David Bohm & Mark Edwards: Changing Consciousness
Exploring the Hidden Source of the Social, Political and Environmental Crises Facing our World (HarperCollins 1991)
David Bohm and Mark Edwards first met in 1983 when Krishnamurti introduced them on the occasion of Bohm being photographed by Edwards for a book jacket for The Ending of Time. They shared an interest in Krishnamurti's teachings. For Bohm, the key insight was that a wrong functioning of thought is behind most troubles of the human race. This goes along with an understanding of the need for a certain kind of observation of how thought is actually working.
For Mark Edwards, Krishnamurti aroused an intense curiosity to see how the development of civilization has had a wide range of negative consequences in societies, nature, culture, and health of the mind. In his work as a photographer, he verified what Krishnamurti was saying.
After being introduced they began to meet and finally work together to produce a book that would combine their competence. In the text, they tried to give a coherent overall impression of our civilization.
Technological development has in principle brought about enormous new possibilities for a creative and happy life. But at the same time, this development is threatening our civilization, perhaps the human race and our planet itself.
The purpose of the book is to sketch out the deeper causes underlying this environmental, social and cultural crisis and to indicate further lines of inquiry that could perhaps lead to its resolution.
The text begins by calling attention to how the current crisis is constantly sustained and exacerbated by a basic and pervasive disharmony between the intellect and emotions. This disharmony is mirrored in our personal relationships, in relationships between governments, and in relationship with nature.
Life is dominated by a growing current of problems, most of which seem to have no real and lasting solution. Clearly we have not touched the deeper causes of our troubles. The main point of the book is that the ultimate source of all these troubles is in thought itself, the very thing our civilization is most proud and is "hidden" because of our failure seriously to engage with its actual working.
Part 1: Thought and the human condition
1. The world crisis and thought
Mark Edwards: Having traveled quite extensively, I feel a new approach to living is urgently needed. You are taught in school that the world is divided into nations. It is presented to the child as if it were a law of nature.
Governments spend billions on defense, countless numbers of people have been killed in the name of security.
David Bohm: This tendency to produce conflict has come from our thought. Thought has an intrinsic disposition to divide things up. We do so properly and usefully in distinguishing various kinds of nutritious plants or sheep and goats, but we carry it too far, and we don't notice what we are doing. People tend to think that the distinction between nations is like the distinction between the chair and the table. These latter are really quite independent objects, but nations are not.
Nations have come to existence through thought and they seem to be supremely precious realities. The world as a whole is ready to pay thousand billion dollars a year to defend these nations. Nations may serve a useful purpose as administrative units, but the importance of the differences has been enormously exaggerated. Nations are closely connected in many ways: economically, ecologically and culturally. People are overlooking interdependence.
This way of thinking is fragmentation. The word fragment means to smash or break up. It doesn´t mean to divide. The parts of a watch could be divided but if you smash the watch, you break it.
Fragmentation consists of false division and false unification. No nation is really united. There is tremendous conflict within each nation.
ME: It is difficult to see that thought can create these divisions. It tends to assume that it is only reflecting what is actually there, not producing it.
Bohm: There is a kind of thought that is more or less a representation of what is there, like a map. However, thought has a creative function as well, to create what is there. In fact, almost everything we see around us in the world was created from thought, including all the cities, all the buildings, all the science, all the technology, and almost everything we call nature. Farmland was produced by thought, by people thinking what they're going to do with the land and then doing it. So without thought, we would not have farms; we wouldn't have factories; we wouldn't have ships; we wouldn't have airplanes, we wouldn't have governments. Supposing we have a company like General Motors. People have to think to know what they are supposed to be doing - if they all forgot this, the company would collapse and would cease to exist. So thought takes part in creativity.
Thought has created a lot of good things. It is a very powerful instrument, but if we don't notice how it works, it can also do great harm.
ME: Would you define what you mean by thought?
Bohm: First of all, thought is involved in expressing, applying and creating knowledge. In order to express and apply knowledge, you must think. Without knowledge, we would not really be human. We have practical knowledge like how to ride a bicycle. It is tacit; it is a skill that we build up by experience.
You can also use thought in order to solve problems in your mind without having to solve them in reality.
Once thought develops physical results we don't see that the results are coming from thought. We try to correct it. Thought is producing all kinds of negative consequences and then says that it must stop doing them. This is absurd.
The third feature of thought is inertia, a tendency to continue. It seems to have a necessity that we keep on thinking certain thoughts when it makes no sense. We are caught up in absolute necessity, there is no room for any other possibility. This implies that under no circumstances can we allow ourselves to give up certain things or change them.
ME: We also have a tendency to create more and more specialized organizations that concentrate on effects. All our energy is taken up with our response to the immediate issues, and we don't get into contact with the whole problem.
Bohm: It does not get to the root of the real problem, because the root is the overall process of thought itself. The most fundamental characteristic of the word thought is that it is in the past tense. It is what has been thought, though it is still not gone. On the basis of what is known from the past, it helps to create the impression of what is there. It selects and abstracts and in doing this it chooses certain aspects, which then attract our attention. But what is there is immensely beyond what thought can grasp. Thought can be regarded as an abstract and generalized map of reality, but there is much more in the territory than there can be on the map.
Thought affects the way you see the fact and affects the way you see the territory. When you cross from one country to another, you see another nation, but really, where is it?
ME: When you look at something, it is very rapidly followed by a thought.
Bohm: Thought is conditioned to react as if it were a computer disk. It is helpful to regard thought like a conditioned reflex. It takes time to build up the memory-based reactions, but once this is done it is difficult to see their mechanical nature.
Reactive thought and perception of an actual fact are very different. The first point to notice is that we are able to perceive an actual fact through our senses. We get information that thought cannot supply. The second point is that there is perception through the mind. With this, we can perceive whether our thought is coherent or not.
When this happens, we begin to go a bit beyond thought. Thought stops for a moment. In some sense, we are not perceiving through the senses, but we are looking through the mind. Such perception can invalidate a false program so that subsequent thought can be free from it and therefore more coherent.
To sum up, thought is a response based on memory, but it can be affected by perception, both through the senses and through the mind, and this is evidently not based primarily on memory. Through such perception, we can see the incoherence in our thought.
ME: Incoherence of thought can be explored in overpopulation. It seems that people are programmed so that they prefer to adapt to terrible conditions rather than question traditional values. These values are not appropriate under the new conditions with which we are now faced.
Bohm: The question is, what we value. Values in themselves go beyond thought. What we value is what moves us. In primitive times people felt values by the fact that they were strongly moved. Later they were able to put a word to it, and eventually, the word began to move them in a way similar to the original perception. You sense the value that is in your tradition, you don't stop to think about it.
It is hard to question values, partly because of the traditional sharp distinction between thought and feeling. The feeling is me. Thought implies the necessity to always act according to such feelings, even though they are the result of programming. Yet at some stage, people may begin to question tradition.
All societies have become so fragmented and mechanical that it often seems that there is little meaning to life. People feel that they have very little significance and value, not much of a purpose in life.
All this is thought. It adds up to a conclusion than nothing fundamental can be done. Things just go in the old way, with superficial changes.
If we don't do something about thought, we won't get anywhere. To influence people you've got to begin with those who can listen because everything new started with a few people. Small things can have big effects. At the time of Newton, there were not a hundred scientists of any merit in Europe. Nevertheless, science has had a tremendous effect.
ME: In the long run it seems unlikely that civilization can survive unless cooperation on a level never seen before can develop. Our attachment to our programs about what is necessary prevents this. I have seen how much suffering people are prepared to put up with in order to defend their customary ways of thinking. Is it because we are blind to how thought is producing them?
Bohm: Certain people are failing to see what thought is doing because they have not paid any serious attention to these questions. Moreover, thought has a general tendency to defend itself against evidence of its falseness, especially when its basic values are questioned.
Thought creates the nation, saying that it has high value and I must defend it at all costs. You begin to feel the absolute necessity to hold these thoughts.
ME: Over and over again I hear journalists, editors and television producers say that we must publish stories that give people hope because everyone is tired of bad news. Why don't we emphasize instead the need to value the earth, the air, the rivers, the sea, on which we depend totally for our lives? We seem to love our technology much more.
Bohm: That is the result of our whole history. Early tribes thought of the earth as their mother, now the earth seems to something to be exploited. There seems to be a deeper tendency in civilized life to produce thoughts that are very destructive in their ultimate implications.
If people can cut down forests and make a bit of money, they somehow can't refrain, even though trivial gains are made compared with what is lost. Many people would be more healthy if they never had these cheap hamburgers.
The mind tends to avoid thoughts that might be unpleasant. This is one of the features of thought, self-deception. Thought deceives itself in order to produce a better picture, a better feeling. That is being done collectively, even more than by an individual, because of the common belief that whatever everybody agrees on must be true.
ME: We all believe that it is somebody else's part of the boat that is sinking, and that it will not affect us. Yet our problems are common. It is vitally important to see the root cause.
Bohm: People who are concerned just solving their own special problems have created the dust bowls, along with all the environmental problems. We got to question this fragmentary kind of thought.
ME: One of the problems is that we don't really feel we are in the same boat. We pay lip service, imagine that there are no countries and that the world is one, but this does not go very deep into our consciousness from which our actions ultimately arise.
