Ilia Delio and Robert Nicastro interview Dr. Marjorie Woollacott in Part 1 of "Ego-Death and Psychedelics".
Bio: Marjorie Woollacott, Ph.D., is prior chair of the Dept. of Human Physiology, and member of the Institute of Neuroscience, at the University of Oregon. She is President of the Academy for the Advancement of Post-Materialist Sciences and Research Director for the International Association of Near-Death Studies. Woollacott has received over 7.2 million dollars in research funding for her research in rehabilitation medicine, meditation, spiritual awakening and end-of-life experiences, has published scientific articles and written nine books, including Infinite Awareness and Spiritual Awakenings: Scientists and Academics Describe Their Experiences.
"The experiences I and others have had may not fit into theories of traditional neuroscience, but if they are true, and I believe they are, it is time for neuroscience theory to expand." Marjorie WoollacottSupport the show
A huge thank you to all of you who subscribe and support our show! This podcast is made possible in part by a grant from The Fetzer Institute—we are very grateful for their support.
Support 'Hunger for Wholeness’ on Patreon as our team continues to develop content for listeners to dive deeper. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for episode releases and other updates.
Robert: Welcome to Hunger for Wholeness. A podcast from the Center for Christogenesis. I'm your host Robert Nicastro. Today, Ilia and I speak with neuroscientist, Marjorie Woollacott, our second guest in season two.
For part one, we discuss the limitations of materialism, the complexity of consciousness and the spiritual benefits of seeing the God-world relationship through the lens of post-materialist science. To open our discussion, Ilia and Marjorie discussed their personal experiences as working scientists.
Ilia: So we welcome you, and maybe you could just tell us, we can begin by maybe asking you—you're a scientist, you're trained in neuroscience, and published widely in that area.
How did you move from sort of a material notion of science, almost sometimes reductionistic, you want to narrow it down to the mechanisms and the specific parts. How did you make that shift from kind of pure material science into this kind of post material type of science?
Marjorie: Well, at first I want to say that well when I was a little kid, I remember saying to my sister when I was five years old, if there is a God, then we should dedicate our life to God. It was an if, I didn't know it five years of age, starting to explore, but then when I went to school and then on to college and decided that I was really interested in science, I found that all of my professors, all of my verses said absolutely that is a myth that we have.
I should say here is one of my reasons why it was easy to accept that particular worldview. It was because I only had experiences through my five senses. So all I knew about reality was through my five senses. I didn't have any supernatural experiences. So I still remember with my uncle who was a scientist from MIT, I'm saying one time at a family reunion, when the rest of the family was talking about spirituality, as like these poor weak-minded souls, that you need to do this.
And that was just who I was, that's all I knew. And so that was my stance throughout and most of graduate school and then I went to become a young scientist. And then what happened to me was that my sister who had been now actually studying Indian philosophy, and studied with an Indian meditation master, at one point asked me if I would come to see her as a birthday present, she was going to give me a meditation retreat that was going to be a weekend long.
And I am skeptical, there was no question that I was skeptical of her, but I was also curious and open. And when I went to that retreat, and I should say this was a retreat where we were sitting on a floor cross-legged or in chairs whatever, and it was the first meditation session. And we were told that this meditation master was going to come around and initiate everyone, and I'm thinking hmm, what on Earth would that be?
And it was going to happen through his touch, which was also like a scientist just cannot wrap their mind around that. But he came around and he touched me on the bridge of the nose between the eyes, and at that moment, I felt a current of electricity go from his hands down into the center of my chest, stop in my heart and then just begin radiating this energy of love out from the center of my heart.
And what was amazing to me is that what came to mind were these words I'm home, I'm home, and it was like something inside of me knew that my heart was my home, and finally I was in touch with that deeper heart that wasn't the physical heart at all, it was something much deeper.
And leaving that meditation program, and going home on the plane, I was now teaching in Virginia, and looking at a book that this meditation master had actually written called ''the Play of Consciousness'' and thinking who are you? And what on Earth have you given me? And I think that was the opening. And I want to say that from that day, the next morning I woke up at 5am, spontaneously, and I sat up and I meditated. And I've been doing it ever since.
And it was like something happened in that moment that I was awakened to a different part of myself that knew that just beneath the thoughts of my mind there was this quiet awareness that was filled with love and joy. And I just had to figure out how to re-contact it again, and that was my initial like touching it, and then the rest of my life has been trying to stay more and more in that state.
