Soil Erosion (1/29/11)

Genuine works of art—like pregnant parables, myths and symbols—simultaneously reveal and conceal profound truths about human nature, culture, the soul, and the spirit. What and how much such works reveal depends, of course, upon the moral, intellectual, imaginative, and spiritual resources of the person on the receiving end. The impact of education is, likewise, substantially limited by the potentials already present in the student. And while education can help to actualize and to ripen these potentials, it cannot, by itself, instill such potentials. It cannot provide someone with these seeds. It can only assist in their germination and nourishment. I needn’t point out the fact that everyone’s ‘seed bag’ is a little (or a lot) different from everybody else’s—in terms of what and how much is packaged there.

In the ‘nature-versus-nurture’ debate—which stretches back at least to the time of Socrates and Plato—the extraverted, pragmatic, behaviorist, ‘can-do’ American outlook and educational system have generally come down on the side of nurture, while downplaying and even ignoring natural disparities in various forms of intelligence, inborn talent, and drivenness. For many of us here in the U.S., there is something deeply offensive to our acquired egalitarian principles (or presumptions) in the mere suggestion that nature has distributed her gifts unevenly. We are thus tempted to make socially and economically ‘advantaged’ persons assume all of the blame for these ‘inequalities,’ when, in fact, they only carry part of the burden of responsibility for them. Naturally attractive men and women almost invariably have doors opened for them that the rest of us who are ‘homelier’ can only pry open by other means. Where a smile or a wink works for the ‘beautiful people,’ a crow bar or a bribe is required by the unprepossessing and ill-favored who also ‘want in.’ Cosmetic surgeons are doing their level best to level this particular playing field. But when it comes to the less tangible assets and door-openers, external ‘doctoring’ and ‘implanting’ can only accomplish so much before life coaches, therapists, schoolteachers, and other ‘improvers of mankind’ are obliged to admit—if not defeat—only the most limited success.

It is widely assumed in this culture that a person’s moral character and values are learned or derived almost entirely from the models and exemplars in his/her midst—either through actual contact or through the TV, or a mixture of both. In America, we are not publicly or officially encouraged to believe that a fair percentage of persons are born with souls (i.e., with spiritual, mental, or ethical gifts) that are inherently superior to those of most others. And yet, it may be asked: can there possibly be a generally embraced delusion more ridiculous than this one—namely, that we humans are all born equal, when evidence to the contrary is as blatant and obtrusive as can be? It seems to me that there are two ideological sources behind this collective myth—the ideological egalitarianism and the slightly older, metaphysical myth of materialism, which attempts to reduce everything—including all distinctions of quality (moral, ethical, spiritual, aesthetic, etc.)—to matter or to quantitative material factors.

The naive egalitarian fantasy—defying indisputable counter-evidence afforded by actual life and genetics, which most Americans self-contradictorily (or schizophrenically?) regard as fate-deciding and inviolably deterministic—assumes that since our innate capacities (of the body, heart, intellect, imagination, spirit, etc.) are intrinsically equal and therefore equally deserving of all that society and the educational system have to offer, we are either advanced or held back by external or socio-economic factors. To be sure, as unwitting materialists we recognize that physical birth defects such as blindness or brain impairment thwarts and hobbles an individual at the otherwise fair and equal start of a race for life’s rewards and prizes, but as equally unwitting fantasists, we politely ignore actual differences and surrender to wishful thinking.

The peculiar myth of egalitarianism is founded upon a view of the human being that our shrewd forebears would have found unforgivably simplistic, one-sided, and reductive. The human being—or the ‘human animal,’ which sometimes seems more fitting—at the center of this anti-hierarchical, anti-traditional, anti-aristocratic modern worldview is, for the most part, no more than a biological machine or an economic unit that has been stripped down and purged of those faculties and virtues that were held to be most important by our ‘quaint’ pre-modern ancestors, but which occupy only a marginal, non-essential place in our mechanistic-materialistic modern world: soul, poetical or visionary imagination, spiritual inspiration, and a capacity for deep philosophical contemplation. Little wonder, then, that the barrenness and spiritual bankruptcy of our culture become apparent as soon as we direct our gaze away from the mesmerizing technological, economic, and engineering feats we (or, dare I say, our celebrated technocratic ‘betters’—i.e., Edison, Tesla, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, etc.?) excel at. We are skillful at manipulating matter because we pay an inordinate amount of attention to it. But I would suggest that just as we are doing with our rainforests, farmland, and once-teeming seas, we have simply trashed the rich, loamy cultural soil that is absolutely necessary to nurture a Plato, a Dante, a Shakespeare. Trees cannot rise to such great heights in such shallow, nutrient-poor soil. Thus, our egalitarian fantasy—always secretly siding with the mediocre, the tepid, the flaccid, the self-complacent—has become a self-fulfilling prophecy: those with the rarest spiritual-cultural potentials are necessarily malnourished and spurned under such unfavorable conditions, allowing the stunted and the dull to appear taller and brighter than they truly are.

Sinking over Thinking (5/29/12)

Instead of imagining myself emerging from the nigredo each morning—and having to burn away the blackness in a daily renewed albedo—I hit upon an even better analogy yesterday. In this new version of what occurs in the cycle of sleep and waking, I am hurled by the daimon into some usually remote region (of the periphery of my psyche) during my sleeping hours. When I wake up, my task is to find my way back to the center before it is time to go to sleep again.

*****

Nowadays when I begin my day—in the maternity rocker bought from the Catholic Women’s Guild Resale Shop—instead of thinking, I commence to sinking. It seems quite accurate to describe the movement or psychic process I go through as a pleasant kind of sinking or descent into deeper waters of the psyche. I step off the plank of my automatically generated mental preoccupations, concerns, pressures, social-moral obligations, etc., and allow the natural force of psychic gravity to gently draw my consciousness downwards. Heraclitus told us that the way up and the way down are one and the same. I understand this to mean that when I meditate I am moving closer and closer to the center, where up and down become merged and, in a sense, meaningless, since all directions are comprehended in the center.

