Interviewsand Articles


A Conversation with Francis Xavier Charet

by Richard Whittaker, Mar 30, 2018



My introduction to Francis X. Charet, founder of Goddard College’s Consciousness Studies Program, came via Caryn Mirriam-Godlberg who I'd met thanks to Mary Rothschild of Fordham University where she teaches Communications and Media Studies Department. The following conversation took place via phone March 30, 2018.

Richard Whittaker:  Well, where to begin? Maybe I can ask a big question: what are your larger concerns?

Francis Xavier Charet:  You know, where I teach at Goddard, we have an unofficial mantra—“knowing, being, and doing”— first, the acquisition of knowledge, which has to do not only with putting together material culled from various sources, but also experiential knowledge. That leads to the “being” part—how do you connect to it? Then, there’s the doing part—what does this have to do with your immediate community, and the larger world? And having those expectations of our students, we try to model them also in our own lives and in the work we do. So, not only do I have, let’s say, a professional interest related to Consciousness Studies, and the questions and issues therein, but how can these things be applied so that neither the students nor I are just living inside our own fishbowls.
     When we developed Consciousness Studies, we certainly had this mantra in mind, and having people engage in reflecting on and trying to understand and explore the origins, and possible extension, of consciousness in relation to the world so that it’s not just an abstract reflection that pulls on specific areas of knowledge like neuroscience, and so on. In what way does all of this have to do with the world out there?
     So, we have not only an emphasis on consciousness, but also in another way, an emphasis on the conscience as well. Does your own exploration of the areas you want to study sort of prick your conscience?

RW:  Yes.

Francis:   Given the state that the world is in, I think that’s not only a necessity, it’s kind of a responsibility. And in the work I do with my students I do what I can to make sure that we’re attentive to this larger obligation, and all those interconnections.

RW:  There’s a great deal there in what you’ve said—knowing, being, and doing. I mean each one of those is a huge topic in itself—and conscience, too. That’s a wonderful overview. Speaking of being, we have the word, “being,” a word we have very few, if any, associations with. There’s the shorthand from Shakespeare, “to be or not to be,” but that’s a very compressed reference to being, which is the whole realm in which we live. But we don’t know how to talk about it, or even think about, I’d say—certainly culturally speaking. Does that resonate with you, what I'm saying.

Francis:  Yes. And just to pick-up on what you’re saying, there’s the tendency not to be attentive to it, and even to almost systematically exclude it. I’d say in conventional academia, there’s an idea that knowledge is some kind of objective reality out there that requires that you exclude yourself, and your own being from that pursuit. But in fact, it’s your engagement, involvement, and investment that really actualizes that body of knowledge if you bring your best self to it. It’s also I think, one of the bridges to the larger world.
     In terms of Consciousness Studies, we see this as a first step—your own awareness of yourself, your own personhood—and bringing that into connection with the acquisition of knowledge, and the necessity of recognizing that those two are intertwined.

RW:  Very much so. I mean traditionally, in all the great traditions—Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism—there are practices, like meditation and prayer meant to help bring us into closer contact with our presence in the world. I mean, I don’t suppose you would approach that with your students, or are there actually experiential things you address or let students try?

