Tim Freke, British Philosopher and author of 35+ books shares his insights on philosophy of mind, ego, spiritual awakenings and the nature of reality.
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Joshua Bloom: So we’re here at SAND 2017 in Italy and I’m here with Tim Freke. Could you start by giving us a brief background about yourself?
Tim Freke: Yeah, I mean my.. I guess the seminal moment for me came with a spontaneous awakening when I was twelve years old. So, life had all seemed very mysterious.. and I think I entered so deeply into that mystery, just one day, living in the West country where I grew up, that I experienced what I now call the ‘deep awake state’, and with that transformation of consciousness I knew something really important had happened, and it was the seed for everything that’s followed since, so I spent most of my youth exploring how to transform consciousness and then as I got older, eventually I wrote books on all the different spiritual traditions which I’d studied and then eventually over the last 10-20 years, for me it’s been about ‘okay, having looked at the past, what’s the future? What’s the.. how can we approach this awakening now and how can we understand the nature of the Universe, of the cosmos in a new way which integrates the modern understanding of science with the ancient understanding of spirituality in a meaningful way. So that’s been my passion, that’s brought me here.. in my latest books
JB: So this experience at age twelve.. was it like an accident? Or a spontaneous?
TF: Spontaneous really, I mean I was.. my memory was just sitting on this hill, overlooking this quite sleepy town really, where I was born, and just.. focused on those big questions: ‘what is it to be alive’, ‘who am I’, ‘why is there suffering’, ‘what is death’, all those things.. and then there’s this moment where.. it’s like moving into another world alongside this one. In which the colours are brighter, in which I feel really alive.. and then this connection.. onness, communion
JB: Could you say that it could have possibly been due to an endogenous release of a psychoactive chemical? For example, DMT and 5-MeO-DMT are produced by the brain
TF: My suspicion is that everything we experience has a correlate in the physiology
JB: Like a neural correlate.. okay
TF: Yeah, so everything has a correlate. I don’t think we have to be reductionist about that and reduce it to the chemicals. So.. I love my wife – there can be a physical correlate to that, but I dont think my love for my wife can be reduced to chemicals. And in the same way with mystical experiences, I think you can approach them in two ways.. and I have done. Some you can approach them from the outside in – for instance, if you take certain substances there is a tendency for them to generate mystical experiences. But conversely, mostly, I have experienced them from the inside out, whereby it feels like the experience comes first and then issues out into.. that the body follows the inner experience
JB: What are your thoughts on the ego? You touched on it in your first talk here
TF: One of the things which I feel which is perhaps controversial is that for me, I don’t.. to me the ego is the hero of the journey of life, not the enemy. So much of spirituality, which wants to take people to oneness, does that at the price of separateness. So the idea is ‘if you want to wake up to this place where there’s one of us, you’ve got to get rid of Tim, you’ve got to get rid of your separate identity.. there’s a thing in you which is trying to stop you, which doesn’t want to die’. I hate all that because it doesn’t honour our humanity – it takes us away from our humanity. So my feeling is that actually, what’s happening, is that we become conscious through our separate identity and then having become conscious through the separateness, we can then wake up to the grander being – so that we wake up to oneness through separateness, not by getting rid of it
JB: So the ego is here to stay?
