Interview with author and consciousness explored, Peter Russell examines how science ignores questions of consciousness.
Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with author and consciousness expert, Peter Russell. During the interview Russell discusses how the term science views consciousness:
Alex Tsakiris: This mind/brain duality problem is a consciousness issue. It says we can’t measure things the way that we thought we could. We now have to realize that we have to put an asterisk by everything we measure because we haven’t factored in consciousness.
Peter Russell: I think it was through just observing my own experience in meditation. I think that has been a fundamental thing is in a way recognizing that all of what we call the material world is actually an appearance in the mind. And in that sense consciousness is really fundamental and comes before the material world in the sense that all I ever know is my experience. And it is out of my experience that comes my ideas and theories and models of what the world is like. And in that sense, just realizing that consciousness is absolutely fundamental. Without consciousness there would be no science. It all takes place in the mind. And yet you could say it is a fundamental tool of science and yet it is totally ignored by science.
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Alex Tsakiris: Today we welcome well-known author, teacher, and consciousness explorer Peter Russell to Skeptiko. Peter’s books include The Global Brain, Waking Up In Time, and From Science to God. There are so many interesting things we might like to talk about today, so let’s get right to it. Peter, thank you so much for joining me on Skeptiko and welcome.
Peter Russell: It’s lovely to be with you.
Alex Tsakiris: You know, I have to say the term ‘pioneer’ gets thrown around a lot, but when it comes to your work with consciousness science and particularly the intersection of this idea of consciousness and spirituality, you really are a pioneer. I mean, you were in this so early. Tell us a little bit about that background and how you came to be such a prominent teacher, writer, and really put yourself out there in this area.
Peter Russell: Yes, I think I became prominent just because, as you say, I was in there very early on when very few people were thinking this way. And it came out of a mixture of things in me. I was a scientist by inclination and by training. I had gone to Cambridge University in England and studied mathematics, probably one of the best places in the world you can study math. I was under Stephen Hawking’s wing for a while. He was my tutor and loved it, doing theoretical physics. And then later moved into psychology. So I had the whole scientific training, which I really value. And it’s still with me. I mean, people often dis science, but it’s actually an incredible training just for not only an understanding of the world but how to look at the world. So that’s one aspect of it. And then I also had an ongoing interest all my life in the mind and consciousness. As a teenager I was doing things teenagers do, exploring self-hypnosis and flashing lights in front of my eyes and spinning around, just exploring altered states and just realizing we can change the way we see things. And that led me into a reading of – in my teenage years I was reading about yogis and things, but remember this was back in the late 50s, early 60s, when the receptions of yogis then were people who could lie on beds of nails or swallow things and not be harmed by them. Very different from the idea of yoga that’s now become so widespread in the west. But that interest was there and that led me into interest at least in philosophy and meditation. And I went out to India and studied meditation at that time. I got involved in TM, transcendental meditation.
Alex Tsakiris: Peter, hold on. Let me interject here because I think we all do this when we talk about our story and we try to weave together this tapestry. But there is a big shift there, right? And an interesting one I would like to explore. So you’re this Cambridge physicist, mathematician, science guy, as you describe in your book From Science to God, your natural love and inclination to science. But do you know that there is quite a schism a lot of times between the science types, the mathematics types, and people who are traipsing off to India to explore what they’re reading about yogis? It’s wonderful, I get it, but I think that needs a little bit more filling in there.
Peter Russell: Okay, I think the reason I began to sort of explore that more actively was a realization that physics wasn’t going to answer everything and one of the – not quite an epiphany, but one of those moments like a little awakening, was when I realized I could study hydrogen, solving the physics of hydrogen, which is a great intellectual achievement of western science, to actually [inaudible – 0:04:02] this equation. And yet the whole universe evolved out of hydrogen, this odorless, colorless gas. And here it evolved into a being like me who could study hydrogen. Like, what has happened here? How on earth did hydrogen evolve into a system that could study itself? And that just sort of blew my mind. It was really like how had consciousness come into existence in the universe? Why is it just a load of atoms evolving, molecules, you could even predict life – by why should life be conscious? Why was there consciousness in the universe in the first place? That was a question that really got me. The old sort of mind/brain problem. Why does the brain have a mind?
