HomeInterviewHow we know – part 1

How we know – part 1

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How we know – part 1

TOBIN HART is professor at the University of West Georgia’s Humanistic, Transpersonal and Critical Psychology program, and co-founder of the ChildSpirit Institute. In this 3-part series he is interviewed by VICTOR KANNAN, Director of the Heartfulness Institute USA, about the intersection of Western psychology and spirituality.

Q: Good morning. Hope all of you are fine and safe. TH: We are. No one is safe anymore, are they?

Q: I think not. I will answer your question as to how we are doing these days. I’ve been practicing meditation as a journey of self-discovery, and also self-development. When we combine self-discovery and self-development, it seems to usher in nice surprises and challenges. Over a long period of time, I think we are trained to be comfortable with the wholesomeness of the aloneness. It’s more of being alone, but not lonely. COVID-19 has added another dimension to it in the past one year.

Fortunately for us, we have sufficient social contact. I go to work, and we have a community of meditators that meets virtually a couple of times a week, so there is enough social contact for me. And yet there is no personal contact. There is no smell of coffee or ambience. If we are not engaged with all our five senses and absorbing with all our five senses, are we in some way impairing our presence?

That probably takes us to your book, The Four Virtues, the first virtue being Presence.

TH: It’s a lovely description. I love your phrase “the wholesomeness of aloneness.” That could be a book title. Right? These are such strange days. You really did describe it beautifully, and it also makes me think of smell.

The New York Times magazine had a big article on smell recently: Prompted by just what you’re saying, in part. With COVID, people lost some of that sensuality and have begun to appreciate something that they didn’t realize was always there.

As you say, it’s always a discovery and growth. It’s always about: What is it that is here today? And how can you meet it in a way that’s heartful and not too fearful, but appreciative? That’s the challenge every day in these days.

Q: So, Tobin, I want to talk to you about Western psychology and where spirituality plays a role in it. I am actually very heartened to see quite a bit of conversation about consciousness, emotional intelligence and their connection to neuroscience.

I would like to explore with you to see if Western psychology is ready to take the big leap into pure spirituality. Of course, we can define what pure spirituality is later. As far as I understand, the Western approach to psychology comes from a purely materialist point of view, rationally explaining everything that happens in the realm of psychology. But when I read your books, it looks like you are making a bold move to intersect Western psychology with spirituality.

Would that be a right assessment?

TH: Yes, I think so, but I don’t know how bold it is. There is already a long tradition in Western psychology that has been an undercurrent, including the thinking of the reputed father of American psychology, William James. James was born about 180 years ago, and the psychology he described was really two psychologies. One of them is what we would recognize today basically as neuroscience. The other, he said, was really an effort toward introspection and reflection. One is the outside view and the other is the inside. So, he studied what we certainly would call spirituality 150 years ago in the West, and he wrote a book called The Varieties of Religious Experience. To d a y, it would be called “The Varieties of Spiritual Experience.”

There’s a long record all throughout the Western literature, from the Greeks onward, of people tracking what we think of as spirituality. I’m just following the current of this wisdom stream from the folks who have been looking at this fullness of humanity in a big way.

For example, Abraham Maslow in the ’50s and ’60s talked about human experience, particularly in the sense of human potential, human creativity, human choice, and human spiritual experience, and what he called peak experiences, self-actualizers and self-transcendence. We would easily call this spirituality. The whole stream of what might be called transpersonal psychology, from James to Maslow and further on, really has looked at spiritual experience. So, that’s one solid thread in the West.

It’s pretty clear that Western psychology has become increasingly materialistic, trying to understand consciousness as an epiphenomenon of brain activity. It’s been described as the “hard problem.” How can subjective experience possibly emerge out of brain activity? We have no idea. The East comes from a different angle; the material world emerges out of consciousness. These two clearly incompatible worldviews create this place of paradox, an irreconcilable difference, and that’s the place where I think the Western approach and the Eastern approach have been coming together to try to understand what we mean by consciousness, what it means to be human.

This has been a search from nowhere, essentially, an objectivist search in Western psychology that tries to eliminate subjectivity, and it’s impossible. They recognize that it’s impossible. So instead, the question now is: How do we use our subjectivity – our interiority – to meet the world? And that intersection is one of the front edges of psychology.

Two clearly incompatible worldviews create this place of paradox, an irreconcilable difference, and that’s the place where I think the Western approach and the Eastern approach have been coming together to try to understand what we mean by consciousness, what it means to be human.


Q: This idea of reality compared to objectivity and subjectivity is also a fascinating idea.

TH: Yes.

Q: What you are saying is that you are bringing the thread of the spiritualist viewpoint of Western psychology to the fore, and that probably opens up more possibilities for exploration. The search for reality has been ongoing. The materialist view is one approach to the search for reality. Nowadays I see a lot more of this intersection between materialist viewpoints and people introducing the hard problems, for example, David Chalmers and others are trying to explore consciousness having recognized that it is a subjective field. However, are there any objective cognates that we can begin to explore?

TH: I think that’s fair. I might also say that it’s largely about how we know. The world is disclosed to us to the extent to which we are open to it. This begs the question of how we open to it. We presume that the whole of a thing can be known by observing, cutting apart and categorizing objectively, versus entering into the world as connection, which is very different. That is part of an epistemic or epistemological shift. When we really come into contact with one another, for example, suddenly it’s no longer about the other as a commodity or category; instead it’s an encounter, a meeting. We are really here to meet the other. There is a resonance rather than just categorical understanding. So what I experience is that there’s an organic spirituality, we could call it, that emerges out of this more direct way that we know the world.

