Chapter 9



The overwhelming might of the unconscious, i.e., the devouring, destructive aspect under which it may also manifest itself, is seen figuratively as the evil mother, whether as the bloodstained goddess of death, plague, famine, flood, and the force of instinct, or as the sweetness that lures to destruction. But as the good mother, she is fullness and abundance; the dispenser of life and happiness, the nutrient earth, the cornucopia of the fruitful womb. She is mankind's instinctive experience of the world's depth and beauty, of the goodness and graciousness of Mother Nature who daily fulfills the promise of redemption and resurrection, of new life and new birth.

Erich Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness

T he cosmologies and world views of many peoples utilize gender as a metaphor for complementary or oppositional aspects of consciousness. Many peoples, for example, believe that the ground of consciousness for both men and women is fundamentally feminine (Preston 1982, Paci 1982). Moreover, gender is an attribute of objects of contemplation in many meditative disciplines. Some consider the ultimate states of consciousness of which humans are capable to be only possible when there occurs a union of the male and female principles.

In this chapter I wish to explore the attribution of gender to aspects of consciousness as it is a fair bet that this constitutes another essence of consciousness. More than this, I wish to offer a neurophenomenological explanation for the non-arbitrary occurrence of this attribution. This explanation will link the development of the brain in pre- and perinatal life with the prefrontosensorial polarity principle discussed in Chapters Six and Seven in such a way as to account for this non-arbitrariness of attribution. I will track the influence of negative and positive womb experiences upon cultural variation in the understanding of the male and female principles, and will offer an extended example of the important use of gender among Tibetan contemplatives.


The theory is straightforward. I would hypothesize that there exists for most cultures a causal relationship between neurognostic development in the pre- and perinatal life of the child and the non-arbitrary attribution of gender as a metaphor for aspects of consciousness. Most known cosmologies and world views make a fundamental distinction between those constituents of experience or reality that are considered male and those that are considered female (see Neumann 1963, Eliade 1958, 1964). This is reflected in the notions of the "male" and "female principles" voiced among current New Age advocates. Likewise one hears about the necessity to balance the yin (female) and yang (male) energies with reference to ancient Chinese cosmology.

In studying cosmology cross-culturally, the anthropologist is struck by the fact that the use of gender as symbolic of components of mind, experience and reality is regular and patterned. Rather than restricting the attribution of gender to individuals of the two sexes, or attributing gender arbitrarily to various domains of consciousness, the tendency cross-culturally is for peoples to assign gender-as- SYMBOL in a lawfully regular way.

Womb = Woman = World .

The non-arbitrariness of gender attribution in cosmologies derives in large measure, I believe, from a series of universal cognitive associations that occur during pre- and perinatal cognitive development. In brief, the initial association by the child is between its totally of perceptual experience -- its lifeworld in Husserlian terms -- while in utero ("womb") with the maternal figure with whom it bonds, usually the one from whose uterus it emerges ("woman"). There is evidence that this bonding occurs before, during and just after birth, and that the child recognizes (note again the advised use of the term re -cognize) its mother if a birth is natural and humane (see Chamberlain 1983: 17 for relevant references; see also Brazelton and Als 1979, Liedloff 1975). Mother is now the one form in the ongoing post-natal lifeworld that stands for the entire world of immediate experience. And, as psychoanalytic theory has held for nearly a century, mother also becomes the first and quintessential "woman." Thus the course of pre- and perinatal cognitive development naturally produces the fundamental metaphorical associations summarized by the formula: womb = woman = world .

Gradually the child explores its postuterine lifeworld, a world that is realized within the field of dots arising and passing away in sensorial epochs. This sensorial world becomes increasingly differentiated perceptually, and then cognitively into distinct objects that are the focus of increasingly complex meanings configured upon them. Still, a primacy of perceptual over cognitive differentiation dominates the child's experience. That is, cognitive development emerges within the context (or ground) of the moment-by-moment unfolding of sensorial epochs (Piaget 1977). Sensorial experience remains associated with the equation, womb = woman = world, and in time becomes both relatively disattended and subconscious with the emergence of "higher" cortical processes that dominate sensorial processes, and tacitly equated with all that is considered feminine.

Cogito = Male .