Bohm: The isolation comes from the way we think. We are drawing false boundaries between ourselves and other people, and we experience these boundaries. Unless our thinking changes, any change of feeling can't really be sustained.
ME: There are occasions when people feel this sense of emotionally belonging, being part of one world, but the feeling will not last very long. It is very difficult to pay proper attention to these fundamental issues.
Bohm: In everyday life, thought decides what is important and what is not. There are implicit values that drive you. The collective thought of humanity contains values that are contrary to what we are saying here. It is not primarily the politicians nor the business people who are doing it. It is not that people have bad motives, but because ordinary persons are caught up in this web of thought. Most people agree that this can't be right what we are doing to the environment, but the disk keeps pushing away the question implying that this is not an important question.
ME: So thought is orchestrating pleasure, diverting attention from these serious issues.
Bohm: And also pain and fear. It is as if we let our disks compose our music for us. I don't think people are ever going to make very good music that way.
ME: It is difficult to grasp all this because it seems to be invisible, as the water to a fish.
Bohm: This is in part because most people lack the ability to grasp abstractions. To abstract means literally to take something away from its content and focus on the main point. Reality is much too much to be grasped by the mind in detail, so you make abstractions. The opposite of the abstract is the concrete.
Knowledge is built up from abstractions. Every name is an abstraction. By abstracting you leave out the vast complexity but you also begin to put some logically coherent order into it. It enables you to reason.
We could not function without abstractions but if you are too stuck to abstractions, thought is not working coherently and you can't change it. The choice of abstractions may be partly by memory but it should also involve direct perception, to see whether the object of our thought really is what we think. If you are too stuck to your thought, you can't change thought by perception.
Abstractions can produce concrete results but thought loses track of this.
We have created a complex world based on the abstractions of thought. To deal with nature we need a much higher sort of intelligence. We think that thought is this sort of intelligence, but it isn't. It is like a program that responds to the situation quickly and automatically according to what has been programmed into it.
Here we come to what I call the process of thought. Thought has a certain content, meaning, but at the same time, it is an actual process going on in the brain and the nervous system. As for memory, we don't know what its source is, but we don't have to know. It is enough to know how it operates.
I am suggesting that thought moves for the most part on its own. We think that we are controlling thought, but it could be more accurate to say that we are controlled by the process of thought that we are trying to control.
Consider the matter of self-esteem. If I think I am a great person, I will feel good. If somebody says I am not great, I feel bad. I can't control these reactions. The thought that one is an idiot produces a general disturbance that few, if anyone, can control.
ME: Suppose someone says you are an idiot. If you really question that statement by asking if it is true, that might interrupt the movement of thought.
Bohm: Rather you come out with another thought automatically: 'I'm not an idiot, you are.' If it works, you feel better. If you look at this and say that the whole thing is wrong, this process slows down.
ME: The change in the speed of the process gives one the opportunity to see the process operating. You can't see the spokes of a wheel when it is turning very fast.
Bohm: It is important for the wheel to slow down. We must have space in which thought can slow down so that we can look at it. For this, we need not just thought, but an actual perception. We cannot use our ordinary senses to look at thought.
How is an abstraction to change? People don't see the meaning of abstract thought. We got to develop the ability to see what abstraction is, to see its power. The abstractions are actually concrete realities when considered as an actual process. The first thing is to become conscious and aware that this is happening, to find ways to people to appreciate the importance of these abstractions. They are not really just shadowy abstractions; they are being projected by a concrete process that produces very big concrete results.
We must talk about how all this came into being, how we got caught up in this mess, and also how we may look at thought.
Technological ascent and psychological descent
Mark Edwards: Technology has changed our lives, but why has psychological evolution been so little? We have lost the sense of delight in being alive. Do you think the advancement of technology destroys something precious in the psyche? How often can you see people even smiling in the streets of a typical large city?
Bohm: I suggest that behind this destruction in the psyche is not just technology, but the development of the whole process of thought. You might say that the enjoyment of each other's company is natural to people but our society knocks it out of them very quickly. It subjects them to such violence and incoherence that it soon goes away. Our society has tended to develop in an aggressive, violent and incoherent way that is exploitive and destructive to nature. The more developed a society becomes, the more pressure there is for people to conform to their thinking.
ME: Technology has changed forever the basis of our society. Certain developments have taken place in our thinking. One of them is the way in which emotions and intellect have become divided.
Bohm: This division has very much to do with the way in which we are related. In the early days, there was a relatively simple and creative relationship. Our present society is producing tremendous psychological conflict. You must have freedom and free play for creativity, which is very limited in the rigid organization of society. To have that there must be a proper and coherent relationship of emotion and intellect. People often have disruptive emotions, which their thoughts tell them are out of proportion to the actual situation, and compulsive thoughts, which their emotions tell that they shouldn't have. Being caught in such incoherence they are not free to be creative.
We can see that emotion and intellect are closely related. For example, a thought about yourself can produce powerful emotional reactions. In turn, we can see that such emotion may clearly affect thought. When you are angry or otherwise emotionally disturbed, you don't think clearly.
Emotions provide the drive to think. The emotion might be in direct contact with your perception. When you sense danger, you feel it. Then thought asks, what does it mean.
Thought is a response of memory. As long as we are concerned mostly with direct perception through the senses, the relationship of emotion and intellect works fairly well. When we get thoughts that grow and become very powerful in meaning, this tends to bring about a serious disturbance of the emotions.
In primitive society, there were seldom images of things greatly desirable. As technology started to produce attractive things, emotions would respond very powerfully. The ordinary way of thinking that these emotions are inappropriate just doesn't work, because the memory keeps on operating like a disk in a computer.
We have emotions based on memory and we know we have them. We remember the feelings. These 'feelings' are really thoughts.
ME: Such feelings also affect us physically. The body is highly aroused by anger or fear or pleasure.
Bohm: They produce muscular tension, rapid heartbeat, surges of adrenaline, and so on. However, they are true emotions that come from direct perceptual experience, but thought tries to make abstractions from memory-based emotions that thought itself has produced. Thought thinks it has not produced them, so the result is very confused.
ME: As civilization developed, there was more and more psychological disturbance. People lost their freedom and their natural joy in life.
Bohm: Some anthropologists say that even fifty thousand years ago people built up fairly complex societies based on trade. When the population grew too big for people to know each other, it had to be organized in a fixed way and have people in authority. This development began to break the closeness of human relationships, and so the emotions could no longer be spontaneous. They had instead memory-based emotions. Respect for the person in authority had to be guaranteed. To do this, the society had to induce a certain memory of fear in people; otherwise, they wouldn't listen. People did not want to do all these tiresome jobs, so in order to make people do them, society rewarded them. If they did not do what was required, they were punished. This system is tremendously destructive psychologically because pleasure and pain are registered deeply in the memory. One important result is the destruction of human relationships. As long as you look to other people as sources of reward or punishment, you are not going to them at all.
In order to set up society you had to have routine work, which in itself is not creative. To get people to do it, you had to have rewards and punishments, which are psychologically extremely destructive. People no more laughed as they worked and bosses were afraid that there would be a revolt. This meant a far-reaching and pervasive change of consciousness for the worse. While technology was going up, consciousness was going down.
ME: Some experts say that the natural systems will simply be destroyed beyond repair within two generations if we continue as we are.
Bohm: The general tendency of societies to decay happens largely as a result of the very measures that were adopted in order to try to stabilize them. Faced with a perception of insecurity they generally rigidified their thoughts and social institutions, in the vain hope the tide of change could be resisted. This function went wrong when the principal source of insecurity came from the operation of thought itself.
ME: When do you think this tendency started to arise? Was it when people began to have possessions that were not just for practical purposes but for other reasons, for example, for self-esteem?
Bohm: Perhaps it began earlier with thoughts about death, which must have induced a great deal of fear.
ME: As societies become more complex, the problems become more complex as well. The intelligence required to uncover all this is greater than it has never needed to be.
Bohm: The bigger the society gets, the greater the technology, the more the interdependence. We get information explosion, much of which is misinformation, and that leads to trouble. The dream that technology is going to solve all our problems is clearly showing itself as false.
Throughout history, religion was the main hope for people. One of the solutions for gods to take care of everything and to protect you. You would just have to sacrifice. If it didn't work, you would have to sacrifice some more until you sacrificed human beings. As society got bigger, the forces of nature were personified in gods and statues, and the whole thing lost its original meaning. Along with this, there had developed a patriarchal society, in which war was extremely prevalent, while people were enslaving one another and plundering another's goods. People began to look to religion as a way out of this misery. In some ways, it helped.
Looking at the history we can see that there has been a widespread wish to do things right, but people assumed that they could do it by thought aimed at solving what they supposed was the problem. It is out there, let's make a plan and do something about it. It seemed very reasonable. They tried, but they all failed.
You could either say that they didn't do it right or that there is something wrong with this whole idea because the problem is not "out there" but "in here" in our overall thought process.
ME: The tendency is to say they picked the wrong idea or that the solution was too wishy-washy or that there is something wrong in the concept.
Bohm: We are saying what is wrong is in the general process of thought itself. We cannot point to any highly organized society that has been able to sustain a coherent way of thinking.
ME: Our challenge is to take this damaged world in which we live and come to some kind of harmony both with nature and technology.