Ilia: Wow, that's quite a story actually. I think as a scientist, I think one word that you use several times which is so significant, you were open. Those scientists who reject religion are not open to the possibilities of something more than mere materiality.
Ilia: So it's quite a profound experience. In some ways, I too studied science for many years and when I was at New Jersey medical school, I was working in a similar area actually, neuromuscular disease. Well, I was working with a neuropathologist at one time, they were looking at just a slice of the spinal cord—I forget what section—the lumbar section, under an electron microscope. It was like 330,000 times powered.
It was such an amazing whole repertoire of life activity, in this otherwise invisible aspect of matter that I actually wrote on the first page of my dissertation, in a single cell lay the mysteries of life. There was something there that was more than mere materiality.
I do want to talk a little bit about yoga and consciousness, because to me, consciousness, and you've written about this so beautifully. Consciousness sort of is the name of the game, it's fundamental. And I'd like you to speak a little bit more to the primacy of Consciousness, I know you've written on this.
Marjorie: Right. I think I want to say about that, that I realize the more I have studied both science and now, religions and philosophies from around the world, the more I see that you can't explain the world, even though we materialist, neuroscientists have tried to for so many years, just on the basis of material phenomena.
Meaning electrons, protons, neutrons, atoms etc. and try what I call the bottom-up approach to explain consciousness, there are too many things that dispute that when you look at human subjective experience. And of course, one of the examples that I love to use, because I've begun to do a lot of research on that now are the near-death experiences that people have.
When the heart has stopped, the EEG is flat lined, and these people have had their consciousness leave the body. They're watching people trying to resuscitate them from above, they then get accurate information about everything that happened when they then come out of the resuscitation, and they're unconscious in the normal environment again. And the doctors who are materialists can't explain it.
And I've talked to a lot of MDs now who are beginning to do that research in a very careful way, what we call prospective studies. Where they bring in everybody from a network of hospitals that have cardiac arrest over a period of like four years to get enough of them, and then they ask them after they are revived so did anything unusual happen? And then somewhere around 12 to 15 percent have this core near-death experience, where they leave the body, and they give this information.
And typically, doctors, when they start hearing this again and again, begin to become curious. And again, that is the word that you have used yourself that I have used, it's like that's the key issue that they're curious. They say “well, maybe we should look into explaining if this is real or is it not.” Maybe we should start to explore rather than say it's an anomalous experience and you can't explain it.
And I think that's what I'm discovering with my fellow colleagues perhaps like you, is that all we're asking of other scientists and neuroscientists is to be curious and then go deeper into the exploration of the phenomenon. And then they can decide after they've done more experiments.
Robert: I love what you're saying though, and we interviewed Mario Beauregard a few months ago, and he obviously says similar things being part of this post-materialist academy. That dogmatism is not science.
Robert: Curiosity really leads to that awakened brain. I think the natural next part of this is what is the method that leads us to an awareness of being interconnected, I think for you, you would say it's meditation.
Marjorie: Well, and other things too. I mean, meditation is one of them. I want to say that I had an interesting research experience, and when I was asked to talk to an international conference on post-materialism and the environment. What would an environment look like if we were a post-materialist society? And I hadn't really thought about that before, I'm a neuroscientist.
But suddenly, I began to think about how we treat the environment when we think we're individual material entities, and we're competing for resources and we only think about the present time generations, and not about the future of the planet, not about the animals Etc.
I suddenly saw that when you shift from a materialist perspective to a post-materials perspective, from individual, egoic centeredness to interrelational actions really with everyone, you suddenly see things differently. And so for me, there are a number of ways of getting there.
So shifting worldview is sort of like the start, how do you shift the world view? I would say it's about for me quieting my, what I call, my default mode network of my brain, my mind wandering network of my brain, which is my egoic, self-centered understanding that I am the center of the world, and my needs have to be met first because I'm separate from everything else.
And when you shift to that post-materialist perspective, that now, I'm one with everyone, I'm interconnected energetically with everyone. They're all part of me, I recognize that, then what I'm really doing is quieting my egoic network so I can see the reality that's been there all along. And that's the recognition, it's like I can see oh, Ilia and I are really one part of the same thing, and I feel this love and this compassion. So how do we get there? I think we start in education from the earliest ages, and we try to help children learn to quiet their minds down.
And as they do that, I swear at least for me, then I begin to go into what I call the heart-centered awareness and the sense of my connection with others. So I know that Richard Davidson that the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been doing a lot of this with both pre-school and early elementary school where they are teaching mindfulness. And what they're finding, and this is simply being in the present moment.