TF: I think the ego’s not only here to stay, it’s the thing which takes you to it and it’s the thing then which you embody it with it, so that you can actually.. so it’s not like getting away from it into life, into oneness, it’s about waking up to that profound oneness which manifests as love – because that’s how the oneness feels – and then taking that love and bringing it out through the separate self. No, look, I’m not saying ‘egotism’ is a good thing. I’m not saying thinking that it’s all about me is a good thing, and when you wake up to the oneness that goes. But the individual actually I think is essential, it’s not in the way. It’s the vehicle through which we become conscious. In fact, I would say we have to become more individual, not less and what marks out awake people is how individual they are: they’re thinking for themselves, they free themselves from a collective coma that the rest of the culture is in, they are creative for themselves, they question, and have their own way of understanding things, so the great paradox seems to me is that if you want to wake up to the ‘One’, you need to actually become more of a someone, so that you’re really yourself
JB: Alan Watts mentioned that we need to get out of our mind to come to our senses. By that I interpret it as getting out of the egoic state, the default mode network, and he advised to ‘get out of your mind’ at least once a day, and in my mind, I can’t remember who said this, but they said that to be in an altered state of consciousness, popping out of the egoic state, is health itself
TF: Yeah so, with a lot of these phrases it’s ‘how do we use them’. See I think what Alan’s saying.. first of all, you know, I love Alan Watts, a lot.. but he’s also a man of his time and he’s somebody who is bringing in a lot of Eastern thought. Eastern thought has got a real problem with the mind. It sees the mind as ‘in the way’. I don’t see the mind as in the way. I think the mind is a beautiful thing. The mind is a.. but it’s ambiguous, like everything. So what we mean by mind, is often just thinking. What is thinking? Well it seems to me that thinking is just imagining talking. It’s just that I’m talking to you out loud here and now im gonna think it.. and now I’m doing it to myself.. as though you are here. So thinking, is imagining talking. Is talking a bad thing? Well, yes and no. Sometimes. Hopefully this is a really insightful and beautiful conversation but we could talk rubbish or we could argue, or we could inflame each other to the point where we’re aggressive or.. so talking’s not one thing or another – it’s what you say. And thinking’s not one thing or the other – it’s what you think. For many of us, all of us some of the time, we just think habitual thoughts and if we’re just stuck and we can’t move from that, that’s the mind as very negative thing. If we have moments of insight, the mind is a very positive thing, so the mind is not good or bad, and the ego’s the same. If we get stuck in our separateness, life is awful and we’re awful to everyone around us because it’s all about me. If we wake up to it as well, not instead, as well, then we have both. So I would say the core of my philosophy, which is maybe slightly different to Alan’s, partly because it’s coming later, is what I call ‘paralogical thinking’, where it’s not either or. It’s not either the onness or the separateness, either no ego or ego – it’s actually a place where you’re going. You can be both of those at once and you already are both of those at once. If you’re just trapped in the habitual, then you won’t wake up to this and that’s when you need to step out of your.. if you’re saying to step out of your habitual life, then I think that’s exactly what I want
JB: Now in the West you’re saying holding two contrasting views in equal measure: is that not called cognitive dissonance?
TF: I think you.. I’m not saying cold contradictory views, I’m saying allow for paradoxal views. So from one perspective, let me give you an example of what I mean in a completely different context. So this morning I woke up very early, I saw the sunrise. That happens to be true. I could also say to you, actually the sun doesn’t rise. The earth is a sphere going around the Sun, there is no sunrise – and that’s also true. So it is both true and not true that I saw the sunrise this morning and they’re not contradictory because they’re from different perspectives.. and you can understand both perspectives and go ‘oh yeah, I can see that they’re both true in their different ways’. It’s more like that. So when I say ‘look, I’m both an individual and there’s a place where it’s all just one, it’s like that. I could stand somewhere and ‘oh, there is no separateness’.. and I stand here, I stand in the individuality and there most definitely is.. and they’re both true. There’s no cognitive dissonance, there’s just a ‘both and’. A paradox. A ‘both and’.. because they’re both true from different perspectives
JB: From my own personal experience working in a mental healthcare setting, and from my research in psychology and neuroscience, it seems that a lot of these mental disorders are simply, too strong an association with the ego
