Ilia Delio and Robert Nicastro interview neuroscientist and author Marjorie Woollacott. In Part 2, Ilia, Robert and Majorie discuss the need for a deeper, relational ontology of our conscious experience to promote healthier relationships between our bodies and the world. Robert and Ilia also ask Marjorie about the challenges of introducing post-materialism to modern medicine and how post-materialism furthers social justice.
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
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Robert: Welcome to Hunger for Wholeness. In today's episode, we continue our discussion with Marjorie Woollacott. Ilia begins our conversation by lamenting the technological challenges posed to the modern brain.
Ilia: One other challenge here that I think we have to take note of is that the importance of meditation and deepening our awareness of our own beingness, is really up against the dominant wall of technology in the corporatization of technology. In such a way that our whole culture is so technology wired.
That while we are trying to slow down and access these deeper levels, in our operative daily lives, we're on speed trains. It's faster, more efficient, how much data can you get, how much information can you stuff into your little brain.
So I feel sorry for the poor human brain that on one hand, is being squished with all this information, on the other hand, it's like desperate to slow down. Which sort of this tension between the cultural, technological addiction and the desire for deeper living for, in a sense, being fully human. In some ways, the conflict opens a way for transhumanism to say don't worry, we'll just download your brain. You'll have access to more consciousness than you could ever have imagined, and you'll be good to go in a new medium. So don't worry about all this stuff.
I don't know how we can shift our paradigms sufficiently that we can slow down this rate of technological progress before we find ourselves in a very dystopic and very strange society. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Marjorie: I do. And here's the interesting thing for me, it's like I, first of all should say that even though my parents got a television set, sorry how old I was, when I was about seven or eight years of age, I never was interested in television. And I'm somewhat that way with radio as well. For whatever the reasons, I've always liked reading and sort of a quieter environment interactive with nature, so I came into the world that way.
But when I even watched before this incredible expansion of technology, just he says I would go for a walk with my husband in the neighborhood in Eugene, and I would look in front windows and everybody's TV was on, and all evening long they were in a virtual reality, totally absorbed in a virtual reality.
And all this happening is the virtual reality has expanded to take in sometimes almost every waking moment of our day. And to me, that is as you say the scary thing. It's like really, do you think that virtual reality is more interesting? And taken over real reality? So I'm intrigued by that. I guess here's one antidote for it.
And by antidote, I'm only meaning that the more of us that give ourselves to the practice of stilling the mind and being in the present moment with ourselves and the universe and people around us, the more I believe that energy of the light of consciousness that we then incorporate and digest and assimilate into ourselves, radiates outward to other people and other beings, and I think they can begin to feel it.
And when you think about the great beings of the world whether they were Jesus or some of these other states we've heard about, people in their presence felt a difference, their consciousness changed.
I truly believe there is a transmissive nature to who higher awareness that radiates outward to those around us. And so part of the hope is that the more we each do it, just by being with others, they will feel that and they will want to find that for themselves.
Ilia: I love that actually. I think what you're talking about is personal transformation has a field effect. That the personally transformed person transforms other persons simply by their presence, by their sheer energetic presence, and I think that's really true.
I am deeply concerned that the human brain is being tossed and turned about wither and thither, because neuroplasticity is a really interesting concept. So I do think the addiction to virtual reality because we want to be something other, right? We don't want to really be what we are.
And that's part of our problem, is it's not a problem, it's our challenge. Do we want to be human? I'm not sure. But virtual reality holds out for us this whole spectrum of be whatever you want to be in cyberspace, it's just an infinite field of imagination.
So things like attention, compassion, the ability to relate itself, I think these qualities are being somewhat flattened by our culture of technology.
Marjorie: Here's a question that I keep struggling with related to that, because there's a moment that I have despair, because of all of the transhumanism, etc.—all of that. And then I look at the young people of the world, and a lot of these people who are saying I'm concerned about the environment, I'm the one that's going to inherit the environment that you guys are really making a mess of, and I want to do something else.
So when I talk to a lot of the young people, they are interested in changing things, and they have a hunger for wholeness as you talk about, they really do. And they see that right now we're in a mess. And so I guess part of my hope is that in spite of all the technology that they also are using a lot of, there's also this other part of them that wants to transcend that, and find that place where we really are connecting with our environment, connecting with our world.
