Thou Shall Deceive Thyself: On cognitive hallucinations and mind's prime directive


I am often asked if psychedelic or meditative insights have inspired my philosophical views, or at least confirmed them in some way. They did, but not in the way—or for the reasons—that most people would imagine. Indeed, I have a very ambiguous, dubious relationship with first-person revelations. I think they are very useful in a certain way, but should seldom be taken on face-value. This is what I want to talk about today.

I have often come across people who developed intricate metaphysical views after returning from rich trance states, be them induced by psychedelics, intense prayer or other meditative techniques. They regard their experiences in those states as revelations of 'The Truth' that underlies the illusion they then consider our ordinary lives to be. Complex mythologies emerge, involving demiurges, aliens from the Pleiades, transcendent entities with intense interest in humanity and intricate plans for our future, invisible backstage activity that allegedly maintains the veneer of the physical world, and so on.

I sympathize with these, for I know, from personal experience, how compelling—vivid, internally consistent, structured, familiar as childhood memories—those insights can be. They come accompanied by a sense of hyper-reality that is difficult to describe or shake off. It is as if they constituted a deeper, more original, primordial and authentic layer of experience than our ordinary lives. Therefore, I am not surprised at all that many buy into those insights wholesale. They do feel like something you once knew, then forgot, and now remember again. You say to yourself, "Of course! How could I have forgotten this? This is what is actually going on, I know it." These are powerful experiences that do convey important and true insights; just—perhaps—not the insights one initially thinks they do. Indeed, the disposition and power of mind to deceive itself is unfathomable, something a recent series of dreams has reminded me of.

As many of you know, I was born in Rio de Janeiro and spent my childhood there, before returning to the ancestral lands of Europe, the "mother of all demons," as Jung once put it. I've had what can only be described as an idyllic childhood, in contact with the extraordinarily rich nature that surrounds the city. Yet, I haven't been back there for about 25 years now—and even then, last time I visited I spent only a few days there.

The death of my father, when I was still quite young, sliced my life into two seemingly irreconcilable parts, completely alien to one another. My child self not only lived in a different place, but also thought different thoughts in different languages. As such, from the point of view of my adult self, my childhood has acquired the quality of a fairytale, a numinous myth that unfolded in an exotic land of dreams. It feels so unreal that sometimes I catch myself wondering if it actually happened; if it wasn't all just a familiar dream I grew so used to that I now take for granted.

Strangely, given enough time, reality can feel just as much like a dream as a dream can feel like reality. But I digress.

Recently, something—I no longer remember what—prompted me to reminisce about my strange, alien, yet wonderful childhood and the places where it unfolded. I suddenly realized how disconnected I have become from it, how long it has been since I re-visited those places, how estranged from an early part of myself I have become. And so I started wondering whether I shouldn't just hop into a plane—something I've done so regularly throughout my professional life—and go back there for a week. This may sound easy and trivial, but for me it isn't: I am an alien in my birth country; literally indeed but, most importantly, figuratively. I never really fit in, which was OK when I was a child but, as an adult, it can be confrontational, especially because Brazilians expect me to be and act Brazilian. And so I was struggling with the emotionally-charged question of whether to visit the city once again or not.

It was then that my 'obfuscated mind'—my preferred term for what Jung and Freud called 'the unconscious,' the matrix of dreams—responded to my emotional ambiguity and stress with a remarkable series of dreams.

In the first dream, I was back in Rio de Janeiro, as the adult I am today, walking around the city and wondering whether I might be just dreaming. "No," I said to myself; "this is real, I am really here at last; it's happened!" Soon enough, however, I woke up and realized it was indeed just a dream.

A couple of days later, another dream: again I was in Rio, ridding a bus this time, looking out the window and watching the people and buildings go by. While in the second dream, I remembered the first dream, as well as the fact that the first dream had been... well, just a dream. And so I wondered: "Some time ago I had this very realistic dream that I was back in Rio, and so maybe this, right now, is also just a dream; maybe I am not back at all." But after looking around more carefully, feeling the seat and the inner walls of the bus with my hands, I convinced myself that now, this second time, it wasn't a dream; that I was really there, in Rio, after all these years; that it had finally happened! And then, I woke up.