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, and what I think is fascinating is you approached it from kind of this recursive, scientific kind of mode, just digging deeper and deeper into science. And I find that fascinating because for me, I really have come at it from kind of a different perspective – a totally different perspective. Although I see the same things. I was really more, I guess, growing up into an engineering-oriented, computer-oriented, entrepreneurial-oriented – you know, I wanted to make money. I wanted to make things and make money and as you describe in your book you talk about your early fascination with science, how sound travels through air, how metal expands. That wasn’t me, I never paid any attention to that. I was like, how can we go out and make a buck? But at the same time I found the same kind of interest, for me, in yogic ideas or eastern versus western thought. I just look at it from a very practical is this right, or is this right? What is the most efficient? And kind of an engineering perspective. I bring that up because in your book you talk about your frustration that we need new models for consciousness. And this was early on. And I guess the way I always say it is hey, we’ve got a paradigm that’s broken here. It doesn’t work anymore, it’s no big deal. It’s like AOL – we’re both old enough to remember, ‘You’ve got mail.’ AOL – I mean, it was the dominant paradigm and it’s just gone. It just disappeared. It’s no longer AOL/Time Warner. They even changed the name of that back. So I wonder if science has a harder time with these paradigm shifts. And even you, as much as a pioneer as you are, still looks for new models of consciousness rather than to say, ‘You know what? Science is broken. Science doesn’t see that. It will never see it. It’s AOL. It will be in the dustbin of history, let’s just move on.’
Peter Russell: Right, yes, that’s interesting. I think in a way if you were the engineer wanting to make things work, I wanted to understand things. And I wanted to understand the mind, understand consciousness. And I could see the current scientific paradigm wasn’t working but what I wanted to do was find out what was the new paradigm, how could it interface with the old paradigm. So I think my path has been much more about understanding things and wanting to really dig in. How is it? How do things work? What does the new paradigm look like? And how can I share this with other people, what I’m seeing? So you are out probably making things, products, and businesses. And I was out working with ideas, making books, and that sort of thing.
Alex Tsakiris: So what did you find? What I the driving paradigm shift that you discovered
Peter Russell: For me, it’s that consciousness is not something that’s created by the brain. Clearly the brain creates what we experience. If I am seeing a tree, it’s creating the experience of seeing a tree. If I’m falling in love that corresponds to brain activity. But the actual capacity to be aware I don’t think is created by the brain. I think that is actually a universal characteristic of the whole cosmos. And what has happened with human beings is we have evolved to a state where we are conscious that we are conscious. We are self-aware, but I don’t think awareness comes out of matter. I could almost argue the other way around, that our experience with matter comes out of awareness. And that to me is a complete reversal of the current paradigm. And it’s a hard thing to get across to people, because as you intimate we hold on to our belief systems probably more doggedly than we hold on to anything else. We will change jobs, we will change houses, we will change partners, and we will even change gender these days but changing our fundamental belief system is difficult for those with a religious belief system or a scientific belief system. I think it was – wasn’t Niels Bohr who said, ‘Science changes not because scientists change their mind, but the old ones die out.’
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, I think that’s true. I take it one step further and say is science so fundamentally flawed that we can no longer use it? A few years ago I had a chance to interview biologist Elizabeth Sahtouris. Have you ever heard of her?
Peter Russell: Yeah, I know her well.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, she is such a wonderful person. And she is someone who has obviously looked at these kind of big picture, cross-cultural aspects of science. And I was just listening to the interview and one of things that really kind of jumped out at me is that we’re the only culture in which our science assumes that we can observe our environment without affecting. I thought wow, that’s kind of interesting and kind of profound because it is one of the fundamental assumptions and we have known – you as a physicist can really speak to this and I hope you will. I mean, we have known for at least the last 100 years that it’s completely not true, right? Quantum physics has told us, the observer effect has told us, that no – we cannot observe something without affecting it.
Peter Russell: Okay, we’ve got a wealth of stuff to go ahead with here. Firstly, let’s go back. I don’t think science is fundamentally flawed. First of all, let’s draw a distinction between science as a process of arriving at truth, which is the scientific method, and the current scientific paradigm, which is the current worldview which has been arrived at through the process. Now, the current worldview I wouldn’t say is fundamentally flawed. I would say it’s limited. The current worldview works perfectly well when we’re working out weather patterns, how to design computer chips – which are basically based on quantum theory.
Alex Tsakiris: Engineering – engineering though, Peter. Is that science or is that engineering?
