Printed in the Winter 2016 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Smoley, Richard. "Knowledge, Inner and Outer: An Interview with Cassandra Vieten" Quest 104.1 (Winter 2016): pg. 10-14, 40.
By Richard Smoley
One of today’s leading institutions in consciousness studies is the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), based in Petaluma, California. Founded in 1973 by astronaut Edgar Mitchell, it sponsors research not only into ordinary states of consciousness but paranormal ones, including telepathy, precognition, and clairvoyance. IONS aims to explore these areas with the same rigor that is used in other scientific disciplines. TS members may recollect a Skype interview with parapsychologist Dean Radin, senior scientist at IONS, at the 2014 Summer National Convention.
At the 2015 SNC, participants heard an address by IONS president Cassandra Vieten. Vieten, a licensed clinical psychologist, has been with the organization since 2001. She has a doctorate in clinical psychology from the California Institute of Integral Studies. She is the coauthor of Living Deeply: The Art and Science of Transformation in Everyday Life(2008) and author of Mindful Motherhood: Practical Tools for Staying Sane During Pregnancy and Your Child’s First Year(2009).
I interviewed Vieten during her visit to Olcott in July 2015. Nancy Grace kindly transcribed the interview for the magazine.
Richard Smoley: One of the main missions of IONS is transformation. Could you begin by saying a little bit about what you think transformation is?
Cassandra Vieten: The Institute of Noetic Sciences is dedicated to fostering, on the largest level, a global transformation in consciousness. Transformation for us can happen on an individual level; it can happen on a level of a small group like an organization or an institution; and it can happen at a larger level of society. Take one example: there is a collective sense that when someone commits a crime, we should lock them into a cage. In general that’s agreed upon. And so I think, I wonder, if part of the work of the Institute of Noetic Sciences isn’t to challenge some of these prevailing worldviews.
Smoley: Noetic is an unusual word. What does it mean?
Vieten: Noetic is a Greek word that signifies a particular kind of knowledge: inner knowing or intuitive knowledge — when you know something is true but you don’t necessarily have external proof for it, or you don’t need external validation. William James talked about a noetic experience having a curious sense of authority. It may be inarticulate, but it still carries with it a truth. It’s the way you know that you love your children, or you know that you prefer something, and no one else could tell you that’s not true.
Then there’s the external form of knowing, which we call science, and when you put those together it’s noetic sciences, a combination of the internal way of knowing and the external way of knowing, with observation, validation, measurement, replication.
Smoley: Today as always, people have all kinds of noetic experiences. Curiously, a great deal of social energy is placed into telling people they didn’t have these experiences, or that it was just their imagination. Do you see a way of countering that?
Vieten: These experiences that we’ve been studying — precognition, clairvoyance, telepathy, remote viewing, ESP, near-death experiences, encounters with multidimensional beings—these are all experiences that people report. There’s a segment of society that takes all of this for granted. They have no problem with it, but they also may not have a lot of discernment about these experiences or a lot of knowledge about how biased our perceptions can be.
Then you’ve got another segment of society that says that, by definition, this is all false and imaginary. It’s also dangerous and holds the potential to contaminate our civilization of reason and logic. Not only did this experience not happen to you, but we also don’t want you to ever talk about it, because it’s going to take us to a superstitious place. It’s like a societal PTSD after the Dark Ages.
And then there’s this middle ground, which is where noetic science walks. It’s saying, these experiences are common. They transform people’s lives. They sometimes hold knowledge that leads to innovation and invention and creativity. In fact you could argue that most of the major advances of humanity came through some sort of intuitive inspiration. So this realm of experience is worth investigating scientifically.
Smoley: Religion has traditionally talked about these areas. But religion actually plays a remarkably small role in the debate that you’re talking about. We don’t see clergymen coming out and saying they’re really interested in discoveries like yours. We don’t see even quite liberal and enlightened clergymen or clergywomen embracing this approach. In the context of your work and the institute’s work, how has your relation been with conventional religion?
Vieten: We’ve had a subsection of people who are religious, who are very interested in science and in the nexus between science and spirituality. But the vast majority, I would say, of conventional religious people have an attitude that says, we don’t need external validation, we don’t need external confirmation. The fact that you’re even using words like validation or confirmation means that you have a lack of faith that threatens our tradition.