Another few days go by and I have a third dream, during which I remembered the first and second dreams, as well as the fact that the first and second dreams had been just... well, dreams. And so I wondered, "Could it be just another dream now as well? No, this time it is real. The very fact that I remember the previous dreams as dreams proves that I am lucidly awake right now..." And so on. You get the picture. This happened no less than five times during a period of perhaps two weeks. Each time I remembered all the previous ones, and knew that they had been just dreams. Yet, each time I convinced myself anew, without a shadow of a doubt, that that time it wasn't a dream; that that time it was for real.

There are two things my obfuscated mind was trying to tell me in its own more-than-allegorical language—the only language it can speak—with these dreams. The first is this: I am always in my Rio, for my Rio exists in me. I never left, for I carry it with me wherever I go. I really am in my Rio already right now, so why struggle with the question of whether I should fly there or not? The question misses the point entirely and arises from a misunderstanding of what is actually going on. My Rio is not a point in space; not even a point in spacetime; it's a state of mind. The series of dreams was the insistence of my obfuscated mind that I really am in Rio. Each time I dismissed this conclusion the obfuscated mind conjured up another dream, very explicitly addressing my specific doubt and taking the whole thing one meta-level up. It's amazing: the dreams were brilliantly designed to deal precisely with my ego's tendency to dismiss dreams! After so much insistence, how could I ignore the message? Only when I understood it, did the dream series stop.

The second message is a mirror image of the first: in insisting that the dreams were true, the obfuscated mind was indirectly insisting that the truth is dream-like; that our sense of reality, right now, is as much internally conjured up by mind as my sense of reality was during the dreams. In other words, our sense of reality isn't derived from objective observations, but arises endogenously instead; it's a phenomenon of mind, in mind.

And this, I think, is the take-home message from hyper-real trance states: that we so strongly believe them to be literally real during the trance—whereas we know, afterwards, that they couldn't have been so—tells us something crucial about our impression, right now, that our ordinary lives are literally what they seem to be. If mind can conjure up that kind of robust certainty during a purely mental event—even when explicitly and repeatedly confronted with sceptical questions about the reality of the event—how can we be sure that it isn't doing precisely the same right now? If it is, then this ordinary reality, too, is mind-made; this, too, is real in the same sense that my glorious return to Rio was real five times: it is mentally real, and that's all there is to it and anything else.

As such, the message from trance states is not that the demiurges and aliens from the Pleiades are realities outside mind; to conclude that is to invert the meaning of the metaphor, to get things backwards. The message is, instead, that this waking reality, too, is not outside mind; for in both cases our sense of reality is endogenous—a cognitive hallucination, or a hallucination of beliefs and reasoning, as opposed to perceptions—not an external, objective fact.

Nonetheless, our sense of hyper-reality during trance states is justifiable: yes, the aliens and demiurges are indeed true. And our subsequent skepticism is also justifiable: yes, the demiurges and aliens are indeed just mental creations of mind. Do you see the point? Common and tempting as it may be, the dichotomy between the qualifiers 'mental' and 'real' is a false and unhelpful one, a culture-bound logical fallacy. It is precisely in their hallucinatory nature that the aliens and demiurges are as true as our ordinary lives (notice that I'm leaving aside the question of how consensual these hallucinations may be, which is an important question I've addressed in my books, but which is outside the scope of this essay). Both embody the metaphorical language of the deeper, transpersonal layers of the obfuscated mind, forever busy talking to itself through self-deception. Just as my series of dreams, it will only stop when it gets itself.

Self-deception is mind's way to talk to, and make sense of, itself; for it can only express itself to itself through the production of inner imagery.

