Dr. Karen Jaenke discusses her approach to Consciousness Studies at JFK University.

photo by: Skeptiko

On this episode of Skeptiko…

Alex Tsakiris: I want to read this next question, so folks don’t think I’m sandbagging you. The question I wrote: “Are your students rioting against the university’s secular humanists, demanding recognition of soul and spirit? Are they protesting against atheistic feminism? I’m kidding of course, you but get the point. The central issue, relative to the intersection of consciousness and politics, seems to have been swallowed in a shallow thinking ocean of, ‘not my president’ identity politics.”

I mean, the issue here is ‘we are more’, we are more than biological robots in a meaningless universe. We have a spirit. We have a soul. So why not join arms with local seminary students and march on Berkeley? That’s really the battle here and it mystifies me how folks in your camp – of which I am part of – do not see the divide; the real divide is between atheistic materialism, which is the underlying dogma of science, and the kind of creative spiritualism, which is, I think, what you’re whole program is really all about. Haven’t we misidentified the real cause of the friction here?

Dr. Karen Jaenke: I’m not sure. I guess Alex, you know, people are going to be where they’re going to be in their consciousness evolution. If people are in an atheistic world, my sense is they’re probably suffering from that, even though they may be gloating from that. So, I mean, I guess my question to you is, why are you bothered by those people?

Stay with us for Skeptiko…

Welcome to Skeptiko where we explore controversial science and spirituality with leading researchers, thinkers and their critics. I’m your host, Alex Tsakiris, and this week a listener suggested guest, and a good one, Dr. Karen Jaenke, who heads up a consciousness studies program at JFK University.

So there were two topics I sought to explore in my interview with Karen and she did a fabulous [job]; I really appreciate her coming on and talking about them, because they were both kind of pushing the edge a little bit, but I think she does a great job of putting forth a new and different perspective. Those two issues are: 1) consciousness from a transpersonal psychology and spiritual perspective. That is, doing an end run on the scientific debate about neuroscience. Can we take that path? Where does that path lead? What are the issues surrounding that kind of expansion of consciousness without ever defining what consciousness is? So that’s number one, and the second issue is: 2) Since JFK University, her university, is very outwardly, socially, orientated, what is the intersection between consciousness and politics, and in particular, this expanded view of consciousness and politics? How does that play out, how might our understanding of consciousness inform right action?

So, those are the two topics that I wanted to talk about and I did with our guest this week, Dr. Karen Jaenke. I hope you enjoy the interview.



Subscribe to Skeptiko with iTunes
Subscribe to Skeptiko with YouTube

Click here for forum discussion

Click here for Karen’s website

Check out Laird’s: Index of Skeptiko threads & related resources

Read Excerpts:


Alex Tsakiris: Today we welcome Karen Jaenke to Skeptiko. Dr. Jaenke is Chair of the Consciousness and Transformative Studies Program at John F Kennedy University in the San Francisco Bay area. [It is] a program whose mission is to ‘explore and expand consciousness and human potential and to foster conscious leadership in service of personnel, organizational, cultural and ecological change’.

So Karen, with that introduction and a very great, interesting mission statement, welcome to Skeptiko, thanks for joining me.

Dr. Karen Jaenke: Thank you for inviting me.

Alex Tsakiris: Well it’s a pleasure. You were recommended to me by a listener and I thought it would be a good fit since the main focus of our show is consciousness science, but then I started digging into more of what you’re doing up there at the very interesting JFK University, and we kind of exchanged some emails back and I said, “Hey, what are you talking about with this consciousness thing? You seem to be coming at it from a different direction.” So, as we were just chatting and I poked at you a little bit in my emails and you, in some very appropriate, interesting, intelligent ways kind of poked back at me, so I think we’re going to have a good chat.

I want to talk about JFK University, I want talk about the program, the very interesting program you have going on there, but let me start with this. Karen, what is consciousness, what is your working definition of what consciousness is?

Dr. Karen Jaenke: Well, I’m really glad you asked that question because that terms gets thrown around in so many different ways in everyday language, and I think, if you start mixing up different understandings of consciousness, then of course you have a mixed up conversation from the start.

So, I think some people speak, about consciousness as mind in general, referring to the mental process involving all organizations and some people speak about it as the reflective consciousness that human beings have, which is generally considered to be a higher order of consciousness. So, I think we have to be really clear about which definition we’re using or which aspect of consciousness we’re looking at.