Francis:   Actually, one of the requirements of our Consciousness Studies program… well, there are two. We require our students to have an engaged practice. That’s kind of a wide area, but very often it’s a focused practice such as meditation or yoga. Sometimes students already have a practice and bring that into their work. In other instances, they begin to develop one as they pursue their own studies. So, the experiential piece is very much a part of it. And the other requirement is to submit what we call an “identity essay,” which is a personal reflection on consciousness—your personal insights into and connections with this whole area of consciousness. Those two really accentuate the need for, and a way of recognizing and validating, one’s personal engagement.  
RW:  That’s really wonderful to hear. To your knowledge, are there other such programs in other universities?    
Francis:  When we developed Consciousness Studies, we looked around to see what was available. We started about 2000 and launched Consciousness Studies in 2004. What we saw emerging out there in academic and alternative institutions were two ways of framing the pursuit of an understanding of consciousness. One was the more formal, institutionally framed, way that drew on the neuroscience, philosophy of mind, and so on—a systematic, scientific approach—largely reducing consciousness to brain function activity, neurophysiological processes, and so on.
     Then there were the alternative institutions—California Institute of Integral Studies, and so on—where they were taking onboard the whole transpersonal field. And there was greater emphasis placed on that side. What we saw was, in many ways, two diametrically opposed approaches of coming at this central question of what is the origin, nature, and extension of consciousness? What we wanted to do was to bring those two together.
     We didn’t have all the resources for CAT scans and the rest of it, but we did have access to enough material that was starting to emerge, so that our students could become familiar with the scientific approach, and at the same time, be attentive to the issues that were raised in the whole area of transpersonal studies—and in those days, transpersonal psychology in particular. And we added two other areas we thought were important. One in the whole area of the softer sciences: sociology, anthropology of consciousness, and that sort of thing. And a member of the faculty who was working on this with me asked, “What about the Arts and the Humanities?” So, in our program there are four spheres, or areas, involving all kinds of different disciplines that come in on that central question about the origin, nature, and extension of consciousness.
     We wanted students to be aware of, and have some familiarity with, several ways in which consciousness could be approached, even if they ended up working more specifically in one area. We had a lot of people in the transpersonal area, because they brought their practices in, but we wanted them to know more about neuroscience and the other areas. And it happened, in the course of the emergence of Consciousness Studies as an inter-disciplinary field of study, that the polar opposites of the neurosciences and the philosophy of mind started to come into closer contact with the transpersonal area.
     I guess it was two years ago now that a couple of conferences I attended began with meditation sessions, something which would never have happened over a decade ago. People from all kinds of backgrounds were now interacting with one another, mainly because the ambitions in the neuroscience area to corral consciousness has not led to the result they were hoping for—it hasn’t been nailed it down, and they’ve had to open up and explore. I think it’s also a generational thing, too. New people have come in with greater curiosity and richer experiences outside of their fields and are more willing to take onboard alternative perspectives. For instance, the Dalai Lama has had many conferences at MIT, Harvard, and elsewhere, with neuroscientists and so on.
     So, this ongoing dialogue that started to surface and has become part of the larger conversation. In some ways, we kind of anticipated this in our attempt at a holistic approach to the study and understanding of consciousness.

RW:  That’s fascinating. It sounds like Goddard was a bit ahead of the curve there in terms of the institutional interest in consciousness studies, or a broad version of it. Would you go along with that?   
Francis:  Yes. And I think it arises out of our pedagogy, in that fundamental concern of trying to connect knowing, being, and doing. It wasn’t just about the “being” part, nor was it about the “knowing” part, it was also about how does this connect to the world?
     That’s what motivates us when we think about any of the topics that consolidate into degree tracks, or concentrations. What’s the big picture view? And how can we look at a more holistic, integrative view of how all this comes together? But yes, I would say in many ways, we anticipated. We were fortunate. When we looked in the UK and other places—I went to a conference in India and met all kinds of people from all over the place—it looked as though there was no equivalent way of trying to frame this in a more complete fashion. We were, I guess, in one sense, working on our own. But it was nice to see, in the course of time, that similar things have cropped up elsewhere, if not entirely identical to the way we framed things. There has been a certain convergence there.
     And when we launched this in 2004, what we did, in effect did, was draw a circle around what students were already doing—and things that I was interested [in]. I was actually hired in 1999 to develop this concentration.   
RW:  How did you get to where you are now, in terms of your relationship with Consciousness Studies?

Francis:  I had interests in a number of spiritual traditions when I was quite young and when you had to wander around and seek out things. In part, this came from my background in Roman Catholicism. Unlike the experience of many people, I did not experience this as a negative thing, nor was my conscience burdened. I had to escape from the constraints of some practices. But it was a fairly rich experience that allowed me to appreciate similar things outside. So, in the course of time, I started studying and meeting people, and ended up going to India when I was in my early twenties.
     I spent time in an ashram in the North with what is called a mahasidd[h]a—someone who embodied that spiritual traditional. Later he became well-known in the West. Do you know the story of Ram Dass?      
RW:  Yes, somewhat. You’re speaking of Neem Karoli Baba.

Francis:  Yes. Neem Karoli Baba was the man I stayed with in India. I spent time there with that early group of people who went there.

RW:  With Larry Brilliant?

Francis:  Yes, he was there at the time.

