18 May 2002
Entering Alternative Realities -- Astronautics vs Noonautics
isomorphism between launching aerospace vehicles and launching vehicles of awareness
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This paper explores the degree of isomorphism between the launching of vehicles into planetary orbit and the 'launching' of 'vehicles' of awareness into alternative realities. It is based on the arguments in a previous paper on Navigating Alternative Conceptual Realities: clues to the dynamics of enacting new paradigms through movement (2002).
Knowledge of the thinking required (and the distinctions made) in launching spacecraft into orbit has become very clear over the past decades. Such knowledge may appear to be totally unrelated to the manner in which a vehicle of awareness enters a new reality, especially since much of the thinking regarding such a transition (and many of the distinctions) is essentially subjective in the extreme. However insights into this subjective process have been available through many spiritual traditions and cultures for centuries.
This exploration could easily be considered insulting to the clean objectivity of the aerospace enterprise as a glorious exercise in collective initiative. But it could also be considered insulting to the subtle wisdom of the subjective enterprise as the culmination of years of highly disciplined individual effort through centuries-old cultural entrerprises. The two do however have in common the intention and aspiration to 'escape', in different ways, from everyday reality. Curiously they also have in common, to a surprising degree, some key terminology -- if only in the use of the term 'escape' in relation to movement, in each case, away from the material world. The term 'vehicle' is one used in some spiritual traditions, notably Buddhism which distinguishes five such vehicles of awareness to transport people across the 'sea of suffering' to reach the 'shore of enlightement' [more; more]. These are often regrouped as three: Hinayana (Theravada, or 'lesser vehicle': self-benefitting), Mahayana ('great vehicle': self-benefitting for the benefit of others), and Vajrayana ('diamond vehicle') [more; more].
This raises the question as to whether that shared intention of 'escape' necessarily determines, in some way, the pattern of action through which the transition is conceived or achieved in both cases. Is the design of such a human enterprise in some way constrained by how humans are able to conceptualize? If this is the case, then it may well be that there are learnings from the isomorphism between the two approaches -- if only by using the hard images and distinctions of the aerospace enterprise to clarify some of the frequently disparaged endeavours of the subject enterprise.
The approach taken in exploring the degree of isomorphism is through the language, imagery and concepts of the aerospace enterprise and how it resonates in some way, with issues faced in the subjective enterprise of engendering a new reality. The justification for this metaphoric exercise has been explored in the previous paper, and others cited there.
There is an astounding superficial resemblance between the overall design of modern space rockets and that of many temples (mosques, churches, etc) constructed in past centuries -- often irrespective of religion, culture or epoch. For example, with respect to a Saddam Hussein's recent mosque building programme, Ewen MaAskill in an article on Mosque that thinks it's a missile site states:
Arguably it would be difficult for cultures of the past to have designed buildings that resembled rockets to a greater degree. In fact, ironically, it has been the Protestant Christian culture, perhaps most closely associated with space rocket design, that has tended more recently to produce asymmetrical churches that least resemble contemporary rockets -- although the point has already been made that spacecraft of the future are likely to be asymmetrical and not dependent on aerodynamic design.
As normally seen from the side, rockets and temples both have somewhat similar structures (consider the cross-section of the Buddhist Dharmakaya Stupa under construction in the USA). And because of the heights to which they rise on the ground, they each require some form of buttressing. Seen from above, this buttressing may well be disposed symmetrically around the spire (with the pewed nave of Christian churches recalling the baffled blast channel of rockets). Viewed from above in cross-section, the cluster of rocket motors may well resemble secondary 'chapels' around a temple spire. The variety of temples, whether with spires and/or cupolas, recalls artists impressions of the variety of spacecraft that may be present at a spaceport -- in the not too distant future.
Although space rockets have come to be celebrated as a symbol of the collective human enterprise -- and the triumph of the human spirit over its environment -- temples and cathedrals tended originally to be designed and constructed as symbols of the aspiring spirit. Many were deliberately designed to enable the human spirit to soar through experience of them from both without and within -- as places where the spirits of people could be 'raised up'. As much detailed, and often invisible effort, has been put into the design of rockets to ensure that they 'work', as has been put into the design of temples and cathedrals to ensure that they 'work'. The question is whether there is any instructive resemblance between the two forms of 'work' and the designs to achieve them.
Escape, ascent, or....
The different understandings of 'work' are associated with quite different senses of 'up' and the direction of these endeavours. The direction space rockets are intended to go is now quite clear. Such clarity is historically very recent, since it is only in the past century that humans have got off the ground at all. The possibility of escaping into orbit -- with adequate velocity -- is also a very recent insight and aspiration [more].
The insight of spiritual disciplines over many centuries has focused on another kind of 'escape' or 'ascent'. Most explicitly, this has been expressed as 'escape' from the mundane material world and 'ascent' into heaven. Curiously, space rockets also ascend into the 'heavens' as most trivially understood. Both forms of escape might be considered equally improbable and incomprehensible in the eyes of 'ordinary' people.
The processes whereby spiritual disciplines organize the 'ascent' are heavily obscured by traditional jargon, often deliberately so it would seem -- reminiscent of the secrecy surrounding space technology. In fact it is frequently the case that even the notion of ascent is ignored, or denied, as a significant opportunity for (sinful) believers. Any 'escape' is set in a context that is claimed to be of little relevance to the average believer. This is far less the case with religions with a mystical orientation or a monastic tradition. However, in contrast with space rockets, the key question is where is 'up'?
In this comparison it is useful to set aside, for the moment, the widespread use of drugs to ensure such escape into alternative realities. However it is important to note that 'psychonaut' has already been appropriated to signify use of drugs in this connection [more; more; more]. In the absence of a common neutral term, 'noonaut' [more] will be used in what follows to signify the non-drug exploration of inner space on the basis of some spiritual discipline. It is worth noting, however, the parallel between use of chemicals to launch rockets and the use of chemicals to launch some explorations of inner space.