It's so simple, it's so beyond any individual religion. It's just can we be in the present moment and quiet our minds, and the children become so much more selfless in wanting to give to the other children in the class, really seeing that connection so that would be one thing.
And the other thing I think is important, and I think about so many monasteries being out of the country, because there is a sense of awe that comes when you are in the natural environment that makes your mind go still, you're just in the present moment and you go oh my goodness, there is so much more than me and my individual reality out there and I can feel my connection to it.
So I think that those are two things that are wonderful. And one other thing I want to add, because I work with the health care system, dealing with rehabilitation medicine. There's now a fair amount of research search going on in palliative care settings. So people that are in hospice, not necessarily, but the patients with the health care workers, and teaching the health care workers mindfulness, teaching them that they need to take time in their day out to just quiet their mind down and be present.
They find that when the health care workers go through like about a 10-week program doing this. They suddenly find that when they're in what they call this Vortex of chaos as something is happening to a patient, they're I'm going through some sort of a crisis, they don't get caught out in the vortex of the emotions, they step back and with compassion watch themselves and others, and then they do exactly what is needed in the moment.
And the other thing the healthcare workers say is when they go away on the weekend, they actually take this feeling of wanting to stay present in the moment with them, and they send compassion to their patients when they're home. And they say it doesn't take away from my equanimity, it actually helps me let go of the situation, because I'm simply offering my compassion to all these people. But I thought if we can just offer those tools more to society, I think that would be a start.
Ilia: I think that's great. I think one of the things, Marjorie, that I see is that our systems militate against this type of post-material deep conscious beingness. So that even if we say from a childhood stage on into this contemplative personhood, we could do it that way. Then put into the world where they're up against forces of competition, and self-individualization, and self-promotion.
So I think part of our challenge is how do we shift our educational and religious structures, our political structures and there are social structures, in a way that in my mind that's more consonant with what science is telling us for one thing, and that is that panpsychism or the inclusion of mind and matter is indeed maybe our most fun mental reality even though many scientists will still argue against this, or have all sorts of arguments why it's not. But I think I've been doing a lot with quantum physics.
So quantum physics really does, I think, open up this category of post-materialism, and then the whole philosophy of the new materialism. So there's so much good work that's going on, in terms of recognizing not just the essential, the primacy of consciousness, and our beingness and our human beingness, our creaturely beingness, and our planetary beingness. But then I see these systems that are so yesterday quite honestly.
They're principles, their doctrines, their practices are still catching up maybe to the 20th century if we're lucky. In terms of religion, here I'll talk about Christianity and more particularly the Catholic Church. It's just dawning to the maybe the 20th century. So it's so behind, and then we're so stuck with Thomistic theology that we're like landlokced, where we're kind of fossilized in it.
And in transcendency to kind of rest Thomas and put him to rest and allow new understandings to service that could actually help us come to a deeper understanding of this name God.
Robert: Are we spiritually constricted by traditional conceptions of God? Is science stranded on an island of hard materialism? Or could there be a future in which faith and reason once again coexist harmoniously? Next, we ask Marjorie what our experience of consciousness reveals about the interrelationship of God and world.
Ilia: I do want to talk a little bit more about two things, and that's religion and culture. So when we talk about the primacy of consciousness, in your experience, I'd like you to talk a little bit more, maybe from your experience, maybe with Hinduism or yoga, meditation. What is God? Or what is Divinity?
Marjorie: Yes. So my own sense is that, when I use that term, so the other term I often use, and you and I smile at this, but it's literally the beloved. The word God sometimes seems so impersonal, and the same with consciousness is like excuse me, how can I relate to consciousness? The consciousness is like, the Beloved helps me understand that this consciousness is filled with love and filled with joy, and I am part of that.
And I like what I think, I think Rumi obviously was one of these people that called God the beloved, and others in a lot of the Indian traditions, and probably a lot of Christian mystics too called God the beloved. And it's like I know that I'm one with that beloved, but at certain moments I want to step back just a bit so that I can experience my love for God as the other in that moment, even though I know we are one.
And somehow just saying that right now opens my heart up. I just feel yes, and that's what it's about. It's like recognizing my oneness and at the same time this joy of the interactive nature and to me. That's what I love about a lot of the Asian traditions, and maybe some of the Christian traditions too is that idea that this God, universal consciousness became many so it could have the joy of learning more about itself in these individual points of consciousness.