Bohm: What do you mean by "this world"? Do you mean the world of nature, our planet or the society? The world of society has been created by thought. I would say that there is no way to come into harmony with that world because such thought is confused, chaotic, incoherent. You can't be in a harmonious relationship with disharmony.
This presents us with the challenge of how to proceed. Direct action is not appropriate. We've got to stop and pause and say that here is a big question. We should not only stop action, but we should slow our thinking down a bit. If we keep on thinking fast in our customary way, the old disks will give us the old answer that continues the disharmony.
ME: Most people can't conceive of a nonfragmentary way of improving society, one that could be brought about by a different way of thinking.
Bohm: Fragmentary approach was behind the common notion of progress in the 19th century. We all accepted it when I grew up in the early 20th century. We were saying that only through democracy and social change there would be steady progress and people would get better and better. We thought that the worst problem was poverty, and in eliminating poverty the natural goodness in people would take over. The very movement toward economic growth brought about the ecological problem. A fragmentary approach cannot work, because even if it succeeded in its stated objective, it sets in train other things to consider. They are generally even more complex and difficult to deal with.
ME: Is it actually possible for this sense of meaninglessness that pervades the life of so many people to change through a serious inquiry?
Bohm: This is our challenge. Our whole approach has to change, or this human race is not viable. This question is open. We have to ask, Why is it not viable? Is it something intrinsically wrong with the human structure or could it be the result of something mistaken or something changeable?
ME: One could even ask whether it is a structural problem in the makeup of the brain itself. If we had one leg shorter than the other, we would limp and wouldn't be able to walk straight. Is there a suggestion in your mind that maybe the brain has evolved in a way that is not viable because it cannot avoid deceiving itself in order to feel better?
Bohm: I have already made a suggestion earlier what is preventing viability. There is a normal communication between the intellect and the emotions when there isn't a lot of thought, especially about the self and its sense of psychological security. When there is a lot of such thought based on memory, the system can no longer correct what's gone wrong. It doesn't know how to reach that memory. It can only try to reach the results of memory, dealing only with the symptoms rather than the cause.
ME: It seems to me, that this sort of difficulty arises when thought tries to manipulate itself into what is regarded as a right pattern of behavior.
Bohm: Yes. You can see this with children. People say to them that if you don't behave, the bogeyman will come. The idea is to create feelings of fear in the memory of the child to serve as a reminder that a child who misbehaves might have to face the bogeyman. They are setting reward and punishment as the general basis of the child's activity. Action brought about this way is not creative.
There are all sorts of ways of controlling people, including physical violence and various forms of coercion. The whole system is disrupted, and it all goes into memory. Children may forget this disruption, but it is still on the "disks". When similar difficulties arise, they may feel disturbed without knowing why. The intellect says, 'Let's find out the cause and from this, I know what to do. It can't find the cause, it is hidden in memory. Then the child can only try to find thoughts that will stir up to better feelings.
The cause is in the memory, but the system does not know where the memory is or how to get at it. All we can do is to try to correct the symptoms that appear in the intellect and the emotions.
ME: Confronted by the evidence we see the deterioration of society. I would like to see how you would approach actually doing something about it.
Bohm: We don't know the answer, but we may adopt the sort of attitude that I call tactical optimism, that is we will proceed on the assumption that it is possible. All enterprises that people have ever engaged in have required such an assumption.
We could say that political action is needed to prevent our civilization from facing a catastrophe. Most political action would only buy time and slow down the overall degeneration. But if we don't use the time to get at the source, there is little point in even buying it. We could say let's plant trees and save the whales. They should be carried out, but unless we get to the cause of the degeneration, something else that is even more complex and destructive will arise that we don't expect.
Eventually, we've got to stop growth. With our present levels of population, people have got to give up the idea of an infinite increase in the standard of living. Even if we developed a technology that would produce energy enough without carbon dioxide, there would be other problems, like pollution, and we can see that technology would give rise to still other problems. When I was working on atomic energy, it was thought that this would solve everything, but it turned out to create very serious problems of waste disposal, as well as danger of leakage, of plants blowing up.
ME: If you could make cheap electricity by pollution-free means, you could bring power into all the villages in Africa and India. This would be a very sudden and traumatic change to their lifestyle. The consequences are almost beyond imagination. It would certainly create many new problems.
Bohm: If the have cheap energy and start producing goods at the same rate as we are, they'll destroy everything in some other way. If five billion people wanted to reach the Western standard, you would get at least three or four times the amount of trouble.
People will have to accept this and change their thoughts about it. But their emotions are demanding these goods. So we've got to achieve a harmonious relationship between thought and emotion, or else the human race is not viable.
Part 2 A Dialogue on Thought
Chapter 3 On the nature of thought
Mark Edwards: The basic cause of the deterioration is wrong functioning of thought. Let's now have a dialogue in which we may see what it means to come into contact with the actual process of thought. And through this, thought itself may begin to change.
Bohm: We don't expect to find a complete solution. Our emphasis must rather be on exploration and inquiry. Think of it as perhaps a seed from which something more might grow.
The trouble arose largely because of the response of memory. As a key example, we considered the relationship between emotions and intellect. The intellect is centered in the neocortex, whereas the emotions are in the deeper inner parts, with a thick bundle of nerves that connects intellect and emotions and relates them closely. So there is a two-way relationship that is immediate between these centers. It worked well when human beings lived close to nature in groups of twenty to forty and there was no authority.
As civilization developed, more thinking was needed, and this required more and more use of memory. Such thinking leaves a kind of residue. This means not merely the remembering of incidents, but also of conclusions. In this way, some general conclusions were gradually built up and registered in memory. These conclusions cause you to react automatically, somewhat like conditioned reflexes. When you see an animal of a certain kind, you don't stop to think. Immediately the memory reacts to provide the right disposition of body and mind, which may be to fight, to run, to freeze, to be friendly, or something else.
If you actually see a dangerous animal, the adrenaline flows. The response is essentially the same if you see an animal that you have been told is dangerous. The whole system is profoundly affected by this sort of response of memory and it happens without your having to think.
Memory allows anything to be called up by the word, the symbol and communicated. In this way, a vast new field is opened up that makes possible an immense human development.
ME: This process gave human beings a tremendous advantage over other species because we were able to build up knowledge about the environment and it could be passed on to the next generation. This process seems both to work to our advantage and also to produce problems: it is double-edged.
Bohm: The problems were not very serious in the early days, because we didn't use a lot of abstract thought. Most of the thought was connected with immediate experience, where you can directly see whether it is right or wrong. Once you start thinking about abstract things that can produce very powerful emotional reactions in the brain, it is not so easy. People began to respond to them as if they were real.
ME: But the emotions seem to inform you that it is very real.
Bohm: In such a case you are getting misinformation. The emotions are responding to a powerful memory, and this memory can be called up by a word. It is taken as a reality independent of thought. This is one of the features of thought, that it began to lose track of what is independently real and what is produced by thought because it could not keep track of what is projected from memory and what is direct perception and experience.
ME: Are you saying that thought isn't subtle enough to differentiate between these?
Bohm: Not only that but the brain and nervous system as a whole lose whatever possibility of doing so that they may originally have had, once the memory becomes full of powerful feelings and full of thoughts of necessity. This happens because memory becomes mentally confused and physically disorganized. Moreover, we have traditions building up memories of tremendous power. The collective thought of tradition carries much greater weight. It seems real because everybody else shares it. One of the tests for reality is what everybody sees. If everybody sees it that way, we think it must be so.
We have collective delusions. We have seen whole nations being caught in such delusions. That is because thought is seeking security. It is programmed to look for more security, and it is not entirely wrong to do that. It not only tells you what plants are poisonous but also gives you your national identity, what the other person is or when you've got to kill.
ME: It might be that memories in this latter group are dangerous. Memory builds an image that is fixed, when in fact the reality is altering.
Bohm: Memory is not able to adapt to the changing reality. It does slowly adapt, but it is often too slow and rigid, especially when the memory contains powerful emotions and thoughts of absolute necessity.
ME: We are using a faculty of the brain that is very useful in certain activities but there is a lack of subtlety, a lack of intelligence in its informing us just where it is useful and where it is not. It doesn't really know its limitations.
Bohm: So we need a quality that we might call subtle intelligence. The opposite of subtle is manifest - that can be held in the hand or in the eye. What you can touch or what you can hold in the eye is what you take as manifestly real. Subtle is just the opposite.
Thought being based on memory cannot be very fine. It has to fix certain things and when a more refined perception is needed, thought can't provide it. It knows only certain things, based on what we happened to have picked up in the past and learned and what is registered in memory. Thought produces that net and tries to grasp the world in it. Ideally, it tries to make a perfect net but it can't do that. Memory is limited in how fine a net it can make. Thought is not able to grasp what is going on right now, at this very moment. Memory cannot hold in it the actual process by which the mind operates.
ME: If you have an idea about the movement of the mind that you are watching, this will influence the whole process in the way that you cannot know beforehand.
DB: Moreover, it will also affect how you see it, how you are disposed toward it and how you feel about it. Equally important, it will influence the way you pay attention.
ME: That is obvious in the political field where people are trying to solve problems. Because of the way they approach difficulties, they are inevitably going to distort how they see them.