The way that we’ve been told the world will disclose itself to us – rational objectivist, materialist science – is great for some things, but it is inadequate as a foundation for morals or value or virtue or mutual survival. So, what I might argue is that while I don’t really know how to define spirituality universally, I do know that the way we know has consequences for what we could call spirituality.

Q: That’s nice. So, you may say that consciousness is essentially at the center of this spiritual knowing. How do you define consciousness?

TH: Yes. I’ll have to punt a little bit because I don’t know. Again, it’s like spirituality. Consciousness can mean many things. It’s taken up in a lot of different ways. As it relates to spirituality, I like the idea of being awake and aware, being present. That’s about being conscious or having consciousness. In the West, we often talk about consciousnesses through a materialist doctrine as an epiphenomena of brain activity. If we’re conscious, awake, or we have memory or can think, that means we’re conscious. When the brain stops, we’re not conscious.

So, for me, where my consciousness meets or embodies or taps into what we call universal consciousness, that’s when I’m awake. That’s the goal. That’s what we’re working towards, when we can feel that vitality and that thread of universality.

I know in many traditions, however, that consciousness is about “all consciousness.” So, for me, where my consciousness meets or embodies or taps into what we call universal consciousness, that’s when I’m awake. That’s the goal. That’s what we’re working towards, when we can feel that vitality and that thread of universality.

Some people will have magical experiences, others an overflowing heart, or deep compassion, or inspiration, and so forth. Those things can take different forms, but it feels like we’re tapping something that is universal and alive. That’s where the tension of spirituality and psychology really gets a lot of traction, I think. That is where our individuality meets something universal.


Q: It’s interesting you say that when our individual consciousness meets with the universal consciousness, we become awake.

TH: Yes, I think that’s a way of saying that we’re always part of that consciousness. Essentially, that’s who we are. That’s the tradition in the East, and one that I believe in.

But we often get in our own way. So we have to develop certain capacities. For example, some of the Greeks would say that the senses are not trustworthy, so we have to use rationality to know reality. Others said, no, you have to develop the senses, you have to develop the capacity to feel deeply, to touch deeply, to be aware. Part of being alive is about these developing capacities, like compassion. In the Buddhist tradition, however, they would say, you don’t have to grow compassion, it’s always there. You have to do things to allow it to flow, to allow it to come back to its home. I think that’s probably a good description.

Inviting certain values serves to shape character and society. … to talk about values is really important. It’s really central.

Q: Yes, I love that. Going back to the exploration of reality, or going back home, if you say that we become awake when the universal consciousness (which consists of all the truths) meets individual consciousness, that is when we recognize those truths. It is a powerful explanation of what it means to be awake. It probably also ties into the ritual of being “born again” in many religious and spiritual traditions, of being reawakened. That’s powerful. Thanks, Tobin.

I was wondering, what is the difference between virtues and values? Many times I see people using these terms interchangeably. How do we distinguish a virtue from a value? What type of relationship do they have between each other?

TH: Again, these words can mean many things. They are tricky, aren’t they? I had mixed feelings about using these terms, because both words often imply a commandment. Instead, I was treating virtues as capacities, like qualities are the kinds of capacities that you might develop and access in some way. For example, empathy would be a capacity. To have wisdom, to have presence, finding one’s voice; these are inner capacities that emerge in a dialogue and expression in the world in some way. I think of capacities as “ways of being that we might act out in the world.”

One blind spot we’ve had in science in the West is how values have gone underground – the valueless search for facts. But our values are present, our subjectivity is present. For example, who’s funding the research? That’s a value, right? What are the ways you think about it? Those are particular values or worldviews that shape what we see and how we make sense of it. So it’s really important to acknowledge and explore values.

There’s a great line from Rumi:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.

And that field is consciousness, that’s that organicity, that organic quality of being. I think that’s inherent.

Certainly, inviting certain values serves to shape character and society. Humans have the capacity for all sorts of horrific things – we only have to open up the newsfeed every day. But to talk about values is really important. It’s really central.

And we always want to be careful not to impose values as “should” on someone, because then we engender this sense of sin that we often identify with through shame and so forth. The idea of sin and the idea of shame or guilt can be useful when they operate as a feedback loop: “Oh, geez, I did the wrong thing!” or, “Yes, you’re right.” So, for me, there are values that are pretty universal but they have to be worked through and made one’s own. These are things that are absolutely relative and relatively absolute.

Q: Yes. I read somewhere that virtues are like seeds; they give birth to and blossom into values. They are the core of who we are.

This also brings me to the so-called seven cardinal virtues and seven cardinal sins. Have you ever tried to juxtapose those seven with these four?

TH: By the way, the original meaning of the word “sin” comes from archery. It means missing the mark. It doesn’t mean you’re bad. It means, “Oops, you missed the mark.” Just as in archery, the goal is to take that as feedback. It’s a feedback loop that says, “Okay, let me see if I can get closer to the target and adjust my angle and effort in a different way.”

Q: So, try again. If you miss it, try again and again.

TH: Yes. That’s what we’re on the planet for, I think.

To be continued.

Interviewed by VICTOR KANNAN


Tobin Hart

Tobin is a professor in the University of West Georgia’s Humanistic, Transpersonal and Critical Psychology program, and co-founder of the ChildSpirit Institute, a non-profit educational and research hub exploring and nurturing the spirituality of children and adults. His work explores human consciousness at the nexus of spirituality, psychology, and education. His recent books include: The... Read more


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