Encyclopedia of World Problems - Archived Information

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4.4 Descriptions

1. Difficulties

Specific difficulties encountered in drafting descriptions include:

(a) Absence of clear descriptions: The absence of any clear-cut description or definition of the concept or mode in question. Where necessary, minimal descriptions have been included pending the discovery of appropriate material.

(b) Confusing use of terms: Frequently the same terms are used with different meanings, or different terms are used with what appear to be the same meanings. Considerable confusion was noted in the use of some terms, particularly those relating to self-realization, and new levels of consciousness.

(c) Acceptance of the futility of verbal descriptions: Indications of the impossibility, futility or inappropriateness of any verbal definition of subjective experience. This view seems to be held by some people in every tradition, although others in the same tradition are usually to be found who have endeavoured to use words to describe and clarify the experiences. Many descriptions of higher states of consciousness use a metaphorical approach to trigger in the mind of the reader some sympathetic response with an experience of which he or she has been aware or can relate to, rather than trying to describe in concrete terms a state which is beyond mind, beyond speech and beyond intellect. Much of the mystery of many methods of human development comes from the difficulty of distinguishing the physical from the metaphorical, for example the physical content of the Taoist alchemical path from the spiritual truths underlying it.

(d) Transcendence of subject/object relationship: Beyond the problem of descriptions of subjective experience is that of using words to capture experiences which are explicitly recognized as transcending the subject/object relationship. This point is made in a discussion of Sufi insights: "Though reasoning has not been put out of court, it has only an ancillary function to perform....language in its literal functioning is an effective instrument for the communication of that only which thought can think as an other. The writings of the great Sufis are no doubt linguistic expressions of truths concerning the mystery of Being, but the language employed therein is one intended to function in the symbolic key. Predicative modes of speech, necessarily drawing a dividing line between the subject and the predicate have to be understood as having a unitive import, as referring unmistakeably to the one in which all discursivity stands submerged and all differences are cancelled and transcended." (Bhatnagar, Dimensions of Classical Sufi Thought, 1984).

(e) Secretiveness: In some cases there has been a tradition of a fairly high degree of secretiveness about the methods and experiences cultivated. The claim is made that the essential insights can only be transmitted by word of mouth and can only be understood after following a particular form of training.

(f) Multiplicity of perspectives within a tradition: There are so many schools of thought (even within the same tradition), with different methods and with different objectives, that quite often the interrelationships between their concerns are far from being evident. Stages of human development, and the modes of awareness experienced, overlap and merge into one another and may well be experienced differently by different people. Within a tradition, each spiritual leader may articulate a different pattern of modes of awareness and a different sequence through which they may be experienced. The linearity of such sequence may also be questioned.

(g) Exaggeration and disparagement: Some authors express themselves with what appears to be an unjustified degree of confidence, especially when it comes to disparaging the endeavours of others and extolling their own insight or that of their own tradition.

(h) Category shuffling: Whilst it is relatively easy for commentators to present categories of experience and schemes organizing those categories (or structuring them into developmental sequences reflecting greater levels of insight), the texts available tend to distinguish the categories rather than the experiences to which they point. There is therefore a constant danger of shuffling words about "dead" categories that cannot be effectively related to lived experience.

(i) External symptoms vs. subjective experience: Descriptions of modes of awareness under the influence of specific intoxicants, or experienced in different mental "disorders", are particularly difficult to locate. Whereas the symptoms of those conditions (as identified by outside observers) are readily available, descriptions of the experience are not.

(j) Personalization: There are many books from different traditions describing unusual personal experiences. Efforts to organize that material as a description of a class of experience that may be to some degree repeated by others are much rarer. Much available material is highly personalized and therefore relatively useless for this exercise.

(k) Varying quality of sources: The available material may reflect very different levels of scholarship and insight. Authors may be careless or misinformed about questions of fact. Authors may be extremely valuable for the clarity they bring to the organization of material on which they are commenting, but at the same time may raise questions concerning their level of experiential insight into that material. (For example, one valuable author explained the experience of nirvana as equivalent to that of a cataleptic trance, which may indeed be the case for an outside observer).

(l) Deceptive degrees of order: Systems - in particular Sufi and Tibetan Buddhist - may appear deceptively straight forward and well ordered until an effort is made to actually try to itemize the components. Then, maybe because the source of information is more muddled (or more subtle) than it appears, the system may seem to break down. There may be some difference in order. New states appear in explanations not included in the list to which the explanation appears to refer and so on.

(m) Personal experience as a prerequisite: Some authors are careful to point out that a mode of awareness cannot be effectively described, let alone understood, by anyone that has not experienced it. This raises questions about the status of many of the authors and commentators, and about the capacity of the editors of this section in dealing with such material.

2. Descriptions: approach

The emphasis here has been to present apparently distinct concepts as separate entries, especially those from different schools and traditions, even when it seemed highly probable that reference was being made to the identical experience. Where possible, duplication and overlap have been directly addressed, often by use of cross-references. Many obvious difficulties have not been resolved in the information presented here. Such difficulties are often the subject of bitter debate. It is hoped that this presentation will encourage further efforts towards clarification, if that proves appropriate.