TF: Yep and conversely – conversely as well.. that’s what I think is interesting. Because yes, true, you can become embedded in habitual thinking. It can be awful, just ‘chouchou’ your thoughts going round. I have people very close to me who have suffered terribly with that.. but conversely also, you can have too weak an ego. So I think.. I come across a lot of people who enter into what sound (9:58) on the surface, like mystical states in a very negative way because they’re not rooted enough, firmly enough in their body and firmly enough in their separateness, so that their experience.. I mean I have somebody who’s very close to me.. and I was writing a book on mystical awakening, I was saying ‘it’s all one’ and he was coming to me and going ‘it’s terrible, I don’t exist as an individual’ and I was saying ‘just concentrate on your breath’ and he was going ‘I cant stop thinking about my breath, it’s horrible! I just feel like I don’t really exist’. All of the things which, if you have a strong ego, a separate self becomes a really positive experience, but because he didn’t, he was having a very negative experience. So my suspicion is that when we say ‘mental health’, we’re really talking about ‘maladies of the soul’.. you know, the psyche.. and you know, somebody who’s a psychologist is a soul doctor.. and the maladies of the soul can be as various as the maladies of the body and they will incorporate some imbalance between the universal oneness of being and the individual expression of a particular mind or soul.. and both.. to be really healthy, we need both. So, many.. most people probably, are too stuck in the separateness, some people have not developed the separateness enough. It’s why in the old traditions, I don’t think it’s true now, but in the old traditions, often you wouldn’t be taught the mystical teachings, you wouldn’t have the big initiation to oneness until you were forty because you wouldn’t be regarded as rooted enough in the world and in your individuality already
JB: Didn’t Carl Jung say life begins at forty, everything before that is simply research?
TF: That’s great. Jung has really got this.. you know cause he’s a great doctor of the soul and he can really see that you need.. it’s all about the ‘both and’. In fact, I knicked the phrase ‘both and’ from Carl Jung. A lot of my philosophy I’m.. that I’m known for, is this idea of ‘both and’ and paralogical thinking.. but the place I first saw the phrase was Carl Jung saying not the niggardly ‘either or’ but the glorious ‘both and’, and this understanding of paradox and embracing opposits, is very strong in him
JB: Okay. Going back to the ego and psychology – sorry – not the ego. Do you think there’s a fundamental difference between a spiritual awakening and a psychotic episode?
TF: What a great question. I love that question, because okay.. I’m on camera but I don’t normally say this publicly but I will.. because you’ve said that. Honestly, having been around spirituality now for forty-something years, boy.. I think an awful lot of what takes itself to be spirituality is often mental illness, and there’s a lot of irrationality which is not particularly healthy, and there’s a lot of delusion and things that I was attracted to when I was much younger I now look at them and think.. wow, why was I attracted to that, that’s crazy, actually. So, one of the things I really want to see happen.. I think at the heart of spirituality there is the secret of the next step in our evolution.. but it.. for it to play that role, and it’s nowhere close to playing it yet, it needs to be utterly transformed, it’s got to shape up a completely new level because at the moment its mired in a lot of things which are quite honestly psychotic episodes. I also think that.. that there’s a great variety of experience available to us, of which waking up to these profound one states of oneness is one possibility and we mistake that for something we should all have so for instance, I see a lot of people go into a disengaged state and they’re genuinely experiencing the oneness of being, but they’re not really happy in the separateness. They’re quite an emotionally disengaged type of people.. and I have no problem.. it’s like ‘oh, you’re specialising in that, very nice, very interesting’. What I don’t like is when they’re telling other people that’s the perfection, that’s the truth and we should all be like that.. because I don’t think that. It feels like there’s a whole spectrum of ways we can be.. and what we should do is find the way that’s right for us and that will be different from me than it is for you, and all of these different aspects of consciousness are available to us, and we go where we’re drawn to.. so that some are straightforwardly psychotic, some are partial – all are partial – and the mistake is that we make some of them ‘enlightenment’ so that really ‘I’ve got this thing and you haven’t’ rather than ‘you’re experiencing this, I’m experiencing that, we can share things which may be of interest and expand ourselves, without some idea of one being the ultimate goal for everyone
JB: They say bipolar disorder is the low-hanging fruit to enlightenment, because when the sufferer is in the manic state, they experience ego loss and live fully in the present moment, is that something you’re familiar with?
