(Pre-) Modern Family (10/30/13)

For the sake of discussion, let us entertain the idea of three roughly distinct levels of consciousness that we are able to experience or participate in: (1) collective consciousness, (2) individual consciousness, and (3) transcendent consciousness.

Collective or ‘mass’ consciousness (the modern equivalent of ‘tribal’ consciousness), like transcendent, or ‘spiritual’ consciousness, appears to dissolve or absorb individual, personally differentiated ego-consciousness (as when a crowd or mob ceases to be an accumulation of individuals and mysterious acquires a ‘mind’ of its own). Under such conditions, the individual ego is assimilated, either by the instinctual energy field or by the form-vaporizing spirit. In this respect, the integrity or cohesive ‘solidity’ of the individual ego is always potentially under threat of dissolution from both directions—from the side of the collective instincts and from the side of the transcendent spirit. The experience of being dissolved into the instinctual-collective or into the formless-spiritual level can be extremely pleasurable or extremely distressing, depending on the attitude of the individual ego that is being overwhelmed by and absorbed into the larger, more comprehensive realm.

If, however, the individual ego defensively or fearfully isolates itself—and attempts to thrive solely by means of its own limited resources—its experience of both the instinctual and spiritual realms will become increasingly restricted and increasingly adversarial. It will be cutting itself off from spiritual-instinctual nourishment and from the stable sense of equilibrium that can only be attained by venturing beyond its narrow, isolated plot. If the ego thus becomes a kind of ‘shut-in’—cut off, experientially, from both instinctual and spiritual sources of nourishment and animation—it exposes itself to a variety of dangers.

It should be noted and remembered that the individual is fleeting and impermanent, while these two enormous realms—the spiritual and the material/instinctual—are everlasting. The spiritual and instinctual principles are ‘Father’ and ‘Mother,’ respectively. All ephemeral human egos are the offspring of the less than perfect marriage between this eternal Father and this deathless Mother. As their dependent children, our individual egos receive an inheritance from both parents, of course, and all of the problems and difficulties that arise between Father-Spirit and Mother-Matter are carried over into our essentially problematic individual constitutions. In our individual efforts to work through and to work out these riddles and conflicts that are woven into the very fabric of our nature (as dependent children of this Father and this Mother), we indirectly help to nourish and preserve their titanic, shaky marriage. We human egos are, in fact, the frontline—nay, the very battlefield itself—whereupon Daddy-spirit and Mommy-matter collide. Usually they scuffle and tussle. Occasionally they snuggle and couple. But always they misunderstand one another—and it falls to our lot, as their ambivalent, fumbling children, to work more or less continuously at ‘patching things up.’ Tragically, perhaps—but nobly—we struggle, knowing that we are doomed to perish and that our names will gradually fade forever from the memory of those who come after us.

We attend to our tiny portion of this ceaseless cosmic crisis because we must. For, as was said, the battlefield is not upon some field in France or on some remote island in the Pacific, but in our battered and torn hearts, in the caverns and crevasses of our unexplored minds, in the very twists and turnings of our souls. It requires all of our education, imagination, patience, and courage to prevent our tiny portion of the cosmic war-love-fest from spilling over into our neighbor’s yard. Once that starts to happen on a large scale, things go haywire in a hurry. Wildfires, floods, raging epidemics, and devouring earthquakes are fitting images for the chaos and mayhem unleashed upon the skittish, dysfunctional family of man as soon as a critical mass of us stop managing our own individually-tailored, mysteriously allotted portions of the cosmic war-romance and allow our lacerating shrapnel and our potent poisons to assail our neighbors, who are absorbed with managing their own allotted portions.

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The Birthright (1/24/17)

The better part of what the thinker-poet does consists, of course, in suitably matching his available stockpile of words, concepts, and metaphors with the more or less steady stream of nebulous seed-intuitions, moods, affects, and perspectives that mysteriously arise from “God knows where.” If truth be told, it is this cloud-like mysterium that actually assigns the terms and conditions of the relationship, and not the thinker-poet, who is a more or less obliging vessel, a capable servant, and a talented translator of an invisible, wordless text. Sticking with the image of the cloud (“the raincloud of knowable things”), the mind of the philosopher-poet provides the “dew point” that enables these vaporous possibilities to undergo condensation into fluid images and metaphors. It is precisely here that meaning is born.

To invoke a different extended metaphor to depict this ongoing oscillation between impregnation and delivery that lies at the core of the creative life: at first, the mind of the thinker-poet and the mysterium are juxtaposed like ovum and sperm. Following insemination, the developing “embryo” gestates within the watery womb of the philosopher-poet’s imagination. While there, this embryo recaps, figuratively speaking, the intermediate stages (“ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”) through which our primordial ancestors clawed and gnawed, slithered and groped, their crooked way to that self-reflexive angel-beast, the human being. When the moment of delivery arrives, there should be no confusion about what sort of creature has been born. Its past is lurking, ghostlike, within its present shape—a long and eventful past has been condensed and woven together in such promising, but fragile children. What you have just read is but a modest example of such a “condensation” – an enactment, if you will.

I have called attention to the seemingly privileged creature, the “thinker-poet” – as though he or she were singled out and specially entrusted with a sacred office: namely, to usher this precious, vital substance into the cultural arena—an arena that craves meaning just as hungrily as our bodies crave salt. But make no mistake: all of us, by virtue of our human status, are, without exception, charged with this sacred office and – if anything is deserving of the term – divine potential. It is our birthright as humans, regardless of the actual scope, depth, and quality of our daily engagement in the work of meaning-begetting. This charge or privilege is thrust upon us whether or not we lovingly and gratefully embrace it. But to deny this birthright may prove to be the greatest “sin” we can commit against ourselves and against the mysterium that has inexplicably permitted us, however fleetingly, to appear as individual, conscious creators.