In an everyday sense you could say consciousness refers to sentience or awareness, and sometimes it’s referred to as mind as opposed to matter.

To me, one of the clarifying ways to think about consciousness is to draw on living systems theory and basically living systems theory says that mind is present at all levels of matter. In other words, what every system in the universe does, from a particle to the universe as a whole, is process information and process an exchange energy.

So, that information processing function that’s present, even in particles, you could think of as the beginning of a kind of consciousness. I mean, you could use information processing as a definition of consciousness, that we’re taking information from the world, processing it and that is guiding our interactions with the world.

So, if you speak about consciousness in that way, and then I think we have to allow that there’s a spectrum of consciousness at more sophisticated levels, presumably going up to human beings, at least we credit ourselves as having the highest forms of consciousness, of which we can question some of that too. Actually from a systems perspective, we’re the only species on the planet that has ever systematically destroyed its own environment.

Alex Tsakiris: Okay, but hold on, before we get off, too far into the social issues and even ecological issues. I kind of understand where you’re going there, but you can see where the line gets a little bit fuzzy. I mean, let’s bring it back into focus with some of the questions that you were just asking there. Is consciousness an epiphenomenon of the brain? This is something we were just chatting about a second ago because I was saying, “Karen, it kind of seems like you’re doing an end run on neuroscience.” I mean, if we go over and ask a neuroscientist, like I have many times on this show, “Is consciousness created by the brain?” they emphatically say, “Yes, consciousness is a product of the brain, human consciousness. When the human brain ceases to function, consciousness is no longer there.” What is your take on that?

Dr. Karen Jaenke: Well, I definitely think that there is an association of consciousness with the brain, at least a human form of consciousness. I mean, again, I want to open up the door that consciousness, as information processing, as processing and organizing life exists at all levels of all systems, not just human systems, but then when you want to speak about self-reflective consciousness, the kind of consciousness that seemingly human beings alone possess, i.e. a consciousness that can reflect on itself, that can witness itself, can observe itself.

Alex Tsakiris: Maybe let’s get off of this track for a second and talk a little bit more about you and your background, because I think what you just alluded to, in terms of spiritually transformative experiences, fit very well into what we might consider in terms of near-death experience science. So, let me back all the way back up, because you have a really interesting background [as] seminary student at Princeton, who then kind of goes through somewhat of a transformation of your own. So please tell us that story.

Dr. Karen Jaenke: Okay, that’s a good place to begin because I think it really grounds where I’ve gone with this field of study, as it very much comes out of my own life experiences and I guess this is part of my problem with trying to discuss consciousness in abstract terms that are devoid of the biography of the discussant. I think that’s where you get into some problematic territory.

So, you alluded to my experience in seminary. I was a spiritual seeker from early on and in my last year of seminary, and a couple of years after I finished seminary, I worked as a prison chaplain and I was working – actually it was in the late 80s – I was working with people with AIDS. I was assigned to an AIDS unit and this was in the state of New Jersey. There was no cure for AIDS. In addition to that I was going to visit the sole woman on death row in the state of New Jersey at the request of the administrator of the prison. So, I was about 30 years old and I was just completely immersed in death.

Alex Tsakiris: Well, I agree with you completely, but to me that kind of gets back to the original question. So, if we’re operating under a paradigm that says consciousness is an illusion, so therefore experience is fundamentally an illusion, but I never think we make that explicit. So I see where you’re coming from and I totally get that, we have to reintroduce first person experience, but what about some kind of balance, you know?

I just did an interview, not too long ago, [with] Dr. Jeffrey Long, who always kind of my ‘go to’ guy. He’s an oncologist who got really interested in studying near-death experience and has collected the largest database of near-death experiences.

So, now he has first-person experiences and for the super-scientific minded, I always point out that if you go out and do a medical survey on pain, if you go out and do a medical survey on depression, which are the building blocks for all the pharmacological solutions we have for that, well that’s all first-person experience. You’re saying, “Well how did you feel? How did you feel this morning? How did you feel after you took this medication?” That’s first-person experience.

So that is a part of science and we do have a way of handling it, but I digress slightly because, what Jeff has done has taken spiritually transformative experiences, that’s what people have when they have these near-death experiences, they’re spiritually transforming, and then he tries to look systemically at that and I think that rigor is important and that’s, I guess, one thing that I’m looking for a little bit, when we say, “Hey, everyone’s first person experience matter.” Well, I don’t know, don’t we have to be a little more systematic than that?

