Conversion Experience (with a side-note on Envy and Judging Others) (8/15)

Let us imagine a man—a busy man. This active man who is immersed in his various roles, duties, and projects has grown up believing that the fulfillment of these roles, duties, and tasks will make his life meaningful and complete. Aside from his enjoyment of activity for its own sake—in the discharging of his accustomed duties and tasks—he enjoys the additional self-gratification that all of this satisfying busy-ness adds up to something intangible but precious. This intangible but precious essence that rises up like a savory aroma from his busy and purposeful toil is this very thought—namely, that his life has genuinely amounted to something precisely because he did not slack off and fritter away his time and energy on trivial pursuits like most persons seem to do!

Given the strength of his conviction that the truly meaningful and well-lived life is a busy life that is thoroughly engaged in purposeful, productive activity—with only a few rest breaks (for the sake, merely, of recharging one’s battery) thrown in here and there—it is understandable that this indefatigably active person will regard ‘dis-engaged’ and comparatively inactive persons with faintly-disguised contempt. Measured by his exacting standards, such persons are ‘slackers,’ ‘deadwood,’ and ‘ne’er do wells’ who depend, more or less parasitically, upon driven, directed dynamos like himself both for sustenance and for motivation.

If our man of turbo-charged, productive activity regards his slightly contemptible ‘inferiors’ as a kind of necessary evil—rather as potentially troublesome schoolchildren or prison inmates who must be assigned menial but modestly worthwhile tasks in order to keep them in line and moving in the right direction—how does he regard his peers and superiors? Almost certainly he regards them with an ambivalent mixture of admiration and envy—respect tinged with suspicion—approbation blended with anxiety. There are no such confused or conflicted feelings with regard to his sluggish and unfocused inferiors.

Since the busily productive and purposeful man of action gauges his own worth by the stature and worldly value of his deeds and accomplishments, he feels no compunction about measuring himself favorably against the great mass of ‘mediocrities’ who will never be as ‘fruitful’ or as effective as he is. He can always shift his gaze towards these space-and-resource-consuming mediocrities to reassure himself and to revel in his cherished sense of superiority over the hordes beneath him. But it’s a different matter altogether when he glances sideways and sees those huffing and puffing strivers who are neck-and-neck with him in the feverish and relentless race for noteworthy accomplishment. And when he looks ahead at those who have clearly surpassed him—if he is even capable of wrenching his attention from his nearby competitors—oh, what delicious torments must he endure! What excruciatingly mixed feelings he must then suffer! These forerunners are at once living proof of what can be accomplished and damning evidence of one’s own palpable, present shortcomings. They are models of inspiration and punishing devils, who quite naturally regard ‘runners-up’ with much the same imperturbable and confident indifference with which these fifth- and sixth-placers haughtily regard those ‘mediocrities’ who could never hope even to qualify for entrance into such a race!

Such strivers may seek comfort by telling themselves that they are only competing with themselves—with their own former performance levels—but we might ask: How far can such notions be trusted? This idea of competing only with oneself might have more persuasive force in a situation where no clearly defined norms or standards as yet exist. Such a situation might present itself, for instance, in the discovery of an entirely new and uncharted field of research or investigation. Because this territory is, as yet, unexplored and unmapped, those brave and ingenious individuals who, as pioneers, venture upon these initial excursions into terra incognita briefly enjoy the rare privilege of competing neither with an army of rivals nor with established norms and conventions. We can see something like this situation in the ‘discovery’ and exploration of the ‘New World’ after the voyage of Columbus—or in the ‘discovery’ and exploration of the unconscious after Freud’s and Jung’s initial descents thereunto.[1]

Let us now imagine a kind of crisis or breakdown in the mind and soul of our busy, competitive man of action. Let us suppose that after years of earnest and sincere striving to ‘live up to his potentials’—as a respected professional in his field, as a husband and father, as a citizen and morally upright individual, as contributing member of society, etc.—the ‘bottom’ mysteriously falls out from beneath his life. At first, perhaps, he is able to ‘keep up appearances’ and function outwardly as if nothing is seriously amiss. But inwardly everything has undergone a radical ‘about-face.’ The understandably troubled victim of this inner collapse (of his formerly reliable momentum) is taken by surprise by what has happened to him. Nothing in his intellectual toolkit affords him any reliable assistance in understanding what precisely has consigned him to these doldrums. There are no strong winds pushing him from behind anymore. Nor do the prospects ahead exert their previously alluring and inspiring spell over him. All of a sudden it feels as if his whole life has been a kind of hoax or an empty, compulsive ritual. He derives little comfort from the suspicion that his peers and even more revved-up ‘superiors’ are probably ensnared in the same energized delusion that has just caved in for him.