So there’s an inherent lack of faith in scientifically investigating a topic that is supposed to be just in a spiritual domain. We did a study once on distant prayer and whether it helped surgical patients after surgery. It pissed off almost everyone. You have the skeptics and the atheists and the secular folks saying, it’s ridiculous to spend research dollars on this. Why would anyone waste money to study something so silly? And then you have the religious people saying, you can’t study God. You can’t investigate prayer. It doesn’t work like that.
And then you’ve got this group of people who say, we really should look at this in a systematic way. If you look at the range of what people have practiced for their own healing or for the healing of their loved ones, prayer is almost at the top of the list. Let’s take a look at it and see what’s going on there.
Smoley: You describe two very powerful and entrenched establishments that are hostile toward the things you’re investigating — the scientific establishment and the religious establishment. With all this opposition, what hope do you have for seeing this kind of vision better integrated into society?
Vieten: I think things are changing over time. I wouldn’t say there’s a dominant hostility anymore in these groups. I would say that there are extreme and vocal factions of the religious side and the very skeptical — the professional skeptic community. They have very loud voices, and they talk a lot.
But there’s an increasing swath of people who are very interested in all of these phenomena. They’ve had their own personal experiences, so they would like to know, was that real, was that imaginary? A lot of them are not so much against studying these things, they just didn’t know you could, and they’ve been taught throughout their training that you can’t study them. So when they find out in fact there are rigorous methods for investigating this realm of existence, a lot of them are fascinated. I would say, younger people are even more interested than older people, because they haven’t been conditioned quite as much to fear this kind of thing. So when we are talking about a research project and putting out a call for internships, we often have an enormous amount of interest from young scientists, college students, religious scholars.
Even some of the most rigid skeptics still have a lot of curiosity about this topic. In fact, with some skeptics I’ve met, the depth of their passion comes because they feel so disappointed that no one has found evidence yet. And you can still say, wouldn’t it be amazing to do this right? Let’s do it really well. They start to say, what would that look like?
My hypothesis would be that a lot of this stuff has some measurable reality. If we can’t measure it now, we will be able to in the future.
Smoley: The mainstream intellectual media and journals of thought seem so horribly biased against these ideas. I remember reading articles in The New York Review of Books about topics like this, where the writer is nakedly and grossly uninformed. Similarly I see things in The New York Times that show not only an ignorance but a willful ignorance. Do you see any of that façade cracking?
Vieten: I certainly have a number of stories that confirm what you’re talking about. We’ve submitted papers for publication on studies of precognition or mediumship. One of the reviews was quite interesting, saying, this is an excellent study with good methodology, and it solves many of the problems of previous studies in this regard, and if it was on a different topic, it would be publishable. It went on to say that publishing this article would call into question hundreds of years of scientific discovery. So we also see, as you’ve said, a knee-jerk rejection in certain fields of inquiry. When you really inquire and say, how many of these papers have you read? They say, “I haven’t read any of them, because the idea is ridiculous.” It’s not that the data or the methods don’t hold up to scrutiny.
I start to ask people, do you believe in academic freedom? Do you believe that scientists should be able to study topics that are of interest to them and seem to have bearing on people’s health and healing and well-being? And do you think those should be held to the same standards of publication as other studies? Most people say yes.
So I say, OK, how about if those studies are on ESP? Then they say, “Oh, well, we really should move the goalpost at that point, and they should have more stringent criteria, because extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
That’s true in a way: if you’re trying to overturn a collectively held belief with one or two papers, that would be foolish. But those papers should be published all the same. And they should be held to exactly the same criteria as biology, physics, chemistry.
Smoley: Could you tell us a little about what led you into this material?
Vieten: I grew up in a house with a father who was a biological scientist. He was a very staunch materialist and an agnostic at least—atheist probably. He used to take me to the lab after school. We would look in microscopes and use telescopes to look at the stars, and go get pond water, and all kind of things that stimulated a love of the natural world and a love of science. Even though he had that materialist perspective, he had a strong sense of mystery and wonder and awe in observing the natural world.
