The Omnipresence of Consciousness
A Conversation with Jim George
James George is a retired Canadian diplomat who served with distinction as High Commissioner to India and Ambassador to Nepal and Iran. Chögyam Trungpa called him “a wise and benevolent man, an ideal statesman,” and the Dalai Lama refers to him as an “old friend.” He has known many important spiritual teachers of the twentieth century and has a long-standing commitment to environmental issues. A founder of the Threshold Foundation and president of the Sadat Peace Foundation, he led the international mission to Kuwait and the Persian Gulf to assess post-war environmental damage. He is the author of Asking for the Earth and The Little Green Book On Awakening. He lives with his wife, Barbara Wright, in Toronto.
I had the good fortune to spend a long weekend retreat in May with Jim and Barbara in Boulder, Colorado. In spite of the intensity of the weekend, Jim graciously agreed to a conversation and we met in his home at the foot of the mountains. At age ninety-six, Jim is lucid and sharp, like a translucent diamond radiating the wisdom and experience of a well-lived life.
— David Ulrich
David Ulrich: I am touched by the question you raised in your Parabola review of Larry Dossey’s book One Mind: “Is one mind, one consciousness the common thread guiding us towards flashes of insight of the whole from the mind of the ‘Being of Beings,’ to use Gurdjieff’s trenchant phrase?” Could you speak more about the relationship of one mind to our search for consciousness?
James George: Well, you’re leaping into deep water right away. Let’s swim!
What I’m coming to lately is an end-of-life conviction that there is more to consciousness than what is produced in my little head, or yours. Both of us have the capacity, at times, mysteriously, to get beyond whatever this small consciousness is doing and telling us. When we are able, when we are sufficiently still and relaxed–letting it happen, not doing it–we can receive a resonance from a greater consciousness.
Many spiritual masters I’ve known, and also eminent scientists like Carl Jung, echo this belief. Just before Jung died, the BBC managed to interview him. And he was free enough at that stage of his life to say things without looking over his shoulder and worrying about his scientific reputation. He said: “Man cannot stand a meaningless life. Something in us sees around corners, knows beyond time and space, so may continue in that state after our physical death. Those who fear death as the End, die soon. Those who think they will go on, die old.”
Fear is constricting. In fact, so are all those self-concerns for one’s reputation, for one’s ideas, even for what the next association is telling me. For example, am I just thinking of what I should say to you now? Or am I open to something that could be quite new, that is not really coming so much from me as from this source consciousness that many traditions have called “I”? I’m referring to the consciousness that manages to see what things are, what I am, and to not get caught in the next reaction or judgment or association–because all of these are functions; and consciousness is not a function.
DU: When I experience an echo or a hint of that consciousness, there’s a distinct experience that something can move through me. And I even begin to feel impotent without that sense of connection to a greater knowing,
JG: I think our entire culture has been rendered impotent by its disconnection from that consciousness, from anything that we could really call sacred. It’s so sad that even such a great mind as Francis Crick [co-discoverer of the structure of DNA] could say: “Well, I’ll tell you what consciousness is. The brain produces consciousness the way the kidneys produce urine.”
DU: No, no. But then you have someone like Erwin Schrödinger [Nobel physicist] who wrote: “Consciousness is a singular of which the plural is unknown.” The search for consciousness occupies a lot of my attention because I recognize that I am not conscious and not whole. I have an idea of this phrase “one mind,” that I associate with a mental activity. But for me ironically what we call “one mind” is carried in part on the wings of feeling.
Chögyam Trungpa used as an entry point to inner work what he called basic sanity, but then later changed it to basic goodness. It seems to me that one mind or consciousness is deeply related to the whole of myself, which includes feeling, not just mind as I know it.
JG: Without being in love with consciousness, we can’t reach it, and it can’t reach us while we’re preoccupied with all that is going on in our ordinary thought, our ordinary bodily habits, sensations, movements, and our ordinary emotional reactions. These are what I am calling functions.
It’s as if we have two natures: a functional nature and what many people have been calling a spiritual nature or a soul. But that language is suspect these days because we have been so careful for the last couple of centuries to separate from the superstitions of the past that we have involuntarily cut ourselves off from the sacred, and even from God.