At the same time, as awareness of the mother-father diad (1) is growing, the more advanced neurocognitive functions mediated by such structures as the prefrontal lobes and parietal association cortex are developing. I would argue that cognitions mediated by developing intentional processes that are configured upon sensorial objects tend to develop in complementarity with, or in opposition to, the field of sensorial dots. That is, intentionality develops in complementarity with, or opposition to womb = woman = world. In due time, these intentional processes become metaphorically associated with "father," and by extrapolation from the family to the society, with "male;" (2) thus the complementary/oppositional equation father = man = intentionality (reason) .

The primary role of metaphorical knowledge in constituting this bipolar adaptive process is well known (see Fernandez 1986), and what I am suggesting here is that one of the basic metaphorical impositions upon experience is rooted in the emergence of gender-as- SYMBOL . From an initial non-arbitrary association of the lifeworld with the female gender, the process by which higher cognitive functions develop in adaptive dialectic with sensation becomes non-arbitrarily associated with the masculine gender, all within the context of otherwise remarkable diversity in the cross-cultural conditioning of gender roles. Let us return once again to our "two hands clapping model" and make these relations visually clearer:

Figure 0. Higher intentional-cognitive functions and sensorial functions develop as oppositions or complements that become non-arbitrarily and metaphorically associated with gender.


The linchpin assumption in this theory, of course, is that the pre- and perinatal child is conscious, and that the organization of its consciousness is such that, at least by the beginning of the second trimester, experience is predominantly sensorial. It is also presumed that the organization of intrauterine and neonatal perception is considered a foundation upon which later cognitive and intentional development occurs.

This view of the pre- and perinatal human being flies in the face of the dominant Euroamerican cultural belief that life begins at birth, and that consciousness begins sometime after birth. The evidence in favor of prenatal consciousness seems to me to be overwhelming and growing rapidly (see reviews by Verny 1982, 1987, deMause 1981, Chamberlain 1983 and in Verny 1987, Stone et al. 1973, Kessen et al. 1970, Laughlin 1989, 1991; I summarize these data in Chapter 10). The interesting question is not whether prenatal consciousness exists, but rather what is the nature of that consciousness and its constituent processes at different stages of its development.

Pre- and Perinatal Sensorium: Structure or Chaos ?

One thing that seems increasingly clear from the study of developmental neurobiology is that, as I noted in Chapter Six, the belief that the sensory experience of the infant is essentially chaotic is erroneous:

In recent years, it has become abundantly clear that William James' ...characterization of the world of the infant as a "blooming, buzzing confusion" is simply wrong. There is evidence that the infant's world is structured and that far from being overwhelmed by a barrage of stimulation which only slowly comes to be sorted out, the infant from his earliest days is quite properly characterized as competent and organized. It is our contention that one of the major sources for this organization is the infant's limited sensory capacity.

(Turkewitz and Kenny 1982: 362)

A related issue is whether the birth and prenatal memories recorded in the clinical literature, and that arise spontaneously as a consequence of practising meditation, are to be taken as veridical memory or as pure fantasy. The view that they must be fantasy is often based upon the belief that an infant's actual experience is chaotic and insufficiently structured to lead to retention. This belief will no longer wash given the kind of data now available about the cognitive competence of newborns (see eg., Fagan 1984a, 1984b, Fagan et al. 1986, Lewis, Jaskir and Enright 1986). I take the position that they may be reasonably accurate memories, particularly if they are associated with trauma. A number of researchers have verified birth memory reports using a variety of methods (see Raikov 1980, 1982, Cheek 1974, Chamberlain 1980, 1982, 1983). (3)

The opinion developed at length in previous chapters of this book and elsewhere (Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990) is that all of human experience is intrinsically ordered from near the very beginning of development, and that the pre-rational order is that of the intuitive grasp of sensorial order. The pre-rational order of experience is that mediated by the neurognostic organizations comprising the developing sensorium.

This is a view that is consonant with the phenomenological psychologies of Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1962, 1964) and Aron Gurwitsch (1964). These philosophers, both influenced by Husserl's teachings, nonetheless rejected their mentor's inherent dualism (see above, p. 000) and his tendency to attend the essences of meaning to the exclusion of the fulfilling, hyletic sensory field. For Merleau-Ponty (1962: vii) the phenomenology of perception is "a philosophy for which the world is always 'already there' before [rational] reflection begins -- as an inalienable presence; and all its efforts are concentrated upon re-achieving a direct and primitive contact with the world, and endowing that contact with a philosophical status."