Peter Russell: Well, the engineering is based on science. And if you’re doing engineering you need to know – these days, you need to really know about say metals, composites, their strengths, their weaknesses, how they work, and all of that comes out of science. So science is always behind technology and then the technology leads to the engineering. So there is the science there. But what I wanted to say is it’s limited and it’s particular limitation is it doesn’t include mind or consciousness within its scope. And that’s when we start getting into those areas that we see its limits. It’s a bit like saying Newtonian physics was fine. It was limited. It is now just a special case of Einstein’s physics, but we still drive our cars through Newtonian physics. We fly our GPS by Einsteinian physics, but Newtonian physics is perfectly good for driving down the road. And so I would just say the science is limited, not flawed. I just want to make that point.
Alex Tsakiris: Great, let’s probe that a little bit further. And this is maybe just a hot button for me and I love having a physicist on to talk about with because what you’re really saying is it comes down to a matter of measurement, right? And how closely we want to measure things. I think what this mind/brain duality, this consciousness issue, really says is that we really can’t measure things the way that we thought we could. And in the same way that when we move from Newtonian physics to Einsteinian physics, we saw Newtonian physics is really kind of an approximation. I think the move to consciousness is the same thing. We now have to realize that we have to put an asterisk by everything we measure because we haven’t factored in consciousness. We don’t know many angels fit on the head of a needle, and yet we now have to seriously look at that question at least a little bit. We have to factor it in and we don’t factor it in. So of course I think there are still elements of science is okay as long as we look at it from my perspective as an engineer. But in terms of a form of answering these big picture questions of who we are, why are we here? I wonder if it really holds any promise of really getting us closer to that or if it really is just a tool for engineers.
Peter Russell: Yeah, when it comes to those big questions science is not going to help us. Not our current science anyway. No, it’s not going to help with those big questions – why are we here? What’s it about? It helps us understand how the world works. It doesn’t go for those bigger questions.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, it depends on who you talk to. There are a lot of folks and a lot of times they have told us that science can give us those answers and I think we have kind of built our culture around that. But I think that’s part of what you have explored so wonderfully in your books and in many of your lectures, this intersection with what consciousness means for these larger, spiritual kind of questions. Can you tell us how you made that leap?
Peter Russell: I think it was through just observing my own experience in meditation. I think that has been a fundamental thing is in a way recognizing that all of what we call the material world is actually an appearance in the mind. And in that sense consciousness is really fundamental and comes before the material world in the sense that all I ever know is my experience. And it is out of my experience that comes my ideas and theories and models of what the world is like. And in that sense, just realizing that consciousness is absolutely fundamental. Without consciousness there would be no science. It all takes place in the mind. And yet you could say it is a fundamental tool of science and yet it is totally ignored by science. And the things you were pointing to earlier, like wave particle duality or how the collapse of the wave function or what’s very popular now, the whole idea of the law of locality and entanglement. All of these in some way involve knowing, they involve observing, and yet we’re trying to understand them in a model that excludes knowing and observing. And so we have this strange dichotomy that all of our models are generated in consciousness, everything we know is in consciousness, and then we forget that and think that the outside world is real and fixed. And we don’t try to understand it. To me it’s all back to front at the moment. And I think that’s why physics is just going to dig itself deeper and deeper into trouble in this way.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, expand on that because that’s where I was really going. I wonder if it’s all – that sounds like a wonderful British expression, it’s all back to front. I mean, is it so turned around that we really can’t untangle it from that perspective.
Peter Russell: Well, what I think is when you look at modern physics and look at both the very big cosmological questions and the very small quantum questions we are faced with mystery after mystery after mystery, like the Big Bang, black holes, dark matter, dark energy, and all of this stuff, fundamental particles. And none of it works – multiple universes, all this stuff. We have lots of questions and we have lots of different models, whether it is string theory or multiple universe theory, or modified Newtonian dynamic theory. I could list a dozen different theories and they all sort of help out a bit, they all have problems. Nothing really solves the mystery. And I think that is because we are working within a paradigm that does not include consciousness. It just excludes consciousness and I think we are going to be stuck with these incomplete models until someone comes up with a model that actually includes consciousness. But that would be an anathema for modern science. It’s going to take a real renegade to actually work in consciousness into the physical models. But I believe that’s the only way we’re going to get through this stage of modern science, it’s just full of mysteries and no true forerunner has an explanation.