If the quality of the beauty, the unruffled serenity, and utter contentment of the state of centeredness were not so much more satisfying than anything the senses have to offer, then we would not be likely to make the serious effort required to establish ourselves therein. If the joyous resignation to this impersonal realm of experience did not feel more real, more permanent, and more essential than anything that even the strongest and closest merely human bond can offer, then it is unlikely that we would ever learn to let go of our human attachments and our natural anthropocentrism in order to surrender fully to the Heart within. From the stillpoint in the center, even the loftiest and most refined thinking is perceived as ‘noise’—or a kind of distraction—while the great bulk of ordinary mental activity is positively annoying.

Learning to become centered consists, for the most part, in learning to dissociate our attention from these various levels/intensities of mental-sensual noise. We are learning to trade off stimulation for serene composure, enthused engagement for unruffled rootedness in the source. I feel I’m being invited in—into a comparatively quiet interior space where it is not only rude to speak: it’s rude even to think.

Metaphysical Materialists and Storytellers (2/8/11)

Freud proposed the idea of a ‘death instinct’ (thanatos) which arises alongside the libidinal instinct (eros) for which he is more widely known. In Civilization and its Discontents, where he mentions but does not develop this idea beyond a very limited extent, it serves as perhaps the strongest single force opposing and undermining civilization as a creative process.

May we not recognize a not-so-distant cousin of this death-instinct in the habit of abstracting our attention from objects? This introverting tendency consists, at bottom, in the withdrawal of psychic energy (libido) from outer objects. This robs them of the power and vitality they would otherwise acquire from our steady payments of animating, reality-conferring attention. (These payments may be consciously made, or they can be ‘automatic bank-draft payments’ that we do not have to consciously attend to.)

In keeping with the generally biological and extraverted biases of his theoretical standpoint, Freud characterizes this death instinct in terms of aggressivity, brutal destructiveness, cruelty, sadism, and masochism (when intermingled with eros)—and even with evil and ‘Satan.’ From a less literalistic, less behavioral, and more purely psychological perspective, the whole problem can be shifted onto a subtler plane, however. In this way Genghis Khan and Tamerlane are replaced by blissfully detached Indian yogis and serenely indifferent Taoist sages. Brutish outer destructiveness and barbaric cruelty are ‘sublimated’ or ‘spiritualized’ into a state of inner detachment that allows for a measure of conscious control over the direction and use of one’s instinctual energy. From ‘discharge’ to ‘take charge!’ From ‘acting out’ to ‘acting in.’

What Freud conceives as the struggle between these ‘opposed’ instincts—eros and thanatos—may just as legitimately be viewed as the continual array of transformations occasioned by the interplay of, say, ‘yin’ and ‘yang,’ or the positive and negative poles necessary for the generation of an energy field. By conceiving the interplay between the two as a war between a life-affirming and a pessimistic, life-denying morality (in Nietzsche’s philosophy, roughly speaking, this is ‘master morality’ and ‘slave morality,’ respectively), Freud runs into difficulties that I believe are subtly sidestepped (or perhaps leapt over) by Jung, the Taoists, and much of Indian philosophy. Metaphysical materialism seems to be implicit in Nietzsche’s as well as Freud’s ground assumptions, whereas Jung and the others maintain a discreet silence about matters that are deemed beyond the reach of human reason. Accordingly, this philosophical modesty on Jung’s part (or his dearth of philosophical arrogance and hypostatizing presumption) ultimately consigns his speculations about ‘final things’ to the realm of myth rather than to that of rational philosophy, but this very open-endedness sharply distinguishes his psychology from the deterministic (and generally mechanistic-reductive) psychologies in which the materialists (Nietzsche and Freud) risk becoming entangled by virtue of their own need to nail things down, or to reduce them to some ultimate set of axiomatic principles (infantile sexuality, the pleasure principle, the reality principle, the Oedipus complex, will-to-power, eternal recurrence of the same, etc.)

These principles function like ultimate explanatory principles for Nietzsche and Freud, despite their unconvincing attempts to suggest otherwise. Jung’s key concepts and paradigms are heuristic—sophisticated but provisional rules of thumb—and not ultimate explanatory principles into which all can be analyzed and resolved. Jung is, therefore, more of a storyteller and myth-maker than a scientist or philosopher in the traditional or strict sense. He is more of an artist, visionary, and (non-dogmatic) religious thinker, to my mind, than a resolver of human problems into irreducible terms or elements, as Freud and Nietzsche attempt to be—but fail to pull off in a convincing manner.

Life is change—and change necessarily involves the ceaseless death and transcendence of the status quo. Living conditions (and the contexts within which the events of life make any coherent sense) are continually undergoing subtle and sometimes momentous transformations—both inside and out. So far as we can tell, no dogmatic theology and no rational explanatory scheme can ever fully account for, or adequately represent, that protean mystery we call ‘life.’ Life can be experienced—if only through a glass darkly, and in non-lethal doses—but it can never be firmly grasped or explained by our feeble philosophies and by the imperfect lights of our minds. Our most eloquent and grave statements about life are no more than stabs by pocket knives into the thick folds of ever-metamorphosing flesh which enclose this elusive motherfather that has spawned our mind-body complexes. Such grandiose statements are impressive only to the foolish and virginal minds of persons who believe that these petty little pin-pricks penetrate the thick layers of opacity, reaching down to the bones and to the heart of life itself. I have certainly counted myself among such fools, but having persisted in my folly, I have gradually begun more frankly to perceive my folly for what it is. And how can I not here speak ‘in praise of folly’ when I know that wisdom which believes in itself with conviction immediately pulls the ‘wise man’ back to the start of the line, where he is forced to re-begin his steep ascents (and deep descents) behind more knowing ‘fools.’ But then, to know is to know that one knows not. Truly spoken words sound paradoxical. Flat statements fall flat on their asses.