The world presented to consciousness within the sensorium is already ordered and meaningful (Merleau-Ponty 1962: 11). I cannot emphasize this too much for it is a realization fundamental to everything this book is about. The order apparent in the experience of the cognized environment is not simply due to the mapping of memory (retention) and anticipation (protention) onto a chaos of sensations (ibid: 19). Perception is the very ground of science and knowledge; that is, the primary task of science is the study and explanation of the world-as-given in perception (ibid: 47). In modern times we tend to lose sight of the inherent intuitive meaningfulness of pure perception:

...we shall no longer hold that perception is incipient science, but conversely that classical science is a form of perception which loses sight of its origins and believes itself complete. The first philosophical act would appear to be to return to the world of actual experience which is prior to the objective world, reawaken perception and foil its trick of allowing us to forget it as a fact....

(ibid: 57)

To work one's way back to the arising of pure perception and to dwell in the primacy of its order is to participate in the ongoing creation of the world while in a sort of "pre-personal" (read pre-egocentered) form of consciousness (ibid: xi). This is the phenomenologist's "being-in-the-world" and "return to things themselves" (ibid: ix, 80) where there no longer exists a dualism between a prime perceptual order and a secondary objective knowledge. What I am suggesting is that this primary world-as-given is for the pre- and perinatal child the only lifeworld (again, using Husserl's term for this world-as-given) that arises in consciousness, and experiences, as well as retentions from experiences, are metaphorically associated with the feminine gender.

Lifeworld and the Development of the Sensorium .

Phenomenology has rarely placed its project or insights into a developmental frame, yet, as Piaget (1971, 1985) has abundantly demonstrated, nothing less than a developmental perspective is capable of discerning the actual structural events producing essences, as well as their evolution. Consciousness, for instance, is not an object that is absent at one point in the development of a child and magically present at another point. Neither may consciousness be identified as a single quality, like self-awareness, will or feeling, that sort of "pops up" somewhere in development. Rather, consciousness is the functional space, or entrainment of processes comprising the conscious network, within which the cognized environment is realized, in which experience of the world arises and dissolves. The nature of the experience and the form of the cognized environment will change as a consequence of the organizational characteristics of each stage of maturation of the neurocognitive structures mediating experience.

It is pointless to try to establish the earliest stage at which consciousness begins to emerge in the embryo, for opinions will vary as to how consciousness is to be defined (see Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990: Chapter Three). It seems beyond doubt, however, that consciousness is present at an early during gestation and that it emerges in complexity as a function of the development of its neurocognitive structures, and particularly those that mediate the sensorium. The data on when the various sensory modes arise in prenatal development are often spotty and are summarized in Chamberlain (1983), Verny (1982) and Laughlin (1989, 1991). The stage of origin of any particular function should be considered conservatively, for the trend in research is to push the stage of appearance of a function back to an earlier period as more adequate techniques and better data become available. The data now available suggest that the lifeworld of the late prenatal child is indeed a rich unfolding of experience.

The lifeworld of the late prenatal child is rich in color and form, both in waking and dream phases of consciousness. It is also rich in a full range of auditory frequencies, tactile sensations, somaesthetic sensations of intrinsically initiated movement, and a range of taste sensations (see Barlow and Mollon 1982 for data on prenatal senses). It is difficult to obtain direct evidence of attention or "awareness," but if we presume a relationship between conjugal saccades (rapid re-focusing of the eyes) and attention, this function is operating by at least the 28th week of gestation. And if one assumes that some form of awareness is requisite for memory (operating by at least the 25th week), then this would push the beginnings of awareness back much further (see Ploye 1973). In any event, the child is exquisitely sensitive to its operational environment (the "womb"), and the range of visual, auditory, biochemical, emotional and somaesthetic stimuli that may arise in the sensorium is remarkable (see Ploye 1973, Liley 1972, Schell 1981, Sontag 1941, Fries 1977, Verny 1981, 1987, Blakemore 1974).

