The Great Amnesia

I still remember the walk home through the streets of Berlin after my first Ayahuasca journey. The city by night, bathing in cold street lighting, looked like a run down puppet theatre, a joyless parody of true creation, completely devoid of life and substance. It stood in stark contrast with what I had experienced a couple of hours earlier. Drinking Ayahuasca had turned out to be an experience so infinitely bigger than I had ever dreamed possible in this world, this dimension of space and time in which an odd apparatus made of flesh and bones seems to be the only door of perception.

Spiritual experiences typically elude the confines of language, and everything we say about them must inevitably fall short, but when asked, I would say that during that first Ayahuasca journey it felt as if I had directly witnessed Creation at work. I had heard the all-pervading voice of God, so to speak, singing everything into being. I had opened my ears to a depth of listening that was boundless,  and ever expanding, and heard the primordial sound that is the uni-verse, the eternal music of creation, the sacred sound that, when only we open our ears to it, tunes our being back into alignment with truth.

After the ceremony I walked home through the nightly streets of the city, accompanied by a couple of friends, more seasoned Ayahuasca travelers who had also participated in the ceremony that night. I was still awe-struck by the experience and didn’t feel much for talking. Listening to my friends conversation, I was struggling to understand how they managed to make such a quick transition from the spirit realms back to the world. How could they be talking so casually after just having had an epiphany in which the world had lost its opaqueness and had revealed the realms of light that were hidden underneath, or beyond, as if the worlds only function had been to hide God from our awareness, an age old trick that had now finally been undone. How could there be space left for anything but awe and gratitude and wonder?

Having drunk Ayahuasca for the first time, I didn’t realize that the clarity of my insights would also gradually fade away. Still under the influence of the medicine, I somehow believed my new perception and insight would, from that point on, always stay with me, with the same vividness and clarity. Now, many Ayahuasca journeys later, I also became familiar with the process in which the light gets dimmed and what was revealed veiled again. The conditioned mind is like a polar sea, freezing again in the wake of every ship that breaks its way through the ice.

Spiritual Blindness

The human condition is, in many ways, a state of oblivion. Not only are we oblivious of the spiritual dimension of reality and our true nature, we are, moreover, oblivious of our oblivion. In this way the spiritual dimension became doubly veiled by forgetfulness. We forgot and subsequently forgot that we forgot. In this state we make no effort to remember, oblivious of the fact that there is something to remember : an infinite reality beyond the limits of our sense perception, a truth that transcends the scope of our human understanding, a freedom beyond the confines of what we believe to be possible.

In ‘The man who mistook his wife for a hat’ the neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote about a man who, after a stroke, lost the functioning of all visual parts of the brain. He became completely blind, but, surprisingly, wasn’t aware of his blindness. He had no complaints. He was blind without knowing. Tests showed that he had lost all visual images and memories. And yet he had no sense of any loss. ‘He lost’, writes Sacks, ‘the very idea of seeing – and was not only unable to describe anything visually, but bewildered when I used words such as ‘seeing’ and ‘light.’ He had become, in essence, a non-visual being. His entire lifetime of seeing, of visuality, had, in effect, been stolen. His whole visual life had been erased – and erased permanently in the instant of his stroke. Such a visual amnesia, and, so to speak, blindness to the blindness, amnesia for the amnesia, is in effect a total Korsakov’s, confined to visuality.’

From a spiritual perspective, human kind can be said to be blind to its blindness, suffering from amnesia without knowing. We live in a world where everything is turned upside down and inside out. The shadow appears to be the real, the real the shadow. The spiritual dimension, transcending space, time and sense perception, seems to be an illusion, unreal and insubstantial, whereas the world of matter appears to be the only reality. We dream without realising we are dreaming. We are blind without knowing. And as far as we are unaware of our blindness, unaware we are asleep, we have no desire to see, no desire to wake up.