My mom was a therapist and was influenced by Jung and feminist symbolism and was very much a sort of inner dreamwork kind of person. So I also had an appreciation for that world. But neither was religious. We didn’t go to church or have any kind of spiritual practice at home. And as I moved into my teenage years, I thought, there must be something that we’re not seeing here. I tried going to church with a couple of friends, but I couldn’t really find anything there. I was interested in all the symbols, but that’s what they looked like to me —a lot of symbols. I wanted to know, what are these symbolizing?
I grew up in southern California. When I was an older teenager, we used to go out in the orange groves, and we had bonfires and looked at the stars. And I had a couple of experiences where I did feel this massive expansion of something, some dissolution of my boundaries.
Maybe the other clues for me were in science fiction. I loved Star Wars and the Force, and I used to go on this ride at Disneyland that was called “Adventures in Inner Space.” You shrink, shrink, shrink down into a snowflake, and you’re traveling through the atoms. I recently looked up the script for this ride and it said, “There was an entire universe in the atom.”
I took a class in Buddhism in college, and I thought, now this is a religion, this is something I can understand. So I started practicing meditation, and by the time I finished college I ended up going to the California Institute of Integral Studies — a graduate school that combined the integral philosophy of Sri Aurobindo and Eastern philosophy with Western psychology. That was real immersion into a number of spiritual practices and traditions at the same time as I was learning psychology. I probably would have become a spiritual psychologist, but I had this little science bug that woke up almost by the time I was done. I said, wait a minute, how do we know any of this is true? And not only how do we know, but how are we going to generalize it to ease the suffering of thousands or millions of people?
Smoley: You’ve worked at IONS for a number of years. Which of your own personal beliefs have changed as a result of what you’ve done and learned there?
Vieten: When I first came to IONS, I was primarily interested in meditation, mindfulness, spiritual practices, and personal transformation. I also had a fascination with ESP and telepathy. Since I’ve been there I’ve learned more about what we were just talking about — the extreme bias against these topics. I’ve also learned that fighting, or getting sullen, or getting a chip on my shoulder, or complaining actually doesn’t help at all. It doesn’t help the people who are against it, and it doesn’t even really help the people who are supporting you. What’s better is to — like water on a rock — just continuously do great research, do work with integrity that you can stand behind, and continually work toward sparking people’s curiosity and imagination about these topics.
I still have my own internal skepticism sometimes, so I went to talk with Dean Radin, and he was going to do a little remote viewing exercise with the audience. So he said, “I’m about to show a slide from a random selection from 5000 slides, and now move into this remote viewing mode, where you’re open and you’re not going to name anything too quickly,” and he gave some of the training. So I went down on this piece of paper and wrote big, giant swoops, with lines across and little circles. The next slide came up, and it was the Golden Gate Bridge. And I was like, “Dean, Dean, Dean, it worked, it worked!” And he was like, “I know. We work here.” So I had that hit. And even though I’m advocating the rigorous investigation of these topics as something potentially real, when it happens at an experiential level I’m still kind of thrilled and excited and surprised.
Smoley: Could you say a little bit about the figures, books, and texts you’ve found most inspiring along the way?
Vieten: I was a drug and alcohol counselor throughout my college years. I found the transformations I witnessed in the Twelve-Step programs — turning your life over to a higher power that comes in and removes something from you —I could see them happening, and I couldn’t tell what the difference was between the people who got it and stayed clean and sober and people who didn’t. But over the years I started to notice that it was kind of a shift in worldview. It was a deep shift in perspective. And I was really interested in knowing what that was.
Again, I was very inspired by Buddhism and Hinduism and Eastern philosophy. Buddhist vipassana seemed to me a common-sense way of approaching self-transcendence and easing suffering. And since then, integral philosophy — at first Aurobindo, and then Ken Wilber, and all kinds of philosophers and scholars that were bringing together the body, the mind, and the spirit as a whole system, instead of separate systems.
Smoley: Science deals with the quantifiable and the measurable. Do you ever think about the levels beyond which not only science is not measuring now, but even theoretically could never measure? The idea that there are things that are simply never going to be sifted through this net of empiricism?