The lifeworld of the prenatal child is precisely and innately ordered (Larroche 1966). If one were to insist that this lifeworld is some kind of "blooming, buzzing confusion," one would have to divorce the experience of the child from what we now know about the development of the neurological structures mediating that experience -- the kind of mind-body dualism we so abhor. In fact, there exists no stage of development during which the sensorium is in chaos. It is ordered from first to last. Yet this order is a flexible one, emerging as a changing, ever more complex field of perception. (4) And because the sensorium develops well before the higher cortical functions, the order of perception is developmentally prior to the latter in human experience. In other words, the primacy of perception holds not only for moment-by-moment adult experience, but also for the ontogenesis of that experience.


The entire mechanism of gestation and perinatal mother-infant bonding is biologically designed to provide the most favorable circumstances for early ontogenesis. Even so, the intrauterine and early post-uterine environments are anything but impervious to stressful intrusion (Schell 1981, Sontag 1941, Montagu 1964, deMause 1981, Stone et al. 1973, Bekoff and Fox 1972, Fries 1977, Liley 1972, Ploye 1973, Stave 1978, Trevathan 1987, Laughlin 1989). In fact, the pre- and perinatal child may be stressed to the point of distress (a la Selye 1956, 1974; or even death, Verny 1981, Janov 1983:25), and such trauma may well leave its mark upon the entire life course (see reviews by deMause 1981, Verny 1981, Chamberlain 1983, Fries 1977, Janov 1983:48).

I am particularly interested here in prenatal influences on ergotropic-trophotropic tuning. The data pertaining to in utero autonomic nervous system tuning in humans are poor (see Richmond and Lustman 1955, Wenger 1941), but better for non-human species (see Hofer 1975). I would suggest that a range of autonomic balance relative to experience of the lifeworld is established in utero , during birth and during the early periods of infancy. I would further suggest that responses based upon this range of autonomic tuning will vary among individuals (Richmond and Lustman 1955, Grossman and Greenberg in Stone et al. 1973), and between cultures (Brazelton, Koslowski and Tronick 1977, Liedloff 1975).

I disagree with some authors (e.g., deMause 1981) who imply that the prenatal lifeworld for all humans is inevitably dis -stressful, and that the pre- and perinatal child is always strongly ambivalent in its response to the lifeworld. This reflects an altogether ethnocentric view of pre- and perinatal life. Rather, I would agree with Stave (1978: 29), Janov (1983) and Liedloff (1975) that a naturally nurturing pre- and perinatal environment, including natural mother-infant bonding and indulgence, results in a largely positive adaptation on the part of the child (Konner 1976). The environment of the womb is undoubtedly eu -stressful (in Selye's sense) in that the child's response to stimuli is active and probably developmentally challenging. Human reproduction is innately organized to provide a nurturing environment for development, one that limits stimuli to those within the child's range of processing, and one that produces a largely positive response-set on the part of the child. Moreover, the child is innately prepared to be born and to bond with its mother (Sugarman 1977). Thus the natural process leads to a positive identification of the lifeworld with the mother, and a largely positive orientation to the womb = woman = world association.

However, if the pre- and perinatal lifeworld features a persistent pattern of distress from phenomena as diverse as anoxia, stress-related hormones from the mother, failure of nurturance, failure of bonding, insensitive obstetrical practices, etc., then the child's orientation to its lifeworld may become seriously ambivalent, or even largely negative.

I would argue that the range of initial orientation to the lifeworld from positively challenging through emotionally ambivalent to thoroughly negative will influence the developing relationship between the sensorial structures mediating the lifeworld (feminine) and higher intentional-cognitive processes (masculine). In short, I would hypothesize that a largely positive pre- and perinatal orientation to the lifeworld will lead to a complementarity between lifeworld and intentional processes, while a seriously ambivalent to negative orientation will lead to some degree of opposition and even antagonism between the lifeworld and intentionality. In other words, the prefrontosensorial dialectic I described above will develop in complementarity as a consequence of a positive orientation and in opposition as a consequence of a negative orientation towards the lifeworld.

A complementary relationship between the sensory lifeworld and intentionality is experienced as a marked fluidity and equality of interaction between events in the world and knowledge about them, a sense of connectedness of everything, a groundedness of self and knowing in direct experience, a lack of threat attributed to novelty and change, a non-defended stance towards events in the world, and little sense of discrepancy or alienation between ego and sensory experience, between self and other.

An oppositional relationship on the other hand is experienced as a conceptual struggle to fix, rigidify, stabilize, and anticipate interactions within the lifeworld, a sense of distance, alienation, isolation and inequality between sensory experience and knowledge, a chronic sense of threat and attendant anxiety about novelty and change in the lifeworld, a defended stance toward events in the world, and an emphasis in knowing upon controlling or dominating the lifeworld.