In the case of space rockets, 'escape' involves not only movement in a particular direction but requires a critical velocity. Spiritual disciplines concerned with 'escape' may struggle to acquire an insight into the location of 'up' -- like precocious visionaries of space travel would have done in centuries past. Aspirant noonauts receive lengthy orientation by spiritual directors concerning the direction in which they need to travel. They have to build up sufficient long-term commitment to acquire the aerospace equivalent of escape velocity. But, like astronauts, once 'committed', there is no turning back.
The 'ascent' of noonauts is then unlike the launching of a spacecraft 'up' into orbit, and more like a launching of the vehicle of awareness 'into' some form of inner space (or orbit) through modification of its relationship to the surrounding reality. This is perhaps akin to fictional speculations about the 'movement' of spacecraft in the distant future -- a form of displacement 'in place' that warps reality to a degree that they are transferred elsewhen through space-time to an alternative reality. A term traditionally applied to the condition achieved by some successful noonauts is 'holiness' -- perhaps fruitfully to be understood as a consequence of having engaged in a process of 'enwholement' as a special warping (or unwarping) of reality.
The tendency to associate the direction of 'up', and 'ascent', in some way with 'better' has been subject to warnings as a metaphoric trap (George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We live By. 1980 [review]). This is a caution both for enthusiasts of space flight and for those with particular understandings of being 'raised up'.
This emphasis is very important from some spiritual perspectives which question understandings of 'escape' as the valid articulation of an objective which seems to implicitly reject or ignore a vital dimension of reality. This may also extend to criticism of the aspiration to 'escape' into 'inner' worlds as a form of escapism in its own right -- deriving from a limited understanding of the challenge. The concern is then not to 'escape' from reality but to experience reality more intensely and more intimately -- perhaps more fully or comprehensively. This recalls the speculation of physicists on the multidimensional nature of reality and how it is to be experienced -- and navigated by spacecraft of the future. In this light there is a case for recognizing the value of an alternative spelling of 'noonaut' as 'noonought' -- given the emphasis placed by some spiritual disciplines on the nature of the ultimate experience of 'emptiness of form' (cf the Empty Mind of Tibetan and Zen Buddhism).
The design of temples would seem to be responding to a need of humanity to navigate a space of higher dimensionality than that implicit in the attainment of orbital velocity by spacecraft. Defining 'up' in relation to that space, allows the temples to remain 'grounded' -- at least in Jungian terms.
Stages and levels
Just as temples and cathedrals may have spires built on several levels of lower structures, so space rockets tend to be composed of several 'stacked' stages. The bottom (fuel tank) stages are discarded in order to get the highest (payload) stage into orbit. Designs, and feasibility studies, have focused on:
The structure of religious edifices (especially Buddhist stupas) may well embody doctrinal understanding of the level structure of the human vehicle or any understanding of its correspondence with that of the universe. For example:
When launched, space rockets build up velocity through use of fuel in huge first stage tanks. Ensuring that this process is triggered and controlled correctly is vital to the subsequent success of the mission -- as dramatic disasters have burnt into peoples understanding. In the case of noonauts, much attention may be devoted to getting a first 'physical' stage to work correctly -- disguised as injunctions about the cleanliness of the body, diet, fitness, training, etc. This may be interwoven with insights concerning community life and its celebration in the temple. This may perhaps be understood through the manner in which a seminarian is prepared for launching into a vocation. Much media attention has of course been given to the extensive training required by astronauts to enable them to function in a gravity-free environment -- and their dependence on the team of support personnel that ensures the success of the mission.
Typically the first stage of a rocket will be 'released' once its role has been completed and the fuel is exhausted. Attention is then concentrated on the remaining upper stages. There is a parallel in the case of the temple or the noonaut. Much is made of moving beyond preoccupation with concerns of the body -- perhaps even to the pathological degree associated with some forms of self-flagellation as a means of ensuring 'release' from it. It might even be argued that dedication to 'poverty' is a spiritual analogue to the fundamental need for 'efficiency' -- rather than profligacy -- in resource use necessary (and extensively researched) to make space travel viable. The focus then becomes one of controlling the emotions or the mind, as reflected in the injunctions relating to checklists of 'vices' and 'virtues' -- checklists which have their parallel in the detailed flight manuals of astronauts. Of course astronauts have to have an appropriate psychological profile.
Once all the lower stages have been 'released', in the process of acquiring escape velocity, the final stage of the space rocket can be inserted into planetary orbit. This process calls for a judicious angle of insertion and an appropriate orientation to ensure that the orbit is sustainable. Similarly, once the aspiring noonaut has been released from preoccupation with the emotional, mental or other recognized 'shells', the remaining body or 'vehicle of awareness' can effectively be inserted into a form of 'orbit' in relation to the reality of the material world.
As with the astronaut's in stable orbit 'around' the world, the noonaut is dissociated from the world in a highly unusual way. In both cases there is a basic realization of the roundness of the world -- geographical in one case, functional in the other. This is associated with a uniquely comprehensive overview of all the mundane continents -- geographical in one case, functional in the other. There is an experience of release from the force of gravity -- material weight in one case, psychological weight in the other (and often termed 'enlightenment') -- perhaps to be commonly defined as a freedom from 'possession' by an outside force or directionality. In both cases, the 'nauts' may be overwhelmed by oceanic feelings of immenseness through being able to 'see everything'. In the case of noonauts, this may be expressed in terms of an experience of 'rapture' or a state of 'grace' -- which in Buddhism is identified as an experience to be moved beyond if greater insights are to be achieved. Astronaut ground control would also appreciate this need to move on !