DU: I think we also have to ask where is this leading us as a culture. Something is going down. And I have grave concern for the earth. It seems to me that we really need to come into a relationship with the sacred, with the search for consciousness, if our world is to continue on a healthy path.
JG: I agree. In the environmental movement that I’ve been part of for thirty years, I’ve been saying that the problem is not just in our technology or in our corporate system, but inside ourselves. What has to change more radically is my whole attitude to nature, from one of domination to an attitude of stewardship. It’s a hard sell these days, though the need for such a radical change has been laid out in all of the great traditions.
When we talk about the need for a less self-centered attitude or for waking up, it’s a change of consciousness, a change of mind from an identified mind that is just presenting its next automatic association–and assuming it can control our entire life that way–to a mind that is still and open and able to receive something from this greater mind that Carl Jung was invoking earlier. Like you, I am searching for who I am, and by now I know that I am not going to find an answer in my functional machinery, ticking away automatically, but in my essential mind, just aware attention, watching.
As the Dalai Lama has been pointing out in recent years, the Tibetan language has two words for these two very different kinds of “mind”: The ordinary automatic mind that they call Sem, and this other receptive stillness, which has no judgments, no associations, that they call Rigpa and translate as awareness. It’s a beautiful statement in a few sentences of what has previously been a very secret Tibetan practice called dzogchen, closely allied to what Gurdjieff and others have taught as the wordless way of being totally present now, in this moment. . . .
We’re all designed with this possibility. But what is obstructing the realization of that human potential…
DU: … is me!
JG: It’s me. This narcissistic preoccupation with my story, my difficulty, which always has a kind of negative touch to it because I am complaining about what is wrong with me either physically or mentally. And the quiet, impartial, impersonal mind, consciousness, with which I could be connected, is blocked by that.
It is so important to understand awareness as a connector to something greater than me, to my source, really. My presence is the doorway to that, even at the moment that I acknowledge that I don’t know who I am and I see my lack of presence. But that is the beginning of a real wish for it, a wish to be.
And when I have that wish, then maybe something can reach me that is of an absolutely different quality. I may perceive it as an axis of light running down through my physical body, which has a different origin. Gurdjieff says the physical body comes from this earth, and this other…my essence…comes from the stars, from the sun, from higher up, in a sense, closer to the source.
We have such a resistance to even the theoretical idea that we could, right now, you and I, be breathing an air charged with the omnipresence of consciousness, the omniscience of consciousness. We’ve all had, perhaps rarely, a direct experience of a moment when I knew everything at once and I was aware not just of what I’m calling this present moment, but of past, present, future, as one eternity. These are just words at this moment. But I remember it wasn’t just a word, it was a flash of light, of electricity from the top of my head to my toes. And it changed something in my cellular structure that persists today. I feel that now. And everybody has this possibility for a change. As you say, we have to be aware of our need, in order to be receptive to this source consciousness, to wake up in a larger sense.
DU: You just created a link. We have to be aware of our need but in order to be aware of our need we need to really see ourselves as we are.
JG: Yes, see ourselves as we are–not trying to change anything, and not trying to develop a soul because I’ve heard that it could be done, which is a mental idea. How do I include all of me: mind, body, feeling? All the functions have to be integrated. It’s not a search to escape from this altogether wonderful system of functioning that is a terrible master but could be a wonderful servant in a whole human being.
For the moment, I stop thinking, start sensing and feeling so as to integrate all the parts. Can I have a complete sensation of the body? Then, is it possible . . . [a few moments of silence, a gradual quieting overtakes the room.]
You see, each center has its own possibilities, ranging from its ordinary, automatic way of functioning to a more conscious way of being. When the mind becomes aware, there is clarity. When the body becomes aware, there is a sensation of life. And when the feelings are aware, there is the presence of love. These experiences, I find, come and go from the practice of the Work over the years. And when they go, can we at least stay in front of not knowing, without trying to change anything or do anything? Then it’s more of an effort to be here until something relaxes enough to let the light in from a crack in my shell.
DU: We need this in the world today. How do you see this question of the search for consciousness amongst us, individually and collectively? People say that this could bring something very fine into the world and even help heal the planet. It has to start with my search, but could this connection to one mind have broader cultural and ecological implications?