Positive-Negative Orientation and Gender Attribution .

Elsewhere I have also suggested that there is a relationship at the cultural level between positive and negative pre- and perinatal orientation toward the lifeworld and the nature of gender attribution (see Laughlin 1991). The reason for this relationship is simply that although the consciousness of each human being includes a sensorium (given feminine attribution) and prefrontal intentional processes (given masculine attribution), each individual belongs to a single gender. That is, each individual must come to identify with either the gender associated with the lifeworld (female) or the gender associated with intentionality (male).

But as interesting as these implications are for our understanding of gender roles, we are more interested here in the epistemological applications of the theory. And they are significant to our understanding of both the positivist rejection of intuitive knowledge as fundamental to the scientific project, and the potential role of contemplation in science. I suggest that the negative-positive orientation toward the lifeworld is a major factor in determining the cultural bias relating the masculine and feminine aspects of consciousness. A very subtle difference exists between on the one hand the conception of higher intentional-cognitive processes as having grown as an elaboration of immanent perceptual structures, and on the other hand the conception of intentional-cognitive structures and perceptual structures as developmentally distinct.

This does not mean that in cultures in which the orientation toward the lifeworld is largely positive that the feminine attributions upon cosmology and consciousness will necessarily be only positive. It is not that simple. Rather, feminine attributions will be in keeping with the eu -stressful nature of the lifeworld; that is, with its transcendental reflections. The lifeworld arises and dissolves completely outside of the control of the child (or adult for that matter). Moreover, novelty (unanticipated events) arise in the sensorium as an inherent quality of the real now. It is thus positively interesting, challenging, and possibly awesome to the child. This is the dark side of the lifeworld (the feminine) and may well be expressed in the cosmology of a people as an awesome, threatening, even horrific female visage, or by a binary light-dark maternal figure (Paci 1982). The cultural and idiomatic variations, of course, are endless.

The key difference in orientation is whether the child is psychologically challenged and empowered by the dialogue with the world, or is it traumatized and disempowered by events arising beyond its ken, events that lead to the establishment of a general sense of helplessness relative to the lifeworld. The difference is developmentally crucial, and symbolically significant, for a challenging dialogue will result in the intentional-cognitive structures growing in unison with sensorial structures, while a traumatizing dialogue will produce a seemingly paradoxical fragmentation between intentional-cognitive structures and sensorial structures. The latter amounts to an actual state of antagonism between societies of cells within the individual being.

Physis and Logos .

Euroamerican culture history evidences at various times both the complimentary and the oppositional configurations at the level of symbolic expression of the epistemic process. For the ancient Greeks, the word physis -- the root of our words "physical," "physics," "physiological," etc. -- is often translated as "nature." However, this is not the nature of modern science which connotes an impersonal domain of objective observation, but rather is the ground of all being and knowing (Vycinas 1961: 135). Physis was associated with earth, birth, womb and motherhood, and as such was the foundation of all experience, including logos or reflective knowledge:

Physis for the Greeks was eo ipso logos , i.e., the ground where truth, language, and thinking were rooted. Logos basically shows or brings to appearance that which is orderly laid and articulated in physis. Therefore, logos can be considered as the bringing to light or to the revelation of physis . Disclosure, aletheia, is truth. Logos, again, is language or parlance. Since logos is rooted on physis, physis is the foundation of language.

(Vycinas 1961: 133)

Physis, which was given female attribution by the Greeks, was considered to be the beginning and ending of all order, all experience, and all knowledge. Logos, given male attribution, was the aspect of physis that comes to know itself. During the centuries that separate us from the ancient Greeks a shift has occurred in the semantic relationship of complementarity between physis and logos to one of dualistic schism between the physical and the mental (or rational) world. What this shift in meaning reflects in our society is the loss of awareness in adult consciousness of physis , or the feminine principle -- that is, on the present account, the immanent sensorial order manifesting within the field of dots -- as the ground of being, combined with the enthronement of logos, or the masculine principle, to a position of regal prominence conceptually disconnected from, and dominant in order over physis. This analysis would seem to support those feminist critics who suspect a cultural association of science with patriarchy (Keller 1985, Harding 1986).

