What happened to the ‘experimental counter-culture’?


The ‘experimental counter-culture’ – its a wonderful term that highlights the potential of digital collaboration for enhancing the avant-garde experimentalism that produced some of the most deep reaching science of the 20th century.  In an interview with pioneering consciousness researcher Dr. Charles Tart, Greg Taylor, Founder of The Daily Grail, highlights how science can become a rigorous adventure into the unknown:

GT: Do you think that the revolutionary work undertaken by individuals and groups in the 1950’s (such as the Round Table Foundation) had an influence on the rise of the experimental “counter-culture” of the 1960’s and 70’s…or were they simply parts of a larger trend in the way humans thought about themselves?

CT: No, I’m sorry to say that Puharich’s research has been almost totally ignored by scientific parapsychologists at the time and since then. I fear this has been a big loss. Puharich had a lot of influence in more fringy, “New Agey” circles, but that has not resulted, to my knowledge, in any solid scientific discoveries. As to the counter-culture, that was created by a combination of existential discontent with a shallow, materialistic culture, plus a desire for actual spiritual experience, not just being told what to believe, plus the introduction of oriental meditation techniques – something you could actually *do* instead of just believe – plus psychedelic drugs, which showed many, many people that there were more profound experiences possible than consumerism – to vastly oversimplify a complex historical phenomena, of course.

CTT-at-Round-Table1The Round Table Foundation, mentioned by Greg, was the brainchild of Andrija Puharich. Consisting of a fully equipped laboratory set up in a rural location in Maine, the original group saw collaboration between figures such as psychedelic explorer, Aldous Huxley, the famous medium, Eileen Garrett, and a number of prominent socialites and inventors to create a think tank that put experimentation before assumptions and produced viable medical technology as well as insights into anomalous cognition and consciousness. As a protege of Puharich’s, Charles Tart’s own work would go on to influence the development of scientific investigations into Altered States of Consciousness, lucid dreaming and Out of Body Experiences.

As Tart explains in the interview, investigations into the unknown are always aided by a rigorous focus and intent. What makes the ‘experimental counter-culture’ unique is the use of empirical investigation to approach areas that are ignored or marginalized by the mainstream of science, however the freedom of inquiry does not allow for loose methodology, rather it requires even greater appreciation for any subtle flaws that might sneak into the research:

CT: Science, to me, is a commitment to put DATA, what actually happens and can be observed, internal experiences as well as external observations, ahead of all your theories and beliefs, no matter how much you like them and are attached to them. That’s a hard commitment to live up to, we do so fall in love with our clever ideas! Putting that on the spiritual level, one of my favorite sayings is that “There is no God but Reality. To seek Him elsewhere is the action of the Fall.” Seek the highest, yes, but if you let your ideas, desires and beliefs about the highest get in the way of learning from actual experience, you have fallen into ignorance. So a basically scientific – not the scientistic approach of physicalism, but genuine science – approach to life is quite applicable to one’s spiritual search. Be open to experience, try to observe it as mindfully and openly as possible, form tentative beliefs about what is, but always keep checking those tentative, working beliefs back against direct experience. Spiritual teachers I really admire, like the Buddha and Gurdjieff, have given this advice – don’t believe blindly, keep open and figure things out.

One of the categories of experience is experience in various ASCs – dreaming, meditative states, emotional states, etc. That kind of experience should neither be dismissed as irrational and so ignored, nor as automatically being THE TRUTH. It’s data, it’s experience, and as such, just like the data of ordinary life, you form tentative, working interpretations and beliefs about it, but you keep testing these against further experience. Humility, in a big way!

It’s not easy. Even with ordinary experiences, when we form a belief that makes us feel good or special, we easily tend to fix that belief into THE TRUTH and defend it from new experience. With ASC experience, which can be more intense than ordinary experience, it’s easy to get fixated, so we have to be open to it – some kinds of things only make “sense” in an ASC – but not get overly attached and forget our basic humility. My proposal for state-specific sciences, in a nutshell, is to systematically apply the basic procedures of essential science (and common sense) to the unusual experiences that happen in various ASCs. The idea is still, I’m afraid, ahead of its time. Lots of people have thought it a great idea, but few have even begun the work to make it real.

Science has worked very well in many other areas, so let’s try it! After all, as Henry Ford said, “Those who think they can and those who think they can’t are both right.” If we don’t try, or try with a defeatist attitude, of course we’ll get nowhere. I don’t know that we’ll get all the answers from science, but let’s see how far we can go!

With advances in digital communications it’s possible to carry forward this intention with renewed connectivity and insight from a broader range of engaged researchers, where results themselves overcome divisions of professional and academic status, and the idea of ‘amateur’ can return to its original meaning of one who is in love with whatever art they pursue. The gentle art of psychical research and consciousness studies requires such a love if one is to fully access its potential, hopefully as the 21st century matures we will be able to take the tools we have been given, and the inspiration of figures like Puharich and Tart, and renew the fire of the ‘experimental counter-culture.’

Click Here to stoke the inspirational flames, and read the entire interview over at The Daily Grail.

Note: Photograph courtesy of Charles Tart

This article originally appeared in the Limitless Mind section on Reality Sandwich

One response to “What happened to the ‘experimental counter-culture’?

  1. Michael Redmond

    Bravo, David.

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