And so as we talk about with Teilhard de Chardin and others, I think there is this yearning for wholeness, this yearning of consciousness as the individual point of consciousness as us, for getting back to the recognition of who we are. And it's going to go through a lot of challenges, probably a lot of suffering and pain as we go through the blind alleys. But I have this, what is the word? This strong hope and belief that we are on this evolutionary expansion phase and eventually, we're going to get there. It doesn't mean it's going to be easy, but I feel we will get there.
Ilia: I do think you're right, I think younger generations are more naturally wired or community for collective concerns. There's a deep concern for the Earth, certainly because the future seems unpredictable, or is this a sustainable Earth or not? And a greater care for the poor, for justice is a huge thing. I do think one of the positives of the internet, it allows shared information and therefore shared concerns to surface.
So there's pluses and minuses. I'm just thinking it by undergraduate class who has their computers open, so they're looking at a computer and they're sort of included, they're sort of semi-bodied, they're half in class and half on the computer. And so it's funny, but I do think, here's my short hand I'll turn over to Robert.
I've wondered if we just have a revolution, not so much of the person. What if you were just to eradicate the systems we have? In other words, I think our institutional religions, our institutional university systems. These are all systems that militate against deep relationality even though they have a lot of conferences on this stuff, a lot of discussion. But it's really about hyper specialization, and hyper-salvation.
Like will I be saved? And does God love me? And so what if we just kind of, for all the positive and I do have hope as well, I do think we will face a great suffering before we can resurrect into a new collective of shared planetary life. We have the capacity for it, we are simply now, we have built such a complex world that is now out of our control quite honestly in my view, that we can't even make, we're trying to make sense of it as much as we can.
And I do think a good starting point is precisely as you now are teaching and advocating to focus our minds and to come into the deeper realities of our own conscious being-life. But it's going to be quite a challenge up ahead.
Marjorie: And I want to address your issue about the student, because of course, I taught a lot of undergraduates who were exactly the same way. My frustration was that when I was teaching a general education class that was the worst, because they didn't really want to be there.
They were there because this was a requirement that they needed to satisfy, and therefore their computer was equally interesting to me as far as they were concerned. When I finally got to the upper division classes where they chose to be there, and then it was like okay you guys, close your computers, because now we're going to talk about things and we're going to have a conversation. I then could typically get them to do that, and so I had the best time teaching a class in alternative and complementary medicine, which I talk about in my book.
And that's when I have pre-med measures, they believe that materialism is the lens that it should be the correct one on the world. And I say okay, we're going to do a study for each of you where you're going to write papers on whether these alternative forms of medicine like Reiki energy healing or acupuncture are efficacious or they are not.
And you're going to go to PubMed our National Database and you're going to look and you're going to say what's the evidence for and against. And that got them interested, and typically, they shifted from being totally materialist to somewhat post-materialists, saying now I want to go to maybe an acupuncture school in addition to my medical school, or something of that sort.
So they began to see the advantages of both sides of the medical community. And to me, that was what we need to have at our universities, it's like I wish we didn't have general education courses, because kids don't want to be there. But once we get their interest, then I think they can really begin to learn and again, there's the curiosity though.
Ilia: I think that's absolutely right. But if you want to know, you will go in that direction of seeking greater knowledge. And quite honestly, I can totally vouch for alternative medicine, because I had a head injury two years ago. And I was a strict medicine type, materialist medicine type person.
So the thought of going to anything else was just completely out of my world view. Until every MD said I don't see anything wrong with you, and I'm like there's something definitely wrong. So I wound up going to an osteopath, and then eventually, to cranial sacral therapy that actually blessed the healing of the whole thing.
So one thing about the Western mind and the Western person is we become lodged into categorical thinking that this is it, like this is the truth, and we argue vehemently for these positions. When I think a deeply relational metaphysics, in other words, a metaphysics that has the openness of deep relationality itself, it just allows the standing back because the relationship is primary. So it's never about the ontology of what you know, like this is my view and I think medicine is absolutely right and everything else is wrong.
It's like “oh,” like it's the openness, “what can we learn from? Oh wow, that's so interesting, there are other ways to look at the neuron or the head or the brain” or whatever it is that we're talking about. So we've cut ourselves off at the knees basically, and we claim to know so much when I think sometimes we know just a little bit, enough to get by.
Marjorie: And I want to add to what Robert was saying about Ian McGilchrist and the divided brain, because to me, as part of what you're talking about, the idea that with our scientific world view that has been going on since the age of enlightenment we call it, where we are dealing with taking the whole world apart and dissecting into little pieces, and looking at it linearly etc. which is exactly how I was trained as a neuroscientist.