But I would suggest that this association is less with science in the sense of an institutional manifestation of the transcendental epistemic process and more with the positivistic rationalizations of the scientific project -- conceptualizations of science that are as dualistic as they are phenomenologically naive. In fact, all that is really lost in such rationalizations is the truth of the interdependence of physis and logos , not the transcendental interdependence itself. All that is lost is the awareness of the connection between the two aspects of consciousness, for the sensorial world continues to arise and dissolve every moment of consciousness, and continues to be the ground of intuitive order upon which all creative science is actually based, whether individual scientists credence this fact or not.

The consciousness of the pre- and perinatal child is richly pervaded by phenomena. The child is precisely a "being-in-the-world" (Merleau-Ponty 1962: 80) and as such does not experience subject-object dualism, a dualism that is an imposition from adult conceptual structures not yet conditioned in the infant. For the infant there is a continuous union of the "psychic" and the "physiological" in experience (ibid: 80). In the Buddhist terms we have explored, the child is in a perpetual state of jhana , or absorption into whatever experience is arising and of interest at the moment.


As we discussed in the last chapter, the Tibetan Buddhist contemplative tradition utilizes visualization and the mechanism of symbolic penetration to elicit particular phases of consciousness and intuitive insights about the essences of consciousness. What I did not mention is that gender-as- SYMBOL is a major ingredient in Tibetan visualization meditations.

Gender in Tibetan Cosmology .

As is the case with many cultures, there are a number of versions of Tibetan cosmogony, as Paul (1982 :43) so aptly describes (also see Stein 1972). Some versions depict the origin of the cosmos by reference to an absolute, undifferentiated realm which somehow becomes differentiated into the primordial paternal (associated with light or brilliance) and the primordial maternal (associated with darkness and torment; Paul 1982: 51, see also Getty 1962: 197). Other versions associate the Great Mother of Infinite Space with the absolute realm at the beginning of cosmogony (ibid: 52).

By a series of bifurcations the world is created as an essential polarity with masculine light on the right hand and feminine dark on the left hand (ibid: 49), a pattern common to mythologies everywhere on the planet (Neumann 1963, Hertz 1909, Needham 1973, Preston 1982). Not surprisingly, the feminine aspect is further associated with the womb, which in turn is associated with hell and with death and rebirth (ibid: 25). The womb is transformed in myth into a sack or cave in which the hero (masculine) hides while awaiting rebirth (ibid: 261-289), and becomes the grounds for suppression of females who are associated with demons and passion, and are thus dangerous to masculine unity (ibid: 272). Legendary teachers like Milarepa are often portrayed as having spent years dwelling in caves and as meditating in cave mouths, a type of solitary meditation actually not allowed any save the most seasoned meditators. The cave mouth qua vulva is seen as the only route to rebirth, also a common motif among the world's mythologies (Campbell 1949: 297ff).

Gender and Tibetan Meditation .

Within the context of these cross-culturally common cosmological motifs, it is not surprising that meditation upon male and female deities depicted in sexual union forms a major theme in Tibetan tantric practice. Neither is it surprising that insights arise during this practice pertaining to the male and female principles operating in consciousness. And given all that I have said above, it will also not surprise the reader that experiences associated with the feminine deities pertain to the unfolding of the lifeworld, while those associated with masculine deities relate to intentional-cognitive acts relative to lifeworld (see Figure 0).

[Figure of Chenrezig/Dorje Palmo Here]

Meditation using gender-as- SYMBOL is central to Tibetan visualization practices. Practice proceeds along the same lines described in the last chapter and follows the same process of symbolic penetration. The deity used (Tib. lha'i rnal 'byor, or "deity yoga") as the outer SYMBOL may be male (called the yab ; e.g., Chenrezig in Figure 0), or may be female (the yum ; e.g., Dorje Palmo). In the more advanced tantras both the male and the female images will be imagined both separately and in sexual union (as in Figure 0). The adept may work with the visualization of first one figure and then the other, and then bring them together into union. In the case of the Chenrezig-Dorje Palmo yoga, the male image signifies a less active but watchful compassion while the female signifies a quite active, youthful energy. Combining the two significations, even at the superficial conceptual level, will give you some sense of the phase of consciousness being intended by the union of these two SYMBOLS .