The launch of a spacecraft is usually heavily dependent on the availability of 'launch windows' -- which may be very narrow (eg 5 minutes) and even depend on planetary configurations to get gravitational assists. The launch site may need to be located on particular parts of the surface of the planet to provide the most direct route to orbit, offering maximum lift capacity for increased payload mass or extended spacecraft life. Noonauts may be equally attentive to the most propitious time of year, or moment of the day -- windows of opportunity that may not be available each year -- and may be concerned to engage in the process from particular locations -- 'power points', sacred sites, or holy places, traditionally associated with 'enwholement'. In some spiritual disciplines, particular attention may be paid to the choice of favourable planetary configurations.
It is interesting that astronautics to date has made much of the absolute necessity of 'ground control' to monitor the launch and the operations in orbit, and to provide assistance. Similarly many spiritual disciplines insist on the vital importance of a spiritual director or guru to assist in the launch process -- also reflected in the supervision advocated for drug-assisted 'trips' into inner reality [more; more]. This degree of assistance, in the astronautical case, is as yet a far cry from the speculations of science fiction writers concerning the heroic independence of astronauts. On the other hand many lonely experiences of mystical noonauts have been well-documented -- dating back to the desert hermits in their caves.
The process of launching vehicles of awareness can be usefully explored in the light of the challenge faced by an individual in a small rural village (perhaps in a developing country). This location could be considered as the bottom of a deep 'gravity well', in astronautical terms, from which it is extremely difficult to develop an adequate escape velocity. To a lesser degree the same may be said of someone seeking to 'launch a career' in an urbanized industrial country. The media campaign for a 'product launch' also offers parallels and learnings. In each case there are insights into the stages and processes of a successful launch into communication space -- into the noosphere. Ironically a successfully launched persona may be referred to as a 'star' -- borrowing a term from the astronautical vocabulary. Of course the challenge in these cases is to be able to remain in orbit.
Getting it together...
Space flight has proven to require vast resources -- too great for all but the largest economies. The industrial and intellectual infrastructure needed is such a drain that it can only be justified by significantly reframing priorities. Initially this was achieved by linking it to development of intercontinental missiles for defence purposes. Subsequently this has been extended to launching satellites for surveillance purposes -- still under the defence budget. However, efforts have had to be made to render such efforts politically palatable by responding to the demands of the scientific community concerned with the advancement of knowledge. Such efforts have been much stimulated by national prestige -- especially given the initial lead by the USSR. Most recently, and ironically, space flight budgets have been boosted by tourism.
By contrast, noonautics appears to require almost no resources and has been successfully undertaken by isolated individuals. However, examined more closely, the individual (as with space flight) can only undertake such a programme with any hope of success by radically reframing personal priorities and use of accessible resources. In effect the individual's environment has to be significantly, if not totally, dedicated to that end. This is most obvious in the case of those following a prescribed discipline of poverty. It is also interesting that one initial stimulus to 'escape' may be a defensive response to fear of death -- just as much rocketry has been developed out of fear of collective annihilation. Motivation may also involve an analogue to 'surveillance' -- control 'freakery' -- through a need to develop a highly sophisticated, comprehensive surveillance of one's world. And again, a case may also be made for an analogue to 'scientific exploration' -- exploring the new frontiers of inner space. Of course, there are also traces of what might be termed spiritual tourism through which large sums are paid to those who can guarantee a significantly interesting 'trip' -- funds which may ironically be a vital source of income to those whose lives are dedicated to noonautics (especially in traditional cultures).
The politics of space flight are evident in the widespread criticism of the justifications for use of scarce resources. Monastic communities have also been subject to criticism over the centuries for their unjustified (and exploitative) use of resources. Individual noonauts have been criticized for their selfish focus and lack of concern for their families or communities. Such criticism is brought to a focus in the recognition that few have access to the privileges through which such elites are created. The mass of humanity is expected to look on in awe -- notably in the case of astronauts who do not happen to be millionaires. As such the discarding of the lower stages of an expensive rocket to get a few elite individuals into orbit, is an unfortunate reminder that noonautics may also cultivate its elites and 'abandon' the masses as 'fodder' for the process that offers such 'indulgent' experiences to some.
Systems... mishaps... what can go wrong
As presented by the media, the challenge of designing a rocket and launching it into space is relatively straightforward and comprehensible -- however heroic. Such presentations necessarily conceal the immense amount of detailed work involved in designing and testing the rocket and its components. This may involve a multitude of industries and a wide variety of disciplines. It therefore poses fundamental problems of coordination -- both of the disparate groups and of the relevant knowledge systems. Underlying this coordination is the requisite understanding of complex systems within which a multitude of parts have to work harmoniously together under a wide variety of conditions -- including the most extreme that may well endanger the mission and those associated with it. Astronauts embody only a part of this disciplined understanding but have to be thoroughly integrated into the system as a whole for it to 'work'. This is the challenge that has remained unresolved within the Catholic Church faced with tendencies to mysticism.
There are similar requirements in the case of launching noonauts. Depending on the tradition, much effort may be made to understand and articulate the ways in which the different psycho-physical functions need to work together for success to be possible. Some traditions rely on passing on this understanding by word of mouth from someone with first hand experience -- just as veteran astronauts provide extensive briefings to neophytes. In some cases there are very extensive manuals, as with the Visuddhimagga (Buddhaghosa, 5th century AD), reviewed by Daniel Goleman (The Meditative Mind, 1988) as the best map of alternative mental states -- which he compares with other mystic traditions: Hindu Bhakti, Jewish meditation, Christian meditation, Sufism, Transcendental Meditation, Patanjali's Ashtanga Yoga, Indian Tantra and Kundalini Yoga, Tibetan Buddhism, Zen, and Krishnamurti's Choiceless Awareness. Some of these rely to a much higher degree on guiding schematics, as with the complex mandalas of Buddhism or the yantras of Hindusim -- that can be considered as focusing devices somewhat equivalent to some of the guidance instrumentation used by astronauts.