Alex Tsakiris: And I even wonder if we can do it because I think it again comes down to this measurement problem. I mean, we have kind of played with the measurement problem a little bit and Einstein comes along and says oh, wow, everything is relative and we can only measure it down to this level. And Max Planck comes along with the same thing. But we’re still playing with oh, we can get there. We can get there. And I think what consciousness does is come around and change the whole game and say no, you guys have been looking at this like a closed-loop system and it’s not. It’s open in some way that we’ll never be able to pin it down. And I wonder what kind of system of science, what kind of system of logic really comes out of that. And if it’s so different from the assumptions that we have now, if it is even recognizable to us as “science.”
Peter Russell: Yes, I don’t know what it’s going to look like. If I did, I would be getting my Nobel prize.
Alex Tsakiris: Yes, yes. Let me approach it this way because you brought up the topic of meditation, which I think is fascinating, and I think there are some parallels to this discussion that we have had about science and I would kind of like to explore those with you. You are a very experienced meditator and meditation teacher. Before we go too far, tell us a little bit about your background because you are quite accomplished and quite well known as not only a practitioner but a teacher of meditation, are you not?
Peter Russell: Yes, yes. I don’t know how well known but I love meditation and as I said it started me off on my journey 40 years ago, getting involved in transcendental meditation. And then I have explored other practices for a while. I got quite involved in Buddhist teaching, mindfulness practices. And I have come to the point now of just looking at what is underlying all these practices? And what is the most efficient way of meditating? And one of the things I really got very early on in transcendental meditation was the whole notion of effortlessness. Any effort you put into meditation, any focusing the mind, actually just makes it more tense. Now, there are many, many traditions that teach effort. You’ve got to concentrate, it’s very hard. And I just realized it’s like a closed loop there. If you think it’s hard you put effort into it and it doesn’t work very well. You therefore think, ‘I need to put more effort into it.’ It gets even harder and you end up teaching oh yes, it’s going to take a lifetime to practice to get anywhere. My experience has been the less you try, the less effort, the faster the mind relaxes. And so what I have been working with in recent years is finding different ways, different little sub-techniques that will sort of weed out even the tiniest seed of effort, the tiniest seed of wanting. So for me, it’s about letting the mind fully relax. And physical yoga and things we can let the body relax, this is how do we let the mind totally relax. And in that total relaxation it’s about letting the attention relax and then we just sync back into our own beingness, our own source. And that to me is the ultimate goal of meditation, whether you call it the divine, the pure self, pure consciousness being, pure spirit, it doesn’t really matter. But it’s coming back to that state of essence, of stillness.
I’m just interested in how we can do that so much more easily and rapidly. And that’s what I’m teaching these days, going against the – I have a lot of friends who are deeply involved in traditions and we have debates about this. And they say all this preparation is necessary and you need all these other techniques and only when you’ve accomplished this. The groups I run, I’m just finding no, I think we can go straight there and that’s what I’m interested in because these times I think we need some sort of practice of stilling the mind. It’s so, so important in our culture. And let’s find how we do that and make it more efficient. So that’s really what I’m interested in, how to have that letting go just really happen as easily as possible.
Alex Tsakiris: Right, and that’s fascinating. You know, of course there is always the inner play there, again like the parallels in science, but here it is between this big mind and this little mind, or the monkey mind, and all these things. I think it is kind of a derogatory term that I don’t like so much. But you know, I wonder as we’re talking about this, when we’re talking about meditation practice and as a practitioner and techniques and efficiency, I get all that and that’s very pragmatic. But I wonder if there isn’t a big paradigm shift there too. Because to me the paradigm shift to me is that you are not your thoughts, right? That is fundamentally what it’s all about.
Peter Russell: Yes.
Alex Tsakiris: And once we take that in, which is really, really hard to do – once we take that in, everything changes because you just have to look at whatever technique we’re applying, whatever method we’re using it’s not us because we are just in this container. But there is this larger consciousness that we’re interacting with that we didn’t even realize we were interacting with.