Vieten: When you’re looking at complex phenomena, biologically, chemically, neurologically, or in this domain of the spiritual, this is the metaphor I like to use: it’s almost like you can put a circle of inward-facing mirrors around the phenomenon and you can look in those mirrors. Every one of those might be a study or a personal account, or an anecdote, or it could be all kinds of things. It could even be art or music. But you may not be able to ever get to the actual phenomenon itself.
Let’s say that the phenomenon is love. It doesn’t say we’re ever going to be able to capture love in a bottle. So sometimes I use the metaphor of catching a firefly in a bottle. If you catch the firefly, you’ve got to take a look at it and then you’ve got to let it go, or else it dies. Or it’s like pinning a butterfly to a card. You find a beautiful, rare butterfly in the jungle. You can keep it if you kill it, but then you’ve killed it.
Smoley: When people have paranormal experiences, experiences of God, and so on, a common scientistic response is that this is just the result of some brain state.
Vieten: One of the biggest questions facing us now is, is consciousness produced by the brain and the body, or do the brain and the body reflect consciousness? Or is there some sort of a filter? You know the filter hypothesis — that the brain and our physical being are actually filtering consciousness. I tend to land somewhere in the middle, where it’s probably a two-way street. It’s not just that the brain produces consciousness. Right now, if I asked you to think of an animal or a symbol, you would think of something, and that would make something happen in your brain in response.
Smoley: There’s a lot of fascination these days with the near-death experience. How do you see this phenomenon?
Vieten: What I know most about near-death experiences is their transformative potential, the way they change people’s lives. Many people have them, and they don’t feel a big change. Many people have them, and they feel more scared and insecure and worried. And then there’s a section of people who have near-death experiences, and it changes their lives and profoundly for the positive. It gives them a new perspective on prioritizing their values and their activities. So that much we know, but that doesn’t say whether or not they’re real. You can have that kind of a transformation even through an imaginary experience.
I think the jury is still out on the rigorous, scientific validation of survival of consciousness after bodily death. We have some enticing clues about the potential for measurable, reliable, physical ways of seeing this through mediumship research and through commonalities among people’s experiences. There are also things that people reported anecdotally that they couldn’t have known unless they had consciousness — even though at that point they should not have had any.
There are enough clues, but it’s going to take a lot of effort — on the level of an Apollo space program — to truly investigate this subject. I have a colleague who did an analysis. He said that if you put all of the research on psychic phenomena and clairvoyance and near-death experiences and all of these things together, it still doesn’t add up to the cost of one F-16.
What would be a bigger question for humanity than, does consciousness survive? It’s certainly in the top ten questions that we might like to know about. Why wouldn’t we spend an F-16’s worth of dollars to check it out?
Smoley: Earlier you mentioned Aurobindo and his integral philosophy. One of its main features is the concept of evolution of consciousness. It would seem that both Aurobindo and people who have been influenced by him view this kind of evolution of consciousness as something that we can foster ourselves. That is, you can help yourself evolve. Now the typical Darwinian view is that evolution is a completely blind process, governed completely by natural selection. How do you relate those two things? Do you see a way of integrating them? Do you see them as fundamentally in conflict?
Vieten: It’s possible that they’re both oversimplified, standing alone. So how do we look at the handshake between evolution of consciousness ideas and this random evolution idea?
Recently, you know, when we sequenced the human genome, we thought, OK, we’re going to have all the information we need to make lots of drugs that address specific genetic ailments, because we’re going to be able to see the tens of thousands of alleles that we have in our genetic code. We’re so complex that we must have 80,000–100,000 alleles. It turns out we have about 20,000. In terms of allelic variations, we have less complexity than a grain of rice. So the promise of the human genome project didn’t really pan out.
How do we achieve our level of complexity? It’s because of epigenetics and how we interact with our environment to change how our genes are expressed. Now we know that much of it is highly conditional. So if it is highly conditional, based on our outer environment and our inner environment, our minds, our stress levels, then we can participate in our own evolution. If I know that thinking about fear every single day, or being in pain or a sense of threat every day for a while, changes my gene expression, it stands to reason that being in love or contemplation or meditation or compassion every day would also change my gene expression — imagining that the first would be in a negative way and the second would be in a positive way. How will that affect our intergenerational evolution? That remains to be seen.