Defining Mysticism

Commentary on Robert E. Ornstein's
"The Psychology of Consciousness"

~Sandra Stahlman

Robert Ornstein presents a "textbook" (p.vii) on human consciousness. Ornstein argues that although we have amassed an enormous body of knowledge and a mastery of the external world, we have neglected exploring the internal world. The Psychology of Human Consciousness (1977) is his attempt to redefine the scope of the sciences to include a study of all modes of human consciousness. Many of Ornstein's assertions run contrary to the current theories today. However, Ornstein points out a recent recognition that "...these modes operate biologically as well as mentally and culturally. With a recognition of the biological basis of ...consciousness, we may be able to redress the imbalance in science and psychology."(p.39) Contrary to the popular notion that something so subjective as consciousness cannot be studied empirically, Ornstein manages to present his material with a substantial body of scientifically valid research.

Ornstein discusses "reality" and what is considered "normal" consciousness. This consciousness can be shown (through sensory experimentation, for example) to be a constructed reality; in order to create a stable, manageable environment, a sensory-filtering system develops from childhood and continually shaped by subsequent situations. What is experienced as reality, Ornstein explains, is actually only a representation. What becomes clear is this: if "normal" consciousness is created, then this consciousness may be altered simply by changing the manner of its construction.

Ornstein presents a chronicle of the many varied definitions of consciousness throughout history. He stresses the tendency to describe two polar facets of consciousness, commonly known as the intuitive/irrational mode and the verbal/rational mode. Ornstein argues that the intuitional mode is often overlooked in current Western science, as well as in education, society and psychology. Heavy reliance on the rational mode of consciousness has lead to a denial of our "inner" life, as well as a tendency towards automatization of somatic systems, and habitual filtering/reduction of sensory input. Ornstein argues, that if our cultural definition of consciousness could be expanded to integrate intuitional modes of being, individuals could learn to "switch-off" automatized processes with ease, and operate direct control over the psyche/soma systems as well as over the environment. Individuals would then have access to knowledge beyond the intellectual sort. Ornstein supplies many examples of knowledge that are often ignored in our culture - insight from dreams, body temperature patterns, chemical reactions on a cellular level, etc. Ornstein asserts that we are equipped with the "tools" to access both the realms of rationality and intuition. He suggests we follow a lesson found cross-culturally: the most effective mode of operation is one that synthesizes the two ways of engaging the world. Ornstein's text catalogs both historical and current methods aimed at to restructuring consciousness, including his own suggestions on self-regulation.

What I found to be most striking and bold was Ornstein's discussion of the evolutionary usefulness of the analytical mode of consciousness; how our rational mode of consciousness was a tool, ensuring our mastery over the environment and our continued biological survival. However, he argues, because cultural evolution proceeds faster than organismic evolution, our current cultural needs have changed. This strict dependence on the rational mode is no longer useful and, in fact, can be damaging. Ornstein gives, as example, the current environmental problem facing us; a sense of the earth as a total system would foster a feeling of respect for all natural life and an understanding of individual impact on the environment and the future. This most often accompanies non-rational consciousness. Ornstein hopes for a redefinition of "reality" to include all modes of consciousness. His text offers strong evidence to support his conclusions.

Ornstein, Robert E. The Psychology of Consciousness. Harcourt Brace Joavonovich, Inc.: New York, 1977.

Written by Sandy Stahlman, 1992, at the University of Rochester

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