RW:  Oh, my goodness. That’s fascinating. So coming back to the West—and how to put this? With our Cartesian of approach to knowledge there are some very problematic consequences.  And, as you said, knowledge has to be connected with experience. I certainly feel that, but for some reason, that hasn’t been obvious here in the West—at least as a potential source of “real” knowledge. But the world of experience is the world we live in. So the material world is reached only through our experience, if you see what I’m driving at. It’s an epistemological question.
Francis:  Yes. It’s part of the inclination to empirically colonize all areas of knowledge and subsume it under what is purported to be “the objective approach,” that is to say, science. So, one has to include a subjectivity. Instead, we exclude ourselves and our experience, and represent these things as though they were stand alone items, independent of any engagement or particularized consciousness. That’s happened and created an elusive reality. And in the end, we’ve dealt ourselves out of the deck. In a way, we’re left isolated and constrained by this, because anytime there’s a personal declaration or involvement it’s read as somehow undermining the credibility of this objective reality. It’s a strange kind of dichotomy, and very problematic. I think it has reinforced this alienation that many people feel—and that’s the case, even in conventional religion in the West.

RW:   Do you feel there’s something happening today that we might call a fundamental shift, even in the sciences?

Francis:  Yes. I would say there are indications on a number of fronts, of a potential convergence—and within science itself. You can get fuzzy and a little wonky about it, but it’s true. The whole area of new physics has brought the role of the subject into the observation of data. Quantum theory has raised fundamental questions about how the world is framed in that conventional scientific way. Though I do think, in the general marketplace, as of yet those deeper, more profound insights have not had sufficient impact to really indicate there’s a shift.
     But on another level, there’s no question that we do have the equivalent of—and this is not just me—a general paradigm shift that suggests there’s a need to reconfigure consciousness on a different level that’s more inclusive of these things, and that transcends the dichotomy of this Cartesian dualism. Even with the dualism between so-called science and religion, there’s a kind of convergence. There are a number of individuals who exemplify this in their work and lives.
     When I came back from India, one of the things I decided to do was not only to formally pursue so-called comparative religion, but I was very interested in the psychological dimension as well, and I got very interested in Jungian psychology. I actually did my Master’s on Jung, and I did a doctorate on Jung as well.
     I was very interested in certain religious influences in Jung’s life, and how these influences—which were deeply experiential for him—had an impact on his own psychology. And Jung tries to develop this holistic approach, too, by looking at the psyche as the medium through which these different ways of framing reality have developed. And now are facing a need for a kind of convergence.
     In his explorations of the deeper levels of the unconscious, he gets to what he calls is the coincidentia oppositorum, the conjunction of opposites. This is the opposites of matter and spirit—what he calls the psychoid factor at the bottom. In other words, there’s a substrate where these two are united. The differentiation seems to have been part of an evolutionary process, but now requires a kind of convergence. We see this in people’s dreams, the reaching out for a much more integrative understanding of life itself.    
RW:  I wonder what your reflections are around another phenomenon happening today, the virtuality of the digital revolution. By that I mean, there’s an increasing loss of the ability to discriminate between fantasy and something more real.

Francis:  Yes. I actually had a student who worked in the whole area of virtual reality, only he kind of put a more positive spin on it—which is, there’s a place (what I call Cyberia) out there, where one can live in this alternative reality with a kind of annihilation of time and space and yet interact with people from all over the world. But I know what you’re saying. There’s a blurring of the difference between this constructed, fabricated reality—fantasy, in that sense—and Reality. And I see this in the students, especially the younger ones, who have grown up with this stuff, identified with it and are able work in and out of it with the challenges involved in that.
     I guess I see it in two ways. I see it as problematic and disengaging people from reality—not only the reality of the requirements of living in the world and all the rest of it, but the reality of one’s own life, one’s own humanity. It’s like saying the brain is “like a computer.” We have a whole list, a language and models around that, which are fundamentally mechanistic. They can take us out of our rootedness in reality. And you have the fantasy and the technology that’s able to render that fantasy in such a way as to allow people to live there more than here, if you’d like. So, there’s that part.
     And there’s the other side of it, which I've also seen. It’s a way of breaking down the kind of constraints and imprisonment of material reality that has so much constituted the reality of our lives in Western culture. I see both the problems and maybe even the dangers. Then I see, on the other hand, that maybe this has some kind of a role or a function, too, if it played out in a more positive way.