Detailed knowledge of such schematics is as important to the self-control of the noonaut in the launch process as is the knowledge of schematics to an astronaut in ensuring equivalent control of the spacecraft.
Many things can go wrong in the launch process. This has become only too obvious in the case of astronautics -- notably with the Challenger disaster [more] and Apollo 13 [more]. More interesting are the problematic conditions of instability that may arise that require corrective measures as part of the normal piloting process -- as with driving any vehicle. Similarly many warnings are presented by spiritual directors and gurus concerning the dangers of the process if the noonaut is not appropriately prepared and trained to handle difficulties. Failure to heed such warnings can lead to madness or death. The chaotic loss of orientation associated with the tumbling of a spacecraft effectively point to some of the dimensions of such madness -- of which rolling eyes are a recognized symptom. The disasters associated with some sects are another (cf Jim Jones' People's Temple in 1978, the Heaven's Gate mass suicide associated with the Hale-Bop comet in 1997 [more], mass suicide of Ordre du Temple Solaire in 2000). Disasters in both cases can usefully be considered as failed -- or poorly designed -- experiments. However it is interesting that such experimentation is considered socially acceptable in the case of astronautics, but is considered highly suspect in the case of noonautics.
In both cases considerable discipline is required. It might be asked to what degree the detailed patterns of systemic insights required are isomorphic -- as would be expected with any control system in the light of the principles of cybernetics. The work of Arthur Young (The Geometry of Meaning. 1978), as the developer of the Bell helicopter, is suggestive in this respect [more], as discussed in the previous paper (Table 2).
A wide variety of propulsion systems have been considered for spacecraft. The following checklist does not distinguish between those that might be used to get a vehicle off the ground and those that could only be used to propel it in space:
The range of spiritual disciplines suggests that there is an intriguing variety of 'propulsion' systems to launch any vehicle of awareness out of a conceptual gravity well into orbit, or to propel it across communication or knowledge space (within the noosphere).
Fundamental in both cases is the way in which some form of difference is used to provide the energy of propulsion -- perhaps suggesting a generic form of "difference engine" beyond the original quantitative emphasis of Charles Babbage, possibly with elements suggested by the work of Anne Deering. This difference tends to derive from the explosive potential of combining two contrasting "substances" in a controlled manner. In the case of spacecraft, this may range from chemicals to matter/anti-matter -- in which there is some form of 'positive' or 'negative' energy. Softer variants, such as solar sails, may use light alone -- a common aspiration of noonauts. In the case of vehicles of awareness, the propulsion tends to come from some fundamental sense of value polarity, typically 'good' and 'evil', or 'positive' and 'negative', and how this is controlled to propel the vehicle. It is perhaps the classical Chinese I Ching that explores the transformative potential of this most systematically [more].
For the noonaut, technologies such as batteries, power stations, windmills and nuclear reactors are only comprehensible 'out there' to the extent that they are also a reflection of the energy production capacities embodied in the human constitution -- appropriately understood. The technologies are then effectively reifications of particular patterns of human conceptualization.
A number of spiritual disciplines focus on energy generation and movement by, and within, a noonaut: Tai Chi Chuan, Tantra, etc. The fundamental challenge of noonautics is then to develop the art of comprehending and working with multiple dualities -- embodying the principles of the dynamo, for example -- in order to escape being driven by them. As the founder of managerial cybernetics, Stafford Beer (Beyond dispute: the invention of team syntegrity. Chichester: Wiley, 1994) subsequently focused on syntegration -- an example of configuring 30 dualities to engender a larger dynamic psycho-social system [more] -- a subset of the larger concern with the role of tensegrity [more]. Transcending dualities in this way allows noonautics to be explored as an emergent dynamic to be understood through ternary logic [more; more; more; more].
It is possible that the paradoxical logic of explorations into ways of liberating noonauts from attraction to the mundane world may even suggest lines of investigation into anti-gravity -- especially in the light of extensive anecdotal evidence for powers of human levitation by those who have successfully engaged in 'enwholement' (Rodney Charles and Anna Jordan. Lighter than air: Miracles of human flight from Christian saints to native American spirits. Fairfield, IO: Sunstar Publishing, 1995). For example, over 200 Christian saints are reported to have levitated -- usually involuntarily -- during religious raptures, with some cases supported by an impressive amount of eyewitness testimony (eg Sister Maria Vilani, Veronica Giulani St. Bernadino Realino, St. Theresa of Avila, St. Francis of Assisi) [more].
Alternative 'propulsion' systems
The following discussions are outside the focus of this paper and touch on the debate about the relative merits of climbing Everest as against taking an aircraft to the summit. Within the focus of this paper they raise the issue of the sustainability of an orbit once achieved and the degree to which that orbit is not as much associated with any particular destination as with the journey itself.
Games: Also potentially of interest as a form of propulsion system is the use of certain types of psycho-cultural or aesthetic game, as in the case of a number of board games from religious traditions (cf Leela, see Johari, 1993) of which "snakes and ladders" is a caricature. A Transformation Game (see http://www.transformationgame.com/game.html) is extensively used by adherents of the Findhorn New Age community. The web has provided a new environment for those inspired in various ways by Hermann Hesse's Glass Bead Game (http://idt.net/~davehuge/Hesse.html). Within the focus of this paper, these can be usefully seen as simulations -- akin to the flight simulators used by astronauts -- within which various skills may be honed and tested. On or off the web, of special interest are the ways in which many interactive and collaborative videogames, with their multiple levels and challenges, may well be echoing some of the challenges faced by noonauts. Some believe that future developments in virtual reality will provide triggers to enable people to enter alternative states of reality -- extending what is already achieved with visual, sound and odor.