Without the old, reliable wind behind his vainly unfurled sails, he is now obliged to utilize his internal-combustion motor to keep up in the ongoing, competitive race—knowing full well that unless the wind returns, and soon, he’ll come to a standstill upon the shark-infested sea. Dark forebodings of impotence and despair threaten to pull him below the waves where he will certainly drown. Fears of losing everything he has won through years of striving and productivity—and of alienating everyone who respects and depends on him—grip and torment him from within. He rationalizes to himself that he is merely suffering from a kind of exhaustion or chronic fatigue—and he may even decide to significantly slow things down or to take a leave of absence. But such a move involves tremendous risks, as he rightly senses. If he fails to keep moving, and allows himself to pause and reflect upon these doubts and questions that gnaw at him from within, he’s likely to be devoured by the abyss from which these doubts and questions emerge like parasitic worms and venomous serpents. Better, he thinks, to stay busy and focused on the external tasks and demands that he is familiar with—rather than fall into the clutches of these menacing, dark forces within. Thus, our man of action assumes a posture of manic defense against the depressive doubts and humiliating fears that bite at his scurrying heels.

In behaving in this way, our blind and compulsive ‘victim’ acts like a government that prints and spends vast sums of borrowed and inflated currency in order to distract and defend itself against internal corruption that it has ignorantly supposed to be ‘out there’—instead of courageously and honorably dealing with this ‘disease’ before it gets completely out of hand. When the time comes—and it always eventually arrives—for this enormous debt to be repaid, a terrible reckoning will take place. I will not spell out other dire macrocosmic or collective implications that follow from a critical mass of manically-defended, externally-fixated psychological ignoramuses—but they are not so difficult to imagine. Once these manic, outer-directed busy-bodies have thoroughly demonized the unlit inner world where the true roots of (and solutions to) their mental problems lie, it only becomes harder and harder with time to confront them. But the contents of the unconscious, as Jung taught us, usually assume the character of the benign or fearful face we turn towards them.

*****

It seems wise to proceed from the working hypothesis that everything we could possibly need for the attainment of wholeness (or salvation) is always already present, even if concealed or overlooked, in the Gestalt or general picture of things that we always have before us. By proceeding in this way we are in a better position to avoid many fruitless and time-consuming detours and derailments. In starting off with the provisional assumption that all the ingredients necessary for our ‘opus’ are already stocked in our pantry, we greatly lessen the need or compulsive drive to ‘go out’ shopping for what is already at hand. Some of the necessary ingredients may be hidden back in the unlit, hard-to-reach corners of the pantry, but they are there nonetheless.

So, let us next assume that locating and gathering these crucial ingredients for the work (of attaining wholeness) becomes the first part of the complex, multi-tiered process of psychological and spiritual transformation. This locating and gathering phase—which is, in effect, preparatory work—follows the momentous inner shift, or pivoting, from a fundamentally extraverted to an introverted orientation. Other ways of describing this ‘about-face’ include ‘the conversion from the active to the contemplative life’ and ‘from outer, personal immersion (in worldly events and involvements) to inner, impersonal reflection.’ It should be emphatically noted that this ‘about-face’ is not an event under our conscious control. It cannot, therefore, be willed to occur. Rather, it happens to us—like ‘grace’ or a rare disease.

In our ‘cooking’ metaphor, the ‘pantry’ stands for the immediately accessible, interior realm of the psyche—in which the ‘ego’ is afloat. Prior to the ‘conversion’ experience alluded to above, our desires, fears, and attention were naturally directed outwards—so that the center of gravity, as it were, of our conscious lives appeared to be located somewhere between us and the outer world. It was, in a sense, the mediating bridge between our ego and the outer world of activities, plans, relationships, possessions, and so forth. After the disturbing, radical reorientation occurs, that center of gravity has been mysteriously but irrevocably removed to a new, interior space. It is situated between the ego and the unlit, unexplored inner depths. It is now the bridge between consciousness and the unconscious. It may now legitimately be called the reflective soul, since its nature—like that of a magical mirror—is to reflect otherwise invisible and elusive forms that arise spontaneously from the dark inner depths. Without this bridge—without this form-reflecting mirror—no genuine psychological and spiritual transformation can occur. Unless and until this deeply unsettling inner revolution or conversion experience decisively interiorizes one’s center of gravity, the only work that can be done pertains to the ego and to its (moral, intellectual, practical) relationships with the outer realm of persons, objects, and events. More importantly, before this radical reorientation occurs, the ego quite naturally tends to regard all outer things, events, and persons (including itself) literally. Only after the pivotal inner revolution are these same ‘outer’ phenomena decisively and essentially experienced as metaphors and symbols of inner factors. Of course, nothing has changed in the outer world of things, events, and persons—but because the inner reorientation has profoundly altered the conscious bearings of the fledgling ‘initiate,’ they are experienced in an entirely new light—the crepuscular light of the soul-perspective.[2]