RW:  I can see what you’re saying. The breaking down of materiality, so to speak, the hopeful side would be that it might open up receptivity to the idea that there’s something beyond Western, scientific materialism. At the same time, what I see is that this digital world of virtuality allows us to live in our thoughts, to be distracted 24/7, with no particular effort. We just turn our cellphones on and press some buttons, type in some keystrokes, and we’re living in the dream of what we’re seeing on our screen. The fact that I have a body, a real body that’s actually getting older and is going to die, I'm not really present to that. As you probably know from your experiences in meditation and prayer, it’s not that easy to come back down into my body with the sensation of presence and being. I think this is where being comes into the picture. Being is more than just thought. So, I'm sort of running on here, but am I saying something you can relate to?

Francis:  Yes, in a way. We actually have a concentration that just emerged in the Graduate Institute at Goddard called Embodiment Studies. I gave a workshop with one of my colleagues, Consciousness Studies and Embodiment Studies, and there’s a place where these two converge, or connect, one with the other. And especially, since our conception of Consciousness Studies is not either reductionism “downward,” or what I call reductionism “upward,” where you get disembodied. It really requires one to take onboard the reality of embodied life. That also involves, and I think something that you’re sort of touching on, living within the reality of the uncertainty and the suffering of life, as the Buddha says. There’s a place of recognizing the impermanence and the suffering of things.
     Often, escaping into fantasy, in effect, becomes a substitute for being in real life. I agree that’s certainly there, and I see it in the students, too. I mean, I see it out in the world; my God, you can’t but see it. You go to an airport, and everyone is looking at their phone; they’re all living in their private realities.
     It often reminds me, and I guess it’s because of my age, too, of Marshall McLuhan, going back into that whole idea of “the medium is the message.” He talked about the Guttenberg Revolution. Well, we’re in that kind of a revolution, where we have these instruments that allow us to kind of create these alternative realities, and you so often end up escaping into them, and not being attentive to real life and our obligations.
     Maybe this is also symptomatic of a kind of ennui, of alienation and fear of life—fear of what’s happening in the world, and the sense of powerlessness a lot of people have. It’s like, “I don’t want to know about it. Can I escape someplace else?” And I think of Freud’s pleasure principle too; it’s a place where you can indulge yourself in a way, and not have to deal with the reality. I mean I see it.
     As Jung once said, “There is no differentiation of consciousness without suffering.” Suffering is the means by which consciousness emerges, and many people are not so inclined to want to embrace such an idea.  
RW:  It's something I've thought must be true, that suffering is a necessary experience. As I was listening, the question came up: where is my home? There’s the fantasy one hears that “okay, there may be a nuclear war, but if we have enough time, we’ll be able to go and live on another planet.” And beyond that,  there’s also the dream that we’ll even be able to download our consciousness into a mineral form of immortality; I would call these telling fantasies of our time.
     The question I'm sort of pondering, is along these lines: is our home, in the sense of ultimate salvation, to be found in dreams of a safe future? Or is it to be found in entering  more deeply into my experience as an embodied human being, subject to suffering, as you just said? It seems like there are two directions. One inward and into my being in a full way, and another one outward, into my thought and dreams.   
Francis:  Yes. Elon Musk and others, are advocating for us to sort of colonize outer space, as a way of attending to the issues that might surface here, in terms of depletion of resources and everything else. All we need to do is decamp and set-up camp elsewhere. The technology just needs to be developed to such a sophisticated level it will allow this to take place, and then we can Star Trek ourselves to Mars or something. Now, I would just add something. This reminded me of an interview… are you familiar with Marie-Louise von Franz?

RW:  Is she the Jungian?

Francis:  Yes. Toward the end of Jung’s life, she was probably his closest student. She’s written many books on fairy tales. One thing I found quite interesting in one of the interviews toward the end of her life—she had Parkinson’s Disease, and she was sort of sitting there being interviewed, and you could see the kind of wear and tear on her—she  commented about younger people being interested in outer space, science fiction, fantasy, getting the hell out of here. She said that the purpose of exploring one’s own inner realms, the landscape of the interior, was not to escape into another world, but to take onboard the energies and insights that can occur as a consequence in engaging that sort of inner reality, recognizing it as an essential part of ourselves, and bringing it into consciousness—that is to say, bringing it into the world. That was the difference between examining dreams, fantasies, all the rest of it, in a Jungian framework, let’s say, as opposed to an escape, which is to fantasize that you can become a Jedi. Do you know what I mean? These kinds of things that are really ways of more or less surrendering your citizenship and responsibility in this world, and von Franz was very concerned about that.