Bohm: When you work with nature and material objects, your senses tell you that it is not right. But in politics or family or your philosophy, the senses won't tell you that you have gone wrong. You don't see the source of what has gone wrong, you only see the result. You try to deal with the result and not with the cause. The attempt of the system to deal with the result can only confuse it more. We've got to get to the source.
We could make an image here of a stream that is being polluted. We could say that the memories are polluting our perception. Our perception is being polluted by wrong kinds of memories, such as memories of being hurt, memories of the necessity for giving supreme value to our country, memories of all the things you are used to, all the happiness you once had and can't have anymore, all of which prevent you from appreciating what is happening now.
Every perception stirs up memories that enter near the source of the stream. People living downstream could say we've got a lot of pollution - let's make a plan to remove pollution from where we are. Not only does this not make sense, but they might add a different kind of pollution in doing it. The thing is to go upstream and remove it there.
Unless something is done upstream, in the process of thought, it won't really work in the long run. People haven't realized generally how thought is the source upstream. Therefore they are not really paying attention to the source.
ME: Could we perhaps look at all this as a wrong function of the brain?
Bohm: Yes. Because the brain is not aware of the origin of its disturbance in memory, it tries inappropriately to correct this by dealing with it "downstream", at the level of the content of thought and feelings, in which memory reveals itself.
The brain thus does not really know what the cause of the trouble is. Either it looks outward and says that a sense of security will come if I get more money, or it looks inward and tries to find thoughts that will make it feel more secure. Neither of these approaches will deal properly with the memories that are disturbing the brain, and both will give rise to self-deception.
ME: Not to be caught in self-deception requires perception. Where does this perception come from?
Bohm: Thought cannot provide such perception. But we know there is sense perception. We also suggested the possibility of perception through the mind, the ability to see that things are not coherent or the ability to get new ideas and so on. This suggests that the brain and the whole system may be able to act beyond dependence on memory.
There are two things that are clearly beyond memory. One is awareness, and the other is attention. To be aware does not mean just to think about something, it suggests being watchful.
ME: You are taking in all the sounds, the sights, everything that is happening. You are ready to look very closely at anything.
Bohm: That is to say, with the senses. Let's look at what happens with the mind. If you knew there might be a dangerous animal around, your senses would be very alert. You would pick up every cue.
ME: The dangerous animal here is thought! This is really the seed of the solution to the problem.
Bohm: Krishnamurti put it very nicely when he said, "To live with thought is like living in a room with a poisonous snake." This image helps communicate what is meant by awareness.
We are talking about kind of thought that is not aware of its origin in memory. Insofar as thought as a whole can become directly aware of its origin, it will not confuse its product with something independent of thought. When thoughts are rational and orderly and the emotions are not too disturbed, we can at least somewhat be aware of the origin of thought. One can feel that one is thinking; one can tell that thinking is affecting one's feeling. When it is very quiet, one can see relatively clearly what thought is doing within the overall operation of the mind.
ME: We generally organize our lives so that there is not much quietness. Is it possible nevertheless to see the play of thought and emotion?
Bohm: To see this, you have to give your undivided attention to the process of thought, which includes emotions and physical and chemical responses. The dominant feature is the response of memory. If you are aware, you can detect the difference between remembering an emotion and feeling an emotion directly.
ME: One of the differences would be the repetitive nature of emotions that are coming from memory.
Bohm: You can call them up again and again if you wish. The real emotion is not repetitive; it is constantly flowing. I emphasize that thinking is an active word - it is something actually going on - whereas thought means the reflexive activity of the residue of what has been done. A great deal of our mental activity is just thought. It is on the memory disk. The disk works automatically. Thinking might question this reflexive activity by asking whether this thought is coherent, whether it makes sense to act on such a basis.
ME: Questioning is a feature of thinking, whereas response from memory is thought.
Bohm: The first immediate response from memory has no question in it. If somebody asks your name, you tell him. Suppose you asked something more difficult. You search your memory and then consult the collective memory. At some stage, you may say that nobody knows the answer. If something is not working, we may say that we have a problem, which makes us think.
ME: What do you mean by a problem?
Bohm: When you accept something as a problem, you have implicitly thought of what you need as a solution, but you don't know how to get it. If you say that my problem is to get home, I know where to go but not the means. Suppose my problem is hurt. At first sight, I seem to know the end, to get rid of the hurt. It appears that I just search for the means. But the answer to such search would have to be contained in thought. Yet the very existence of hurt distorts thought and enlists it in the service of continuing hurt, for example by justifying it through arguments that are self-deceptive. Thought produces and maintains the hurt, therefore our search for a means to do this is pointless.
So we are making a question, but we are not making a problem. To make a problem, I must say that I know what I want and that I must find a means. With hurt, we don't know quite what we are seeking to achieve.
We have proposed that the source of this difficulty is memory. We don't where memory is or what we have to do to get rid of its wrong action. We are seeking an orderly operation of memory. We want memory not to come in where it doesn't belong.
ME: We want to end the incoherent response of memory, but we can't pursue this as a projected end, because to do so would be to assume that we know something we really don't know.
Bohm: Yes, we don't really know what the end is. If we start from this disorderly situation in memory and try to project what is to be meant by order from there, we are going to get lost. Different memories control people's notion of order.
ME: Are you saying that order would come if we were to be open to perception?
Bohm: To go into this, let's come back to attention, which is a key part of perception. We go from awareness to attention. In a way attention brings it all together.
Attention is stretching the mind toward something, you are trying to perceive the whole meaning. Attention is something with no limit to its possible subtlety. Attention is potentially capable of unlimited fineness of net, unlimited subtlety. However, it takes high energy to be very subtle and fine.
ME: Most of our energies seem to be dissipated in the conflict that has arisen from this process of thought gone wrong. This is a vicious circle that requires clarity and insight into this process to start with. So we seem to be stuck.
Bohm: Not really. Thought may be able to move out of this trap. We need a kind of attention that is subtle enough to see how thought is working.
ME: Is attention an activity in the brain?
Bohm: We don't know - it obviously affects the brain profoundly. It would be wrong for us to answer this question because we don't know the answer. But it is important for us to entertain the question. Merely to have that question causes our thought to hold back, to give pause. Many scientists seem to believe that the brain is all that is significant in this context. In fact, nobody really knows.
ME: Many people say there is nothing beyond thought, let alone nothing beyond the brain.
DB: Yes, but how do they know that? Implicitly everybody knows there is something beyond thought not only sense perception but also something much more subtle.
If you ask me to give attention to what is in this room, I could close my eyes and think about what is in the room. To do this would make no sense. To pay attention means to be open to the senses. It signifies being open to seeing the meaning of it all. I can't just say I already know the meaning and that I therefore just have to think from what I know. So implicitly everybody accepts that paying attention is more than thought, not based solely on memory.
Thought is limited because it is based on what we know. Scientists may assume that they already know at least the general lines of everything that is significant. If you stop to think about it, there is no foundation for saying this. To make such an assumption may make one feel better but one purchases this sense of security at the expense of disrupting the operation of the brain.
The right operation of the brain is not to make such an assumption but to question and suspend the activity of thought enough to allow you to give attention to whatever is relevant. If you have an assumption about somebody, you are not likely to pay much attention to that person. You see him or her through your memory. We would attempt to drive a car that way, but in the long run, it is more dangerous to do this with human relationships than drive a car without paying attention.
We are caught in responding from memory and seeing in terms of memory without knowing that this is actually happening. This leads to irrelevant actions and ultimately to conflict. The basic difficulty is that thought is not in contact with the fact that conflict between two sides is ultimately a product of thought itself. Thought generally confuses its own product with a reality independent of thought.
To bring about a resolution in conflicts each side has sooner or later to meet the thought of the other. In doing this, both sides will have to be ready to question their basic ideas, to examine them and change them in accord with reality.
What is needed is to get to the source of this muddle and not try to clear it up downstream. This requires attention to thought and the whole process of thought, for thought is communicated between people; it is much more collective than individual.
ME: You used the metaphor about a polluted river. Is it possible to go beyond the point where the river is being polluted? I am questioning whether we could arrive at a subtler level of intelligence.
Bohm: I think that we can. With attention becoming more and more subtle, we are moving upstream and eventually we may be carried beyond the "pollution". At present the thought process profoundly affects the whole mind in a destructive way, because it imposes all sorts of irrelevant emotions and desires and assumptions and distorted facts, leading to illusions. The whole system gets disrupted even physically and chemically. But there is a subtler movement of intelligence that is not affected by this and that can begin to reach below or deeper than the pollution.
The word intelligence is based on a Latin root, on words inter and legere. Legere means "to choose" or "to gather". Thought selects and collects. It selects things into categories and collects them according to their differences and similarities, but also according to a pattern that memory imposes. With intelligence, you gather things from in between. It is like reading between the lines. It makes new categories. It is a process that is not limited by memory but has a perceptive movement. It can perceive afresh what is the right way to put things together - the right way to collect and select. It can go beyond into new ways.
The word intellect is the past participle of the word intelligere. Intellect is what has been chosen or gathered, just as thought has been thinking. Intellect is therefore what is on the disk. It acts like a program. Everything can be organized logically, but it basically is not new. It is always limited according to what you have happened to learn. Intellect is useful and necessary, but it is not the whole story.
To sum up, we need a kind of intelligence that goes beyond thought, that is not based on memory and is more subtle than memory. In doing this, it gives rise to new meanings.
