nothing is sacred to the point where it should not be investigated or put under inquiry.” (28)

This breathtaking assertion that there are no sacred cows–that there are no questions that we are, in principle, or by established belief and custom, debarred from asking–poses the most serious challenge yet to our entire culture. It is easy to overlook this implication, for, by both training and temperament, Bob Monroe was a diplomatic gentleman who preferred cool understatement to bombast. He left his readers free to draw their own conclusions. But make no mistake: this statement is nothing short of a revolutionary call to philosophical arms. If heeded, it would demolish the very foundations of Answerism.

So it was that Bob’s investigation of strange, new nonphysical worlds led him to reject the old established answers. His radical empiricism shaded imperceptibly into his radical iconoclasm. However, as I indicated earlier, the reverse also held true: By engaging his faculty of critical reasoning, he was able to sail ever further on into the sea of the great unknown. The more radical his self-questioning, the more expansive his explorations.

A prime example of this comes from Far Journeys, where Bob recounts a key turning point in his quest. (29) It happened in the spring of 1972, when, after having become bored and frustrated with his now routine out-of-body state (!), he questioned whether his conscious ego ought to be in the driver’s seat. By releasing this tacit assumption and giving over the decision-making process to what he called his “total self,” a whole new dimension of experience and adventure on the Interstate of consciousness opened up.

Such, then, was the ongoing dialectic between idea and experience in which the expansion of the one invariably led to the widening and deepening of the other. This highly fruitful exchange underscores that Bob’s two primary philosophical principles of radical empiricism and radical iconoclasm were tightly welded together. But what, exactly, I wondered, was the glue that bound them as one?

Once again, I discerned a parallel with Collingwood, whose critique of cultural fragmentation rested on what he had termed “the principle of the unity of the mind.” (30) According to this philosophical principle, the whole mind is present in all of its activities–at least potentially.

Collingwood had argued, for example, that Art and Science (or imagination and perception) are not two autonomous disciplines or watertight mental compartments. On his view, they are complementary perspectives of a single, unified consciousness that is always, and at once, both creating and discovering the reality it experiences. It is not “either/or”, but rather, “both/and.” The artist must work with the raw material of facts, no matter how much (or grotesquely) her imagination stretches and transmutes that data. Conversely, the scientist is as much a maker as a finder of worlds. Instruments, in themselves, see nothing; it is the creative act of interpretation, the conceptual imagination that organizes data into meaningful patterns, which manufactures an object of perception. Artists are scientists, and scientists are artists.

In fact, Collingwood’s formula for the unity of the mind was a rather striking anticipation of the now familiar “holographic model” of mind and reality developed in the groundbreaking work of quantum physicist David Bohm (31) and neuroscientist Karl Pribram. (32) This model suggests that both the human brain-mind, as well as the universe it cognizes, is structured like a hologram, in which every single part replicates the plan of the whole. In 1912, Collingwood had already divined the concept of what Bohm would subsequently term “undivided wholeness,” or holographic unity, for, as Collingwood declared, “each part is the whole.” (33)

Following his pragmatic engineering sensibility, Bob Monroe conceived this holographic unity in terms of “hemispheric synchronization.” As he writes in Ultimate Journey: “Peak performance comes when both left and right brain thinking are integrated, unified, synchronous.” (34) Hemi-Sync, in other words, is more than just the practical application of an intriguing theory of the human self: it is that very theory. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that both the theory and practice of Hemi-Sync flowed from Bob’s intuitive insights into the very nature of reality, as tested and perfected through laborious trial and error.

As I see it, however, Hemi-Sync doesn’t show us how to build bridges where none existed before. Rather, it helps us to release our illusion of isolation, thereby enabling us to cross those bridges that have been there, waiting, all along, but were invisible to our eyes because of our cultural programming. Hemi-Sync is the ultimate de-programmer, hastening the removal of roadblocks to perception such as the equation of the real with the physical. “The trick,” as Bob says, “is to get both left and right brain into simultaneous and synchronous action, nudging the left brain more and more into taking part in the There activity.” To which he immediately adds: “You should never abandon one for the other.” (35)

Now, this important caveat is a key corollary of Monroe’s philosophy. As Bob often emphasized, we must also nudge the right brain into taking part in the Here activity, by making practical use of the non-physical data we are receiving (but not consciously processing) all the time. Borrowing his favorite metaphor, we could say that the aim of Hemi-Sync is to get the traffic flowing smoothly and evenly in both directions, at once, on the bridges of the Interstate. As Bob notes: “Every single thing we learn [Here], no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential, is of immense value There–beyond time-space.” (36)

This affirmation of the importance and value of the Here activity puts Monroe squarely in the revolutionary camp of Collingwood, Bohm, and the new (holographic) mysticism. Whereas the traditional mysticism states, “As above, so below,” the new mysticism adds, “And, as below, so above.”

According to the older mysticism, the cosmos is structured hierarchically. Mind (or spirit, or consciousness) creates and directs physical matter, and is thus vastly superior to it. The timeless “There” is far more valuable and important than the temporal “Here”, the perfect whole infinitely more significant than its finite, imperfect parts. The latter are disdained as fallen or lesser lights, in contrast to the One Great Light of the Absolute.

But this is strictly one-way traffic. The new mystics affirm that reality is a two-way street–a holarchy, not a hierarchy. Thus, what Bohm termed the enfolded or implicate order of eternity (“There”) is just as affected by what we experience and do as physical individuals at the unfolded, or explicate, level of time-space reality (“Here”), as we are by what occurs at the non-physical level. (37) Each level needs and feeds the other, and therefore–as Bob implored us–we must never abandon one for the other.

The marriage of magic and reason is therefore essential for the healthy development of both partners. When apart, reason is rudderless and bereft of inspiration, plodding along in the same old tired ruts of belief, mouthing the usual platitudes, and mindlessly mimicking the received “wisdom” of discredited ideas. Magic, spurned by reason, devolves into a frightful and disruptive alien invader, assuming ever more exotic and threatening poses in order to gain reason’s attention. The result is the proliferation of wacky, often dangerous cults, fundamentalism, and all sorts of self-mystifying, superstitious, fraudulent nonsense.

Bob Monroe quite consciously de-mystified magic and made it more accessible to reason. He did this making Hemi-Sync a gradual, step-by-step process that did not threaten to overwhelm the linear intellect. And he discarded the older spiritual and occult vocabularies (with their loaded associations with outdated and questionable philosophies) in favor of a neutral terminology to designate the various areas of consciousness (the focus states). By opening reason to inspiration by the non-rational source of ideas, he planted magical seeds of creativity that may yet help to transform our culture–and perhaps our reality as well.

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