The initiate does this meditation in the manner described in the last chapter, by "emptying" the body and then filling the cognized body with the various images. The visualization may become quite active as exchange of energy between the two forms is imagined as a stream of tiny beads (Tib. thig-le , Skt. bindu , "drops;" see Chapter Six) moving with the breath from heart to heart via the nostrils (or genitals, or some other SYMBOLIC orifice).

Meditation upon the yum (female deity) penetrates to insights pertaining to the unfolding of psychic energy, raw perception and intuition. Meditation upon the yab (male deity) leads to insights about invariant patterns -- in the case of Chenrezig, compassion for beings who are suffering -- in the unfolding world of appearances, cognitions and the intentional act of "watching." The adept comes to experience directly the dialogue between abstract conceptual cognition (Skt. nana , vijnana , vinnana , or panna ; Tib. ) and the unfolding organization of the lifeworld which, when relevated to awareness, becomes intuitive wisdom (Skt. prajna ; Tib. shes.rab. ; Guenther 1974: 16) -- in other worlds, between logos (or Husserl's "signifying acts") and physis (or Husserl's "intuitive acts") respectively. (5) The emphasis in Tibetan meditation is, as with all forms of Buddhist meditation, upon bringing the two forms of knowing into harmony within awareness (Kelsang Gyatso 1982). The culmination of this union is reached when the phase of consciousness requisite to the highest practice of the Great Sign (Skt. Mahamudra ; Tib. phyag rgya ghen po ) arises and stabilizes, a practice related to, and a series of intuitive realizations about "emptiness" (Skt. sunyata ; Tib. stong pa nyid ) equivalent to the "access concentration" work described in Chapter Five (see Wang-ch'ug Dorje 1978).

A clue to the energy flow experiences that may be associated with meditation upon the female deity is to be found in her body posture (see Figure 0). Her posture if one of blissful, but mindful abandon, with head thrown back, arms and legs spread wide, back arched. It is the position of ecstasy and orgasm, of letting go into the flow of arising and dissolving sensorial epochs. (6) She represents the quintessence of flow (Csikskentmihalyi 1975). In contrast the position of the male deity is one of grounded and intense concentration upon the flow, the passing of phenomena. (7)

When these principles come alive in unison within the consciousness, the attachment to phenomena may become so tenuous, and the concentration so intense and detached, that previously repressed energy and activity are released with greater and greater force until the whole of consciousness becomes filled by something like a roaring river of fire. Yet the yab awareness remains unmoved. This fierce and dispassionate concentration upon the powers of release is better SYMBOLIZED in other, more intense forms where the yab and the yum are depicted as dancing in flames while in sexual union.

Part of what is happening in deity meditation is this: Concentration upon the two gendered deities penetrates via homeomorphogenic pathways to their respective neurocognitive processes. These processes are evoked in a particular ritual and SYMBOLIC context, part of which entails an association of each set of processes with the SYMBOLIC representation of, or intuitive realization of their essential emptiness. When each gender image comes to effectively evoke its respective processes, the processes may then be brought into harmony by uniting their respective SYMBOLS . Again, its like integrating two piles of iron filings by moving them together with two magnets. The two orders of knowledge become one system, and the experience is one of total unity -- what is known is what arises, and what arises is what is known. In this phase of consciousness there is no discrepancy between sensorial and intentional activity.

When the images come alive within consciousness, they may become simplified and abstract, and participate in an ongoing communication between conscious network and the depths of the being. In my own experience during a retreat centered upon the deity-object (Tib. yidam ) known as Demchog and his consort, Dorje Palmo. During the course of the work, the yab-yum spontaneously refined and simplified themselves as images into a blue and a red drop, respectively (see discussion of drops in Chapter 6). The drops would position themselves in clouds of mist of the contrasting color, the red drop in a blue mist, the blue drop in a red mist. The clouds would gradually interfold into a configuration I recognized as the classic yin-yang SYMBOL with the contrasting drops in their appropriate positions. All of this occurred over the course of many days during which the awareness became increasingly centered upon contemplation to the exclusion of other distractions.

It is important to emphasize again that one is rarely told what will be experienced ahead of time. As I mentioned in the last chapter, the universal SYMBOLS are almost never mentioned in the course of instructions about the meditation. The initiation is given, and the initiate goes off on his or her own to do the work. One generally only fully understands these experiences after reflection upon the intuitions that arise during the experiences.

Womb and Meditation.