Memory may put the brain into a wrong chemical state so that it can't respond properly to this intelligence. In our society, people are generally not in the right state to respond to intelligence, except occasionally when they are either very quiet or very deeply interested for the moment, so all the other content is set aside. But we urgently need to have a sustained intelligence, not just an occasionally active intelligence.
Intelligence is what really makes it possible to change things. It changes them upstream at the source. Awareness, attention and some thinking are needed. We got to think clearly and accurately about our process of thought. Passion is also needed, energy. The intelligence will liberate energy, because we are wasting it now in all this chaotic movement of thought.
ME: This picture still doesn´t convey clearly enough the means by which one could go about doing this. I see that it is imperative that this kind of intelligence be given a chance to operate. I think we ought to go into how or what one should do or not do in order to bring this about.
Bohm: You might begin by bringing order into your daily life, especially by noticing all the disorder in relationships through looking without judgment at what you are actually doing. This would help to bring your mind into a more orderly, quiet state, a state more conducive to intelligence. Becoming aware of the general disorder in your thoughts is not a matter of repetitious practice, but rather of doing it constantly fresh and creative, from moment to moment. You can't make a rule about how to do that.
In this observation, it is necessary to be aware of the overall process of thought, as well as its detailed content. What is called for here is not a set of exercises, repeating something mechanically to obtain a certain result. There are things you can do that help you to become attentive and aware, through seeing what happens while you are doing them, for the sake of learning and not for the sake of getting a result. One is to pay special attention to the general process in which thought and feeling are related together through memory and its response. For instance, a certain thought may disturb us, and later this disturbance reaches the solar plexus or the abdomen. We then say that we have got a deep gut feeling; we take this as proof that it is right. But in fact, it may be a mechanical response to memory - just an extension of the thought process. If you regard it as having come up independently, you'll give it great value and will be caught up in it. It is very important to pay attention to where these things come from so that they will be given their proper value.
ME: So the emphasis here is on looking.
Bohm: Yes. But also have to have some notion of what to look at. I suggest using words in a certain way to help make it clear how thought and feeling are actually related. We use words to talk about a subject. If I say that I am angry, I am talking about my state of mind. This may be misleading because that tends to fix that state of mind. I am proposing that instead we use words to call up and sustain that very thing so that it actually takes place in our minds. Instead of thinking about anger, what is being called for then is to think anger.
Suppose there was an incident that made me angry. I may calm down but the anger will still be there, perhaps simmering in the background. My suggestion is then intentionally and seriously to think the thoughts that bring out and sustain anger that is present at the background. Doing this you will notice that the feelings of anger surge up with much greater strength, thus closely demonstrating a close connection between words and feelings. Vice versa, you will notice also a line of thought needed to maintain your anger. You will find it hard to give up such thought because it will then seem that you have a valid reason to be angry.
ME: Thinking about it more carefully, there doesn't seem to be a good reason. There seems just to be an emotional reason. As has been said, the heart has its reasons. If you have been hurt, you don't want to remember that hurt, but it keeps impinging, whether you want it or not. You don't want that memory of suffering and unhappiness to interfere, but it comes in anyway. It seems to be like a record that keeps playing.
Bohm: If we didn't have this interference by memory, we could conclude that our feelings may, in general, be telling us something valid to which we have to pay serious attention. But what are we to do about these feelings? Suppress them, deny that we have them or carry them out? Whatever we do along these lines doesn't really work.
Sometimes these feelings are true feelings, but when we have these mechanical feelings from the disk, we give them the same value. That anger could sometimes be appropriate if it came in a short burst just to let another person know that he or she is doing something that is causing you trouble. To keep it going, you will have to have a valid reason to be angry. Then thought will be distorted and you are liable to do something you may regret. Going from that short outburst to sustained anger is the crucial mistake. Thought, which is responsible for this, really has no place in anger.
If you pay attention to all this, you will begin to see how the whole process is working. Thought is giving rise to and sustaining anger and anger is sustaining that thought. It is then possible to start to correct this disharmony in the thought process. The origin of it is that thought doesn't see its source in memory.
ME: You say that it is this overall process that corrects the disharmony, implying that is not your intentional action aimed at a defined end.
Bohm: I would say that it is the overall action of the whole mind and heart that correct this disharmony. One reason why the word you is inappropriate is that the word I (and therefore also you) is very unclear and ambiguous in its meaning. You usually identify yourself with the body, and in this case, you end with the skin. Along the same lines, I may say that inside me is an observer who sees this chair as fairly separate. But if I look at my feelings, this sort of description would be mistaken, because my thought and my feelings is a tight connection. It is thus a mistake to say that I am an observer who is observing and possibly controlling an anger that is separate from me. I am the anger that I observe. Therefore it has no meaning for me to try to control it.
Thought cannot itself find any means to end this false process, because it is based on something like a program in the memory. This compels it to go on rigidly with the assumption of a sharp and fixed division between itself and feelings. However, there is an intelligence that doesn't divide falsely into rigidly fixed categories. When this intelligence is awakened, the system works as a whole, and the thought process can be freed from these irrelevant and destructive "programs". It need then no longer go on with meaningless responses, such as trying to overcome anger with a demand from the intellect.
In order to be free of this response, we have to have the possibility for the mind to see something as it is happening immediately, rather than waiting for memory to filter it, select, collect, order and arrange it into previously determined categories. It means that thought is aware of its own movement just as the body is aware of itself, without any sense of separate observer. When thought takes place, somehow the whole system will know that what happens is the result of memory.
In such observation and awareness, various feelings will come up. If you're really able to watch the whole process from moment to moment, you'll not only sense these feelings, but you will also sense how they give rise to further thoughts.
Through attention of this kind, you'll get a sense of how it all happens, and you will be able to see that it is all one process. This process does not have a great deal of significance. The memory-based feeling coming out of thought evidently doesn't mean very much. In this way one sees one's anger is not all that significant; therefore it will cease. If one thinks that one has a valid reason to be angry, it will never cease. That reason is constantly springing up as the disk of memory operates, and the whole process then affects the emotions. It is like the weather, kind of emotional weather.
The main point is to see. If we make it go away without seeing how it works, it will come back next time.
The attempt to solve the environmental, social, cultural and political problem on the basis of the crude and fragmented structure of thought that is now common will never work. It needs the subtle intelligence that is an undivided whole. Getting to the root of the "pollution" and reaching the unpolluted source of this intelligence begins to clean up the pollution, rather as certain bacteria can do in a river.
Chapter 4 Illusion and reality
Mark Edwards: It seems to me that thought has produced a world pervaded with illusory features, but this overall process actually produces real results. The process of thought is extremely vulnerable to self-deception. Could we discuss the actual reality that is behind the illusions of the world generated by thought?
David Bohm: We have to make the assumption that whatever we know or think about is part of a more fundamental and broader actual reality that is not generated by thought. Thought does not cover everything; it is limited. Whatever we know, there is always more. We find things that we didn't know about, and we find things that contradict what we already know. This is a sign of a reality that is beyond our knowledge, our will, our intention, our desire as well as being beyond what we have created.
Whichever assumption we make, we are here in this reality. We are participating in it. The reality of society and its rules have been largely made by us, by our thinking. However, nature was in the first instance created by its own process. The planets and so on - all of that was created before we got here.
Most of what we see around us was made by us, physically, culturally, institutionally, and socially, through our language and our communications.
When we look at society, we get the feeling it wasn't made by us. That is an illusion. Although I personally didn't make it, all of us together, including our ancestors, somehow did make it. This reality made by us was given shape by thought. We are even now contributing to the process by unwittingly subscribing to this general pattern of thought.
Although the ground of reality does not depend on our thought, nevertheless a certain part of reality is the result of thought.
The reality we make through thought leads seldom, if ever, to what we expect. We need our attention and perception to keep on watching so that our thought keeps up with reality. If our thought is too rigid, it won't do so. If our minds were alive and alert, we would notice this very quickly and start to change our thought.
We don't change easily. Instead, we hold on to our thought and defend it against evidence that it should change, and in this way we begin to create illusion. The word illusion basically means playing false. It implies that we are creating a representation of reality that is not coherent with reality as a whole.
Stage magicians create illusions by leading you to think differently about what is happening. They get you not to pay attention to what is actually happening but to concentrate on what they are saying instead. Meanwhile, they switch something and the result looks like magic. They have created an illusion.
Inherent in memory is a possibility to create illusion. I may remember something, but I don't perceive where it came from. Memory is something you never see.
Some of the things that you remember contain very high emotional values and they are presented as real so that you may want to defend them. If you had some actual reality of high value, it would be quite reasonable to do this. Suppose, however, that you have the memory that you are a great person. Then somebody says you're an idiot. The body objects and gives signals that it does not want to be shaken up like this. Memory supplies an immediate answer: "I am not an idiot, somebody else is the idiot."
Suddenly the whole thing is gone and the body feels better. In that way I can create illusions. First there was the illusion that I am great and wonderful, second, the other person began to create the illusion that I am an idiot. Then I created the third illusion that the other person is the idiot.
ME: That's a very intense process that is charged with great emotion and with a strong sense of reality, which makes it hard to observe without distortion.
Bohm: You identify the content of your thought about yourself with your actual being. Either implicitly or explicitly it refers to what you are. I get really physically disturbed and begin to defend myself against evidence that something may be wrong with thoughts that have to do with myself.