RW:  Yes.

Francis:  She underscored the difference between examining fantasies of dreams and the inner realm, and bringing that into consciousness—struggling and working through, not just surrendering.

RW:  Well, yes. To me, that comes right back to being. To me, being is not understood. Actually, most of the time, I'm in my dreams; I'm in my thoughts. I don’t exist as a whole person. That is, I'm not present with the whole of myself. I think mostly, we don’t even understand the lack there. I mean, “Be here now”—you know that old mantra from the 60s, Well, that’s easy to say.         
Francis:  Yes.

RW:  In your religious practice with Catholicism, and then its expansion through your further living, do you have personal experience where you would say there are moments of really being present and mostly that one is not?

Francis:  Well, let me come at this in a slightly different way. I think I know what you’re saying. There are mindfulness practices and so on. I've participated in a number of these in workshops, and bringing that kind of consciousness into the reality of what is occurring in the moment—and all the pieces that constitute that. But for me, the being that I think we’re talking about, and trying to circumambulate, consists in one way—and this is just an attempt to conceptualize it in what we know. That is to say, what we are aware of, conscious of, part of that draws on the past, and maybe pokes into the future, but resides largely in the present. So, there’s that; that is to say, that awareness. But then there’s the other thing, as in that famous English spiritual text, The Cloud of the Unknowing. There’s an unknowingness in being, too. It’s not just awareness, it’s sitting in the reality—and part of that reality is the unknowingness of it. And that can be framed in different ways and by different traditions. In the Christian tradition, it’s the mystery of being, the mystery of God. God can never be known, if you like. Which is not to say that one’s own being is not part and parcel of that presence. But there’s also that other dimension to it. That’s kind of how I see and experience it. Being is allowing yourself to be without having to have a total way of conceptualizing it. And you see this in other texts, beyond namarupa, a Sanskrit term, “beyond name and form” although name and form are really essential for awareness and consciousness. But consciousness is rooted in this larger reality, in a way, for me.

RW:  Yes. Now earlier you made a reference to the students trying to bring their best selves to something. How would you describe what one’s best self is?

Francis:  This is especially for students who are younger. We have older students, too—students who have professional backgrounds—and we encourage them to bring their best selves to their studies. But with this, I had the younger students more in mind. In many ways what that involves is what they can become, that is to say, getting them to reflect on what their potential is. I don’t only mean in terms of career and accomplishments, even though that might come into the picture, but to identify what in them yearns for expression, and to find responsible ways to do that—for the sake of sentient beings, to quote the Buddhist point of view.  
     I'm reminded of a conversation I had with one of my students yesterday. He graduated at the undergraduate level. He graduated about a year-and-a-half ago. He had a complicated background, and pursued the area of consciousness studies at an undergraduate level. He did that in experimentation with psychoactives to the degree that I was quite concerned about him. So we had a nice conversation yesterday; it was really about this, and trying to identify what he needed to support in himself as he was considering what his next steps were, practically speaking—graduate school, but also in terms of finding that deeper fulfillment, and framing this in a larger, spiritual sense. So, that’s what I kind of see.  

RW:  I'm thinking of a spectrum. Some people grow up with good parents and nurturing and start out with a good ego; they can go out in the world and function. Others need some help to get up to that level. I like Jung’s idea of individuation there. But once individuation is a reality, then, what is the role? There would have to be something greater than my ego satisfactions. This is what you’re saying?

Francis:  Yes. Going back to this student, when he was going through what, in effect, was a crisis, he did concern me a lot. He said it was as though there was some other force that gathered him up, and held him and supported him. He did experience that there was something larger than his ego supporting him and carrying him through. He had a very profound sense of this, and that has been maintained in the last six to eight months. And now he’s got his feet on the ground a little bit more. The experience was frightening, almost a kind of breakdown, but it was this larger reality that seemed to support, sustain him. So we had a conversation. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Yoga of Patanjali?

RW:  Not deeply.

Francis:  Well, in that yogic tradition, which is often different from what’s commonly practiced now, there’s a disciplined way of being attentive to what is going on in order to support a kind of transfer of consciousness from the ego to this larger self, or Atman. And there’s a certain point where all of a sudden, the equivalent of grace kicks in, the divine element enters into the picture and completes it. So this was sort of his experience. And to circle back to what you were saying, it’s that kind of thing.    


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.   


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