Stronger yet, mind's prime directive is to deceive itself, for only through self-deception can reality—any reality—be conjured up into existence and thereby evoke enough affection. Parmenides already hinted at this at the very birth of the Western mind. Peeling the layers of self-deception is like peeling an onion: at the end, nothing is left other than the mere potential for experience. The demiurges and aliens are all, indeed, just mind-made hallucinations; but so is this, right now. If you can wrap your mind around that, you will see the world with very different eyes.
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22 comments:

  1. I have had the same experience of wondering if the life I live now is a dream or is the past a dream. I have lived so many places and done so many things with no real apparent common thread it almost seems schizophrenic. How in the world we ended up on top of a mountain in Ecuador living in an earthbag house I built raising pigs is completely beyond me. Looking at where I came from it doesn't seem possible. So I revisit those pasts in my dreams and upon awakening many times I feel dazed and confused and somewhat sad knowing that past is forever closed to me unless in a dream. I often wonder how people that lived lives that were one chapter with each page being nothing but a slight variation of the previous page for a complete lifetime must feel. Do they have a feeling of unbroken continuity? Do they feel understood by their peers because there is so much overlap in their lives?

    I have taken hallucinogens at least 100 times and I made an error in the beginning that I corrected later. That error was attempting to report my experiences. Even if people said they could relate the reporting left me feeling empty. A shaman I read about said you should never report your experiences for a whole host of reasons. Once I started discipling myself to do that, on faith alone, I learned for me he was right. My experiences were and are my experiences and nobody else's. To attempt to relate them is a fools errand and any perception that true communication has taken place is nothing but self indulgent wishful thinking driven by a need to belong. I like any good follower of any religion sin regularly but I at least know the wisdom and truth of the commandment.

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  2. I believe this was inspired by a recent chat Bernardo had with Tom Campbell. Tom created his "theory of everything" as a result of many out of body experiences. I have found some of Bernardo's criticisms on Tom's views to be on point.
    With that said, I would encourage Bernardo to deepen his exploration into the world of dreams and lucid dreams (which out of body experiences are a flavour of).
    While I wouldn't jump into conclusions about aliens from the Pleiades, I would suggest that these experiences do potentially point at some blind spots in Analytic Idealism in its current form. Specifically the idea that the MAL lacks intention or attention (as Tom pointed out to Bernardo)

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    1. Tom Campbell is a perfect example of the danger of sharing your experiences. Tom seems like a nice guy to me but with an agenda. Even if he is correct he fails to understand human nature and comes across as a cult leader. When trying to communicate to people you have to start at some level or talk in some language they can understand. I live in rural Ecuador where no one speaks English and my Spanish is poor. When I talk to my neighbors if I start talking to them about process control and automation engineering, one of my backgrounds, especially in English what would my goal be? That world is real, real to me, but it is as alien to them as much of what Tom attempts to communicate. So Tom paints this reality that any skeptic would have to examine long and hard. What he has left me with is that he has a bit of a messiah complex. He wants us to come and follow based on evidence only he has experienced.

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    2. Well stated, my sense of Tom Campbell precisely...a messiah complex.

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  3. I believe there's a Taoist saying: "Do not visit the village of your birth. Down by the river there is an old woman who will call you by your childhood name."

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  4. I also think that exploring lucid dreaming could help analytic idealism clarify certain aspects of it, namely the instinctive nature of MAL. Lucid dreaming elicits the same understanding that this reality can also be of the same nature as a dream. In a lucid dream, there is a part of what the mind does that behaves as nature does in this reality, and would follow the "laws of nature" in a similar instinctive way. However, when you wake up you realize that it was you all along, metacognitive and unconscious together, who was causing everything. In the same way, MAL could have its own metacognitive capabilities and dream all of this, where each of us as alters could feel like the metacognitive types with intentions and what we call nature could be the instinctual part of it. In this case, the telos and the direction of existence could be driven by certain metacognitive inclinations.

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  5. <>

    Yes, itis true for most of us, but it does not have to be this way. Artists or novel writers imagine their artworks but they do not deceive themselves into believing in the independent reality of their imaginations, and it does not make their artwork less affective or less meaningful. If we approach our mind-fabricated reality like a lucid dream and like a work of art, we can still happily live in it without deceiving ourselves.

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  6. Hello Bernardo!

    I am aware that you no longer engage with your faceless audience, and I admire you for doing so as long as you did! That being said, I am going to post this question here in hope that you reply, or in hope that another reader can put forward their thoughts.