Benefactors, Stewards, and the Lumpen Unresponsive (5/6/15)

(Heaven doth with us as we with torches do, Not light them for themselves; for if our virtues Did not go forth of us, ‘twere all alike As if we had them not. Spirits are not finely touch’d But to fine issues; nor Nature never lends The smallest scruple of her excellence But, like a thrifty goddess, she determines Herself the glory of a creditor, Both thanks and use.—Measure for Measure, I.i.32-41)

 

More than a few of us stumble upon rich underground veins and deposits of precious ore, but only a tiny handful of us cultivate the digging, extracting, and refining techniques that are required to move this potential wealth up into the light where it can be purified and introduced into the agora, or marketplace. Only there is it able to enrich the lives of those who are in a position to earn and to profit from this wealth that is brought into ‘circulation.’ Then, of course, there is a more or less permanent ‘underclass’ which consists of torpid souls who are neither extractor-refiner-producers nor disciplined laborers-assimilators who can make profitable use of this spiritual capital. If and when a member of this mass underclass receives a portion of this collectively accessible treasure, he typically misuses it so that its worth is wasted upon him. The reason for this is simple enough: he is ignorant—or contemptuous—of the higher or nobler uses to which such wealth can be put.

Those relatively rare souls on the mining-extracting end often produce far, far more wealth than they could ever use for their personal wants and needs—no matter how extravagant their spending habits happen to be. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, Croesus and Crassus, are such figures in the analogous realm of monetary wealth. Exceptional cultural wealth-producers seem to have been destined, from birth, to put new spiritual riches into circulation where they can be earned by, and distributed throughout, the ‘second tier.’ The larger and more stable this second tier is, the stronger and healthier the culture will be. The institutions of higher learning and of the fine arts are usually administered and supervised by this second tier. They are endowed with the wealth and the prestige that serve as attractive magnets and galvanizers for the noble potentials and yearnings of the young who are inspired by the loftiest exemplars. It is the acquisition and re-investment of our cultural capital, from generation to generation, which is responsible for the preservation of our inherited wealth. All it takes is for a few generations of careless and reckless spendthrifts to squander this precious capital to bring about an extended ‘Dark Age’—from which recovery is slow and difficult under even the best conditions. This is why stewardship of the liberal arts, of religious and ethical thought, of philosophy, history, and poetry is so urgently important to humanity’s general welfare. Even if all or most of the answers are not to be found ready to hand in this treasure house of traditional wisdom and knowledge, at least the well-formulated questions are to be found there—the very questions that can be relied upon to open a path towards those answers.

But what about those rare birds, the discoverer-suppliers—the crude and mundane shadows of which are Crassus and John D. Rockefeller? How may we justly characterize their preternaturally generative souls? I’m thinking of the likes of Plato, Socrates, Jesus, Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe. There is something, it would seem, that is so insatiable and inextinguishable about the fire that blazes within the almost superhuman souls of such miners of wisdom—we can only behold them with the awe that is ordinarily reserved for deities and demigods. Such spirits shoot like meteors through our dark firmament, blazing into nothingness as they emit their mysterious light—by which we can chart their fleeting trajectories. And yet, as ephemeral as these trajectories are, they comprise the most enduring treasures that we so precariously possess down here in the cave.

 

Metanoia I (9/22/14)

A principal consequence of the spiritual ‘about-face’—or metanoia—is an incipient acknowledgement not so much of the reality of the psyche, but of the primacy of the psyche. Before the conversion crisis, one’s consciousness was still, by and large, directed outwards—as is normal among the great bulk of humanity—now as ever. After this transformation has definitively and decisively occurred, the initiate has struck the first serious blow against his enslavement and his puppet-like obedience to thoughts and beliefs that have been sovereign in his mind since earliest childhood.

One way of describing the initiation experience is to speak of a decisive shift in one’s psychic center of gravity. The hub or center of consciousness is more deeply interiorized. There is a distinct sense of being relocated further upstream, psychically—closer to the source of all mental activities and processes. It is this liberation from the muddy delta into the clearer, purer ‘source-waters’ of one’s stream of consciousness, that activates the initiate’s innate capacity to see external events, behaviors, and formulated thoughts as effects rather than as causes of intrapsychic factors. This capacity must, of course, be developed and cultivated if it is to be turned into a reliable and trustworthy faculty. If the capacity is not cultivated and disciplined, it will not be able to elevate the initiate to the next rung of spiritual development.

This next level of development generally pertains to breaking the spell of enchantment and attachment to the sensual world and its contents. The initiate has fashioned the instruments or the means of his release and now he must put them to proper use. The insights and powers he has earned through the initiatory process can be improperly used for selfish purposes—since they give him certain advantages that are not enjoyed by those whose consciousness is more or less exclusively confined to the world of effects. Compared to these non-initiates, he is like someone who is equipped with X-ray vision that enables him to see through masking surfaces into the hidden realm of causal factors—a realm that is inferable, but invisible, to the uninitiated. Therefore, unless and until the initiate’s ethical and spiritual maturity matches his powers of intellectual or psychological penetration, he is likely to be of more harm to himself and to others than a force for good.

This is why it is necessary for the initiate to undergo the ‘death of the world’—or crucifixion—ordeal before he can truly be trusted not to abuse his powers for selfish ends. Only after the world and its varied enticements have been ‘seen through’—and their hollowness thoroughly acknowledged by the initiate—only then is he fit to perform the proper task of awakening and assisting others along the steep path of inner freedom.