Peter Russell: Yes, and I think this is so important. And I think this is something more and more people are realizing these days. It’s like I am not my thoughts. What I am is that knowing, which is the conscious of the thought. The thoughts are appearing in awareness, but we tend to identify with the thinking. But no, I am not the thought. I am that space of awareness in which it is appearing, in the same way I am that space of awareness within which the meditation is happening. And so that meditation is doing something, trying to change something, or make something happen. And yet, that is the little ego I try to do something where it is that true self. It is just there knowing the experience of meditating. It’s like we keep coming back to this but that beingness is always present. We don’t have to go anywhere or get anything or make anything happen. It’s about almost like softening the attention. And as we soften the attention we just recognize oh, this sense of being we call “I” has been there all my life, I just didn’t recognize it. I am the same I that I was when I was a teenager, when I was 30 years old, as I was yesterday. It is always that same tense of being. My thoughts are different, my values, my goals in life, my feelings – all of that is changing the whole time and hopefully evolving. The I that is there at the center of it all is that still center, just the observing of all of this. And I think it’s that which people recognize and we don’t have to go anywhere or do anything or even have any technique.
I was reading a teacher the other day who said, ‘In the end, the value of all teachers and techniques is you come to the point of realizing you do not need teachers or techniques.’ And that’s a paradoxical journey and I think many of us are on that. I know I want to, and I have been through various practices. And in the end, for me, the practice is just simply noticing that awareness which is always there and not following the thought. You talk about monkey mind, and yes, the mind goes here and there. It goes from one thought to another, one thought triggers another. In meditation, for me, it is simply a matter of just saying okay, when that happens I’m not following you. This is not the time to follow a thought. I will do that later. The rest of life I can follow my thoughts. Right now it’s like thank you, not now. And if you don’t follow the thought you gradually take the fuel away from them. You are not adding fuel to the fire. And the thoughts just gradually die down on their own if you don’t follow them.
So for me the essence of my practice is not following the thought and just noticing the awareness that’s always there.
Alex Tsakiris: Wonderful, but it’s tricky isn’t it? Anyone who has tried this knows we’re always interacting with that big mind, little mind thing. We can’t get away from it. We’re in this body. And I think it’s those little moments of realization that I think propel us just a little bit further. I always think of this experience that I had as a dad really a few years ago when my oldest daughter was a little bit younger. She had this fascination, like a lot of kids do, with these pizza parlors where you go and win these little tickets in the machines and then you go cash in your tickets for these trinkets, that just aren’t worth anything. The economics of it, again, as kind of an entrepreneurial guy it just always kind of drove me nuts. I’m like, we can go right over to the store and buy that thing for a fraction of what you spent on it. But I remember so clearly standing back a little bit and seeing her peering into the glass case and deciding what she had. And even though she is my daughter and I love I had this thought of oh my gosh, this kid, how naïve. And then suddenly it dawned on me, this is me, this is my life, this is what I do. I do all this stuff to get these little tickets so I can cash them in for these little trinkets so that I can continue to play this little game. And there is this whole other thing going on that I rarely access, and when I do all the other stuff looks just like cashing in tickets for little toys.
Peter Russell: Little plastic toys, yeah. Absolutely. And I think it’s a cultural hypnosis here. I mean, your daughter has sort of fallen into that cultural hypnosis which has been, not just deliberately done, because there are people producing the trinket machines so that they can make money for themselves. But the hypnosis is if we just got the right thing, whatever it is we’re being told we haven’t got, we lack something – get this, you’ll feel okay. And it works a little bit. Your daughter gets her trinket and she feels okay for, I don’t know, five minutes or whatever. In our lives we play these games. We get our bits of paper and we go and exchange them for something else. And we feel okay, we buy new pieces of clothing. We feel great. And the hypnosis is we think it’s the getting the trinket or whatever it is, the friendship, the great movie, the gourmet meal. We think that’s what’s made us happy. It’s actually, ironically, the opposite. We create discontent and we haven’t got something. Your daughter is sitting there and there is a sense of discontent but I’m going to get something. There is something missing but I am going to feel okay when I get it. We create discontent and then that makes us – we don’t feel so good. And then when we get it the discontent resolves and we feel good. But we think it’s the trinket that makes us feel good instead of realizing we have temporarily stopped creating discontent, but only temporarily. Then we meet something else or some other advertisement. Something comes up or we read something and it’s like oh, something else I haven’t got, something else I need. And that to me is in Indian thought called the Wheel of Samsara – that endless – it literally means to wander on endlessly. We wander on from one thing to another just hoping if we finally got enough of the right goodies we would be in everlasting peace.