And it was like the way I came into the world that was very comfortable for me. And then ignoring the other side of my brain which was the holistic part that saw things as a whole. I mean to me, what happened with meditation is I began shifting back to seeing that both are important.
And I think that's the key issue, it's about your only holistic that's not going to work either, because we have to be in a world where we deal with linear thinking and those thought processes. But how do we get our young people and ourselves back to dividing equally the two halves of the brain in the way we process the world. So that's my key.
Ilia: Yes, that's exactly right, Marjorie. So the word I use is contextualization. Like these processes, these mechanisms are contextualized within larger processes and mechanisms. So that brain is more like a symphony orchestra than an industrial machine area.
Marjorie: Well, I mentioned there is one anecdote about that, that I maybe you or Robert can appreciate, and that is that so because I'm such a scientist, and so left-brained. And I can argue very well linearly about any particular point in our relationship, and he is an artist and literature person. So he comes much more from the holistic point of view.
It is to be that I would think I was always winning the arguments because of my linear thought process, and suddenly, I saw that I was ignoring the whole other app of the world which is holistic thinking, which my husband wasn't really using. So it was a humbling experience to finally get that my linear way of thinking wasn't the best way, it was only one way of thinking.
Robert: Regardless of how quickly we progress scientifically or technologically, the relationship among our brains, bodies and the universe remains mysterious and complex. Next, I ask Marjorie how we can empower younger generations to pursue these deep, post-material questions in the face of institutional resistance. And finally, Marjorie tells us how post-materialist science can Aid in our efforts of social justice, and the bettering of end-of-life care.
While I really do think that post-materialism will play a huge role in taking us into a future that brings about new and deep structures of relatedness. My question would be given that it's certainly not even close to being the predominant opinion, not only in scientific circles, but in the academy itself.
How do we encourage young people who are our future to go in that direction, when a job may not be an opportunity or a job might not be guaranteed, obviously. Or they may fear losing their job because it's not a predominant opinion in the field.
Marjorie: Yes, so I totally agree with you. And I always have talked to students about, when they come to me and they say well look, you are down to working on consciousness, how can I do that? And I say look, if you're in the neuroscience world, you need to have one aspect of research which is grounded in what the academy will accept, it is more along the materialist line of things.
And then, you have another branch of research that is post-materialist and you make sure that you have both so that you can get tenure within an academy that really values that way of thinking, one side of the brain, and then go ahead and do the other part. In addition, that's what I did in my own laboratory. I waited till I had tenure, and then I began adding in these other experiments in my laboratory, and it allowed me then to also include students in my lab laboratory that were interested in post-materialist alternative forms of medicine thinking and do those things along with the others.
So somehow, I think we can hopefully get those students, and I think there are more and more of them. I think one thing I want to say is though, it appears to be a catastrophe right now in terms of academia and science. In fact, there are more and more people that I think are trying to bridge very carefully this science and what I would call post-materialism perspective.
And again, I'm talking about Richard Davidson, and people like Sarah Lazar who's at Harvard University. There are a number of people around the country, the world that are studying meditation and plasticity of the brain, through the materialistic world of view leading through looking at functional magnetic resonance imaging and EEG and showing the ships.
And there are more and more of those people now that have tenure at universities and medical schools around the country, and in Europe as well, and those people are then giving a place for the young people to study in that environment as well. And then I think they're opening up the crack so that more of this will happen in the future.
So I don't think it is as dreadful as it may sound. I also want to mention, there's a man named Daniel Ingram, in the emergent phenomenology research consortium that he has started, that is working with young people in the sciences and the clinical sciences around the country and the world, to find a way of neutralizing phenomena like meditation and psychedelics and near-death experiences.
So that clinicians accept them as a neutral phenomenon. This happens to people, and we can interpret them anyway we want. But it doesn't matter how we interpret them, they are a positive influence on people. And so he has a large organization now, as more and more young people are joining.
So there's an example of the young people saying hey, this is how I want to approach these things. I want to be in a medical setting, but I want it not to be this is bad and this is good. So I think that again, there's hope.
Ilia: Do you think this kind of post-material philosophy and post material existence could eventually resolve some of our cultural, and deep cultural divides in terms of race and gender? Where these issues are still, so highly contentious and polarized and oppositional? I mean, where do you think or how do you think a post-materialist stance could contribute?