'Launching' can also be seen in the light of engendering the emergence of a new paradigm. The possible relationship of this to a future generation of astronautics has been insightfully explored in the science fiction novel Game Players of Zan (1979) by M A Foster. Knowing that its long-term survival rests in migration to another planet, a population has devoted itself over tens of generations to the construction of a spaceship -- concealed underground from hostile forces. The project is so complex that the entire fabric of the society, its social structure and governance, its customs and myths, has evolved to serve this goal. The challenge of building a spacecraft capable of galactic flight using anti-gravity technology is portrayed in terms of the need to 'fly' it in place and underground through most of the building process -- because the stability of its 'existence' in the here-and-now on the planet was dependent on keeping it 'hovering' in space-time once a threshold had been reached in the construction process. Past a certain stage it had to be 'flown' around-the-clock whilst construction continued in order to maintain its position in relation to movement of the planet and solar system. One wrong play and movement of the ship would cause a catastrophe. The interface between the paradigm of those engaged in this process and those in the surrounding culture was articulated through a highly sophisticated stratetegic game that only the competing clans of pilots could play -- which was a simulation of the challenges they faced daily in flying the spacecraft in an unstable continuum. This points to a real challenge for any community of noonauts -- how to 'fly' their vehicle so as to maintain an interface with the paradigm from which they seek to distance themselves, at least whilst they are getting their act together.
Aesthetics and Magic: The Glass Bead Game explored elusively the possibility of using aesthetics to give a specially enhanced focus to a culture. As 'enhancement', this approach to 'propulsion' has been extensively explored by Marsilio Ficino and his followers [more] -- integrating a context of music, colour and scents through the rituals of what he termed 'natural magic'. Occasional science fiction writers have explored forms of propulsion that echo this approach.
Magic as a traditional discipline generated libraries of books on its techniques during past centuries and continues to be of great interest to some, whether in 'civilized' or 'primitive' cultures. Of particular interest is the extent to which it uses schematics to show the configuration and interrelationship of contrasting, and complementary, 'energies' necessary to any movement [more]. The emphasis on configuration is echoed in the case of astronautics in the interest in appropriately configured (and tuned) arrays. It is ironic that had the multi-level temple structures preceded multi-stage rockets historically, a case might have been made for a 'cargo cult' style imitation of the latter by the former -- in the hopes that people might be 'raised up'. On the other hand, a case could be made that astronautics is a desperate 'cargo cult' effort by a secularized society to recover the kind of meaning that was originally associated with temples when they 'worked' -- through the link provided to the transcendental.
Curiously the budget crises of NASA have illustrated the degree of dependence of astronautics on what might be called the 'magic' of space flight -- actually used as the title of a NASA program: Empowering Students Through The Magic of Spaceflight (established in 1990). Public relations and cultivating an exciting image -- as step children of traditional magic -- have proven vital to assembly of the resources needed to make space flight happen.
Excellence and the flow experience: Considerable attention has been given to the theme of cultivating excellence and the challenge of designing environments, and synergistic psycho-social dynamics, to maximize its benefits -- a secular form of monastery. This has mainly occurred at the interface between corporate and university environments -- since it is assumed that in such environments research creativity will be considerably enhanced, making it possible for unusually profitable breakthroughs to occur [more]. Such environments have also been created to enhance artistic creativity -- even combinations of science and art -- with an emphasis on synergy. Curiously one of the justifications for creating orbiting space laboratories is to provide environments in which unusual scientific experiments -- impossible under high-gravity environments -- can lead to the development or manufacture of new products.
Research on excellence has also focused on the psychology of the 'flow' effect as an exemplification of it -- as illustrated in the case of executives in the organizational world by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, 1977 [more]) and others.. This might be described as a condition, sought by and accessible to noonauts, which has a number of analogies to a gravity-free environment. There is a case for seeing the functioning of 'high-flyers' in the 'higher realms' of society as effectively corresponding to a poorly understood synergistic capacity to operate in a multidimensional reality -- effectively in a form of orbit within the noosphere that enables them to navigate in ways that others can only marvel at. Ron Atkin (multidimensional Man: can man live in 3 dimensional space?, 1981 [review]) has perhaps best articulated this challenge to comprehension in mathematical terms. Esalen in California has long been one of the examplars of a secular centre of excellence for noonauts -- a laboratory for psychodynamics. An earlier paper discussed the nature of the 'diamond dialogue' that might be associated with such synergistic communication.
Psychedelic drugs: Here it is also appropriate to return to the use of psychoactive drugs to propel, 'psychonauts' (as they are more specifically termed) into inner space [more]. The purpose of this paper, however, is to focus on the isomorphism between the complex pattern of procedures of aerospace and those of inner-space exploration as articulated in many spiritual traditions. Clearly some psychonauts would see the use of drugs -- like the chemicals of rocket fuel -- as short-circuiting the years of training to make such movement feasible. They may well be anticipating analogous short cuts in the case of aerospace -- perhaps equivalent to the 'beaming up' envisaged in Star Trek, or to the use of implants and downloads to reduce training of astronauts to a matter of hours at most. The process of 'beaming up' has also been compared, and contrasted, by Christians with the process of 'rapture' predicted in the Bible [more; more].
On the matter of psychelic drugs, Lawrence Hagerty (Psychedelic Thinking and the Dawn of Homo Cyber) makes a valuable contrast in defining entheospace:
There is every possibility that specific drugs may come to be used under certain conditions by astronauts. The science fiction novel Dune, is entirely focused around this theme as fundamental to piloting galactic spacecraft.