Dr. Karen Jaenke: Absolutely, no absolutely Alex, you’re totally right, I mean we have to add some other things into the mix with first-person experience. One is what I was mentioning earlier: the Buddhist would tell us that an undisciplined consciousness is an unreliable observer of truth and this is where, what I was saying earlier about, what does it mean to develop one’s own consciousness, to develop one’s own powers of self-observation?

Part of what we teach students in the program is [that] they learn multiple lenses from affect theory, from emotional intelligence to psychological schemas to Buddhist or medication practices. In other words, we learn many ways of observing ourselves; we have many lenses for observing ourselves as well as practices.

So yes, you need a disciplined consciousness to be able to observe, accurately, what’s happening within your own consciousness.

The consensus validation of science does not have to be thrown out of the window, you can have multiple reports of similar experiences from different people. So if you gathered enough first-person data on similar experiences, then you have something wider to reference.

Then thirdly, and I think this is where the cutting edge of consciousness research needs to go, is [that] you can bring neuroscience into the mix by trying to look at what is happening in the brain when certain types of experiences are happening. I mean, this is how we came to understand, in the dream studies world, you know, the sleep cycle in the 1950s was a combination of hooking people up to machines and seeing what was happening in their brains and waking them up and getting a self-report of what was going on in their consciousness.

That’s where the future is headed, as we develop more instrumentation to do the neuroscience research, we can start to combine first-person experience from reliable reporters, people who have trained their consciousness, with the neuroscience and burrow in on this question of what is the relationship between the brain mechanisms and experience. I sense that’s where you interest is.

From my perspective, I’m not willing to throw out my own experience, a study of consciousness needs to accommodate a study of experience. That doesn’t mean we throw out the neuroscience piece; I think those self-reports have to be coordinated with processes to understand what’s going on in the brain at the same time and then we get closer to this kind of mystery place of how these two are related to each other.

Alex Tsakiris: Great stuff. Let’s talk about the other topic I wanted to kind of bring up, which is consciousness and politics, because in your very nicely done mission statement that I read earlier, you reference organizational, cultural, and ecological levels of consciousness. I think that’s a very, very tricky transition to make, but let’s also understand that J[ohn]F Kennedy University, as you say — and I’ve come to know through researching you — that’s kind of cooked into the DNA of the university, to be socially consciousness and to be proactively socially active.

So one, let’s talk about how we make that transition: what is right action in that way, and then I’ll come back later and talk specifically about some of the problems I see with consciousness and politics.

Dr. Karen Jaenke: Yes. I mentioned in one of our email exchanges the theory of spiral dynamics, and I know Ken Wilber has appropriated that theory but it’s actually not his original theory, it goes back to a guy named Clare Graves who was doing development research and this again is the question about, what does it mean to develop our consciousness, both individually and collectively? I think that’s a question that gets left out in some of these mainstream science questions; what does it mean to develop one’s own consciousness and then what does it mean for our culture or an organization to develop its own consciousness?

That’s where Clare Graves went and then Don Beck carried on his research along with Christopher Cowen; those are were really the three main people. Ken Wilber appropriated spiral dynamics into his own theory, he’s a great synthesizer but loses some things in the process.

Alex Tsakiris: No, but a very important, interesting guy. Please, go ahead.

Dr. Karen Jaenke: So after the 2016 election, so many people in my circles were shocked, disturbed, stunned at what had happened. I think a lot of liberal California felt that way and maybe other parts of the country. So, when you look for explanations about how did this election happen the way it did and what were the parts that were involved that allowed Donald Trump to be elected, I think spiral dynamics has some power to illuminate a very confusing situation.

Basically, in spiral dynamics, different colors are used to code different levels of development and each level of development — both at the individual level and at the cultural level — encompasses the prior levels of development and there’s an overall movement toward accommodating greater complexity.

So, in the spiral dynamics model, most conservatives would be, at what they call blue and orange, blue being kind of an authoritarian… I should just back up and say, each of these colors are associated with primary values and world view and there are differentiations as you go through them. So blue tends to be authoritarian and are very loyal to truth, defined by social groupings, [and] it leads people to obey authority.

Then you have orange, which is entrepreneurial, it’s the entrepreneurial spirit and has a personal success orientation, people calculating their personal advantage. So most people would say the Republican Party is kind of a combination of blue and orange.