Assuming that our hypothetical ‘initiate’ has survived the profoundly transformative ‘about-face’ and is now pointed in the direction of the source and not towards the world of symptoms, effects, and ephemeral manifestations in the spatio-temporal realm, what then? Well, chances are, at first, he feels alone as he has never before felt himself alone—and secondly, his work has only just begun. He may have benefitted considerably from the patient and earnest study of works like Plato’s Republic and the Symposium, the writings of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu, the Bhagavad Gita and the words of Ramana Maharshi, the Gospels and Augustine, the writings of Jung, the Gnostics, and the Sufis. These and other such works that describe the conversion and/or the changed view of things that follows closely upon the heels of that inner pivoting can lend inestimable assistance and comfort to those who are new arrivals to the uncanny and mysterious soul-perspective. The knowledge gained from the insights and experiences of our elder brothers and sisters will certainly help to orient and stabilize our amazed minds as we gradually become inducted into this strange new arena of imaginal and intuitive awareness. But such works—as helpful as they are—can be no more than guidebooks to a foreign country and culture, the native language and customs of which we must eventually master on our own. And while these various guidebooks have been written about the same ‘foreign’ country, each author comes at his encounter with that country bearing his own distinctive array of (linguistic, poetical, philosophical) tools, his peculiar temperament and natural biases, his stubborn virtues and weaknesses. Thus, even the best-written and most comprehensive of these guidebooks to the inner world of the psyche can offer the initiate little more than a detailed map—which is no substitute for direct, ‘sink or swim’ immersion in the new territory.

Nevertheless, the mere fact that others have been here before and have left eloquent records of their adventures and discoveries in this marvelous, ‘unworldly’ world inspires confidence and courage in the newcomer. And the newcomer will need dauntless courage, to be sure, since his relationship with the ‘literal’ world of external events, persons, duties, and responsibilities cannot help but be deeply shaken by this fateful shift in his psychic center of gravity. At first it will seem very much as if the two ‘worlds’—the old one and the new one—are locked in hostile opposition to one another. It appears almost to be an either-or choice that is being forcibly imposed upon the neophyte. He finds that in order to keep up appearances in the ‘dayworld’ (where perhaps he/she holds down a responsible job, has children to raise, friends and adversaries to reckon with, etc.), he is obliged to don a mask. Perhaps no one in his midst has experienced anything like what he’s gone through—except persons who have suffered a ‘mental collapse’ or ‘nervous breakdown’—and they can scarcely be of much assistance to him except as cautionary tales. Certainly, when he describes to his most intimate and trusted companions his experiences from this new and, as yet, unfamiliar, precariously-inhabited perspective, he cannot help but sound a bit ‘touched,’ since what he describes necessarily comes across as both alien and a little menacing when regarded from the ‘solid’ standpoint of the collectively reinforced commonsense perspective. Conversely, the initiate himself feels alienated from the teeming world of ‘untouched,’ uninitiated egos with a goodly number of whom he was formerly on the most intimate, shared terms. Now it is as if they are all on the other side of a glass wall. He no longer breathes quite the same air, finds nourishment and delight in the same thoughts, hopes, pleasures, and aims as they do. It is precisely out of this deep sense of alienation and estrangement—not merely from others, but from his own former ‘self,’ with its very different bearings, unexamined assumptions, and trajectory—that the initiate is spurred on in his efforts to make meaningful sense of the this rich and challenging new arena of experience that he has fatefully entered.