What we find, then, is that the fate-altering shift in one’s psychic center of gravity—a momentous transformation of the initiate’s mental bearings—must be accompanied by an equally momentous change of heart, or a transfigured will. St. Augustine clearly understood the importance of this two-pronged conversion process. His early and earnest embrace of Platonic and Plotinian philosophical reflection—or mental inspiration—flooded his intellect with the light of higher illumination, but it was not, by itself, sufficient to transform his will. In the language of Christianity: for this ‘conversion,’ it was necessary to press beyond intellectual-philosophical to spiritual redemption of his corrupt will.

Such ‘terms and conditions’ have fallen out of favor in our post-Christian era. But regardless of whether we approach this initiatory experience from a Christian, a Sufi, a Buddhist, or Vedantic perspective—each tradition possessing its own distinctive terminology, formulas, figures, and so forth—the underlying esoteric spiritual principles remain identical, regardless of the peculiarities of form, inflection, and emphasis that exoterically differentiate one path from the next.

What the World Thinks of Us (3/23/13)

What we suppose the world (of others) thinks about us: how does this supposal constitute one of the greatest stumbling blocks to our inner freedom? To what extent do we betray our own higher possibilities in allowing these (often unconscious and unexamined) assumptions to govern or to interfere with the course our life takes?

Of course, what I mean here by the phrase ‘what the world thinks about us’ extends far beyond the voiced judgments, expressed opinions, and explicit reactions of persons we know. All of us have a general notion of what ‘the world’ expects of us as members of the society we are part of. Our family, friends, and the other members of our culture/society are all carriers and more or less devoted upholders of these collective norms and ideals—even when they have trouble adhering to them. These norms apply to every aspect of life: how we should think, how we should dress and behave, who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out.’ In their raw state, these collective norms are oftentimes so general as to be nebulous—but they usually allow for a certain degree of fine-tuning and articulate clarification, if one is willing to do the necessary work. It would seem to me that unless and until we have actually made some effort along these lines—to clarify and to make explicit these norms and ideals that are often vague and implicit—our hands are tied if and when we seek to break the hypnotic spell they exercise over our minds. It is a whole lot easier to contend with clearly-defined, substantial adversaries than with a poisonous cloud or a soporific gas!

Unless we have already attained an exceptionally high level of spiritual-psychological development, or maturity, ‘what the world thinks about us’ will assuredly play a decisive role in the guidance and motivation of our personal lives, even if—or especially if—we decline to take part in the system while resentfully accepting its designation or judgment of us as ‘failures,’ ‘fringe dwellers,’ or ‘misfits.’ If we happen to be a movie star or a prominent politician, we will easily be able to find out what the world thinks about us—by means of the swift public response to our latest speech, our most recent movie performance, or what have you. If our circle of friends, family, and acquaintances is much smaller than this, we can still rely on ample evidence of where we stand in the eyes and opinions of this much smaller audience. But even if we have retreated into the forest to live the austere life of the solitary hermit—the norms, ideals, and judgments of the world (of collective consciousness) will pursue us like the furies and overtake us.

As the lonely hermit in his humble hut soon learns, the world of norms, judging voices, and compelling moral-social demands are not only out there in the form of actual shaking fingers and disapproving glances—or their opposite: back-patting approval and vocal praise for living up to others’ expectations and ideals. All of this—and more—lives and breathes within our own complicated, multi-level souls. We have brought the world, the ‘audience,’ the ‘public mind’ into our little forest-hut. It has infiltrated our precious solitude. We are surrounded by the ‘world’ (and what ‘it’ thinks about us), and we are compounded with it (psychically) as well.

On Prejudice (5/4/12)

A properly trained and respectful anthropologist would not attempt to alter or interfere with the primitive tribe he was observing while conducting his fieldwork. His aim would be to take his ‘material’ as it comes—as it presents itself. He would do his level best to understand his subjects within the context of their own culture—to understand them as they understand and experience themselves. In his effort to be as fair and as unprejudiced as possible, he will try to avoid imposing concepts and categories (derived from his own cultural-educational background) upon his subjects, who experience life and themselves from within their very different scheme of acculturation. Of course, before he can do this he must first be clearly conscious of what he brings to the table from his own background. As long as these acquired concepts and categories of understanding are unconsciously assumed—and not critically objectified through careful self-analysis—they will invariably be incorporated into the mental lens through which he beholds his subjects. In doing this, he will see much, but of course what he sees will be distorted and colored by the unconscious terms and conditions of his own informing worldview. In short, everything about and from them will be instantaneously translated into the terms native to his cultural/educational background.

How can I view my psyche without the distorting and coloring prejudices that I have acquired through study and cultural conditioning? Even thoroughly unconventional and provocative texts by Nietzsche, Jung, James Hillman, Chuang-tzu, Ramana Maharshi, Schopenhauer, Plato, Ibn ‘Arabī, Emerson, and dozens of others which have helped me to become conscious of my own ‘Western’ assumptions, have nonetheless contributed to my interpreting spontaneously generated psychic phenomena in less than a ‘naïve’ or ‘innocent’ fashion. In fact, it is a wonder that I can experience anything freshly or purely (from the psyche) without immediately classifying and evaluating that raw content in some set of borrowed terms or another. The structural frameworks, the value-laden terminology, the theoretical and symbolic materials that have been incorporated into my mental viewfinder—my thoroughly informed attention—go at once to work upon whatever presents itself to my mind, forbidding any ‘raw’ material to remain raw for more than a nanosecond before it is either assimilated into my already existent intellectual context—or unconsciously filtered out, precisely because it does not already have a designated compartment or pigeonhole to get swallowed up by.