A number of entries may be considered to be duplicates, because the names given to the concepts are held to be synonyms. Some entries of this kind have in fact been combined, but others have been kept separate where the different words tend to be used in different contexts, even though they may be considered (by some) to mean the same thing.

A number of concepts have been included because on first sight the terms used to label them appear to suggest some notion of human development when in fact this sense is relatively weak. Very short descriptions are then given to make this clear by contrast with the other entries.

Although all statements used in building up descriptions are very closely based on existing published documents, no explicit link is established between statement and source documents. This was avoided because the editorial process of selection and restructuring of texts from different sources may have unintentionally distorted the meanings in the original contexts (particularly when the original statements did not constitute clear descriptions). Any such misinterpretation that comes to light will be corrected in future editions.

In the text of the description, especially in the case of modes of awareness, an effort has been made to strike a compromise between using the style of the source material and harmonizing the language used with that of other descriptions. It is often difficult to avoid the particular flavour of a source document from influencing the final description, even though it reflects the perspective of a single individual. Diffuse explanations have been avoided and effusive claims in highly poetic language have been toned done. Where there was a choice of source material, that offering more precise or insightful descriptions has been used.

In the case of the modes of awareness, it proved convenient to include different types of entries:

    (a) Modes of awareness for which the experience of the mode is described;

    (b) Systems of modes of awareness through which specific modes are grouped;

    (c) Methods for reaching modes of awareness;

    (d) Classes, forms or types of consciousness;

    (e) Definitions of terms used to point to consciousness.

The descriptive paragraphs may then include several types of information:
    (a) Physical, psychological or spiritual conditions under which the mode is possible;

    (b) Description of the mode in psychological, mythological or metaphorical terms;

    (c) Results or consequences of experiencing a mode;

    (d) Who or what tradition describes the mode;

    (e) The physical, psychological or rational structure of experiencing the mode.

Given the lack of information, this responds to some degree to the very specific challenge of some modes that transcend any predicative description. In the particular case of systems of modes, there is also an implication that there is a mode corresponding to awareness of the systemic pattern.

3. Descriptions: abbreviations, spelling and transliteration

(a) Identification of traditions: Where possible, the tradition with which an item is associated is indicated in brackets following the title, and entries are also grouped in the index by tradition. Consistency has been attempted but has not necessarily been achieved. It is often difficult to distinguish between Hindu and Buddhist concepts, and within Buddhist by Zen, Tibetan, Pali, etc. Some errors may have crept in. The term "Japanese" has been used, for example, where the derivation is geographically clear but the tradition unclear. "Yoga" is used as a general to cover yogic practice independent of tradition. Occasionally the names of more than one tradition are included, separated by ",". Alternative titles in a description may be followed by their particular traditions.

This inclusion of the tradition can only be indicative. Many sources are implicitly Christian or Judeo-Christian even where their scope seems universal, as is perhaps to be expected where source material is in the English language. Traditions thus indicated include: Astrology, Buddhism, Christianity, Esotericism, Hinduism, ICA (that is, Institute of Cultural Affairs), Islam, Jainism, Japanese, Judaism, Jung, Leela, Pali, Physical sciences, Psychism, Psychosynthesis, Scientology, Systematics, Sufism, Taoism, Tibetan, Yoga, Zen, Zoroastrianism.

Descriptions labelled Tibetan are all labelled Buddhism as well. Where there is a title in the Tibetan language, then the term "Tibetan" follows that title, otherwise the first title is followed by the terms "Buddhism, Tibetan". A similar approach has been used for concepts from the Pali.

(b) Spelling: There are of course many variations in the source material. British English spelling has been preferred, in common with all UIA publications. Transliteration has posed a number of questions. Different sources use different conventions for transliterating from Pali, Sanskrit, Arabic and Chinese, for example. Many of these sources use conventions requiring accents and modifications to letters not generally available in the computer system used for processing the data. The approach has been to ignore such accents and modifications but otherwise to use source conventions where possible, listing other spellings as alternative titles where possible or practicable. An exception is the letter "r" in Sanskrit which has in some cases been replaced by "ri". The wide variations in conventions for transliteration may have led to unwitting duplication. The absence of accents may lead to apparent duplication, as with the ninety-nine names of Allah when Al-Majid appears twice.

4. Cross-references

Considerable effort has been put into linking related concepts within the section. A number of hierarchical relationships were established linking general approaches and practices with their more specific offshoots. In the modes of awareness section sequences were cross-referenced, indicating previous and subsequent stages of awareness in any recognized sequence or pattern of stages. For example, possible moves in the traditional Tibetan Ascension Stages Game are cross-referenced, as are relationships in the more recently elaborated pattern of the Other World in the Midst of This World. Where a number of possible groupings/sequences are conceivable these are indicated.