TF: I’m not, I mean, you know, it feels like we’re all a bit bipolar, because the Universe itself is bipolar, so you know it’s like, it’s the paradoxical nature of reality. So we all express that and I think something that spirituality needs to get used to is that, so we can actually see that we’re all in the same boat, which makes everyone feel a bit better about who they are, so one of the lines I like to use in one of my books because it captures it for me, was like a little moment of insight, where I thought ‘oh, I see.. we’re all great souls, and we’re all assholes, that’s what we are!’ and that stayed with me because of that. It just feels like ‘yeah that’s right, we’re all like that, and getting used to that I think really helps, so we don’t, we.. for me the idea of some perfect state where Tim’s gonna be ‘Tadah!’, that’s completely gone.. and it’s a relief.. because well you see now I can embrace my humanity.. I can wake.. you know this is already here.. this big life, this big oneness, and I can go deeper into it, deeper into it, not all the time, sometimes I lose it, but it’s right there wherever I look. As I’ve got older, I’ve been able to find it much much easier, cause I’ve done it more. So when I was younger it was really difficult, now it’s quite easy. But Tim is still Tim. He speaks in a certain way, he’s not very ‘spiritual teachery’, he’s got a West Country accent.. he doesn’t sit very quietly, you know, he’s quite animated, he knocks things over, he’s a bit clumsy, a bit dyspraxic, you know, he’s good at this, not good at that.. if you meet him hopefully he’s fun but if you had to live with him he’d drive you nuts, all the things that makes somebody somebody.. and he’s on a journey and always will be, I hope. And then there’s ‘this’ which is my deep essence which is going nowhere, it’s always there, and those two coexist.. and that feels like, so much more realistic and more optimistic to me, I like that.. and then I can met you and I can say ‘oh look you’re also a completely different individual – kinda like me, kinda not. Different age, different background, different place, whole different experiences because of that, things that I can learn, things that we can learn from each other’, and then look deeper and ‘oh, there’s one of us’ – and then there’s two of us. All of us, one of us. All of us two of us, and they’re both true and there’s a real integrity and humility to our meeting then, because we can meet as these unique expressions out of this deep essence at the same time
JB: Okay. You seem to be somewhat a scholar regarding Gnosticism. Could you share some of your insights on it perhaps?
TF: Uhhh. That’s a biiig question. Yes, so I’ll maybe just say some provocative things and obviously to back them up would be a whole conversation in itself. Well, a big moment in my life as an author was writing a book called The Jesus Mysteries with my dear friend Peter Gandy, who I was traveling with and exploring consciousness with since I was a boy.. doing every mad thing and taking every mad thing and trying every mad thing. He ended up a.. I ended up a philosopher, he ended up a classicist.. and we got together and wrote a number of books which were very successful and I think important on the origins of Christianity, first of which was The Jesus Mysteries, and the essence of what we did really was a lot of scholarship and going back to where Christianity came from, and suggested that the traditional understanding of it is completely wrong. That actually, whilst Christianity is the story of Jesus – it’s a parabole – the whole thing is a parabole, it’s not just full.. you know, the good samaritan.. there is no good samaritan – it’s a parabole, it’s a teaching story. Jesus.. there is no Jesus – it’s a parabole and it’s a myth which is based on Pagan mythology, which has been around for thousands of years
JB: Have you been to Cashmere before?