Roberts Avens’ little book (The New Gnosis) made much of Heidegger’s quiet campaign to ‘let things be’—a proposition that appears to speak to this conundrum—this near-impossibility of viewing or experiencing anything without immediately assimilating it into our pre-established mental context. In other words, unless the presented phenomena can be conveniently assigned to some pre-designated place on the ‘map’ always in the back of our mind, it is irrelevant or only partially intelligible to us. It is difficult or impossible to assign any sort of fixed, reliable value to a content that remains unintelligible or stumpingly opaque to us. The more comprehensive, subtle, and flexible our ‘working map’ happens to be, the greater the range and variety of contents that can be plausibly ‘placed’ there. But then we run once again into that old familiar dualism—the ‘map and the territory.’ They are not one and the same.

Or, are they? If we are unable to assign a mental impression or ‘content’ to some part of our working map, then—technically speaking—we have no way of talking about it. It is ineffable. Whatever it is, or is not, such a hypothetically un-mappable and un-nameable ‘X’ belongs to the realm Kant called the ‘noumenal’ or Jung called ‘the psychoid’—and must be regarded as irretrievably unconscious. It is perhaps unsurprising that Hillman—no mean epistemologist himself—was uncomfortable with both of these terms. For him, archetypes ‘make sense’ only in their phenomenal aspect. As ‘noumena,’ they are effectively irrelevant since they can signify nothing already on our maps.

To ‘let things be’—to allow them to speak or present themselves to us in their own, native light—in their own strange voices—what would that be like? This could only happen if we managed, somehow, to forestall or to silence altogether the quietly dictatorial voice inside our own heads that tells the beings what or who they are before we’ve actually heard from them.

I am acutely aware of this paradoxical, contradictory quality to my ‘map’—my acquired and developed understanding of…well, just about everything! Everything, that is, which I deign to acknowledge or to grant a place upon the ever-expanding map. The problem, of course, is that my learning is continually getting in the way of my having any sort of ‘raw’ experience. I have begun to wonder if it is possible for me even to have ‘raw’ experience. It’s not that there is not a lot of rawness out there (and in there) for me to open up to. The problem is that almost all of it is automatically filtered out—as I immure myself within the protective, insulating walls of my foreknowledge. I call it ‘foreknowledge’ instead of ‘knowledge,’ pure and simple, because it functions very much like a pre-judgment or pre-digestion of whatever beats or bangs against the sturdy walls of my foreknowledge-fortress. OK, I’m deliberately being hard on myself just to press the point, but I don’t think I would be drubbing myself this way unless some part of me was becoming fed up with this arrangement—and wondering what I can do to lower—or even relativize—these insulating and isolating walls of foreknowledge.

One would have to be blind and/or dishonest not to see the will to power lurking behind these cartographic and fortress-building campaigns. The moment I actually begin to lower my walls and really open myself up—imaginatively, sensitively, cognitively, compassionately—to persons and other beings in my midst, I begin to tremble like a leaf in the wind. It’s not all fear and trepidation, mind you, but my apprehensiveness is definitely ratcheted up a notch or two. In truth, a welter of emotions and imaginings that span the whole gamut from dread to bliss awakens with my recovery of just a fraction of that sensitivity (to the ‘Thous’—as opposed to the mere ‘Its’—of the world) with which I seem to have been blessed from sun-up to well after sundown as an imaginative, young child. This sensitization perceives living, squirming images instead of fixed, formal concepts. It encounters archetypally-infused presences instead of tediously familiar fellow cast members, while natural settings are translated into Edenic gardens. ‘I’ am no longer experienced as a disengaged, Cartesian cartographer who is greedily sizing up a soulless ‘external’ world of merely functional (or dysfunctional) persons or objects. ‘I’ melt into an ensouled and protean poetic drama that simultaneously enfolds and surges through me. The will to power under such sensitive and (dare I say it?) sacred conditions is like Hercules in Hades. He made quite a mess of things in the underworld precisely because he viewed the intangible shades through the literalizing, combat-ready eyes of his own personal hero-myth. It may be the case that considerable courage is required of anyone who dares to ‘lower his walls’ of foreknowledge and earnestly amassed presumptions—but it is not quite the courage typically displayed by self-glorifying heroes on the battlefield, on horseback, or in the cockpit. Isn’t it closer to the courage displayed by despised martyrs and scorned heretics who endured flaying and blazing bonfires—the purging, initiatory thresholds that must be crossed en route to terra incognita? The rest of us piously toss faggots onto the fire in the public square—‘innocently’ assured of our place in the heavenly hell our heretic is now on the verge of actually experiencing as we ‘spirit’ him away in our benighted zeal.

On Ignorance and Vision (10/14/12)

When speaking of ignorance and its eradication, much more is at play than is commonly assumed. It is not enough simply to uproot our delusions and intellectually acknowledge the wrong-headedness or absurdity of our former assumptions. To be sure, this is an important and perhaps necessary preliminary step on the way towards our release from error, but it is relatively insignificant compared to the moral-psychological transformation we must undergo if we are to authentically liberate our souls and bodies from the binding desires and imprisoning habits that retard our spiritual maturation.

For this we require an inspiring vision of the way ahead. This vision is not simply invented by the ego or lifted out of some self-help book, although good books and wise counsel can be instrumental in evoking the orienting vision, which is produced autonomously by the unconscious. In this sense, the inspiring vision (that lifts us, at least momentarily, out of our spiritual blindness) is similar to grace, since it comes—if at all—of its own accord and not because our ego wills it to come.[1] The vision—which is actually a psychic experience and not simply an intellectual acknowledgement of something ‘new and promising’—is a kind of gnosis in the true sense. It is a knowing that penetrates deep into the core of Being, so that the higher will of the recipient of grace is profoundly stirred and aroused.