Then you have green, which is obviously begins to focus on environmental issues, it’s humanistic, it’s interested in personal growth and community, everyone has a voice, [and] it’s very egalitarian. So most liberals tend to be at orange or green.

Then yellow is the first level that takes into account systems thinking and holistic thinking and this is what we don’t see a lot of in our country. So this tendency of the parties to polarize against each other is part of what, in the model, is called first tier consciousness, which is any time we polarize with the other, we’re still in first tier consciousness. Only when you make that leap to yellow and then beyond yellow is turquoise, do you get an ability to think systemically and to take into account all of the voices.

Alex Tsakiris: Yeah but Karen, without getting into politics and kind of staying in the consciousness level, the thing that gets me is there’s a total mismatch. These are secular humanists, these are atheists for the most part, who are cooking up these ideas and that’s the mismatch with all the other stuff we’re talking about.

I want to read folks, so they don’t think I’m sandbagging you, the question I wrote you. I said, “Are your students rioting against the university’s secular humanists, demanding recognition of soul and spirit? Are they protesting against atheistic feminism?” I said, “I’m kidding of course, you but get the point.”

The central issue, relative to the intersection of consciousness and politics, seems to have been swallowed in a shallow thinking ocean of “Not my president!” identity politics. I mean, the issue here is that we are more than biological robots in a meaningless universe; we have a spirit, we have a soul, so why not go and join arms with your local seminary students and go and march on Berkeley? That’s really the battle here and it mystifies me how folks in your camp, of which I am part of, do not see the divide. The real divide is between atheistic materialism, which is the underlying dogma of science, and kind of creative spiritualism, which is, I think what you’re whole program is really all about. Haven’t we misidentified the real cause of the friction here?

Dr. Karen Jaenke: Yeah, I’m not sure. I guess Alex, you know, people are going to be where they’re going to be in their consciousness evolution. If people are in an atheistic world, my sense is they’re probably suffering from that, even though they may be gloating from that. So, I mean, I guess my question to you is, why are you bothered by those people?

Alex Tsakiris: For the same reason that we were talking about and we found kind of a bond or a similar thinking, in terms of how we move things forward, how we all go through our own transformation and we want to talk to other people who are at some point in that journey, right?

So in talking about that spiritually transformative experience journey, to me the big stumbling block — for me and for a lot of people — was overcoming this ingrained dogma that you are nothing; this is what science teaches us. I mean, I have four kids, three of them are still in high school, one of them just graduated college. This is what they’re indoctrinated with throughout, that the universe is meaningless, you are therefore meaningless, you are a biological robot and we can play all these nice little games but none of it is really real and we’re not religious people so we can’t really go down that route and that has all its own problems.

So, where are we left and then we turn and these are our allies — these secular humanists, atheists? I don’t think so. I find more comfort in talking to progressive Christians or Buddhists or people who are at least in the game in terms of thinking about what that more is.

Dr. Karen Jaenke: My experience is that the people who adopt a meaningless view of life and the universe suffer for that. That does not come without a price tag. Again, I’m referring it back to their own consciousness. From my perspective that’s a very contracted way to live, but if people choose to live in that contracted form, I’m going to allow them to do that and I’m going to do my own thing and my own thing happens to be about expansion of consciousness and obviously meaning, deep meaning in every facet of life.

I think we can look at the limitations of someone adopting a meaningless view, that kind of cynical view. If someone wants to go through life that way, you know, I’m not going to stop them, but I’m not going to join them either.

Alex Tsakiris: But you are going to offer an alternative, so let’s talk a little bit more about… because we haven’t really talked about JFK University. Tell us specifically what’s going on there and what people are going to find in this program. Is it just a master’s degree program or do you also offer a PhD program?

Dr. Karen Jaenke: We’re interested in turning out people, as you saw in our mission statement, consciousness and action is a phrase that we use because we want people to spend quite a bit of time investigating their own consciousness, working out the problems in their own consciousness, the conflicts, the shadows, the hidden parts… you know, the black holes.

I was talking earlier about my own trauma and the way trauma basically creates a black hole in consciousness; it creates a kind of contracted response to life. From my perspective some of these naysayer people that you’re talking about, are caught in a contraction, a contraction of their own consciousness that is not an enviable place to live. Most of the students who are drawn to this program have had some kind of jarring experience to their own consciousness, and I think you’ll find that’s what tends to wake people up.

  • More From Skeptiko

  • Comments