Embedding: Another approach is to consider that the perceived environment has directly accessible alternative realities 'embedded' in it in some way -- notably in the variety of species or landscape forms. This understanding, to some degree favoured by deep ecologists, is most characteristic of indigenous cultures (cf Darrell Posey. Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity, 2000) -- as exemplified by Australian Aborigines. They see the features of their environment as mnemonic gateways to alternative epistemological frameworks and experiential realities -- as significantly fictionalized by Ian Watson (The Embedding, 1973). By contrast, it has been argued that in Europe, for example, the capacity to communicate directly with nature in this way was lost with the last great Druid priests -- although many nature lovers might believe otherwise.
Beyond Christian de Quincey's exploration of intersubjectivity [more], it can be speculated, for example, that people might themselves be explored as 'stargates' [more]. The possible implications for such embedding can also be explored in relation to the withdrawal 'into the stones' of legendary precursor races -- also believed to 'travel through the sky' [more]. In the case of astronautics, the notion of embedding could be considered as related to theoretical speculations by astrophysicists concerning parallel universes and how entry to them might eventually become possible.
Relationships and sex: For many, the most accessible form of 'propulsion' into alternative realities is sex. For this reason, it has been extensively explored by many spiritual traditions throughout history -- or repressed as a problematic distraction. It continues to be associated with magical rituals in the West and with the tantric practices of Eastern traditions -- with their respective approaches to the challenge and potential of duality. By contrast, as noted above, there would appear to be a considerable degree of sexual prudery associated with astronautics.
Rather than locating 'alternative realities' elsewhere or elsewhen, through some 'gateway', the encounters in human relationships can also be understood as encounters between alternative realities. The 'differences' experienced when encountering another may then in part be ascribed to a difference in the way of configuring and framing reality. Indeed the distinct qualities attributed to an other may be in large part due to the reality he/she constitutes and engenders through their way of being. The challenge then is not so much the complex task of locating an alternative reality and training oneself for entry into it -- like a new paradigm -- as one of responding to the many alternative realities that one encounters in daily life. Framed so, the challenges that people experience in developing personal relationships can indeed be understood as that of enabling pathways and interfaces between realities whose features are configured and valued in radically -- and often breathtakingly -- different ways. This offers another approach to consideration of processes such as hatred and falling in love -- and it is a reminder that the interface between any two realities may be experienced as a major challenge beyond any particular logic.
It is perhaps in this context that relationship to divinity can also be understood -- notably as a way of framing the 'conversion' process to belief in a particular faith. It is in this sense that experience of the reality of divinity can be presented by some as but a 'hair's breadth' away.
The contrasting patterns of relationship -- and their associated behaviours -- associated with groups, communities and movemenbts can also be seen as constituting alternative realities. Provision is made for entry into such realities that may involve complex transition, probation and training periods. In the case of bodies such as the Freemasons, for example, the process may be very complex and provide for a whole sequence of initiations into progressively higher 'degrees'. This echoes the experience offered to adults in many tribal cultures.
Death: A quite different approach is to consider that death itself is a form of 'propulsion' through which people are obliged to experience inner space. In the West this propulsion is 'anticipated' by certain sects who consider that through death they will be transported to another more meaningful dimension or plane (eg as noted above: Jim Jones' People's Planet, the Heaven's Gate mass suicide associated with the Hale-Bop comet in 1997 [more], mass suicide of Ordre du Temple Solaire in 2000).
Death as a transition has been extensively explored by Tibetans. Most recently, Robert Thurman, an eminent Buddhist scholar at Columbia University, has translated a new version of the spiritual classic known in the West as the Tibetan Book of the Dead (1994). On one level, this is a devotional handbook for spiritual adepts well-schooled in meditation and yoga; on another, it is a practical guide to entry to this alternative reality for the ordinary person. It is a rich allegorical description of the physical, psychological and spiritual dimensions of the maelstrom of the dying process -- full of demons and furies and the fierce and benevolent forces one encounters along the way. Its great lessons are that death can be lucidly perceived, from beginning to end; that dying is a communal experience for both the departed and the bereaved; and that it need not be fraught with terror or psychic pain. Its great instruction to the dying, simply put, is to seek the light and merge with it.
While the West has spent its energies on exploring the material world, from the conquest of new continents to astronauts' exploration of outer space, Tibet's holy men and women -- Thurman refers to them as "psychonauts" -- probed inner reality, using yoga and meditation to explore the subtle realms of human consciousness, experienced as inner light, ecstasy, trance, dreams, death and beyond. Of particular relevance to the theme of this paper is the possibility that the insights of the Book of the Dead can be related to the process whereby awareness effectively 'dies' on the occasion of each break in attention. As various schools of meditation have it, one attends to a certain complex of events for a while (seconds, minutes or hours), as an act combining mindfulness, empathy and action -- with, or without, others. Then, by distraction or choice, that focus dies and one passes on to some other complex of events. This process can be experienced as a sequence of generations of attention foci -- maybe returning cyclically to a former focus. It is through this process that one engenders a future into which one is then 'born' (Sogyal Rinpoche, 1994).
In relation to aerospace, there may be parallels arising from its association (throughout the development of rocketry) with destructive missiles capable of propelling the whole human race into another dimension.
And when they are up...
The initial objective of astronautics and noonautics is to acquire 'escape velocity' and get into some form of orbit -- reframing the constraints to the mundane world. Astronauts are then faced with a need to define tasks to justify their unusual situation, and the resources allocated to it. The main tasks have been scientific experiment and placing 'communication' satellites in orbit -- with unknown proportions of this effort being for military and surveillance purposes. This has been extended to constructing and repairing spacecraft, possibly as a base for excursions to other parts of the solar system. Much has been made of the symbolism of the collaborative, multi-national nature of such endeavours.