ME: Politicians in power tell us that we never had it so good, and those trying to get into government tell us that we never had it so bad. They interpret facts in a way that suits them best.
Bohm: It is implied in such behavior that people have identified certain things as the very essence of themselves and therefore have to be defended at all costs. We don't know what the self is. No one has seen it. Most of what we call the self is actually thought identifying certain qualities with what one is. If you cannot maintain the notion that you are great and wonderful, you may soon come to the opposite thought, identify yourself as terrible, a wicked sinner. But ultimately this becomes the same process.
ME: The most persistent idea we have is that the self isn't just thought.
Bohm: We don't know if it is or isn't - we may have a self that is more. Most of what we call the self is the response of memory that fills the brain, and this self is just the result of thought. Even if there is a true self beyond this, we are not going to be able to see it as long as we are so confused about it.
I like to use the analogy of Las Vegas. While all the lights are shining, you can't see the universe. If anybody talked about stars, you might say that if we can't see them, it's just empty talk. If you could turn off those lights and stop all that noise, then the true universe would begin to show.
So maybe we have a true self, or maybe the self is part of the universe as a whole. Perhaps there is some true being, but it doesn't show through all this superficial noise and flashing light that civilization has built up.
ME: I am keen to go more deeply into this tendency of thought to defend itself against evidence that it is incorrect. This is surely a terribly dangerous quality. It is not giving us straight information and even in the face of evidence we go on defending ideas with which we have identified in the past.
Bohm: This is a process of identification with ideas. If a boy is called a bad boy, he finally identifies himself as being a bad boy, and he is that bad boy from then on. The identity is not merely the idea abstractly, but the feeling, the desire, the urge; it is a tremendous neurophysiological process. Defending the identity at all costs we get caught up in self-deception.
ME: Why do you think that there is this tendency to want to identify with a collective of some kind?
Bohm: It must have been there very early. We still really need to be part of something larger, some sort of culture and society. The question should be, Why does this rise to a false process, to self-deception? We would not object to needing to be part of something larger if it didn't give rise to all this self-deception.
Civilized society currently encourages people to think of themselves as individuals, but it also attacks them as individuals. It says they're weak, they are nothing, it asks them, Who do you think you are? It says you are nothing, just little you. At the same time, it is implicit that to do this is wrong, that there should be something more to life than that. You can't fill your consciousness with little me, if only because it is not interesting. Therefore I may imagine, simply assume, that I've got it by saying I belong to my country, my friends, my business, and this is the way I have an identity. But actually I invent such an identity. It is shaky, so I keep on defending the ideas that are behind it, deceiving myself. If I identify with my country and I discover that my country is corrupt, weak, and stupid, that would mean that I am that way too. I could disidentify, but then I would have to ask, Who am I? But instead I say, That is wrong, my country is great. Thus I create an illusion.
If we had a true identity, true being, why would we ever have to defend it in this way? It is only because I do not have a true identity that I may be driven into foolish activity of defending the essential qualities that are supposed to make my identity, against evidence that they are not as I think they are. If I had a true identity, nothing could take it away from me.
ME: In the eyes of society, each one is in fact rather insignificant and small.
Bohm: Yes, and each one of us supports this idea by thinking that way. It may not be true at all. Maybe we are making ourselves insignificant and small by believing that we are. Our society, in order to stabilize itself, leads us to believe in that sort of idea. There is a fear that otherwise we would get too "uppity" and a bit difficult to control. A few people are allowed to think otherwise - great leaders, charismatic figures, recognized geniuses - but ordinary people are not allowed to do this because they wouldn't be controllable if they believed that they are great and wonderful beings. If they can be led to believe that they are only small cogs in a big wheel, they can be more easily managed. People accept it because they are convinced by it.
The point I am making is that we do not know what our true being is - we are clouding it up with all this confusion. We may be much greater than we think, potentially. In fact, if we are not, I don't see much chance for the survival of the human species.
ME: Yes, we are living in a kind of psychological dust storm that is obscuring the possibility of any real perception.
Bohm: We cannot see what we really are. Intelligence could dissolve that. Such thought comes from memory: it is on the disk. Suppose you had a computer. There is a virus that instructs the computer to spread the same instructions to other computers. This is a good analogy to what happens in the mind. As a result, intelligence, which we could compare to the programmer, is no longer able to properly affect the brain.
We are actually overwhelmed by this "disk", which fills our brains with all sorts of meaningless misinformation. And the more television, newspapers and things of this nature we have, the more rapidly the virus spreads. So we've got to question what we are doing and slow it down. When we question it, it does slow down. When we pay attention, intelligence may be able to operate, making it clear that we are really caught up in something crazy that has no meaning whatsoever.
ME: You are suggesting that if this process is sustained, it can begin to bring us to perceive how illusion is created.
Bohm: We are not saying that we are going to be entirely without memory, without thought. That is impossible. But memory has to come to order, and it cannot order itself. A more subtle and more creative intelligence is needed that can order memory. It's got to understand and see what memory is so that it can bring it to order.
ME: What do you mean when you use the word creative?
Bohm: It can't really be defined, but we can discuss what it means to be uncreative. There are three things: you can be mechanically stuck in repeating certain patterns; you can be destructive rather than creative; and you can be mediocre than creative. The word mediocre means halfway up the mountain. Those who passionately want to get to the top keep going. A similar passion is needed for creativity, without this, one will be caught up in mediocrity.
Creativity is, in my view, a natural potential, but it is largely blocked by the way in which civilization has developed. In early times people were living a more creative life. There is no way to make a mechanical routine when you live in nature. Also, they had no reason to be as destructive as we are.
ME: It seems to me that one of the things that block creativity are powerful assumptions, many of which we are not aware of having.
Bohm: That is an important point. The mind has to be free and ready to explore these assumptions, not fixed to them. The fixing of assumptions is usually a kind of conditioned reflex in which one feels these assumptions to be fixed truths. Thus you are caught up in the creation of illusion.
ME: Doesn't this happen socially and collectively as much as it does with individuals?
Bohm: Yes. Society takes certain assumptions as truths because it supposes that they are necessary for its stability. There is tremendous pressure to stop us from looking at these assumptions or defend them in a violent way. The defense of social assumptions can lead to the ultimate violence, to war, to murder, to oppression. People feel very uneasy about questioning the basic assumptions of their society.
ME: It is often hard to know what our basic assumptions are. I find great difficulty with Christianity. Is it the result of an assumption?
Bohm: I think so. Your attitude to Christianity clearly must be strongly affected by your assumptions. We simply react with a conditioning reflex according to our assumptions. We are caught up in all sorts of illusions about other people and about ourselves.
There are a great many people who want to change society and do not accept all the assumptions. Often they have their own assumptions. When they take power, they defend their assumptions in the same way, and this leads to a different set of illusions.
ME: What is involved in bringing this process to an end?
Bohm: It is essential to become aware of our assumptions, especially of those that we tend to defend in this way. We can question the whole state of mind that is disposed to defense. But we must keep in mind that we need assumptions. There is no point in trying to get rid of assumptions as a whole. Indeed, the entire culture contains a basic set of shared assumptions. As long as they can be questioned, we can get somewhere.
In fact, the basic assumptions of societies are often not capable of being questioned or negotiated. They are tacit and even hidden. People are frightened that if they let such assumptions go, everything would collapse.
Many people have tried to organize a good society. Einstein said that and one of our main meanings is to devote oneself to the betterment of society. I myself felt that way for a large part of my life. It seems reasonable at first, but society as we know it has no real foundation. You can't build on its basis, because it is grounded in this thought process that is set to create illusion. So none of the institutions of society is the way we think they are, and none of them provides the kind of security or stability that is needed.
ME: We see today that in trying to satisfy people's material needs capitalist society causes catastrophic environmental destruction and that it is not really set up to change in the way that is needed.
Bohm: Environmental destruction in Eastern Europe is even worse. One can hardly say that their bureaucracies are able to function any better to end this destruction.
It is gradually becoming more and more clear that none of these old systems can really work in a sustainable way. They are all based on self-deceptive thought that contains the implicit necessity to defend itself against evidence that it is not correct. Socialism is one such system, capitalism is another.
ME: Might there be a political movement that wouldn't be based on this sort of thought that creates illusion?
Bohm: I don't know that we can start by thinking about political movements. People may share certain ideas about what to do, but the basic point would be to look at the state of mind that doesn't hold rigidly to ideas and to discuss how that would work socially. What is needed is a society in which assumptions are not defended against evidence of falseness.
ME: When you get two people sitting down on opposite sides of the table, in the debate they support their own assumptions more and more strongly as they go.
Bohm: They are not paying attention to the thought process. They feel that their basic assumptions are part of them. If we don't understand how thought works, we defend our thoughts even when they are false. If two political parties try to negotiate, each is disposed to defend false thoughts at all costs. If one wins, it will bring about the victory of false thoughts. In order to have a true democracy, we have to have a different kind of thought process.
Let's go into some of our non-negotiable assumptions. For example, there are assumptions behind nationalism and you are generally not allowed to question them. You can't discuss this issue intelligently, especially in times of crisis. The operation of intelligence is prevented by the assumptions behind nationalism, religious fanaticism, and political ideology. The brain is affected by these assumptions and cannot allow intelligence to operate.