Alex Tsakiris: So I wonder, as you’re saying that, I keep going back to the earlier part of our conversation. And there seemed to be a lot of parallels there. I am not sure I can draw them all out. What are the parallels between that process – it echoed so many of the things we were talking about with science and science not being able to kind of find itself out of this mess because what it’s doing, in the same what that you’re saying, we’re kind of creating this need, this false need, in order to fill this false need. It seems to me that is kind of what science is doing, in a way. We’re creating or structuring problems that we can solve inside of a paradigm that isn’t real. So we’re creating, oh, here’s a little mystery that we can go and solve. But it’s not really related to these bigger problems, the problems that we really always asked science from the beginning. You kind of said, out of hand, that science can’t answer the big picture questions – who are we? Why are we here? I would go back and say that’s all we ever wanted science to do in the first place. Why have we spent all this time on all these plastic trinkets and all this other stuff? All we ever wanted from science was who are we and why are we here?
Peter Russell: Right, and if you take that actually all the way back the very, very first science was astronomy. And it was looking at the sky at night when we didn’t have television. All we had was the campfire and the stars and it was the charting of the stars and the wondering what was going on in the cosmos, the why are we here, that was the beginning of science, working all that and looking at the stars, looking at the sky, looking out into space. No, I don’t think it can answer those questions and never will. I think science is – well, where science goes, science leads to technology. When we discover something it’s how can we use this to make something, to do something? And then that technology falls into the service of this belief system that we just have to make things right to be happy. And so we start building technologies based on a scientific understanding of how to make things more efficient, how to make our computers boot up faster, bigger memory, whatever it is. How to get our cars more efficient, how to produce whatever it is, better food – it is always ultimately about human satisfaction. So technology feeds into how to make things more efficient, how to make us happier, how to relieve pain and suffering, whatever it is, some of which is very honorable. But it’s falling into this basic trap that fulfillment comes from how the world is, from what we have or do. So it’s seeking to make the world better. Whereas just about every spiritual teaching on the planet says in one way or another fulfillment comes from how you see the world, how you interpret the world. It’s not the way the world is, it’s our response to it that determines how we feel. And that’s what science started to look at, except maybe in some areas of psychology, it’s beginning to.
Alex Tsakiris: You know, it’s interesting you have now thrown the spirituality track down on the table as well. I’m mixing metaphors there but that’s something you have done a wonderful job of trying to cross over and cross-fertilize. But we always have a tendency to kind of want to pull those things apart. And I wonder, in the way that you just did that, where you just seamlessly went from science’s inability to answer these questions to talking about how spiritual traditions and in particular in the east, contemplative traditions that just really go within and say I can, by contemplating this consciousness mechanism that I have, maybe arrive at some questions. How do we transcend and make that new paradigm leap to allow us to bring in that information that we have from these traditions and also from our own observations, our own contemplative work.
Peter Russell: Wow, you ask good, great questions. We just don’t have a couple of hours. First of all, I would just like to say that I distinguish between spirituality and I think all the great religions started from deep spiritual insights, spiritual awakenings of people. They just had a realization which is almost sort of common – what Aldous Huxley called the perennial philosophy. It comes up again and again and again and it’s about things we talk about. It’s about letting go. It’s about discovering our true mature. It’s about realizing the love that is there within us. It’s about not chasing material things. There are many different aspects to it. And then it gets absorbed by the culture. It gets translated into different languages and bits get added on. Bits get lost and we end up with lots of different religions which look very different, so much so that they start arguing about which one is right. And I’m interested in what is it underneath all of this that is right? There is a common core there and that to me is what I call spirituality and the spiritual condition. There is a common core. Now, remind me of the second part of your question again?
Alex Tsakiris: Well, I think there is also a distinction that I would like to hear you make or draw out between the contemplative traditions and the spiritual spark. Because the spiritual spark almost seems by definition to come from the outside. And we don’t know, because once we get into that territory, once we cross this chasm and say okay, consciousness is not solely a product of the brain, I think we all realize that kind of all bets are off. We’ve got to go on into a zone where we are just kind of walking our way through. But I think that’s something that you’ve explored a little bit in this crossing over from a very kind of strict, formalized way of looking at it, to a spiritual kind of divine insight way and in between almost I think sits this contemplative, no, I’m not going to consider necessarily outside spiritual influences, although those might come in, but I’m just going to kind of go within and be quiet.