So, to sum up: the principal form of ignorance from which the natural man suffers, and which indirectly renders him powerless to transcend his ‘animal nature’ is ignorance of his spiritual essence. In other words, his mental bondage to matter, the body, and the ‘fallen’ world is not merely due to ignorance and/or denial of his vicious or selfish drives and unconscious mental habits. Nevertheless, it is not within the power of the ego, as such, to ‘will’ the vision (or recollection) of one’s spiritual essence into being. Such vision or gnosis happens to us—or it doesn’t—but as egos we are not in a position to force its occurrence, since the vision—the gnosis—issues from a level or realm beyond the ego’s grasp. As Krishnamurti said: ‘In all the world there are only two kinds of people—those who know and those who do not know; and this knowledge is the thing which matters.’ He is referring to the Gnostic vision, which is the only standpoint from which the human realm can be authentically relativized.

And while gnosis—or direct experience of the transcendent, spiritual reality—is necessary for our liberation from ignorance and bondage to the fallen world, it is not sufficient. We must work at our own transformation and regeneration. The visionary experience provides us with the inspirational fuel or impetus we will need to sustain us in our renunciatory, purgatorial ordeal. The ordeal, of course, is that great reversal whereby the ‘pilgrim’ consciously triumphs over his fettering attachments—sensual, emotional, and mental—to the world via the ego. As the ego-personality wanes in authority, the spirit waxes in strength.

If a person lives a morally upright life—in accordance with received or traditional principles of justice, decency, and due consideration for others—but he remains untouched by the suprahuman, transcendent vision of the spiritual realm, can he ever amount to more than a ‘good man’? Of course this is greatly preferable to being a vicious or selfish hypocrite, but it falls short of being a pneumatic.

From the standpoint of the ego, it appears that the goal—after one has experienced the transcendent vision—is to integrate the spiritual perspective into the ego perspective. Although this is a highly problematic judgment call, to say the least, it is practically inevitable since the ego-perspective initially strives with the soul-perspective for dominance over the neophyte’s sense of (personal) identity. Eventually, there will be a shift—or a series of them—that will lead to a new psychic center of gravity that lies beyond the precincts of ego, but initially our ‘numinous’ experiences are unavoidably interpreted in terms of ego-consciousness, if only because that is the ‘lens’ through which the fresh initiate is still looking.

Nevertheless, the vision, if it is authentic, is seriously disruptive of the ego’s ordinary bearings, its accustomed sense of orientation. The autonomous spiritual contents will therefore have an inflating or deflating effect on the ego—or both, in oscillating waves.[2] Inflation leads to all sorts of trouble in the ego’s relationships with others, understandably, but these checks and misfortunes can be of crucial value in educating the ego about the distinctions between spirit, soul, and ego. As long as the ego attempts (in a tragic-heroic, Nietzschean fashion) to arrogate or assimilate to itself the ‘divine inflatus’ of the spirit archetype, there is a real risk of insanity, megalomania, and other colossal unpleasantries. A walloping deflation, on the other hand, carries its own serious risks. There may, for instance, be a crippling sense of unworthiness before the spirit (just the opposite response of the inflated ego that identifies with the archetype!), so that the desired ‘dialectic’ between Self and ego never gathers momentum.[3]

 

[1] This distinguishes our approach from Nietzsche’s, incidentally, which is all about the ego’s willing its own path.

[2] When the ego identifies with the numinous or archetypal contents, there is an inflation; when the ego experiences these intrapsychic energies as ‘other’ and ‘intrusive,’ it can easily feel overwhelmed, and its sense of power and security will be dramatically deflated.

[3] For an excellent treatment of this dialectical relationship between the ego and the Self archetype, see Edward Edinger’s Ego and Archetype; Shambala; 1992

Sparks (2/12/11)

Everyone who plays a pivotal role in our life—especially those fellow cast members who populate our cradle-to-grave stories—possesses a symbolic meaning and vital significance for us that is secretly generated and assigned by our own souls. Such meaning is assigned, not in a casual or whimsical way, but only after the soul of the person has first been inwardly perceived in its relation to our own. Where no such revelation occurs, the person is in certain respects dead to us—he or she can have no indispensable or crucial connection to our life, our ‘plot,’ our destiny. At best, they fill secondary or supporting roles–or they are like ‘extras’ or walk-on characters in our film.

This situation often works both ways. I am thinking here of those ‘ghostlike’ characters who now and then float into and out of our lives (but who may even be living under our own roof or sleeping beside us in our beds): we, too, may be correspondingly unreachable and unreal to them. There is no genuine ‘spark’ or chemical bond, psychologically speaking, between our essences. Interestingly, there can only be a potent spark where there is a gap—a gap between two terminals with different charges. The spark and the potential for exceptional meaning are intimately related, psychically. Meaning emerges within our intellects and souls often in the form of symbols or metaphors, whether we are conscious of this fact or not. From a psychological perspective, these metaphors are equivalent to the sparks that arc the gap between differently charged terminals or points. ‘Metaphor’ literally means ‘to carry between’ or to ‘carry over.’ What is being carried or generated by the metaphor is the spark of meaning or significance. As the polarized psychic energy found at the two terminals arcs the gap, a flash of meaning is produced. Both sides, though still differentiated and discrete, become animated and illuminated as they are MEANINGFULLY WEDDED through this bond of shared psychic energy.

This is why both parties of a truly meaningful conversation or deeply shared experience feel the thrilling presence of ‘eros’ (in the broad sense of heightened ‘connectedness’) and a surge of animation. As meaning is being produced energetically in this manner, ‘soul’ is simultaneously being made. At the same time, the value and significance of the persons we make soul with are thereby enhanced on both ends. We feel it and they feel it. There is no surer way of preventing the ‘light of meaning’ from being kindled within our souls than to surround ourselves with bloodless ‘ghosts’ and spunkless functionaries from whom no spark can be coaxed or commanded. And of course this is precisely why many persons—dead souls, to begin with—naturally gravitate towards others who are similarly incapable of withstanding that bracing (but unsentimental and penetrating) light that always brings a good deal more into view—and into play—than many of us are comfortable dealing with.

