[Bear with me, this is a very long post which covers some heavy ground. But it’s important to me.]
How do we know what’s real?
Possible answers may include…
It’s real if…
- … scientific evidence tells us it’s real.
- … a majority of the people around me agree it’s real.
- … my Holy Book tells me it’s real.
- … an authority figure such as a parent, teacher or priest tells me it’s real.
- … I experienced it and it feels real to me.
- … it taught me something useful.
What if all of the above are just different versions of reality?
I used to believe only the first answer… in scientific evidence. I thought that without good evidence, any assertion might as well be nonsense.
My understanding of what could constitute reality widened a little when I got into the party scene in my 20s. Many of the best times of my life have involved party drugs such as MDMA (Ecstasy) and Ketamine. These drugs can radically alter your perception of what’s real.
N.B. I am not advocating or condoning drug use. I am an addict currently receiving treatment from a 12 Steps fellowship. Drugs have hospitalised me multiple times. It’s a grave mistake to take them lightly.
While you’re “high” on drugs, you can feel incredibly connected to the people around you. You feel happy, you laugh a lot, you feel a strong connection with others. It’s such a beautiful feeling and we rarely feel it when sober.
But as the movie Human Traffic so brilliantly demonstrated, when you come down, it can feel very deflating. That person you were chatting to for ages and felt they might be your new best mate… now they’re just mildly annoying and all sense of connection has been lost.
So, which was real? Your normal, sober, daily life? Or the wonderful, blissful, connected love you felt thanks to the drugs?
Many years ago, I posed this question to a good friend of mine:
“I’m having some of the best times of my life on these nights out when I’m on drugs… but is it real?”Bollinger, R. (sometime back in his 20s)
This question really concerned me. I didn’t want to feel like the best times of my life were some kind of delusion… or a lie.
His answer surprised me. After all, he was even more logical, rational and scientific than I was.
“Does it matter? If it felt real to you, then it was real.”Friend of Bollinger, R. (in the same conversation as above)
This struck me as profound. My understanding of reality expanded: it wasn’t just what science had learned, it could also be what I’ve experienced. That applied even when under the influence of very potent narcotics.
I read a fascinating book recently about neuroscience and human perception. It demonstrated, through a series of well-designed scientific experiments, that humans do not perceive reality accurately at all. Much of what we experience is “confabulated”. In other words, it’s our brains’ clever ability to fill in the gaps of our perception with what we think should be there.
And yet, we’re all under a collective delusion that we do perceive reality accurately (well, at least when we’re sane and sober).
Let me tell you something… life did not evolve to perceive reality accurately. Rather, life evolved to perceive the world in ways which are useful for survival.
Humans often make this mistake… we mistake our internal maps and models of the world for the real world.
“The map is not the territory”
A good example is depression. To a depressed person, it feels like their perception of reality is very real. They genuinely believe their life is worthless and (in extreme cases) everyone would be better off if they were dead.
So, you could say that a depressed person isn’t perceiving reality accurately. But what do we mean by that? What we really mean is that they’re not perceiving reality in the same way as most other people.
However, there is some startling scientific evidence which shows that under certain conditions, depressed people actually perceive reality more accurately than “healthy” people.
How can that be true? Well, one explanation is that “healthy” people are all under a collective delusion which makes us much more optimistic than reality might logically justify.
It seems that humans need hope in order to survive and thrive. Without hope, humans become depressed and want to die. But with hope, anything becomes possible.
But, from a scientific perspective, hope also seems to be just a delusion.
“We didn’t evolve to perceive reality accurately. We evolved to perceive reality in a way which is beneficial for our survival.“Bollinger, R. (Now much older and wiser)
From a scientific perspective, this is one of the most “real” and profound truths out there about the nature of our reality.
Back when it first became apparent that I had a problem with drugs, I sought treatment.
I went to my first 12 Steps fellowship meeting. I hated it – it felt like a cult. I didn’t go back to another of these meetings until several years later.
I also attended a separate drug treatment programme, which I think was funded by the local council. It was a bit of a joke.
In some of the group sessions, one of the staff members attempted to teach us something important about self development. Except… he didn’t understand the concepts properly (maybe even at all). He kept muddling things up and mis-explaining things. He was the least competent trainer/teacher I’d encountered in my life.
At least one other addict agreed – if his regular snoring in these meetings was any indication of his level of engagement.
I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I could have done a better job of teaching those sessions… an active drug user in the grip of addiction, whose knowledge of how to improve himself had been (mostly) self-taught from books.
I lasted maybe 3 weeks in that treatment programme. At least it was longer than the single evening for which I stomached the 12 Steps meeting.
To be fair, at that point in time I was looking for reasons to reject the help which was being offered. I thought I could handle my drug problems on my own. I wasn’t 100% sure I even was an addict. (For clarity: I was, it’s just that my ego prevented me from admitting it to myself).
It was in a one-to-one counselling session with that same member of staff when the decisive blow was struck. I walked out of the treatment programme and never came back.
This member of staff had just told me that I “wasn’t a real addict.”
By this, he meant that I wasn’t addicted to heroin (unlike how he used to be). It suddenly occurred to me that in his mind, there was a hierarchy of addicts, with heroin as the most real and serious. For him, addictions to prescription drugs were almost frivolous.
But the thing is, I felt my addiction was deadly serious. It was a big part of the reason why I had separated from my wife not long before. I was depressed and felt that almost the only thing which gave my life any sense of meaning was the drugs I was addicted to.