So, certainly as much as he will need exceptional courage to withstand this deep and protracted sense of alienation from ‘the tribe,’ he will also require heightened powers of discernment in order to keep these two worlds—the external-literal-moral-practical and the psychic-metaphorical-symbolic-imaginal—distinct (but not severed or separate) in consciousness. While the arena of everyday ego-related activities, pursuits, and relationships is not unavoidably and incommensurably at odds with the non-literal and fundamentally im-practical realm of imaginal experience, problems soon arise when the two perspectives are confused and conflated. This happens as soon as the norms, standards, and criteria native to the mundane ego-perspective (and normative, collective consciousness) are misapplied to imaginal or psychic experience, which must be assessed and understood by wholly different standards and criteria.

When, for instance, persons wrongly ascribe literal existence (entity-hood?) to fictive or metaphysical psychic figures, they go astray. The ‘Satan incarnate’ and ‘the angel Gabriel’ provide useful examples. We needn’t deny the reality of evil or of spiritual protection when we dispense with these literal formulations of psychic factors and ‘moral energies.’ Those who ignorantly assume that ‘mere’ metaphors and symbols are vacuous nothings devoid of any real force or meaning are clearly persons who deny ‘real’ status to the psyche itself—the very language of which consists chiefly of images, dreams, symbols, metaphors, autonomous ideas that manage (miraculously) to break through the thick, muffling folds of our commonsense ‘wisdom,’ which almost always pertains to the mundane matters proudly overseen by ‘Enlightened’ figures like Benjamin Franklin and the voluble Voltaire. From the deeper perspectives afforded by imaginal experience, such worldly-wise champions of practical and rational-empirical know-how tend to seem disappointingly shallow and simplistic.

When this modern ilk of ‘Enlightened’ secular humanists and hard-boiled pragmatists insert their long thick flashlights down into the once-tantalizing and treacherous depths of the ‘mysterious’ soul, all they find are superstitions, ghost stories, fantastic fables—in a word, ‘poppycock.’

It is the widespread loss of this ‘language of the soul’ that is secretly behind so much of the psychological sickness and imbalance afflicting modern culture. The elements of that language—myth, dream, living symbols, potent metaphors—and its chief faculty—the educated imagination—have been eclipsed by the very different ‘language’ and methodology of modern instrumental reason. This modern form of reason was forged by philosophers (Machiavelli, Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Descartes, etc.) and scientists (Galileo, Newton, etc.) and promulgated (in a slightly vulgarized but more easily digestible version) by Enlightenment cheerleaders for this ‘rational ideal.’ The ideological and methodological campaign proved successful beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. But it is now becoming evident that this success has been purchased at the cost of our souls. Like puny little ‘Fausts,’ millions of ordinary little men and women and children have bargained away their unfledged souls to the devil in exchange for a smorgasbord of gadgets, entertainments, diversions, comforts, and pleasures that even kings would have envied (and gone to war over) just two hundred years ago. No one will dispute the fact that our bodily lives, on average, are far more pleasant, long-lasting, and secure from disease and danger than our recent ancestors’ lives were. But I’ll warrant that most of our ancestors—even the least educated or prosperous among them—would ultimately have found little to admire or love about us, as comfort-and-convenience-obsessed modern ‘consumers.’ In fact, I suspect that after spending less than a week with ordinary Americans, most of our ancestors—from all rungs of the socio-economic ladder—would find more to pity and despise than to love about us. The burning question in their minds would be: “How can a society that possesses so much power, wealth, and practical know-how be so brutishly backwards and negligent about the ‘deeper meaning of life’? Was this petty and pampered little material life the ultimate goal of all that struggle and sacrifice, all the pain and insecurity that we, their forebears willingly endured for millennia? We willingly endured our rawer and more beleaguered existences precisely because our sacrifices had meaning.”

The lives of our forebears, on the whole, acquired more meaning because they were suffered within a meaningful cosmos. In fact, it was due to that meaningfulness—that permeated the whole of the community, from the King to the peasant—that their brief lives had a kind and degree of quality that seems to be utterly absent in the busy, vapid, ungrounded existences of the skittish, atomized functionaries in the modern world.