ME: It seems a kind of subtle brain damage has taken place in us.
Bohm: Yes, I believe so. I want to emphasize that we need a culture that doesn't act in a way that may damage the brain by defending its basic assumptions against evidence that they are false. We must discuss our assumptions freely and be ready to change them if necessary.
We have the wrong game at present. People are frightened; they feel they've got to win, if only for their self-esteem. If you lose, you feel that your self-esteem is wounded. Therefore you identify with winning.
The present situation looks intolerable in the long run. We can't afford thought run away with itself, to trap us in one illusion after another.
ME: People might regard what you just said as merely a call for tolerance.
Bohm: Tolerance means that you are going to agree to let the other person be but you're not taking him or her very seriously. Even then, you may get so annoyed that you stop tolerating. There have been long periods of religious tolerance that later turned to oppression.
In a good culture, we have to share our meanings and participate together in making a common meaning that is coherent and free of illusion. Sharing of meaning is prevented because we are attached to the present approach and we get frightened when it is questioned. We also feel that the present approach rewards us in certain ways, and we don't want to give that up. There is a famous saying that the devil that you know is not as bad as the devil you don't know. But that is an assumption!
It is clear from all this that the process of creating an illusion is as much collective as it is individual, and that everyone shares in helping to give these illusions a sense of reality. To be free of this whole process of creating illusions, we have to go on with the sort of inquiry and work that we have been discussing, collectively as well as individually. Next, we discuss how to approach this question collectively through dialogue.
Chapter 5: Dialogue and collective thought
Mark Edwards: The only fundamental approach to the problems that we face is through the participation of people around the world prepared to give sustained attention to the process of thought. It would be interesting to see how a group of people might work together to this end.
David Bohm: I want to suggest that we need an extension of what is generally meant by the notion of dialogue. The word has a Greek root, dia plus logos. Logos means the word or also the meaning and dia means through. This suggests that the meaning is passing through or flowing between the participants. We can distinguish this from the usual sort of conversation or discussion.
In a discussion, you might occasionally accept part of another person's view in order to strengthen your own, but fundamentally you want your view to prevail. In a dialogue, we are not trying to win.
A lot of what is called dialogue is not really dialogue. In the so-called dialogues in the United Nations, the real issues are seldom discussed. In a true dialogue, we have to be open to talking about the deeper issues, rather than just staying on the surface of things.
The proposal is that dialogue will be the key way to reveal what is actually happening in human relationships in groups. The first suggestion is that in doing this, it will be important to suspend our opinions, rather than defend or suppress them or to avoid expressing them in order to try to prevent conflict. To suspend means keep it "hanging in front of you", constantly accessible to questioning and observation.
Suspension requires that people feel free to express their opinions and have enough trust in the group so that they will not be afraid of for example making fools of themselves. What is needed especially is that judgments be suspended - judgments of what is true or false, real or illusory, necessary or contingent, right or wrong, beautiful or ugly, intelligent or stupid and so on. In our culture, these judgments come out of automatic reflexes and therefore have little value. Often they are false and destructive and generate fear, hate, and self-deceptive pleasure. Genuine judgments should come out of an act of perception rather than out of a reflex. This is not possible unless reflexes of thought and feeling are suspended. Reflexes are so habitual, that it is very hard to be aware that they are acting. Such awareness requires serious attention.
ME: At this stage, it may be helpful to inquire into the ordinary state of collective thought, which is evidently one of the main barriers to a change of this kind.
Bohm: Most fundamental thoughts are indeed collective in origin: for example, the thought of space and time, the thought of the body, the thought of the government, the thought of the family, and the thought of art and science. And it is language, clearly a collective activity, that formulates and conveys such thought. The most fundamental thoughts are collective. We share these thoughts.
Individuals develop their own thoughts mostly out of the common pool. From this, they learn what society is, what nature is like and what sort of persons they should be. They look to other people collectively to support this image of themselves, which is generally the basis of their self-esteem. For example, the main reason a lot of people want to make money is to improve their self-esteem. They think that money will cause other people to think well of them and that this will enable them to think well of themselves.
Although each individual makes his or her own contribution, the whole process is nevertheless primarily collective. Occasionally, some people may have an original thought, but for the most part, we more or less rearrange thoughts and use them in various contexts, adapting them in suitable ways.
We must not overlook the fact that the individual human being as a whole has his or her peculiar features, even though many of these are chosen out of the collective pool. These include the body of that person, and the brain and nervous system. Each person has certain unique potentialities, based on not only special talents and a particular inherited constitution, but also on what has been learned from experiences that are in at least some ways different from those of anyone else. But then there is something much deeper that really belongs in a much more essential way to the individual. I would say this involves the possibility of a connection with what I would call the cosmic dimension of life.
The life of a human being has three basic dimensions: the individual, the collective and the cosmic. Since ancient times people have has regard for something greater, the whole, the cosmic. Perhaps in early times, people felt very close to nature. Under these conditions, nature can be felt as something that gives a sense of the whole that goes far beyond the individual and the collective. When people went into cities and onto farms, they began to lose this. Religion helped to make up for it.
ME: Also art.
Bohm: Yes, art too. Art gave some contact with the cosmic even in very early times, but later, art and religion tended to tie together in doing this. Religion is, of course, aimed at the whole in its own way. In more recent times, many people have ceased to believe in the basic ideas of religion. It doesn't function very well at all now for a large number of people, yet science doesn't give such people a really satisfactory contact with the whole. Art gives something to people, too, but we can see that artistic movements are also now generally confused.
People don't seem to know quite what to do. They have lost contact between art, religion, and science and the cosmic.
ME: And the individual doesn´t have this contact either.
Bohm: There is also the loss of connection to nature, which I think is crucial.
ME: Could dialogue help to bring about harmony among the individual, the collective and the cosmic?
Bohm: This is quite possible. But it will be difficult to approach the cosmic in a coherent way before the individual and the collective are cleared up to some extent. Let us begin with the individual and the collective and see where it leads us.
As different people have different assumptions, they will resist and oppose each other. But insofar each individual is able to hold all the assumptions in suspension, they will share a common consciousness. Originally consciousness meant what everybody knows all together. Now it usually means what the individual knows all together. In a dialogue, these two meanings cohere and form a subtle higher unit, in which each individual participates in the whole group. This means that through the dialogue, the individual and the collective can come together in a harmonious unity.
ME: Can we bring the cosmic into this?
Bohm: We have first to look further into the various things that get in the way of the dialogue. One of these is prejudice, which means that you've made a prejudgment without even looking. Prejudices are practically all collective in origin. For example, color prejudice comes from parents or friends. A prejudice is a form of collective opinion that is defended against evidence of its falseness.
As we proceed with dialogue, from time to time people may feel bored or frustrated. That is only to be expected. Ordinarily, people have two reasons for getting together. One is that they will do something enjoyable and have fun. Here they are not having fun. The natural reaction would be to stop unless they are not seeing the importance of going on. When you feel something is important, you go on even if it boring and frustrating.
ME: It seems that it is important that there should be people with different backgrounds because the group should explore what it is to disagree.
Bohm: Everybody has taken a different part out of the general public pool. In fact, there are always different subcultures. They don't agree with each other.
ME: The difficulty is to get started. To find a room and a good mixture of people who can keep going without an imposed purpose.
Bohm: There are many ways in which people may come together. The beginning requires some initiative on somebody's part to get it going. It is not to have a leader in the long run. People have to be able to be honest and straight with each other. They cannot do this if there is an authority.
ME: You have said that it is important that there is and no hierarchy.
Bohm: There is no hierarchy. We are all "leveling" with each other. We are just having this common mind, this shared mind that can think together in a new way. Its movement can be free from all the opinions and automatic reflexive judgments and move beyond them. Opinions and judgments are irrelevant. The first process is that we just to look at them all. Then we go on to something new and creative, a new mind in which we can begin to free thought from its rigid collective conditioning.
As we said, most of our thought is really collective. You could say that in some way the emotions could be compared to a kind of music, you could say it is a kind of dance with music. People are able to sing and dance together, but they can't talk and think together.
Evidently, we have to talk together and think together if we are going to organize society in a meaningful way. I suggest that if we can sustain a real dialogue, we will find in the end that talking and thinking together is very like a kind of improvised singing and dancing together.
ME: You seem to feel that without this exploration technological civilization is not going to work.
Bohm: It is not even practical. Some people said that love would make everything right. That is true. If love could really flower, it would work. But the fact is it can't, given the destructive conditioning of our thought.
ME: It is necessary to have an approach that works with people as they actually are, rather than with idealized kind of person who is either very rare or else perhaps does not even exist at all.
Bohm: The lesson we learn from this is that love, as we generally know it, is not enough. The crucial point is that people have to be able to talk and think together. If they can't, whatever love there may be, will eventually go.
ME: Are you saying that love cannot operate unless opinions and reflexive judgments can be suspended?
Bohm: Yes. Even in the case of quarrels with people, the mere fact that the other person will seriously listen to the opinion without even agreeing is generally enough to stop the quarrel.
We see from experience that people find the idea of a group without defined and specified purpose difficult. We have a sort of purpose, which is to explore talking together and thinking together. But beyond that, the purpose need not be defined.
We also need an empty space that is not occupied by anything in order to let the mind flower. If we don't have the empty space, we're going to be stopped.