‘The Kingdom of Heaven is spread out upon the earth and people don’t see it.’  Gospel of Thomas

Spiritual Amnesia

Goethe wrote that none are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free. In the same vein we could say that none are more ignorant than those who falsely believe they know. Entranced by consensus reality, unaware of the dreamlike nature of reality, we think we know the world outside there. We knock on a table to prove its solid reality, its undeniable matter-of-factness, without seeing the circularity of our reasoning. Our bodily senses are made of the same stuff as what we perceive with them. Perceiver and what is perceived are essentially one and the same. We prove the reality of matter by matter of matter. The world we perceive thus becomes a self-validating feedback loop in which our minds run circles, oblivious of the infinite reality beyond the reach of our bodily senses. We dream we are a body, pinching itself to prove it is awake.

In another case study of a neurological disorder in which we can see an analogy for the human condition, Oliver Sacks writes about a man who had a memory of only a few minutes. Sacks first met his patient, who suffered from Korsakov’s syndrome, in 1975. He was a forty nine-year old man who still believed to be a nineteen-year-old living in the year 1945. Time, for that man, had come to a stop in 1945. His memories before that time were still intact, but he retained no memories beyond that point. His failing memory had fossilised him in the past.

On their first meeting, Sacks placed a mirror in front of him and asked to tell him if what he saw was a nineteen-year-old looking out from the mirror. Upon seeing the grey-haired man in the mirror, he turned ashen and gripped the sides of the chair. ‘Jesus Christ,’ he whispered. ‘Christ, what’s going on? What happened to me? Is this a nightmare? Am I crazy? Is this a joke?’ But, due to his amnesia, the whole incident was forgotten again a few minutes later. Next time he would look into a mirror he would be struck by the same panic all over again. Everything that occurred fell almost immediately into the black hole of his amnesia. And every time it dawned on him that something was horribly wrong, he forgot about the problem again.

We are, in a way, like that man. Entranced into a constant forgetting of what we truly are, our minds are not able to hold the realisation of our true nature, and the illusionary nature of the world that appears within the limits of our sense-perception, longer then a few brief moments. Then we get caught up in the dream again. And every time the truth dawns on us, we tend to fall back into forgetfulness. Oblivion of the spiritual dimension of reality seems to be the default mode of our minds in this world. We cannot focus. Buddhists speak of the monkey mind, restlessly jumping from branch to branch, incessantly chattering and so drowning the still small voice of our own deeper nature.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

Aldous Huxley compared the human brain and sense organs to a ‘reducing valve’, a filter that prevents us from experiencing the full spectrum of reality. Our brain and nervous system filter out the fullness of reality’s scope so as to enable us to function within this world without being overwhelmed by information that is irrelevant to our biological survival.

We could compare the information given us by our bodily perception with artificial streetlights ; they help us to perceive our immediate environment more clearly, but they also make it impossible to see the stars of the night sky. ‘Each one of us’, writes Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception, ‘is potentially Mind at Large. But in so far as we are animals, our business is at all costs to survive. To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet.’

48259_226750424148652_2087683470_oThe idea that our brains and nervous system are a reducing valve for ‘Mind at Large’ could be seen as a contemporary version of Plato’s allegory of the cave. Through the filter of our sense perception our consciousness is reduced to a state in which only echo’s and shadows of a much fuller, transpersonal dimension of reality reach our awareness. And because those shadows are everything we know, they constitute reality for us.

In Plato’s allegory a man is freed from the darkness of the cave and brought into the open sun. At first he is blinded by the light, but gradually his eyes get used to it and for the first time he feels he truly sees. Wanting to share this light, he decides to return to the cave to tell the other cave dwellers about his discovery, but upon re-entering the cave he is blinded again, his eyes no longer adapted to the obscurity of the cave. Seeing his blindness, the prisoners of the cave conclude that his journey into the light brought him nothing but harm and decide that leaving the cave must be dangerous. The man who saw the world outside of the cave couldn’t find a way to convey his experiences to the cave dwellers since their language and understanding only referred to the echoes and shadows perceived in the cave. Eventually, the prisoners of the cave might start seeing him as a threat to their beliefs, and attempt to kill him.