And so this whole world is a play, it is not necessarily a tragic play, but there are the polarities because to have the world, you have to have the polarities of the opposites, and we have to have a place to learn from. So we start out from our ignorance, and we begin to learn through thousands of years, who we really are, it takes that time, but then we don't take it so seriously in a certain sense, and we see the joyful nature of becoming individual awareness’s and interacting with each other and learning with each.
Ilia: Well, that's really encyclical, it's really excellent. Robert, question or thought here?
Robert: Well, it's interesting that Marjorie said we shouldn't take it so seriously, especially knowing that we just arrived as a result of a 13.8 billion year process of evolution. So definitely more to come. It's not ending with us.
I guess I've been reading a lot of Ian McGilchrist, yes, Christine McGilchrist and he would make the case that this is a wholeness of which we're a part as you're mentioning, person world, God world, the and that connects us the world to whatever we want to name that wholeness is additive, additive. Which means that relationship, in order for it to exist, really and truly requires growth, change, suffering.
Ilia: For both parties. So I'm wondering if you could speak a little bit more about that. Does the experience of consciousness through meditations and other methods actually reveal that there's growth in this process?
Marjorie: Absolutely. I think that's the hardest thing for any one of our individual egoic identities to accept, because we only want pleasure. I get that, I met my ego lust, what you do? But then, I go through a period where I do have conflict whether it's with my spouse, because we have conflict with our family, or with a colleague or something like that. Or even with my own health.
Because there's the other thing, it's like part of our ego says excuse me, I have the right to health and then I'm just going to die and that'll be it, but no suffering, please. And then you begin to see that when at least for myself, when I experience suffering, something happens to me, often there's a certain point where I give up my ego's need to control because it can no longer control, and I let go and something happens, I let go into some bigger awareness, and some more compassionate, loving, understanding for myself and for everything around me.
Is a peg die to my smaller silk, and I open up and awaken to a bigger sense. I think that there's a man that I find his work very interesting, Christopher Baze, is actually someone who has done psychedelics throughout his life and also meditated throughout his life.
And he said that when he would go through psychedelic experiences, he would die a little more to his individuality, and then feel, in fact, he made a wonderful thing that I think, Illy and I could appreciate and maybe you too, Robert, he talked about this moment in one particular session where he suddenly found himself feeling like he was a woman, and he was so identified with being this academic male ah, it's like we are the power people of the world. And suddenly, he was feeling identified with all of these women in this experience.
And at first, he was very afraid of pushing it away and then suddenly he let go, and suddenly he saw the beauty in Womanhood, and these women then in this particular experience were sharing with you all the beauties of womanhood. And so he could die to his old small identity, and now just be a human.
And then he said in a later experience he died to his humanity, so he could be including the animals and the other plants. And each time he died, he opened to a new awakening of a larger sense of who he was, and he said for him, that's what human evolution is about. It's when we're just identified with our ego, that's the smallest thing possible, and this body-mind complex. But when I keep expanding the joy then expands along with that as I die to my smallness.
Ilia: This reminds me a little bit, I've been doing some work. Infact, I just finished a book on Carl Jung and the relational fall. I actually mentioned your work in it on infinite awareness. But I find Jung, he was a pioneer in so far as he started exploring these levels of the psyche, and this idea, I think as Ken Wilbur says the ego is a contraction in the field of awareness.
It's this thing that kind of just, maybe it's a leftover or something more from our Darwinian survival days or something. But it kind of has a fight or flight syndrome to it. But we do have the capacity, because consciousness is so much part and parcel of our materiality. We have the capacity to break through this narrow ego into the deeper levels of the psyche.
And in Jung idea, that the collective unconscious that the place of the potentialities of everything, and that Onus Mundi, that one world that you're talking about in a breakthrough, and it's kind of a reconciliation process within.
I think this kind of deep relationality in the wide world of creation must begin with the primal root of deep relationality within the whole person that I think Jung talks about. So I'm really interested in his ideas that, like you're saying, divinity is, you might say maybe the ground or the transcendent dimension of this field of collective unconsciousness that we're open to, and that we can actualize in self-conscious ways. So that the more we move into this.
Two things, one, theology, we're so stuck on original sin and Adam and Eve, and gone the sky God up there. And you can see how fragmentizing I think a theology, Christian theology has been, because it's tied to very old philosophical ideas and metaphysical constructs that are simply no longer tenable, giving what we now know about nature.