A key point is that intelligence can make our action free of the conditioning based on memory. This kind of subtle mind is essential for us to be truly human. Many people are discouraged or even cynical that we are necessarily governed by instincts, such as aggression. What we have talked about goes beyond such limited notions. There is an infinitely subtle possibility that can be realized by our total being. This is not bound by the instincts, by our history, or by our thought. It is really open and creative. This is a crucial point.
ME: People can see certain value in the sort of things that we have been talking about, but who think that it is still necessary to focus mainly on some practical questions. They don't see how what we are saying connects to the actual crisis that confronts us. They feel that the notion of dialogue may be very interesting, but the ozone layer is being depleted and deserts are spreading. In order to be effective, groups of people have given their energy to certain aspects of the environmental crisis. They feel they are doing something positive while people like us sit around talking about the process of thought. Some people would see that as fiddling while the world burns.
Bohm: I don't want to suggest that we give up all attention to the immediate problem, but I feel that without attention to the long-range problem, the deeper one, it won't mean very much. If we just deal with one immediate problem after another, then we are going to keep on creating new problems. This approach can not work.
We must first note that the only proper way for dealing with detailed problems is simultaneously to look at the general problem. This detailed approach by itself could at best buy time. However good you at it, you are not going to stop this destruction in the long run.
I am saying: Go ahead with all particular activities, but you can surely find time for the other one. We have got to look at thought, both individually and collectively, and in this process, we come upon some more subtle quality of the mind that will begin to awaken and that can spread. This subtle quality will show up collectively in a sense of impersonal fellowship that generates trust and in the intellect as thinking together in a way that is free of the general pressure toward self-deception that we now feel. This can be the germ of a radically new kind of culture.
Chapter 6: On meaning
Mark Edwards: The sense of isolation and unhappiness affect many people in society. They are unable to find any real meaning in their lives. Dialogue and the exploration of the process of thought could produce a more genuine culture in which meaning could be shared freely. Without this sharing of meaning, there does not seem much point to civilization.
Bohm: Yes, I think that it actually could produce a genuine culture. According to the dictionary, the word meaning has three definitions: significance, value, and purpose. First, meaning points to or indicates something significant. Then, whatever has high value is what means a lot to me. If I say that I mean to do it, this signifies it is my purpose.
Meaning is something very fundamental. When you say that life is meaningless, you are really saying that it has no value. Life in this society doesn't have much meaning if the main occupation of people is a mechanical sort of work and if they are isolated.
ME: Emotionally isolated and suffocated by crowds - at least in our cities!
Bohm: Isolation is often sensed as loneliness or lack of meaningful relationships with people. It can also reveal itself in more general ways. We are also isolated in the content of our consciousness. Each of us has our own opinion that we defend so that we don't share common content. Many activities of thought are isolating because we get committed to them. We then can't listen to somebody else, so we cannot be closely related to other people with different basic assumptions.
ME: In the 1960's people turned to drugs to find a new and deeper meaning to their lives. LSD opened people's minds to another way of perceiving reality that appeared to have no significance.
Bohm: The more a fundamental kind of significance, value and purpose are lacking, the more people will seek them in all sorts of ways. Some may try to find them in society itself, or in movements to make society better. Some try to find meaning in pleasure, but that is obviously very limited.
ME: Yes, it becomes boring eventually. The brain demands meaning, and if it is not there, it invents it: God, football, or something else.
Bohm: People can get very excited about football, but they can't live on that. So we have a crisis. The crisis of meaning is the crisis of consciousness. Without meaning, what is consciousness? It would just be a machine.
It was an illusion to expect that it was going to get better through technological and political methods.
ME: We need exploration, which will lead us to a way of life that has real meaning. In this mechanical world, there is very little to explore without the routine laid out by society.
Bohm: To go further we need to explore pleasure. People began to seek pleasure just for its own sake, by abstracting the pleasure from the thing that gave them pleasure. If you fill your mind with something pleasurable, that will get rid of pain and anxiety for a while.
However, we ought to distinguish pleasure from joy or enjoyment. Joy might be a spontaneous part of a whole meaning. You cannot seek joy; it makes no sense because the very seeking is not compatible with joy. You can't separate joy from the whole process in which it comes about. Pleasure can be abstracted from the process that produces it. We can abstract pleasure mechanically, so pleasure has become mechanical.
ME: I hadn't thought about that before. Could you go into that a bit more?
Bohm: Well, we give our feelings a name. If you happen to enjoy something but don't abstract it and name it, you won't demand it again. When you abstract pleasure by thought, what you are doing becomes a means to an end, which after a while becomes boring. Joy cannot be an end produced by a means. There is no point in seeking pleasure - though there is no point in avoiding it either.
Pleasure is always counterbalanced by pain. Wherever you can have pleasure, you can have pain. Pleasure and pain centers are very close in the brain.
Physical pain is necessary because it warns us that things are wrong. Without pain we couldn't live. Pleasure and pain can both have significance. What is pleasant is a good thing to do, what is painful is not. But then once you can abstract pleasure by means of thought, it no longer means that anymore; it has very little significance.
ME: It seems to me that we would have a true meaning in life, not through pleasure or great achievements, but by simple feeling vibrantly alive and by being in our right place.
Bohm: There is a phrase that Browning used: "God is in his heaven - all is right with the world." We cannot say that now.
ME: It has also been said that art is a sense of order - everything in its right place. Now that we live rather mechanical lives, we think that a sense of order means a rather routine life.
Bohm: But order is a far more dynamic thing. Thought has produced chaos because it has not made order in its own process. Thought has generally looked for order in something else treating its own process as though it were beyond the requirements of order. We need more subtle intelligence that is able to keep thought in order so that it does not defend itself against evidence that it may be wrong.
There is an ancient image of the rider and the horse. The rider does not order the movement of the horse by power or force, but by very subtle means. Rider and horse are almost one thing. The horse goes where you want to go, but you have to think faster than the horse. The horse left to itself goes where it wants to go.
Turning of the horse is a good analogy to the operation of the subtle intelligence on thought. If the rider falls asleep, the horse will go to where it wants to. That is what is happening to us: intelligence falls asleep and functions of thought begin to take over: fear, rage, anger, pleasure.
The point is, we can't properly raise the question of meaning unless this intelligence awakens. The kind of meanings we are going to get in our present state are not going to be very significant. If the meaning is limited, the sense of purpose is also limited, as well as the sense of value and the energy.
ME: People often ask, What is the ultimate meaning of life? What would you say to this question?
Bohm: When life as a whole is harmonious, we don't have to ask for an ultimate meaning, for then life itself is the meaning. If it is not, we have to find the reason by looking into the life as a whole, which includes the source of the stream and the basic roots of consciousness and the thought process. If we do this, we will generally find that a lack of meaning in life has its root in sustained and pervasive incoherence in our thoughts, in our feelings, and in how we live, along with a self-deceptive defense of the whole process against evidence that it has serious faults.
We would say that life as a whole is grounded in the matter of the universe and also in some subtle level that we could call spirit, which literally means breath or wind. We have to reach this total ground to be able to live a life that is its own meaning. If we take less than this sort of overall cosmic approach, the meaning we find will ultimately prove not to be viable meaning but one that will sooner or later break down into incoherence.
To have this we have to have a genuine meaning that can flow coherently into every aspect of life. Of course, that includes culture, which is a shared meaning. In our society culture is turned into a commercial product. We might soon be talking about the education industry or eventually about the culture industry. The whole thing would then become a farce because our shared cultural meanings would depend on their monetary value. We have to see that meaning is in itself the source of all value.
We have to be careful about taking too narrow a meaning. Meaning can only exist only in the whole context. Each person has his or her place in the whole thing.
ME: This whole cannot be comprehended solely in the individual and collective dimensions of the human being but must include what you call the cosmic dimension. Would you say that without this dimension the subtle intelligence is not possible?
Bohm: I think that is so. Of course, we cannot give a prescription for how to come into contact with the cosmic dimension. Until we at least make a good beginning in bringing about greater coherence in the individual and collective dimensions of life, our minds will be too confused and noisy to allow any significant approach to the cosmic.
ME: If the mind is noisy, then it is clear that what is required for coherence is silence. In the silence, the faint intimations of the subtle deeper intelligence might be sensed. It seems that silence is essential to bring about coherence and wholeness.
Bohm: Yes. We may consider coming upon a mind that is more and more subtle, more sensitive, more refined, more delicate, more undefinable, and more freely moving. Ultimately it might go beyond the word. Such a mind could move in a deeper way in the silence without the word and without the image.
A good analogy comes from physics, in which sound is explained as a wave in a medium such as air, which carries the wave. The medium is always there and in itself it is silent. So the fundamental being of sound is in something that is not sound. Similarly, thoughts can be regarded as waves or ripples on a deeper ground that is not thought. The silence of thought - that is its nonmovement - is what is needed to come into contact with this deeper ground. The silence is the deeper being within which all the words images, "noise" can be held in wholeness. Only with such a perception can the subtle intelligence operate without impediment.
The content of this book is devoted to the individual and collective dimensions. They have to be grasped in actual life before exploring the cosmic dimension and the silence that goes with it has much meaning. We hope that the reader will actually face the challenge of doing this, and we feel that only in this way can the further challenge the changing consciousness be met fully.