Peter Russell: Yeah, that’s been very much – yeah, that’s my approach. Supported by other people who have done the same. There is a lot of guidance and there from people have trod that path and gone a lot further down it than I have. And just another point, in coming back to science, I think science is studying the phenomenal world, what it calls the material world. And I would say the spiritual traditions are studying experience itself, the arising of experience. And the two are different fields. I don’t see any conflict between science and spirituality. Only when you think the spiritual is talking about the material world then there is conflict. You start talking about how the universe began and I think the spiritual traditions are talking about what goes on inside us. So that’s where the contemplative traditions I think are really valuable. It’s about pausing and being willing to observe what is actually happening in one’s own mind. And we touched on thoughts. Most of us spend our time wrapped up in thoughts, what you call the monkey mind. But when you pause and your thoughts begin to settle down, you can begin to notice how a thought comes into being. You can notice that tiny, tiny seed how that grows and how that sense of identity begins to get built into the thought. And as you notice how that’s happening you can see what’s happening and you can then begin to deconstruct it. And in that deconstructing we just return back to that, what I call that sense of being, pure self, whatever. And there you start meeting something, and I think it can be given the name divine. It meets that sort of idea of the divine in many ways. In that sense it is the peace of God, it is the love of God, it is omnipresent, always there and unchanging. It is forgiving, all those qualities. And then in some traditions you are there to make that contact with something outside you, beyond you, that sort of God. Or it is something that is transcendent within you. How you interpret that is it varies within your culture. But I think that is the universal experience, the universal awakening of realizing almost everything we’re looking for in essence is already there in ourselves, but it is veiled by the thinking, the planning, the doing, the wanting, the wishing, the hoping, the avoiding, and all the stuff we get into that fills the mind up. And that very quiet level of peace and contentment is just veiled and we don’t notice it. And that to me is where the contemplation comes in of just being willing to sit and notice what’s actually going on.
Alex Tsakiris: So Peter, it’s been quite a ride that you’re on and you’ve obviously still going strong. What kind of projects are you working on now? Any books? I know you still write. I read a post recently in the Huffington Post. What’s going on with you right now?
Peter Russell: Too many things. I am working on a new video on the primacy of consciousness. I’ve got a video on YouTube which was just a lecture I gave a few years ago, a ten-minute lecture which was sort of gone viral. It has got over a third of a million hits on the primacy of consciousness, which was not made as a good video. It is just me lecturing with slides and things. But it has got so much good response I am now working on collapsing that down to something like a 20-minute video and really refining the argument, taking it deeper, and producing a whole lot of new visuals to go with it. That’s what I’m currently working on.
Alex Tsakiris: Great. I have seen that video, it’s great.
Peter Russell: There is going to be a remake of it and a refining of it and trying to make it a lot more popular. People love it so I want to go for sort of more popular outreach with the animation things. I have got some new meditation course I am doing online. I’ve got one which has been quite popular and I want to make an advanced version of that. I have got a whole – I talk about books. I am not sort of writing books so much these days. It takes so long to do them and there is a whole publishing cycle, the promotion cycle. And things are changing so fast I’m working on going by the straight to audio book or straight to e-book on several subjects. I have got one on letting go, which is halfway done. I’ve got another book which is almost a sequel to that on seeking, but how the seeking self arises in consciousness and just an understanding of how pure consciousness in a way separates into a separate sense of self and the rest of the world, and how that separate sense of self ends up seeking something. So that is something I am excited by myself at the moment.
Alex Tsakiris: Just so people know, if someone is interested in your online meditation training what’s the easiest way for them to find you? Is it through your website?
Peter Russell: The easiest way to find anything of mine is through my website, which is PeterRussell.com and just make sure you have two “L”s on the Russell because otherwise you end up on some typo squatter. But it’s PeterRussell.com and there you can access the meditation course. There are links to all my videos, my blogs, everything. You will find it through the site in one way or another. My newsletter, everything. That’s the portal to accessing stuff on YouTube or whatever it is. And if you get my newsletter then you get notifications of new things as they come out or you subscribe to my YouTube channel, whatever.
Alex Tsakiris: I have been to the website. There is a vast amount of information there with some great stuff. And those YouTube videos you mentioned are definitely worth watching, so I hope people check those out as well. So Peter, thanks again for joining me. It’s been great talking to you on Skeptiko. I know we have kind of meandered around some different topics but I guess I was serving my own needs there of interest in this idea of the intersection between science and meditation and between the paradigm shifts that you have pointed out with consciousness.
Peter Russell: Yeah, it’s been great. I mean, I don’t mind wandering around, I love it. I think we have covered a lot of good stuff and we could go on for hours on any of it. But it has been great.