This experience includes an intellectual aspect or component, of course, but it entails rather more than mere intellect. It has a feeling aspect as well as a decidedly erotic one. The ticklish and controversial psychological ‘transference’ (where the client or patient ‘falls in love’ with the therapist who ‘sparks off’ an intensely meaningful dialogue) provides a familiar example of the eroticized aspect of this meaning-generating activity. ‘Eros’ for the ancients was a rather broad term that could apply, of course, to sexual passion, but just as legitimately to the warm feelings of connectedness we experience with old friends. It was also applied by Plato—in its ‘loftiest’ reaches—to the philosopher’s love of wisdom and spiritual insight. When the ‘sparks fly’ between our minds and the lofty realm of the spirit, we understand what is meant by ‘love for the Gods’ or ‘love for Christ.’ In these spiritualized forms of eros, the gap that is being arced is between ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ and not between sexual organs or between the ‘lower chakras.’ And we have good reason to believe that in such moments of spiritual and metaphorical illumination, both the humans and the Gods are being lit up and animated! Why shouldn’t it work both ways?

When our own souls and/or those in our midst are insufficiently equipped with the psychic energy needed to spark a meaning-generating connection, we might say that the gap between our soul and theirs is too wide to be arced by the available juice. When the gap is too wide for the available energy to generate a connecting spark, no living meaning can leap forth. Only conventional or imported values and meanings will be exchanged in such a coupling. But a gap that is too wide to be arced is only one of the ways that a spark can be prevented from occurring. If the gap is closed, and the terminals touch, there will likewise be no spark, just a current of energy—or possibly a short circuit. Although this is merely an analogy, it seems an apt one for describing the difference between reflective consciousness, on the one hand, and unconscious projection, on the other.

If we approach this image psychologically, we see that the gap between the two terminals is the ‘breathing space’ between the subject and the object (or between me and the other person) in which reflection is able to ‘take place.’ It is the presence of this gap or ‘free space’ that makes all the difference between reflective consciousness and unconscious ‘identification.’ When there is no gap or breathing space, psychologically speaking, between me (the subject) and the object or person that I am attending to, there is a corresponding sense of unfreedom with respect to the person, object—or even towards an idea or a feeling that I am ‘identified’ with. In a sense, I and it are experienced as one and the same thing during such moments of identification, with all that is implied in such a psychological state of affairs. If I happen to be pleasantly or favorably disposed towards the object (as the not yet self-aware infant is pleasantly disposed towards the mother’s breast/person—with which it is initially merged in a state of psychic identification), then we are looking at an agreeable projection. If, on the other hand, I am unfavorably disposed towards the object or person, then we are confronted with a very different kettle of fish. Because there is little or no interior ‘breathing space’ between the subject and the object, there is an unavoidable feeling of being joined at the hip with the ‘offensive’ object, person, idea, feeling, or what have you.

We refer to projection as an ‘unconscious’ psychic process because when it occurs there is no sense of an objectifying distance between my own psyche and the ‘heavenly’ or ‘diabolical’ content I am unconsciously identified with. ‘Consciousness’ implies differentiation between subject and object, while identification is undifferentiated awareness. Under such inner conditions, one momentarily suffers a milder version of what ‘primitive’ persons experience as ‘possession’ by a demon or a spirit. In modern parlance, we might speak of ‘boundary issues’ (i.e., where I don’t know where I stop and my girlfriend begins, or when I lose sight of the difference between the feeling and the feeler, the thought and the thinker). When this happens, I am no longer ‘entertaining’ an idea or merely ‘registering’ a feeling. I am swallowed up by the idea or engulfed by the feeling. In such ecstatic or paralyzing moments, there is something very much like the ‘primitive’ experience of being possessed by these thoughts, feelings, passions, fears, and other affects. For instance, we might be possessed by the certainty (always a feeling-toned idea) that the world is coming to an end, or by the conviction that our heart has merged with that of our new lover, or by an eruption of anger that could very easily lead to our arrest, conviction, and lengthy incarceration. Everyone has experienced such moments of possession—even if we no longer call these possessing forces ‘Athena’ or ‘Cupid’ or ‘Eris,’ but ‘insight’ and ‘lust’ and ‘strife.’

Relationship is certainly possible with others, but to the extent that we are caught up in a state of unconscious identification with the other person, we are not really in a position, psychologically, to participate in relationship. For that, we must break the unconscious tie that merges (or antagonistically polarizes) us psychically with our ‘lover,’ our ‘enemy,’ our ‘hero,’ our therapist, etc. To do this, of course, involves something akin to demythologizing the other. Something (childlike?) in us stubbornly resists calling in the assistance of the ‘reality principle’ in such situations. Something in us wants to hang onto the fanciful or preposterous personal myths and delusions that deeply embed themselves in our minds and hearts. Something in us desperately clings to our fantastic idealizations of a woman we are ‘smitten’ by. Something just as obstinately clings to the ridiculous demonizations of that same ‘slut’ after she sleeps with another fellow. We have persons in our lives that we apparently need to hate as enemies—if only as a means of making a statement to the world: ‘He is nothing like me! I am soooooo different from him!’ Unearthing and reflecting upon these troubling and fantastical elements within our unconscious psyches is tough and onerous work—work that is certainly not suited to the lazy, the sanctimonious, the shallow, or the squeamish. But unless and until such work is done, we are pretty much consigned to a state of blockish-cloddish ignorance about who we are and what our freedom consists in.