TF: Where they’ve got the tomb
JB: They’ve got the tomb of Jesus
TF: Yes they’ve got one
JB: ..And someone told me that uh, some wise Buddhist reiki healers from India followed the star to Bethlehem, found a baby Jesus, took him back to India, tought him the art of reiki healing, he went back to Israel, healed loads of people and then died, and he healed himself in the cave using reiki, went back to India and lived until a ripe old age
TF: Wonderful isn’t it. Yeah, there’s also a tomb of him in Japan, there’s one in France, there’s a couple in uh.. in Jerusalem.. in the ancient world there were fourteen umbilical cords belonging to Jesus, there were about ten foreskins.. yeah, it’s endless, it’s absolutely endless. But once you peel all that away, what you find underneath is no evidence for a historical man whatsoever, and you find a Pagan myth of a dying resurrecting god-man who has twelve to disciples, who brings a message of love, who’s put to death, who resurrects and if you understand the parabole, it’s about you yourself making that journey of death and rebirth and experiencing this.. what they call the ‘gnosis’, the deep knowing – which is the awakened state.. so that you come to life. In Greek the word for rebirth or becoming alive is also to waken up, to wake up. So the vision of Christianity which we uncovered and I think since then the evidence has mounted and mounted, and slowly it’s becoming more popular is that Christianity is a mystery religion of the ancient world. It’s just it’s a crossover between the mystery of religion which is Assyrus, Adonis, Athos, Syracus, Dionysos, all those different figures, who are all basically the same figure, and Joshua or Jesus in Greek, and it’s been created by gnostics, probably in Egypt, nothing to do with Judaica particularly, by displaced Jewish gnostics who speak Greek, they were all written in Greek and there are, we have hundreds of texts which demonstrate this crossover between Jewish and Pagan myths, which has much later become taken literally, and becomes, in the hands of the Roman empire, fascist empire, this big Catholic religion which eventually stamps out gnosticism with brute force and stamps out paganism. So it’s a very different perspective on what Christianity is and I think a very optimistic one because it goes ‘oh, it’s not some crazy religion about believing that god came on a journey to planet Earth and you believe that you’ll be saved and if not you’ll be damned’, it has nothing to do with that. It’s actually a very, very ancient, tens of thousands of years old, ancient story of transformation that when you get it, you wake up to the Christ within you and the Christ within you is exactly what the ancient pagans called the Dionysos within you, or the Assyrus within you, which if you went to India would be called the Atman or the Buddha-nature, that there’s a fundamental oneness of being, behind the separateness, and thats the gnosis, that’s what Christianity is about.. but no one ever told me that at Sunday school. I think that’s actually what it’s about
JB: Yeah. Coming to my final question: do you think we need to let go of materialism in science, culture and socio-economics to progress as a species?
TF: These are great questions.. so various as well. Yes, I think is the answer. I think materialism as a philosophy had lost credibility a hundred years ago. I think scientists, physicists.. completely undercut the idea of matter. I think the idea that the world is made of matter has disappeared. Ironically, most people who think of themselves as scientists, haven’t realised that.. but physics is way beyond matter
JB: Or they’re just too afraid to admit it
TF: Possibly that too and there’s assumptions that get made about what science is saying which is not what it’s saying
JB: It could be professional suicide if they did admit to it
TF: Well.. yeah, there could be an element of that. I mean, ironically, if you go.. the more you go into the real depths of physics, the more you’ll see people who have left materialism behind. The more you go into, say, biology, the more materialists you’ll find.. so then, they haven’t really caught up with the cutting edge and the cutting edge has reached that over a hundred years ago. As a culture, however, we have had this philosophy really take off, because people think it is science and especially in my lifetime I’ve seen it happen and particularly over the last twenty years, when I’ve started seeing the comedians coming out and being materialist and a lot of the intellectuals, Richard Dawkins and people like that.. people who in one way I really love, because they’re clever, they’re insightful, they’re not willing to bullshit, but actually what’s happening is this view of reality has become pervasive, which has left us with this soul crisis. because the mains… the majority of people are not like this, but the mainstream intellectuals, especially, I think in the UK, are.. have a view of reality which is that the Universe is fundamentally an object, it’s subject to this thing we’re experiencing. The soul, the psyche is kind of just a side-effect of a piece of me.. no more than that. You’re gonna be here for a few short years, long enough to go ‘what the hell’ and then you’re dead and that’s it. It