Inner and Outer Realms of Experience (5/13/11)

I have been watching episodes from the BBC series, ‘The Human Planet.’ It has prompted some speculation about the possibility of a new direction in psychological theorizing. Each episode focuses upon a different habitat or set of challenging environmental conditions (vast ocean, arid desert, high mountains, dense forest, etc.) where humans have been more or less successful in their efforts to carve out an existence, exploiting the distinctive resources and opportunities provided by that environment. Cossacks hunt foxes with the help of Golden eagles they steal and train as chicks. Divers from remote Indonesian islands stalk their prey on the sea floor thirty meters below, holding their breath for longer than five minutes. Inuits in Greenland hunt arctic sharks to feed themselves, assisted by the dogs they depend on for getting to the hunting grounds. In adapting to the peculiar demands and opportunities provided by these very different environments, the physical and mental capabilities of the humans are stretched and shaped in remarkable ways. The series has provided me with a vivid picture of how humans have been able to adapt to dramatically different sorts of given conditions and demands. Because each episode leaps from one type of habitat to another, viewers are reminded of just how diverse these inhabitable regions of our planet are. Because most of us are city dwellers who have little or no direct contact with nature or with the sorts of survival demands imposed upon the (traditional and usually poor) human beings featured in the series, we have lost touch with those skills, the heightened senses, the physical agility and endurance that our ancestors possessed—and needed in order to survive. The concentration of large human populations in teeming modern cities has gradually put many of these formerly crucial capabilities and strengths to sleep while it has favored the emergence and development of very different skills and abilities—ones which would have been utterly useless in these earlier environments.

The voyages of discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries opened up new worlds and new peoples to European explorers. The dramatic variety of the climes and cultures that ‘The Human Planet’ concerns itself with became known to the reading public in the West. This greatly expanded and enriched sense of the external world exercised enormous power over the European psyche. There were, to begin with, colossal fortunes to be won (or filched/extracted) from those faraway lands and peoples. But for those whose interests leaned more towards knowledge than to pillage and domination, it was as if the outer world itself suddenly became ten times larger and a thousand times more interesting, if only because so little of it had been carefully explored or adequately understood.

It is my sense that something akin to this is beginning to occur once again—but this time it is the inner world of the psyche that beckons a growing number of us. As before, the first wave of persons who have rushed out in great numbers to colonize the new terra incognita include many opportunistic fortune hunters. More than a few (drug-dispensing) psychiatrists and so-called ‘psychotherapists’ see only (or mostly) a ripe opportunity to exploit the fears, anxieties, and difficult adjustments that have inevitably accompanied the opening up of this strange new inner frontier. But such characters, like merchants and tourist offices in the border towns of foreign countries, are only capable of making their livings cerca de la frontera where those who are unaccustomed to the new language and unfamiliar with the foreign currency require their shady services to be become minimally oriented—for a hefty fee. Many ‘therapists’ and ‘psychologists’ are like the touts and hostel owners who greet incoming travelers at the bus station, eager for their business. They offer a modicum of security in the strange new town or country—and provide guided tours to popular local attractions.

But something very different is required for those of us who wish to immigrate to these newly accessible inner regions. We are not content to make a hurried visit, to see only the spectacles and the local attractions near the border, to remain uninitiated sightseers who skim the surface and take home overpriced souvenirs and snapshots. In order truly to get to know this strange new place we must be willing, it seems, to uproot from our homeland and immerse ourselves in the very different soil and climate of the newly opened interior.

I began from the premise that the inner realm of psyche is every bit as expansive and as rich in diversity as the outer universe is. As humans, we are both psyche and physis. Our more or less articulate ego-consciousness is situated at the meeting place of psyche and nature, the inner and outer realms of what, so far as we can tell, is a seamless totality. For the past few centuries, Western man’s collective attention has primarily been directed outwards. The inner world, therefore, has been ‘behind’ us—ever-present, but its mysterious contents seldom known, except through projection into the outer world (in the direction of which we are principally turned).

The ‘discovery’ of the objective psyche by Freud and Jung—along with a number of other important cultural developments—has marked the beginning of a change that is still underway in Western thought and feeling. The riches and the dangers that are to be encountered in the inner world are becoming more and more indisputably real for an ever-enlarging number of persons who have freed themselves from an exclusively outer-directed view of things. As more and more of us ‘pivot’ and turn our animating attention upon inner objects, this vast (and long neglected) interior cosmos comes into plainer view.

It seems that, in the West, our recent ancestors needed to believe in the solidity, the eternally unchanging stability of theological dogmas so that they could turn away from the inner world, trustingly and confidently—to leave the protean psyche out of the equation. The tautological, self-consistent ‘truths’ of mathematics and deductive logic (derived from unquestionable axioms) provided a stabilizing, if ultimately limited and illusory, sense of rational order that was then ‘innocently’ projected onto external nature after first being introjected into the realm of spirit. It was this elaborate system of artificial constructs that bought us the time (as Nietzsche recognized) we needed to build our little boat or platform of being upon the lava flows of becoming. Now the magma thrusts itself upon us—from within and without.

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