Companions for the Journey II

Boris Matthews, PhD

Companions for the journey not only keep us company, but help us understand where we are, what’s going on around us, and maybe even where we are going. In last month’s article, I discussed C.G. Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections, and two books by Robert Johnson, Balancing Heaven and Earth, and Inner Work. I experience the first two as wisdom books: stories of lives lived intensely. Johnson’s Inner Work ranks as a classic manual on developing self-knowledge through dream work and active imagination.

In these three companions, Jung and Johnson reflect on the path their lives traced and the understanding they have gained as they pondered what they experienced of the “outer” and the “inner” worlds. This month I will shift from autobiographical wisdom books to the scientific approach as discuss and introduce you to Marjorie Hines Woollacott’s Infinite Awareness, which reads like a scientific adventure story or detective novel.

For over thirty years, Woollacott has been a professor of neuroscience at the University of Oregon. In its own way, her book is autobiographical, too. Woollacott’s (2015) subtitle, The Awakening of a Scientific Mind, documents her Alice-in-Wonderland journey into the realm of consciousness research. Christmas break was over; time to return to Oregon. Anxiety about air travel, a suggestion from her sister that she try repeating a mantra on her flight, and the experience of deep relaxation rather than white-knuckle terror lured her into the world of meditation. She writes:

My sister and I had never moved through life on parallel tracks. She now lived in a communal house in Hawaii, explored alternative lifestyles with other free spirits, and met whatever spiritual master arrived on the prevailing trade winds. Over the holiday, she had been talking about one of these teachers in particular, a swami from India. While I loved my sister, I didn’t have a lot of respect for this latest turn in her life. My boyfriend always referred to her as Bubblehead, and I felt he might be right about that.   (p. 6)

That brief five-minute interlude of deep relaxation on the flight home was her first peek into the rabbit hole. Later her sister invited her to attend a weekend meditation workshop. Marjorie waffled: at first she accepted, then reneged, then “remembered the deep sweetness [she] had experienced with that mantra” (p. 7). She got one of the last seats for the workshop.

Fast forward – In 2006 after more than three decades meditating and researching many dimensions of consciousness that main-line science is loath to touch, Wollacott proposed to her department chairman that she offer “a class on complementary and alternative medicine as part of the science curriculum.” Besides meditation, she wanted to explore “such traditional forms of healing and relaxation as acupuncture, homeopathy, hypnosis, and therapeutic touch.” Her chairman was skeptical: “A class of that sort will have very low enrollment. . . . She was told, if you’re determined to teach it, you should offer it to freshmen in all majors” (p. 157). Of course, no serious student would be interested. As it turned out, the class filled promptly and generated a waiting list. Student reactions were, as could be expected, mixed: Some took to it; “a few were clearly unsettled or even infuriated by what was, for them, a challenge to scientific truths” (p. 159).  Woollacott has repeatedly offered the class to full enrollments.

In the book, she examines well-documented experiences and practices, such as she offers her classes, that the contemporary materialistic-deterministic scientific paradigm cannot explain. She writes:

In Infinite Awareness, we look at the nature of subjective experience, at competing theories of human consciousness, and at scientific studies of near-death experiences, various forms of energy healing, and experiences suggestive of reincarnation. The question at the center of these seemingly disparate topics is whether the consciousness, the awareness that each of us experiences through the mind is primary—or can in certain instances be primary—or whether it is solely a product of the physical brain.   (p. 10)

For example, in her chapter on awareness and healing, she discusses placebos and hypnosis. In the placebo effect, it is the mind of the patient—and, in fact, the mind of the doctor, as she points out (p. 165)—that contributes to the healing effect.  Her “research on the placebo effect adds to the evidence in the previous chapters on top-down influences, showing the clear and reproducible effects of higher levels of consciousness (in this case, the mind) on the nervous system and other systems in the physical body” (p. 166). She does the same for the beneficial effects of hypnosis.

Woolacott devotes a couple of chapters to “awareness without a brain,” the experience of near-death experiences, reincarnation, and the question of consciousness after death. There is robust evidence from experiences in the surgical operating room with patients on the operating table that “something” (I’ll call it awareness) functions when the brain is clinically “dead” and all physiological functions appear to flat-line. Yet the patient revives, the monitors again register function, and the patient accurately recounts what went on in the room—and often outside the room—during the period when appearing to be dead. “What is most interesting about near-death experiences is what the person who has had the experience makes of it afterward” (p. 115). Typically, return from a near-death experience leaves persons transformed: they no longer fear death, they have an enhanced sense of meaning and purpose; they have discovered that consciousness transcends the physical state. Reductionist explanations do not account for the near-death experience.

The chapter on healing intention includes her discussion of distant intentionality (p. 178ff), the effect one person has on another (pp. 185ff), and Reiki (p. 188ff). She cites rigorous studies that support her findings and conclusions:

What do scientific studies have to say about the intention to heal? The studies I have cited do give evidence that the intention of one individual can influence the brain activity of a second individual, even at a distance and with no sensory communication between the two.

Clearly, the effects of energy healing are just beginning to be explored clinically. . . . Additionally, as all the researchers in these studies have concluded, any results that tend to establish the efficacy of energy healing do not fit within Western science’s current deterministic and materialist model of brain function. Herein lies the paradox.

She asks: “Is there truly no theory to account for reality?” (p. 195f)

Woollacott ranges far and wide into areas that conventional science has considered bogus, but that many people have experienced. Gradually, rigorously trained scientists are finding ways to explore these domains that can be called “consciousness” or “awareness” or “mind.” These researchers, meaningful as they are to me, imply a major shift in world-view: There is abundant evidence that those of us now alive are involved in a profound shift in planetary consciousness: from a materialistic and mechanistic view in which mind is an epiphenomena of matter, or a dualistic “spirit and matter” phenomenon, toward a realization that mind (awareness, consciousness) and matter may exist on a continuum, each influencing the other in various ways, but that “mind” comes first and “matter” follows.

The fundamental question she poses is the relationship between consciousness and the physical brain. Two views compete here: one sees consciousness as a product of the brain. This has been called a “bottom up” approach: mental activity is the product of brain physiology. The “top down” view posits consciousness or awareness or mind as primary from which everything else originates.

The last sentence Wollacott writes in Infinite Awareness gives me hope: “The scientific box is expanding, and it may be that in the not-too-distant future consciousness will be accepted as a primary phenomenon from which everything in the universe springs into being” (p. 242).

This book is a good read. Her references are a Who’s Who of consciousness research as well as current neuroscience. Wollacott speaks to many questions in the minds of people I know and, of course, to me. Infinite Awareness is another good companion for the journey, offering a thoughtful and well-researched view of an important frontier of knowledge.

Wollacott, Marjorie Hines (2015).  Infinite Awareness: The Awakening of a Scientific Mind. Lanham, Boulder, New York, London: Rowman & Littlefield.

May, 2016  Boris Matthews, PhD, LCSW practices Analytical Psychology (a.k.a. Jungian Analysis) at the Ommani Center for Integrative Medicine in Pewaukee, WI. He is a teaching and supervising faculty member of the C.G. Jung Institute of Chicago, IL. He has been in practice for more than thirty years. To schedule an appointment, contact him at 608.217.5184. Learn more at www.ommanicenter.com .