But second, that we have the capacity or divinity, is something we don't recognize ourselves nor do we even talk about it, that we had the capacity to actualize this divine nature which is consciousness. But to bring that into our own beingness, which I think an entirety and sense, what does it mean to actualize, to move into this unity? It's to move into, what you're talking about the love, a kind of canonical love, a selfless love, a deep relational love, that energy of attraction.
Like I know that I belong to everything else, and everything else is part of me. And so that, also as you were talking, there's a lot of discussion today on micro dosing, as part and parcel of spiritual experience. Would you advocate for micro dosing using small amounts of psychedelics for advancing levels of consciousness?
Marjorie: And when you say that, that's been an interesting question for me during the last I don't know 10 or 15 years. As I've read more and more about people, especially like Roland Griffis at Johns Hopkins University and how he shows that people that have terminal cancer, when they go ahead and have a psychedelic experience with psilocybin in this very controlled clinical setting, end up losing their anxiety, feeding their oneness with the universe, and then they go through the dying process with this easefulness and this love, knowing that they aren't dying anymore, that they are just going through a transition, and so that really makes me hopeful.
At the same time, currently I have never done anything like that in my life, and I'm not sure what that is, it is perhaps for me it's that I feel that my meditation is my path. And I will try to work on letting the ego die and going into Mark's bad estates of awareness through the path of meditation.
Though, I don't say anything wrong or negative about this past, as long as they're done and that careful clinical setting, so that you make sure that you have the benefits and not the liabilities that you can have. So in terms of my producing, what I've heard is it often seems like it's a very helpful sort of thing. And so I would definitely say that if someone has a very carefully trained clinical psychologist Etc. to work with, then that's probably a way to do it.
I think the reason why some of us have a little bit of hesitancy is that we have heard of friends, that then have some sort of very difficult experience and they have a certain PTSD afterwards because they didn't do it in the right setting.
Ilia: Yes. I think that's very wise, Marjorie. I think substances like that need to be in a controlled setting and then, with a practitioner who in a sense is knowledgeable.
Marjorie: Yes. What I wanted to say, Ilia, too, is that really when you look at history throughout the years, of course, so many religions were using psychedelic substances for thousands of years, it's part of their shamanic and learning experiences for people really interested in this. Whether it was Greece or India or indigenous traditions.
So I think that this is nothing new, but now we're rediscovering it, now that we've gone past our war on psychedelics into understanding that there are positive consequences for using these things in certain situations. I think that maybe this will be one more opening for more of the general population in the right setting, to have an experience. Because I didn't change from being a materialist until I had my meditative awakening, and NDE experiences are the same way.
They were materialist, then they had their near-death experience, and it shifted for them. And so if this is a more controlled way in a certain sense of allowing somebody a glimpse to this more infinite awareness, and it can be done in the right way. Maybe this will be a way to move forward in the future, I guess we'll see.
Ilia: Yes. I think people want to break through into deeper levels of consciousness. I think for various reasons, it can be very difficult for people just to slow down and to learn that art of meditation, of centering and training the mind so to speak, focusing the mind.
So I could see the micro dosing, just maybe as an ancillary or just an accessory to this. But I would agree that we have within us the capacity to access these deeper levels, that's the whole thing. In fact, I think spirituality, in its traditional use, was a technology of the spirit. It's a way of technique or orienting the energies of the body, the gourds training the whole body.
Not just the mind as the whole field of the body. And training the senses, the emotions, the psyche itself to focus in a way that one could break through the narrow ego into those deeper levels of consciousness.
So it's very interesting, we have the capacity for this definitely, but there's so many things today in our very complex culture that militate against any deepening of this initiative that I could understand the desire to use say some psychedelic drugs and stuff. But as you say, these are part of ancient practices, so nothing new here.
Marjorie: Well, I want to mention one more thing. And that is that when I've talked to people that have used the psychedelics, in fact, even with the role on group of people, it's like you would take one or two doses in this clinical setting, but then people went on to meditate on their own.
This was like a glimpse, and now they started doing the work. Because the work of coming back and being in it, and making that your base state takes a lot more effort and some people don't realize that. They think they just want to have something that they can get for free, and then they're going to be in a new state. At least for me, it depends that way.
Robert: This concludes the first part of our discussion with Marjorie Woollacott. A special thanks to our partners at the Fetzer Institute. On behalf of our team at the center for Christogenesis, I'm Robert Nicastro, thanks for listening.