Where there is unconscious projection underway, we are more or less stuck and imprisoned in our ‘love’ or our ‘hatred’, our loyalty or our fear—but to the extent that these projected affects are resistant to conscious analysis and reflective distancing, they are non-negotiable, inflexible, and will not be dissolved. Putting the best or most flattering face on what is essentially a state of psychological bondage and irresponsible laziness, many of us manage to convince ourselves that these moral and intellectual defects are actually badges of distinction of which we should be proud! Hence, we commonly find persons boasting about their unwavering loyalties to persons, situations, governments, and conditions that they are simply too lazy or too cowardly to examine very closely. Of course, then they might very well find a million and one reasons to question and possibly distance themselves from these parasites and leaders who are only too happy to have loyal ignoramuses blindly devoted to them. Conversely, many of us proudly voice our hatred and contempt for this person or that bête noir as though our disgust is a mark of honor rather than a clear indication of our lazy refusal to look more deeply into the background conditions and contributing factors out of which our blind hatred emerged. Of course, we would then have to suffer the irksome inconvenience of changing our minds about that person or situation, and this is simply too much to ask from many of us. Don’t mess around with our stubborn loves and hatreds, for then you are messing around with our inner nuts and bolts—and we are likely to fall apart if we loosen up just the slightest little bit! It seems that it is the hardest thing in the world for us to do—simply to let things be as they are and to resist over- or under-valuing them by prematurely assigning them to the category of friend or foe, good or bad, useful or useless, worthy and unworthy.

 

 

Cooking School (4/3/13)

Intense pleasure and pain are powerful but rather blunt instruments implicated in our moral and psychological educations. Like the coaxing carrot and the stinging stick, they nudge or lure us towards or away from certain situations, things, persons, ideas, activities, and so forth, but they certainly cannot, by themselves, make us wise. As generally crude instruments, they pertain primarily to the will. Reflection and understanding, however, which are crucial to moral and psychological wisdom, appear to reach far beyond the comparatively limited bounds of pleasure and pain.

The full flowering of reflection and the understanding cannot, in fact, be brought about exclusively within the limited domain of pleasurable and painful experience. Their free and unhampered development clearly depends upon our partial liberation from pleasurable and painful determinants. If everything we do, think, and feel was strictly determined by a hedonistic calculus, then it would make little sense to speak of human freedom as if it were anything more than a kind of phantasm or delusion. Some part of us—however small and faint—must be immune or impervious to these ‘determinants’—the carrot and the stick of pleasure and pain—if we are to cultivate our reflective capacities to their full ripeness. And aren’t we really talking about the cultivation of detachment here—that most crucial ally in our quest for the deepest and most comprehensive insights, which happen also to be the most dangerous and the most private insights, precisely because they are so dangerous for the unready?

As this capacity for detached understanding grows in strength it gradually begins to rival these cruder instruments of our moral-psychological education. This is not to suggest that pleasure and pain cease to be important factors or elements within our lives as the understanding—born of learning and reflection—grows stronger and more capable, attaining greater and greater sovereignty over our inner and outer experience. Such understanding, mind you, is not synonymous with mere prudence, even if in the process of gaining greater understanding we happen to outgrow certain habits, desires, and behaviors that yielded more trouble than true benefit to us and to others.

With the ripening of the understanding comes the replacement of former pleasures with new and rather different ones. The new ones, because they have evolved alongside the crescent understanding, are—more precisely speaking—pleasures of the mind, the heart, and of the imagination, whereas the former pleasures (and their attendant pains, or dark twins) were of a coarser, more visceral and purely sensual sort. If we give the understanding a fighting chance, it will gradually transform our desires by pruning, distilling, digesting, refining, and spiritualizing them. A crucial aspect of this transformative process is the progressive mastery of one’s disposable psychic energy—which is merely a technical term for ‘interest’ and ‘attention.’ Reflection is a solitary, interior process in which the raw materials of our experience, our reading, and our interactions with others are brooded over, analyzed, and—in a sense—cooked. And as these raw ingredients are slowly and lovingly cooked within the crucible of our imaginations, they undergo a transformation every bit as dramatic as the batter that becomes a soufflé or an angel food cake in a conventional oven.

By ‘interiorizing’ we do not mean to suggest an ascetic or contemptuous retreat from the world and from social engagement. Sure, the world is a mess. So long as there have been ‘world-generating’ human beings, it has probably always been messy. But it would be a lamentable waste of a carefully cultivated understanding to shun society and seclude oneself from the world in a fearful or misanthropic solitude. In the course of a fully-lived life it may be salutary and wise—from time to time—to withdraw for awhile into a quiet period of unmolested reflection. But the understanding is a light that is not to be selfishly withheld from the darkness (of ignorance) that envelops and afflicts humanity. Again, in order to kindle this light of understanding—or to rekindle it when there is a threat that it may be blown out—it may be salutary and wise to retreat for a time into the quiet, solitary mode of life that has perhaps always been most conducive to reflection. But the cultivated fruit of the understanding demands to be shared—as no one who has labored in this vineyard needs to be told.

Such light naturally seeks darkness and confusion where its modest beams can make a healing difference. The cultivated understanding, then, is inherently charitable, philanthropic, and ready to make appreciable sacrifices. The imperfect human ‘ovens’ in which the nutritional understanding is cooked, however, may not be initially disposed to such philanthropy. Painful battle wounds sustained during the long struggle for inner freedom and illumination may continue to throb with pain long after incurring the disappointments and disillusionments that are necessary evils in the getting of wisdom. Only from the ashes of bitter disappointment and dis-illusionment can the phoenix of enlightened understanding and genuine inner freedom arise. Eventually, all this pain and ‘baggage’ will have to be thrown overboard if the understanding is to soar beyond the tether of its wounded agent, its ‘closed oven.’ The sacrifice—dare I say a kind of burnt offering?—of the pain, resentment, pride, and self-pity is the surest sign that the winged understanding is fully fledged and ready to leave the nest—to fly on its own.