    If we assume that mind is primary—it seems a feature of mind is an ignorance of its own technical workings. When we think, we do not need to know about neurons or synapses: our mind functions without a knowledge of its own workings.

    If minds do function without a technical knowing of their own workings, could it be said that when we observe nature at its microscopic level we in fact see aspects of the universal mind that itself is not aware of? The universal mind may not know what a quark is, it may simply call such particles into being as a result of its imaginings.

    As we humans imagine things and bring them into being, we do so without perfect knowledge of our own minds, or perfect knowledge of the thing created. Could it not be the same for the universal mind; could it not simply imagine, picture, create, and it is we who see the technical means of its doing so?

    If so, where does this leave the universal mind and humanity? Where does it leave what is commonly thought of as objective 'matter?'

    If this is the case, it would suggest that humanity has a power of a different nature to the universal mind, in that it is able to tinker with the primary creation from the bottom up. I suppose this is already what we are doing!

    On the other hand, what is commonly thought of as 'matter,' is revealed to be merely an implementation of the sacred 'idea,' and at least in my mind, becomes secondary to creation.

    Of course, the universal mind may be, and likely is, of a completely different order to the human. It may already possess perfect knowledge of both its ideas and their implementations.

    I would be keen to hear other peoples' thoughts on this! :)

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    1. Bernardo has stated repeatedly and unambiguously in many interviews that he thinks it's entirely possible if not likely that mind-at-large is not meta-conscious or self-reflective.

      He's even said that if he believed a being has put sentient creatures through 3.5 billion years of torture (evolution) already knowing how it would turn out, that he'd end his life

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    2. Hi Unknown,
      You were asking for other readers’ thoughts on your question - here is one.
      When you say: ‘If we assume that mind is primary, it seems that our mind functions without a knowledge of neurons and synapses - without a knowledge of its own workings’, you are making a contradictory statement, because if you assume that mind is primary, then you have to assume that matter (in a common sense) is not primary, but an appearance of primary mind stuff on the screen of perceptions.
      Hence, you cannot consider neurons and synapses as ‘mind's own workings' but only as a map that some neuroscientist observer may look at, that reports on the mind's own workings, without constituting the mind’s own workings.
      So it seems that your argument is caught into a materialistic trap at its very beginning.

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  7. Dear Bernardo,

    Finally, a fragment of an excerpt entitled "Idealists" from Terry Eagleton's book "Culture and the Death of God"

    “Fichte’s so-called absolute ego, the second locum tenens of the Almighty, is infinite, self-founded, unconscious, unconditional and indeterminate. He can perceive himself only in the act of self-establishment in which the self as infinite and the self as finite - the Father and the Son, let's call it that - are spontaneously united.

    Although Fichte did not delve particularly deeply into aesthetics, this subject is reminiscent of a work of art. Like an aesthetic artifact, it is self-founding and self-determining. Like an artifact, it presents as objective what is secretly its own creation, constituting what it knows. The self is that "whose being or essence consists in the simple fact that it presupposes itself as existing" and as such "exists for itself."

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    1. The universal mind, or Almighty, if it does exist (I personally do believe in it,) has powers unimaginable to us!

      What I find beautiful are our ancient symbols that attempt to depict aspects of this universal mind: the Ouroboros, the Celtic triskele, etc.

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  8. I do the same thing with tornado dreams. I'm super excited that I'm finally seeing one in real life after all the previous dreams. I get out my camera and take pictures and videos for as long as I can. I go into the basement and tell my family how I finally got to see one. That it wasn't just a dream. And then I wake up. And then I do the same thing during tornado warnings -- and I never see one. If you know what this means, don't tell me. I'm deluding myself on purpose and it's up to me to figure it out. I think that's why I decided to delude myself in the first place. Can't remember.

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  9. Bernardo,

    I'm wondering if, now that you realize that YOUR Rio is inside you and the troublesome dream has vanished, might it be possible to visit the actual Rio and find it in some ways quite enjoyable?