rose for no particular reason, it’s not going anywhere, it has no meaning, it has no purpose and it’s all happened by chance, and your life has happened by chance and your life has no meaning or purpose. Well surprise surprise, that’s left people feeling very high and dry. Now my feeling is that that philosophy is not only.. it’s totally inadequate to my experience of life. It’s just not right. It’s very bleak and there’s this feeling in the intellectual mainstream which goes.. it’s almost macho it’s like ‘yeah.. life’s completely meaningless, are you man enough to believe the truth? Can you really face how bleak it really is? We’re in this cold, infinite Universe which is just huge and empty and you’re nothing.. can you get that?’ and you’re like ‘well yeah but I think it’s a bit more than that. There’s something else going on as well’. So part of my purpose is to create an intellectually robust defense of a different way of seeing reality, because the problem with spirituality is that most of it is pretty ‘woowoo’ so it doesn’t seem to stand up to the test, so you put that alongside the great knowledge of science and it looks like wishful thinking. ‘Yeah I believe in life after death’ ‘Why?’ ‘Well I just believe it’.. well is that, you know, is that.. its like pfff. Whereas I feel like, no, that should be taken seriously, my experience definitely suggests that that is something we should take absolutely seriously, so how can we create a philosophy which is intellectually robust enough to present an alternative to materialism, because like you said in your question, once you’re in that soul crisis how do you cope with that? Well you cope with it by just.. you know.. party ‘till you drop, buy what you can, buy as many shiny things as you can enjoy while you can and get your designer jeans and pass the time as best you can before your meaningless end.. whereas that’s not my vision of life. I think we’re in an incredible evolutionary journey, which has lead to the evolution of the psyche and the soul, I think its lead to the evolution of immortality, I think it’s led to the evolution of meaning and magic, all of which has arisen through this emerging process and we are at the cutting edge of it – and far from being meaningless.. it is just far more full of meaning than we can dream, and the job now is to create a spirituality which can state that in a convincing and coherent way and take us out of the soul crisis and give us back in our vision and when we’ve got back our vision it will change how we treat ourselves, how we treat the planet and how we treat each other. And thats why we’re here
JB: Thanks for that answer. Is there anything you’d like to share with anyone who might be listening, on perhaps daily practices to help reach a state of awakening or to maintain that state of awakening?
TF: Yeah so this book here, Soul Story, is the one I’ve been talking about here. It’s a book on philosophy but the one before it, which I haven’t got here, it’s called Deep Awake, and that book is about practices, it’s about how can you on your own and with others, cultivate this deep awake state, so it’s a philosophy of awakening, it’s very practical. There’s so many things, you know, one of the great things for me is that I don’t believe there’s one silver bullet for everyone, because actually, the whole of life is a practce. So theres a million ways, so it’s about finding what works for you, you know.. but very simple things work for most people. So one of the things which I like to do is just remember how mysterious life is because when we get, when you say about being ‘out of your mind’, it’s like when you’re in your habitual mind, when you’re just in that ‘this is how it is’, you miss the most obvious thing which is nobody knows what this is. This incredible mystery’s happening, extraordinary mystery that we exist, I think.. it’s infinite, breathtaking, that we exist, not just that we exist but you’re here as well.. I’m here and you’re here.. and we’re connecting.. we’re both conscious.. we’re on this journey and we’re finding out what it is, and.. you know.. and you’re coming in and I’m headed off.. and then you’ll head off and others will come in.. and you’ll go, you know, and we’re playing all these roles. It’s just infinitely mysterious. So one of the things that is just such a simple thing to do is.. just remember that. So if you feel closed down just remember that you don’t know and instantly you come out of your habitual mind and there’s this big spacious mystery. It’s just there, it’s huge.. it’s really, really big and it’s such a simple thing, you can do at any time. And the mystery is so sweet isn’t it? It’s so big and then from the mystery, then you can show your insights. Like for me as a philosopher, I want to share ideas.. but the foundation of the idea is.. is that I don’t know. And that gives me a chance to share them, I hope, with some humility of going ‘hey, I’ve found this, what do you think’ rather than ‘this is the way it is’. Which is such a different thing
JB: Black and white scientific approach
TF: Yeah yeah yeah
JB: Can we finish off with.. I’d like to share a joke with you
JB: Okay. A psychic midget escapes from prison. Headlines read ‘small medium at large’
TF: Thanks for that