For noonauts, there is also a challenge in recognizing what it is that justifies the extraordinary condition in which their 'vehicle of awareness' operates once successfully launched into orbit. As a Zen proverb paradoxically puts it: 'Before enlightenment, chop wood, draw water -- After enlightenment, chop wood, draw water'. A case may be made for exploring the extraordinary communication and observation opportunities reportedly associated with that condition -- enhanced analogues to sight and hearing. But traditionally such siddhis -- and their advocates -- are viewed as distracting side-effects of that condition [more] -- although, controversially, one group of aspiring noonauts devotes considerable resources to promoting the ability to teach levitation. Some noonauts, notably shamans, report the ability to then travel widely to other parts of the solar or galactic system. Of course much has been made of the symbolism associated with the holiness of the condition -- notably by any religious system whose doctrines and disciplines have supported the enterprise.
Perhaps more interesting in the case of a spacecraft, are the problems of control needed for orbit and 'attitude' correction. Appropriately positioned jets can be selectively fired to correct tendencies to roll, pitch, tumble or yaw -- maintaining its stability. The noonauts in vehicles of awareness are faced with similar challenges. Controlling and correcting 'attitude' is a process described in great detail in many spiritual disciplines -- most obviously through the control dynamics associated with checklists of 'vices' and their compensating 'virtues' (as discussed in the previous paper). Also of interest are the health problems for astronauts associated with extended time in orbit, including bone deterioration and muscle wasting. This may perhaps be seen as echoed in the 'wasted ' condition of many practitioners of certain spiritual disciplines -- most notably certain yogis.
Much speculation, notably by science fiction writers, surrounds the psycho-social dynamics of orbital colonies and long-distance space travel. Despite significant inability to address the unresolved problems of such communities on the surface of the planet, it is widely and enthusiastically assumed that they will be amenable to resolution by reasonable people in space environments. Such attitudes are paralleled in idealistic noonaut communities imbued with belief in the power of 'virtues' and peaceful reconciliation. Indeed a religious congregation may be seen as a form of 'vehicle' already launched into an alternative reality -- in which the temple functions like a spacecraft, or an orbital colony.
However, as with spacecraft, it is relatively rare to find long-term, residential communities in which challenging problems can emerge and have to be faced. Participation in a religious congregation is usually briefer than modern space flights by astronauts. Even 'extended retreats' of weeks only resemble the extended occupancy of an orbiting spacecraft. It is here that lifelong experience in monasteries, convents and ashrams -- or other kinds of intentional community -- may be considered to be dealing with dynamics and feedback loops as yet beyond the ken of those concerned with astronautics. Curiously, the most stable spiritual communities (of noonauts) are unrealistic in their avoidance of relationship between the sexes -- and its consequences. The problems for a celibate priesthood have recently proven only too evident. The question has been considered irrelevant in the case of astronauts, as for example:
This lack of realism has also been evident in past and foreseen expeditions in spacecraft [more; more; more; more; more] -- except as envisaged by science fiction writers. No experiments have been done on this, as exemplified in the case of Columbia Unversity's Biosphere 2 enterprise.
Another concern for vehicles in orbit is the danger of impact with other orbiting objects. The number of such objects has now reached a level that special efforts have to be made to detect them to avoid the possibility of such collision. Noonauts 'in orbit' also face this risk of collision with other vehicles of awareness following different pathways. The violence of these encounters can endanger both -- as encounters between leaders of different spiritual traditions, or 'high-flyers' of any kind, have illustrated. It should not be forgotten that vehicles in orbit, of either kind, may eject material -- waste matter -- that can endanger others subsequently. The challenge in both cases is to develop more sophisticated techniques of recycling waste products.
An obvious next step for orbiting vehicles is re-entry to return to the surface -- a concern much explored with respect to aerospace, if only because of the limited supplies of food and oxygen whilst in orbit. Re-entry can be exceptionally dangerous because of over-heating as the descent is made through the atmosphere. The problem of re-entry in the case of psychonauts is best illustrated by the recovery of individuals from a drug trip -- as they reorient to the mundane world. In the case of noonauts, this is more evident in the readjustment required after lengthy meditations or following extended retreats.
What globe... planets... celestial sphere?
Astronauts are faced first with the challenge of getting from the Earth's gravity-well into orbit -- from which all the continents of the globe become equally visible -- when they are not 'in shadow'. Subsequently there would be issues relating to achieving orbits around other planets, or escaping from planetary orbit around the Sun. Planets may be used to give gravitational assists -- in sling-shot manoeuvers -- to reach other bodies in the solar system. But in all these cases the the body around which the spacecraft may orbit is abundantly clear -- as are the properties of that orbit. This is less so in those realms of space subject to the influence of black holes.
For noonauts the 'globe' from which they need to escape -- and around which they at first need to orbit -- is much less clear. This is what makes the identification of 'up' so challenging in this case. For astronauts it is the gravity-well associated with the material world. For noonauts, the process has something to do with escaping from 'materialism' as the fundamental attractor in daily life. Tentatively it might be assumed that this attractor is defined by clues offered in various spiritual disciplines, or psychotherapy, regarding the different psychological functions by which one may be entrapped -- physicality, emotions, thoughts and intuitions, according to Jung. For Jung the individuation process, through which these individual functions are integrated together may suggest the path of 'escape' for the maturing individual. Whatever one's point of origin on the psychic 'globe', in this process one is obliged to come to terms with the 'other side' of which one is normally unaware -- the 'shadow side'. Subsequently the noonaut may be influenced by the attractive force of the 'planets' -- Marsilio Ficino's 'planets within' [more]. More generally, human values may themselves become the 'strange attractors' by which the noonaut chooses to be drawn [more].