Thus, our ancestors would both pity and despise us, their modern descendents, precisely because we are devoid of souls. We lack them, in large part, because most of us have never had living models and exemplars to follow and learn from. Our anti-culture—which is essentially just an economic system that has conscripted us into its service in exchange for bodily and egoistic treats—has effectively submerged and eradicated soul and the divine faculty of imagination by deliberately proscribing their intensive cultivation. As far as the life of the soul and the higher (speculative and ‘Uranian’) imagination are concerned, modernity is a barren wasteland—like those devastated remains of once luxuriant rainforests in Brazil and Sumatra that have been robbed of their giant, towering growths as well as all that was sheltered below them—and for what? For furnishing tacky suburban homes and growing a few harvests of soybeans (for fast food burger chains) before the soil is depleted or toxic.

But here’s the great irony: our ‘benighted,’ unsophisticated, pre-modern ancestors would perceive our cultural-spiritual-imaginative barbarism at once, while we—who pride ourselves on our superior perspicacity and freedom from the quaint delusions and superstitions of the past—cannot see it at all. And naturally we cannot. Collectively, we lack the necessary reflectiveness. We are, for the most part, denied the very sort of educational tools required to make a fair and just assessment of our collective spiritual bankruptcy and blindness.

[1] Of course, in neither of these illustrative instances may we speak of ‘discovery’ in a pure or unqualified sense. Both the ‘New World’ and the ‘unconscious’ had been around for ages—and were both known and charted (to a certain extent) by persons and cultures either unknown to, or forgotten about by, their ‘modern’ European ‘discoverers.’ And secondly, the ‘pioneer’ who emerges from such terra incognita with the aim of sharing his discoveries is typically obliged to present his ‘findings’ in the established (conventional) terms of contemporary rational (or theological, moral, cultural, etc.) discourse, so the pioneer is never entirely free of such constraints and requirements, which he must master before he can pass muster.

[2] So far as I can tell, Nietzsche never fully or knowingly underwent this radical conversion ordeal—or, if he did enter the anteroom, he defended himself against humble submission to the new terms and conditions of the imaginal realm. Many of my criticisms of Nietzsche come from this standpoint and they don’t make sense unless and until the reader of my criticisms has similarly undergone this radical perspective change. If I really wanted to play ‘Socrates,’ I would follow his daunting example and begin testing claimants to psychological knowledge—starting with a slew of Jungians—and see if any of them as successfully navigated through ‘the change.’

 

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3 thoughts on “Conversion Experience (with a side-note on Envy and Judging Others) (8/15)

  1. Hi Paul — Jung might say something along the line of ‘the god must die’ in order for you to form a new one. It certainly is a long process towards individuation and it begins with ‘stripping’; stripping away the old forms of presentation.
    I left my chosen profession of ministry when I knew I was part of ploy to discourage my flock to not let their old gods die. Following my leaving, I began to use the I Ching as a way to meditate. It seemed to me that nearly every other hexagram I rolled was “stripping”. Stripping, stripping, stripping. When I finally decided to confront the I Ching with that the next hexagram I got was “skinning”. Now that you’ve stripped, now skin yourself. It all must go for the new god to take shape.
    Buddhists say that there are six levels of existence: the hells, the hungry ghosts, the animal, the human, the jealous gods and then the gods. All these levels are impermanent — certainly including the gods. They too must die.
    That’s what I am reading in your essay: transfiguration, death/resurrection and more. But most importantly, we can consider ourselves truly dead when we believe we have an inherent existence; something that does not change and can be defined with words. That’s death.
    Stay strong, my man. It’s process. Always process and nothing more. Just keep moving without desperation that you never find the answer. It’s not meant to be found but only pursued. That’s when we find out the process IS the answer. Peace, Joe

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Joe, thanks for your careful and accurate reading of the essay. It sounds, from your remarks, that we see things quite similarly. Be well, and I look forward to future interactions with you. Paul

    Like

  3. “Man is in essence divine. A fragment of the Universal Mind,or World soul..As such he partakes of the instincts and quality of that soul as it manifests through the human family..
    He has to equip his mental body so that he may be the explainer
    and transmitter. He must develop group activity and begin to work with other units in a coordinated manner. These are the main things he must do, But, he will find that the Way has been made clear for him.
    The initiate on his tiny scale must learn to work behind the scenes, unknown and unrecognized, unacclaimed. He must sacrifice his identity in the Ashram and its workers…(eventually)
    When the lower life. on the physical plane is fertilized, the emotional life stabilized and the mental transmuted then naught can prevent the latch on the door to be lifted and the disciple passes through,”

    I am: a Ray 2 Soul, Love Wisdom
    My Tibeten name is: Karma Thomo, Goddess of Action

    You have a divine purpose.
    I love you…

    Liked by 1 person

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