We could think of an alternative ending of Plato’s allegory, in which the man who saw the light outside the cave, upon re-entering the cave, gradually gets used to the darkness again and in getting adapted to seeing in the dark, relapses into his old worldview and loses the memory of the light he had experienced outside of the cave.

‘Ah, behold that man, freed, he hastens back to his chains!’ Dhammapada, Sayings of the Buddha

Object Permanence and Remembrance

In the days following an Ayahuasca journey in which I had a transpersonal experience of all encompassing love and union, I’ve often been surprised by my own capacity to forget and fall back into the deep sleep of separation all over again. After having been flooded with insights of such clarity that it seemed impossible to ever lose them again, I nevertheless managed to forget. Although I still remembered something extraordinary had happened, the memory had lost its immediate potency for directing my steps and transforming my live. What seemed so real at the time of the experience, faded away and lost its urgency. I fell back to a state in which the spiritual union became a distant memory and got in the grip of ego all over again. As if this seemingly unforgettable light experience never took place. In this dispirited state I might even be tempted to discard my previous transpersonal experience as an illusion. Or something once experienced but now forever out of our reach again. In this I behave like a child that doesn’t have a clear concept of object permanence yet.

The term object permanence is coined by psychologist Jean Piaget, who studied the development of infants and children’s mental capacities. Object permanence is a child’s ability to understand that something still exist even if it is no longer perceivable. For very young babies, when something is out of sight it is also out of mind. But at a certain stage in its development, typically around eight or nine months, a child starts realizing that an object still exists even when it can’t be seen. Piaget conducted a series of simple tests to study object permanence on infants. In one test he would present a baby with at toy and then cover it with a blanket. A child who had a clear concept of object permanence might try to grab the blanket off the toy, whereas a child who had not yet reached this crucial step in his cognitive development might be confused and distressed that the toy had so suddenly vanished.

Some spiritual teachings have spoken about the human condition as an infantile stage in spiritual development. From this viewpoint we could say that we are like infants who still have to learn object permanence regarding the reality of the spiritual dimension. We have to learn by experience that when a state of spiritual union is no longer within reach of our conscious awareness, that doesn’t imply it has vanished or that we can’t reach that state again. Believing that would leave us in a state of desperation in which we no longer make any attempts to reach out again.

Keeping the Flame of Transformation Alive

How can we function in a world of duality while holding the vision of oneness? How can we remember in a world where everything is set up to forget? How can we ‘be in this world but not of the world’? The gravitational field of oblivion is strong. It takes effort and a conscious choice to rise above it. There are many spiritual practices that can help us with that. But they are of little help without our willingness to change. Insights we don’t act on get lost again. Without embodying our newly gained understanding by changing our habits, we find ourselves falling back to the conditioned self we thought ourselves to be.

Many spiritual traditions have spoken of the importance of vigilance in our spiritual practice. Vigilance is needed because of the inherent tendency of our mind to distract us from our purpose. If forgetfulness and distraction is our minds default mode within this world, we have to make a conscious effort to remember. A daily practice, like meditation, can be of tremendous help. It is a way to keep up the momentum so we don’t fall back into forgetfulness. It helps us to keep the flame of transformation alive and carry it through our daily lives.

As we grow spiritually and live through the returning sequence of forgetting and subsequently remembering more often, we learn that every height of consciousness once reached, can be reached again. And the more often we forget and remember anew, the smaller the interval between forgetting and remembering becomes. Every time we fall back in the ego mode of being after having transcended it, we find that the ego has lost some of its persuasiveness. Its sales talk has become less convincing. Its imaginings less frightening. And we find ourselves waking up from it faster then the previous time we fell under its spell. Often with a burst of laughter and a sigh of relief. The more we practice, the more often we go through the sequence of forgetting and then remembering anew, over and over again, the more remembering becomes second nature. Second nature in this world of oblivion, first nature in reality.