Marjorie: When we think about that, I mean you and Robert and I all know that once you have that understanding that we're all interconnected, the color of your skin, the gender that you have and none of that matters anymore. The culture you're from, none of that matters anymore. And you see that person out of like the connection in your heart. The love, the compassion that we're all living beings.
It's not just that we're human beings, because we feel it toward cats and dogs and elephants. It's like we feel that. So the issue for me is that if we only could open up the heart, and that's where I think some people think well, we believe with psychedelics, if you could only give my produces that open up at the heart, that maybe people could see that someone from another culture really is at essence exactly the same as them.
Saying that, I realized that we also have an ego, and that ego thinks about itself and his family first. I think it's the paradox of human life. And I think it's the Paradox that we all decided to come into, which is okay, in order to live in a three-dimensional time-space reality, the egoic narrative is necessary for survival.
If I didn't have that, then I would probably be dead within hours or days or months as a human being. And I need to also have the interconnectedness. And so that balance, how do we keep that balance so that we feel the love and the joy. I think the issue that the three of us know is that you suffer when you only think about the ego in yourself, and what we're asking ourselves to do is to let go of our suffering and experience the joy of our interconnection.
Ilia: I would totally agree with that, Marjorie. I mean, I do think that that deeper level is so fundamentally important. And yet, as I listen to some of the discussions today on, especially coming out of black theology, and the tremendous suffering that black people have endured, and continue to.
And the way that there's still this, honestly, there's a racial divide where there's white privilege and there's a sense of white superiority over blacks. While we can say that consciousness is a binding element an awareness of belonging, I think of Thomas Nagel's famous article, what is it like to be a bat? And he says we can never know, because we will never have the consciousness of a bat.
I guess that's one of the questions I have, if indeed wild consciousness is a fundamental if I could use word substrate, the primacy of matter itself. Yet, there is a particular, every person has a consciousness and therefore a feeling and awareness of this particular person.
And whether it's black theology or gender, people who are trying transgender for example, or who are of one gender or another and they feel themselves to be this way or that way. And how do we allow for the particularity of consciousness, and at the same time, open up to the deep relatedness of post-materialism that we are indeed part of a unified whole.
Now tell me this, because one of the arguments against it, is that it flattens out other particularity of suffering. I don't think that that's what's going on at all, but I think we need to frame it in such a way that every person who suffers and has suffered because of race or gender, or their particular personhood, we have to first recognize that.
I think that's part of our own coming home to ourselves so to speak, and the opening of the heart, is to know when we are part of suffering, as well as being part of a whole. That we have to be aware that our actions, whether implicit or explicit, have contributed to the deep suffering and fragmentation of our time. And yet at the same time, I think you're right keeping that openness, right? Through meditation, to that a deeper level of wholeness of which we are all apart.
Robert: My remaining question, really to give Marjorie the last word is what are you working on right now that you would like to convey to the listeners?
Marjorie: Well, interestingly one of the things I'm working on is end of life transitions. Because again from the materialist perspective, the end of life is the end of everything. And therefore, as we know in the medical world, we try to keep the heart beating as long as we can, because that means that we're still alive. And then “poof,” we're gone.
What I'm trying to work with other scientists is to look at that end of life transition as a way of allowing people who are going through that process to really experience it as a very sacred event of moving from one particular experience of reality to another one that is no longer embodied, but just as real.
And to allow the people they're left behind to experience that as well, so we're working on understanding the phenomena from both sides of the perspectives. From what the body is doing, and what the spirit and soul and consciousness are doing as it goes through that transition process. And to me, that's a beautiful way of helping alleviate suffering in our society.
Ilia: Now Marjorie when you say “poof,” do you mean consciousness goes as well?
Marjorie: Yes, that's what I meant by the medical materialist point of view, says that basically, and so what I'm saying is that if we can shift that, and change the medical model of it, so that they can see that in fact, consciousness does survive and it's just a transition to a different state. The fear would be gone in the medical community and in the family and perhaps the person themselves.
Ilia: So we don't need reverse cellular aging, reverse, basically we have to in a sense shift our understanding that we do live on, our conscious lives live on but in a new way, in a transformed state. Like the third law of relativity of some sort.
Robert: This concludes our interview with Marjorie Woollicott. Be sure to tune in next time for our discussion with Ted Peters on transhumanism and transcendence. A special thanks to our partners at the Fetzer Institute.
If you'd like to dig deeper into our conversation, support hunger for wholeness on patreon for additional study materials and content produced by our team at the center for Christogenesis. I'm Robert Nicastro, thanks for listening.