If that’s not serious addiction, I don’t know what is.
Imagine going to the doctor with suicidal levels of depression and being told, “Nah, it’s all just in your head.”
It feels awful to be totally invalidated like that. It feels like your concerns and difficulties are unimportant. It feels like you’re stupid.
It feels like other people don’t believe your problems are real.
And that’s how I felt, thanks to this staff member’s casual dismissal of my addiction.
Interestingly, 12 Steps fellowships take a different approach. For them, what’s important is whether the individual considers themselves to be an addict. If they do, then they are.
To 12 Steps fellowships, subjective experience is more important than any objective yardstick.
At that point I decided I didn’t need any external help for my drug problems…
… But that was a big mistake. Drugs would come back to bite me again and again over the coming years.
In the last week or so on this blog, I’ve mentioned a few times that I’ve recently fallen out with a couple of friends.
In essence, the main disagreement was about whether I’ve genuinely experienced a Spiritual Awakening, or whether I’m merely deluded due to psychosis and/or mania.
One of these friends was initially very supportive of my intuitions and insights. She believed that I was having a Spiritual Awakening. I felt validated and listened to.
She helped me feel like I wasn’t just going insane.
She shared her own experiences and intuitions from a few years ago which closely matched up to mine. I felt we were on the same page. We had both awakened spiritually.
But then her views towards me changed very suddenly.
She came to realise that my Spiritual Awakening experiences had been preceded by a session of heavy drug use and I’d received a provisional diagnosis of drug-induced psychosis.
Suddenly, all of my experiences, which she’d previously supported, were totally invalid in her eyes.
According to her, what I’d experienced wasn’t a real Spiritual Awakening, it was just a set of delusions brought on by drugs.
It didn’t seem to matter that up until the point at which she knew drugs were involved, she’d been taking my Spiritual Awakening very seriously.
Just like the staff member back at the drug treatment centre, she seemed to have very rigid ideas about what was real or not real. According to these other people:
- I wasn’t a real addict, and;
- I also hadn’t experienced a real Spiritual Awakening.
Since then, I’ve been reflecting on that phrase another friend said about our partying experiences many years ago…
“If it feels real to you, then it’s real.”
Why does it matter if my experiences didn’t fit someone’s pre-defined notion of what a Spiritual Awakening looks like? I was still thinking and feeling as if I was having one. I was still coming up with crazy levels of insight and intuition which looked very much like a Spiritual Awakening.
Who is to say that her definition was complete and correct? She’d already told me she didn’t think of herself as any kind of authority on spiritual matters, and yet here she was, acting like an authority figure towards me.
Not long after, she stopped talking to me. To me, it felt like a cruel and unnecessary betrayal.
Now, credit where credit is due: this woman is extremely intelligent and has an accomplished career. She is knowledgeable about a wide range of subjects. She is kind, wise and perceptive. Over the last year or so, she has started to feel like a really good friend to me. We seem to share a lot in common and understand each other.
She also doesn’t have an easy life. She’s dealing with multiple difficult issues right now and is demonstrating considerable strength of character and wisdom. So the last thing she needs is a psychotic friend like me adding to her woes.
She is a good person, doing her best, under difficult circumstances.
She had written me off completely merely because my definition of a Spiritual Awakening didn’t fit hers, even though up until then it very much looked and felt and sounded like one to both of us.
She made the classic mistake of thinking she knew more about my own experiences and what was best for me than I did myself. Please don’t ever invalidate someone like that – it feels truly horrible.
It’s also quintessentially arrogant. Who are you to say that your definition of a Spiritual Awakening is more valid than mine? Just because you’ve had some limited experiences of similar things in the past? That doesn’t make you an expert! It just means you’ve seen some people who at first felt they had Spiritual Awakenings, but some of them later felt differently.
“If it feels real to you, then it’s real.”
Similarly, if you’ve ever experienced depression and recovered from it, that doesn’t make you an expert on depression. You don’t then have the right to inflict your unsolicited advice onto other depressed people under the assumption your experiences and lessons will help them too. Often, such advice will do more harm than good. That’s because everyone is different. And yet, I see people making this mistake all the time.
The professions of counselling, life coaching and many others take a different approach. They put the person and their experiences first, no matter how “crazy” they might seem.
12 Steps fellowships do something similar. There’s a focus on similarities, not on what’s different.
I’m lucky that I have quite a robust sense of faith in myself. I’m lucky I have an intelligent brain and can sort through difficult problems in an analytical way.
I’m lucky that I question everything, try to make up my own mind about things, and don’t listen dogmatically to everyone who considers themselves to be an expert.
Not everyone is as lucky as me. When a friend invalidates your experiences and then abandons you, that can be enough to push vulnerable people (drug addicts or the depressed) even further into their illnesses.
I’m lucky that I’m relatively strong (at the moment).
My Spiritual Awakening is real because it feels real to me.
At a later date, maybe I will decide to amend some of my beliefs around my Spiritual Awakening.
But how is that different to normal human behaviour? We update our conceptual maps all the time based on new information. That doesn’t necessarily mean we should denigrate or dismiss our previous experiences as invalid. We were doing the best we could at the time with the information we had available.
“If it feels real to you, then it’s real.”
I said in another blog post that I hope my two friendships can be salvaged. I really want to just be good friends again and continue to support each other. Life’s hard enough already without losing good people from your life. Fingers crossed.