JG: All the great traditional records of inner experiences at the highest level of humanity–in different cultures, in different times–are united in saying that this is what we are designed to experience and to serve. The purpose of a human being is to serve as an intermediary so that this one mind can reach the low level of this planet, which desperately needs that infusion of life, of energy, in order to survive. And if a human being is required as a conductor, a bridge between those levels, then whether you or I achieve anything towards our own salvation is secondary to the contribution we are called to make as a service to this transmission of energy, when we are less asleep.
DU: I find myself moving in a direction where I wish to work for myself, I wish to work for others, but more and more I’m finding myself wishing to work for the world.
JG: All the great traditions confirm that we can do all three at the same time, in the same life. But now, only now. Our inability to be here now is the blockage. And what blocks is our identification, our thinking about how to do it, and just being identified with the thought of it.
So, let it go, sense and listen, so that something can act on us when we are sufficiently present to receive it.
DU: That’s beautifully stated and I feel as if I am receiving a teaching right now. And it touches something in me.
I think people instinctively want this. How to help engender this search in ourselves, in others, and in the world so that we can begin to uplift, individually and together?
JG: All the great traditions take it as a given that life and consciousness have a higher source. But the scientific approach, in its reductionist present-day paradigm, keeps insisting that life and consciousness “evolved” from lower forms of matter. Science has now managed to unify energy and matter, E=MC2, but we have no conception scientifically of how life or consciousness might give rise to everything that we call energy and matter, from the top down so to speak. And yet there have been important scientific voices with the courage to express a more traditional view. This is what Max Planck, the founder of quantum mechanics, came to in his maturity:
“All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind.”
This is the same man who is much better known for his youthful axiom: “If it is not possible to measure it, it is not real.” The Saint Augustine of the Hindu world, Shankaracharya, in the twelfth century, made exactly the opposite point, observing that in Sanskrit the root of the word measure is the same root as the word illusion: Maya. Therefore he was saying if it can be measured, it’s not real. The real world is immeasurable.
DU: If the real world is immeasurable, can it be experienced or perceived?
JG: I can’t reach it, but it can reach me. On a more ordinary level, when I was setting up the Threshold Foundation in London in 1978, one of my friends was Russell Targ. He was based at Stanford and was training remote viewers for the CIA to work in padded cells where there are no exterior vibrations. They would be given targets and asked to draw what could they see in their mind, what they could visualize. For example, they were asked to see what the Murmansk Soviet submarine facilities looked like. This was such a secret area that no spies could get near it. A U-2 spy plane would fly high over the facility and take photographs, which gave considerably less definite information than what the various remote viewers had drawn. How do you explain that fact? Were each of the remote viewers tuning in to the same omniscient one mind? Targ thinks no other hypothesis is tenable and says that almost anybody can be trained to do it.
Distant healing is also now accepted scientifically as a fact. You don’t have to be touching somebody to heal them. If your prayer or power as a healer is real, you can heal somebody a thousand miles away. It doesn’t matter–there’s no space or time for that reality. It obeys the laws of another unknown world. To contact that world, we must re-tune our awareness and attention. Only the essential particle of life/consciousness in my organism can resonate with its one mind source. I am That.
Trungpa related basic goodness to primordial goodness. It’s primordial, and yet it’s spacious; and it’s now and yet it’s eternal. It’s foundational and it’s immediate. These paradoxes are just ways of saying we can’t think about it. How to find in ourselves, in this moment, something in us that knows its source? There is an order, a design, a lawfulness that is wonderful. We can rejoice in it and be uplifted by it–not just reject it because we have no way of measuring it rationally. I remember Michel de Salzmann coming up with half-a-dozen adjectives, saying the real world is immeasurable, ineffable, intangible, omniscient, omnipresent. But, he added, it is still, for us, palpable. In this sense, over the years, the Gurdjieff Work has given me a new conception of God. And that is exactly what Gurdjieff said he had come here to do.
It’s not a mental conception, but a deeper conviction that could draw everything and everyone together in the love of consciousness, the faith of consciousness, the hope of consciousness.
Interview first appeared in Parabola Magazine, Vol.39, No.4, Goodness