But there is another sense of 'global' which suggests another, less subjective, variety of noonautics. The fashionable use of "global" focuses on the geographical dimension: the planet as a whole which astronauts must start by orbiting. This emphasis is the culmination of a century of successful effort towards international understanding --of "thinking globally and acting locally", of "global villages", of "global action plans", of "global ethics", of "global consciousness" and of "globalization".
What has been largely lost in this process is the other sense of global, namely some kind of comprehensible, integrative whole -- of which a geographically bounded planet is but one particular instance. "Global" is too readily taken to mean planet-wide and no more -- a recognition by certain regions that there are others on the planet. This conceptually integrated whole is implied by terms such as "interdisciplinarity", "transdisciplinarity" and "integrative" -- although these have themselves evolved into holistic buzz words because of the essential failure of the initiatives they represented in responding to the accelerating fragmentation of knowledge. "Holistic" could even be considered as content-free. "Global understanding" in this integrative sense has become almost a myth in pursuit of which some heroes occasionally continue to quest.
Perhaps it is only in mathematics that the clearest, and most general, distinction is maintained between "global" and "local". Unfortunately that discipline is incapable of taking into account the essential psychological distinction between the two that is associated with broader (rather than narrower) processes of comprehension, communication and learning. It is possibly only using Q-analysis that powerful mathematical clarification is given to the relationship between degrees of comprehension (Atkin, 1981 [review]). Just as one can travel around the globe without being able to see it as a whole from any one perspective, so one may perhaps be able to "circumnavigate" a cognitive whole without being able to "grasp" it. It is even possible that the understanding which tends to "grasp" cannot be fruitfully termed "global" -- or that what can be so grasped is not fruitfully understood as a whole of larger significance, or of requisite variety (cf. Ashby's Law). In terms of the challenges of global governance, the ability of a particular discipline to grasp the challenges of society cannot in this sense be understood as "global". It is necessarily sub-global, namely local in some way which honours the particular, "local" insights of that discipline.
A new sense of 'global' may therefore emerge as a result of new approaches to integration of purely conceptual knowledge -- in contrast to psychological integration of the incommensurable functions that are the preoccupation of spirtual directors and psychotherapists. This may be one of the most significant features of the future development of artificial intelligence into a 'global brain' [more] -- notably as an extension of the semantic web of interconnected computers and human interaction with them. How noonauts navigate the resulting knowledge spaces is a matter for the future -- possibly in metaphoric vehicles [more]. What is beyond 'global' in this sense remains to be discovered.
Where to next...?
Space travel enthusiasts and science fiction writers have proposed a multitude of images of the possible goals of space travel -- within the solar system, to the nearest stars, within the galaxy, to other galaxies, or even to parallel universes. They have been relatively weak in clarifying what it is that travels -- bodies, minds, genetic or memetic patterns -- or the purpose of such travel. The purpose has tended to be simplistic and a reflection of current motivations for travel around the globe: curiosity, adventure, trade, knowledge, proselytizing, colonization, etc. One concern has been to escape the rapidly accumulating problems on this planet. Most of the energy has gone into devising propulsion systems that will make it all happen sooner -- to satisfy a profound sense of yearning experienced by some.
In the case of noonautics, a prime concern has been to escape the suffering associated with daily life -- spurred on by the belief that a far more desirable condition is possible elsewhen. Its achievement may also be framed as a lifelong yearning. Noonautics has devoted far more attention to the purpose of such travel, the significance of the destination, and its definition as a journey. This has tended to be expressed in religious terminology -- 'union with God', moving off the 'Wheel of Life', avoiding reincarnation, etc.
The nature of elsewhen and the journey to it becomes far more interesting when conceptual closure is avoided in both astronautics and noonautics. For example, the notion of 'union with divinity' is not especially helpful when the ways in which divinity is commonly defined tend to deny the results of years of effort by some noonauts in endeavouring to understand its meaning and the challenge of communicating any such understanding to others. This challenge is usefully defined by the complexity of the multidimensional nature of reality -- whose psychological significance would seem to be inaccessible to most, including the mathematicians and physicists studying it, who can only express it through formalisms that may well be characterized by the elegance of simple symmetries reminiscent of those associated with mandalas as mnemo-technical devices.
It is at this point that the widespread current interest in the physics of consciousness [more; more] becomes relevant to the possible future 'direction' of 'travel' of both astronauts and noonauts (as discussed in the previous paper). It might indeed prove to be the case that the heightened union with reality, and its embodiment by noonauts of high degree, is in some way associated with speculations of astrophysicists considering navigation of multidimensional reality -- at least in so far as the latter involves the transportation of some form of conscious human awareness. For example, in reflecting on space flight in the light of the possible reality of phenomenon associated with the UFO controversy, Jacques Vallee argues that it might be based on understanding beyond that of contemporary science. For him it might reflect a level of consciousness as yet unrecognized, and which is able to manipulate dimensions beyond time and space as currently understood.
In this sense it is interesting to explore the stages identified by some spiritual disciplines beyond the 'material' -- as in the case of Buddhist 'immaterial' jhanas (see previous paper) -- to the extent that these bear some resemblance to the possible nature of quantum reality, as it might be experienced by an appropriately trained noonaut. Astronautics and noonautics may then have more in common than is currently imagined. Transportation to 'distant galaxies' may become possible earlier through more insightful understanding of consciousness and the manner in which complex realities may be embodied and navigated.
Vocabulary and terminology
There are many terms in the standard vocabularies for astronautics that invite intepretation in the light of the concerns of noonautics.
Examples include: acquisition, astronavigation, blackout, bootstrap, capture, catastrophic launch failure (CATO), celestial guidance, celestial navigation, celestial sphere, etc.
Hopefully this paper has successfully pointed to the possibility that there is useful learning -- for the future of humanity -- across the divide between astronautics and noonautics:
This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.