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  10. Bernardo, you often say that suffering is necessary for self-reflection. You have also said that MAL's ignorance of its own nature must be distressing, and so it tries to understand itself, and, in this process, it creates more and more suffering for itself to gain more self-awareness (which is why, according to you, we have more capability to suffer than animals). I see a bit of contradiction in these statements. If suffering is what spurs the act of self-reflection, then it could be argued that suffering is primary, and the impulse to understand oneself (and arguably to do anything at all) is a result of this suffering, and not the other way around.

    If we imagine a MAL that is in a primordial state of complete peace, or full contentment, then what need does it have to understand itself to begin with? What need does it have to create all these elaborate forms and complexity, all this drama?

    I guess my point is that maybe it makes more sense to give a less anthropomorphic drive to an inherently instinctive entity such as MAL, and work from what we know naturally motivates all sentient forms, meta cognitive or not: valence.

    In this new context, it is the primordial distress of MAL which drives it movement toward self-understanding, and also its creation of a myriad forms and experiences. This MAL is then like a crying god-like baby without a calming parent. It dreams its own nightmares, and it dreams its own pleasant dreams, but none of these are fully satisfying, for they are all driven by a primordial state of dissatisfaction, they are all born out of suffering and, yes, out of ignorance too. Eventually, it tries to create more and more stable and self-sustaining forms; it even dissociates itself to have the illusion of not being alone, and to further the stability and credibility of its illusionary playground. But again, none of this is fully satisfying, for it does not assuage the original issue, the primordial discontentment. In fact, now its primordial fears get acted out in ever increasingly solidified, reified ways. Still terrifying, but now with the backbone of a whole created reality to stand on. But then probably this stability and solidity is also comforting, or in some sense rewarding, which is why it is so sought after.

    It is only after all this has played out that self-reflection comes into play, along with the impulse to know ourselves. After all, curiosity seems to be a luxury of highly mentally developed beings, and specially curiosity about such abstruse concepts as one's own nature. I highly doubt self-curiosity drives any animal that cannot even be cognitively aware that it IS at all. It barely even drives most humans...

    To me, it makes much more sense to say that the primordial drive of MAL is to pacify itself, to calm its perturbed waters, or, from another persepective, to make itself beautiful, to shine itself to pristinity, and self-understanding is a path it has taken towards this goal, maybe one of many, but not the goal itself.

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    1. Surely there is a primordial homeostatic drive that seeks to rebalance what has become unbalanced AND a primordial drive to create which is both constructive and destructive yielding a systemic dynamism that we call LIFE. I believe the yin-yang is one of the best symbolic representations of the process.

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    2. The basic prpnlem, imo, is that existence is not conscious in and of itself. It is a potentiality that is "sucked towards" consciousness, and in that seeking action is then completed as one or another level of consciousness.

      Because this seeking action is a kind of groping in the dark of unknowing, like a seedling that just senses instinctively the direction of the light, it can't know in advance what is going to happen when it gets there. IMO, a potentiality that seeks to complete itself is the primary cause, not suffering, or a pre-existing consciousness which knows what it is doing in any sense. Distress arises out of the limitedness of context. It does not drive the contexts.

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  11. Bernardo,

    How do you know that the "pattern" you saw at the root of all things isn't also a product of your "obfuscating mind"? I am not saying that it has to be, but on the other hand I would expect someone versed in analytical reason to come up with the idea that reality at base consisted of a "geometrical pattern." In what way can this actually be called empirically different from the aliens and the DMT entitie and the spirits of the dead. Your description reminds somewhat of P.D> Ouspensky's similar one, and I wondered if you had read this at the time of your experience? He, again, had a tendency to think very analytically and was obsessed with the fourth and fifth dimensions, and with the idea of triads. Lo and behold his experience involved a "relam of abstract mathematical relations" that contained a lot of ideas or representations of the fourth dimension and of principles splitting into three.

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  12. I had a near-death experience after my heart stopped during a recent heart attack and since then I can't shake the sense that this reality now is really the dream. It's also harder to care as much about this life now, there's a sense in which I'm now attracted to slipping into the other dimension that was on the horizon during the NDR. I imagine not unlike the difficulty of "re-entry" from psychedelic trips Bernardo has often said we're the cause of his stopping using psychedelics.

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  13. Just a comment about the title. Correct English would be "Thou Shalt deceive Thyself..." Love your work.

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