2 thoughts on “The Great Amnesia

  1. Hi Z. Thanks for your writing, its up there with your playing 😉

    “Eventually, the prisoners of the cave might start seeing him as a treath to their beliefs, and attempt to kill him.” For some reason this reminds me of a recent reading of Becker. I think in some sense we all hunger for the light, but unwittingly seem to settle short with our ‘immortality projects’ which we do then defend to the death again any suggestion that we might have bet on the wrong horse.

    I find a lot of mileage in the in your ‘object permanence’ analogy, being always fascinated by our capacity to forget (though in some deep sense not, because something seems to direct our lives back towards these experiences). But doesn’t surprise me that singular experiences, no matter how deep, somehow can’t reverse 30, 40, 50 years of conditioning. Because our neural networks are literally like a piece of vinyl thats been played too many times and the grooves worn too deep. Ayahuasca experiences always feel to me like the lighting of an emergency flare, something that briefly lights the path and shows the way, reorientation us to whats important (attention, and acceptance towards the content thereof), until force of habit takes over and we need another reminder. Between these experiences though is the equally necessary work though, perhaps the more necessary work, of rewiring ourselves though the slow iterative process of learning new ways of using attention and consciousness, of developing alternative neural pathways to our usual reactive ways of being in the world, of responding habitually to every passing content of consciousness with either aversion or grasping. You say ‘like meditation’…are there others? 🙂

    Ayahuasca seems to teach me not just the fundamental importance of attention, but of that other equally necessary wing the Buddha spoke about in relation to meditation, that of acceptance. A bird needs these two equally balanced wings to fly. Ayahuasca seems to compel the learning of the lesson of acceptance, though giving almost no choice – or at least its presented as a fairly easy choice, between immediate and full acceptance, or six hours of utter purgatory. For me it seems to reveal that the driver of the ego, our incessant internal monologue that keep us removed from the present moment and disconnected from other people, has at its root a sense of separateness and insufficiency that feels in constant need of defending…thought rehearsing and anticipating not threats to our organism like a good brain should, but really only threats to our self-schemas, that flattering picture of ourselves that we’re attached to because we think its needed in order to secure us the love and belonging we crave. It shows in detail what a self-schema is by pealing it off layer by layer (fish know nothing about water either) and showing us what life can be like without it (amazing!), then slowly putting it back on layer by layer. Except now hopefully we wear ‘ourselves’ a bit lighter. It makes utterly concrete and investigable what was previously nebulous – our core of shame and insufficiency – turning the light on to let us look at the monster under the bed, to realize that its not actually that bad after all! ‘self-love’! That boogieman then “has lost some of its persuasiveness. Its sales talk has become less convincing. Its imaginings less frightening”. The experience is deeply transcendent and transpersonal, and yet deeply personal and therapeutic at the same time.

    “As we grow spiritually and live through the returning sequence of forgetting and subsequently remembering more often.” The insights on ayahuasca need a certain remembering and nurturing, but I feel I must be vigilant of the habit of living out of memory and conclusion. To me spiritual practice is something quite immediate, concrete and prosaic, keeping attention on my body as I type this, bringing an attitude of acceptance to visceral discomfort, noticing thoughts as they come and go. I think Sam Harris put it most simply when he said “Having an ego is what it feels like to be thinking without knowing that you are thinking.” So really, just pay attention! 😀


  2. the Light shone in the darkness, but Darkness did not understand it…

    Once a light was consciously noticed, we can recognize it as such…

    Dutch saying: “In the land of the blind, one-eye is king:
    but, More true seems to be:
    “in the land of the blind, one-eye is the exception… and nobody will understand nor listen to him”

    Nice Article Zeger, Love & greets,

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