It is known that people often re-experience their prenatal lives and births under hypnotic regression (Chamberlain 1980, 1983), during primal therapy (Janov 1972), and under the influence of psychotropic drugs (Grof 1979). But it is generally not recognized that the same experiences arise spontaneously during meditation, especially under conditions of strict retreat. I have already described elsewhere such an experience that arose while doing breathing meditation (Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990:211). I also had womb-related experiences occur in lucid dreams during which I might pass down light-tunnels into other worlds, or "re-experience" my own birth, complete with blood, bright lights, people standing around the birth canal wearing white coats, severing the umbilicus, etc. These visions were accompanied with intense energy flows in my body and emotional outbursts.

Tibetan adepts have reported recalling, not only birth in this lifetime, but also births in previous lifetimes. And the Tibetan doctrine of reincarnation is intimately associated with womb and birth symbolism (Evans-Wintz 1960: 179). As a point of fact anthropologists have learned that birth and death are commonly associated among the world's cultures, just as womb-birth symbolism is associated with the quest for spiritual power (Eliade 1958, 1964, Harner 1980: 32). The same may be said for our own cultural traditions (see Neumann 1963: 43 on myth and Silber 1971: 133 on the alchemical tradition).


1. The first significant social diad encountered by the child, apart from the mother-infant bond, is usually that between the male and female parental figures representing the primary gender role models. And, as many anthropologists and sociologists have shown, the basic cognitive orientation of the child vis a vis its society derives initially from role interactions in the family. Cross-culturally speaking, of course, the male parental figure is not always the child's genitor, but may be the mother's brother or some other category of kinsmen. For simplicity's sake, I will refer to all such figures as "father."

2. The tacit association of maleness with higher cortical processes emerging during cognitive development may be theoretically modeled as occurring due to simple intransitivity [i.e., (lifeworld = mother) = [editor: put / thru =] (father = cogito)] in a Piagetian (1980: 84) frame, or due to the simple logic of metaphoric and metonymic relations (i.e., lifeworld : mother :: cogito : father) in a Levi-Straussian frame. In any event, differentiation of perceptual objects and discrete events (including "self") in the production of the cognized environment is a neurocognitive process that, as we have seen, is primarily in service of adaptation to an operational environment represented in the arising-dissolving field of sensorial epochs and other aspects of the lifeworld.

3. Once again, the tacit bias in Euroamerican culture tends toward a naive rationalism: In the absence of an effective (in this case, adult) conceptual order, perception is reduced to a terrible chaos -- an abysmal, seething caldron in which vast, randomizing and demonic energies threaten to overwhelm the world. The psychology of William James (1890) noted above, and to some extent the theology of Paul Tillich (1963) and the alchemical interpretations of Carl Jung (1955) bear evidence to this claim. Jung, for instance, spoke of the "chthonic" spirit which he believed is the sexually charged, dark, dangerous and demonic side of God (and of our own psyche). The human condition was seen as one of a terrible tension between the rational ego (culturally associated with light, life, right handedness and the male principle; Hertz 1909, Needham 1973) and chaos (associated with dark, death, left handedness and the female principle). The only sane order is a rational and ego-centered order. As R.D. Laing (1982) reasons, something like this ego-centered view of order lies behind the inability of the Freudians and others to credence the possibility of prenatal consciousness: If the prenatal child has no ego (the argument might run), then how can it be conscious?

4. It is interesting that towards the end of his career, Merleau-Ponty had reached the conclusion that even the organization of perception could be influenced by culture (1968: 212; see also Ihde 1983: 109), thus bringing his phenomenology into line with a major school of thinking in anthropological theory, the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (see Miller and McNeil 1969 and Kay and Kempton 1984 for reviews).

5. My use of prajna and vinnana agrees more with Suzuki's (1967: 66) interpretation than with Turner's (1974: 47ff) in that prajna reflects the intuitive grasp of the perceptual order-as-given, and not the fundamentals of social organization, although the latter may be presented to consciousness in the former.

6. One of my informants, a mature contemplative who has attained "stream entry," or the experience of sunyata , likened the experience to "a great cosmic shit -- letting everything go."

7. His gaze is upon the Void from whence "she" arises and into which "she" passes away. He represents the "watcher" who is aware of the non-duality of phenomena (Skt. sangsara ) and emptiness (Skt. sunyata ).