All of us are endowed, from birth, with instincts that propel, roughly define, and guide much of our thought and behavior. When these innate drives and instincts suffer trauma or if they routinely overpower us, serious problems occur. Analogously, if our innate meaning-creating capacity remains dormant or becomes damaged and deformed by misuse or mis-education, our work will be greatly hampered. We know, intuitively, that a healthy human existence depends, to a large extent, upon awakened, functioning, balanced drives and instincts. I would further suggest that each of us – provided we’ve got a certain amount of experience and reflection under our belts – is equipped with all that is necessary to recognize and to follow his/her calling. Our calling or vocation is not necessarily the professional career path we follow to earn a living (although often enough they coincide), but neither are we talking here about mere hobbies or recreational activities we casually pursue in our spare time. Our calling or vocation (as this word is used in a religious context) may be said to serve as a kind of portal or gateway between the individual and the much larger whole of which he/she is a part. So we can see here that, rather than being something secondary or peripheral to our life or fate, our innate calling is every bit as essential to our psychic or spiritual well-being as food and shelter are to our physical well-being.

Moreover, while roughly distinguishable, these two arenas – the physical/external and the psychic/internal – are not separate, but constitute two sides of a single coin. Thus, problems or imbalances on one side of the coin invariably lead to problems and imbalances on the other. Sociopathy and depression appear to be the prevalent disorders today. Mightn’t both of these widespread maladies stem, in large part, from the failure of a significant portion of the population to have recognized and followed its innate calling? And, it will be asked, to what extent has our present culture – with its peculiar, lopsided aims and methods of “education” – actively contributed to this widespread psychological malaise? Does such an unnatural and psychologically pernicious system even deserve to be called a “culture”? Or is it not more accurate to call it a breeding ground for pathology – every bit as unhygienic for human souls as the mosquito-filled marshes, rat-infested slums, and unsanitary conditions of the past were for the defenseless bodies of our forebears? Have we rid ourselves of one set of unsanitary conditions only to replace them with another – on the plane of psyche?

Ideology and Anti-nature (9/12/16)

If the ideological scheme – or prevailing worldview – into which we were born, indoctrinated, and gradually conscripted is radically out of alignment with the more deeply rooted structural features of the ancestral unconscious from which our psyches were born, then one thing is certain: adaptation to and conformity with these less than natural, craftily engineered ideological imperatives runs afoul of our inherited natures and courts individual and collective catastrophe. Only an equally determined and relentless insurrection against this booby-trapped indoctrination affords some of us a slender chance of forging a thick life, as opposed to the mythically anemic and psychologically threadbare existence we see among “the sleepwalkers.” But for such self-liberation to get off the ground – or off the “drawing board” – we must first earn a clearer understanding of that against which our life is in revolt.

What this understanding consists in – and how it is arrived at – are perhaps my chief concerns as I near the tender age of sixty. To be plain: I have not been lazy or fainthearted all these years; rather, I have devoted my best energies to serious study, reflection, discussion, and “journaling” (as a vital and necessary aid to digestion). I have never been a namby-pamby greenhorn in whose heart the fire of rebellion waits to be kindled, for the process of uprooting and peeling away my own malignant, crippling ideological indoctrination (on a variety of fronts: religious; philosophical; political-national; moral; cultural; etc.) has long been underway. It has advanced side-by-side with the deepening and the subtilization of my understanding – both of the psyche and the forms (of thought, feeling, belief, valuation, etc.) – that makes a measure of such self-liberation possible.

A life that would be free must first come to frank and no-nonsense terms with the mental manacles by which it is bound. Since – like the prisoners in Plato’s allegory of the cave – most of us are not only content with, and possibly even proud of, our state of imprisonment, but oblivious to it – we mistake slavery for freedom, or at least for the acceptable norm. What is it inside some of us that instinctively “smells a rat” in all such norms, regardless of which “culture cave” these norms preside over? Isn’t it the nearly universal acceptance or endorsement of these general norms that arouses our suspicion and mistrust?

What, more specifically, provokes this ineradicable uneasiness and caution where such norms and collective assumptions are concerned? Aware of their anchoring and compelling power over the multitude, I soberly acknowledge the order-imposing power and the steadying influence of these blunt, categorical “rules of thumb” upon the skittish herd. We, too, like less philosophically-minded elites, typically prefer stable socio-political conditions (at least in our own backyard). It is probably safe to say that if cynical oligarchical elites did not promulgate some “noble lie” or pious fraud, around which the people, now as ever, could huddle – as around a magnetic field – the people would clamor for such an order-imposing and stabilizing fabrication. The people will always need and greatly prefer empty generalities to dense, subtle, and dangerously substantial truths – which cause them to fret and scatter – and what are these empty, puffed up generalities if they are not the same noble lies I just referred to?

The chief difference between the philosopher and the cynic is that the former sort cherishes social harmony and stability so that he may be left in peace and quiet to ply his unpopular passion (hoping that his influence upon thinking men and women will promote the common good), while the cynical profiteer sees in the same conditions the most favorable opportunities for fleecing the sheep. Lao-tzu and Plato, both from the first lot, had the temerity to counsel those from the second bunch – but Lao-tzu only as he departed, once and for all, from the palace gates. Plato chose instead, to employ a form of esoteric writing that both hinted at and concealed the radical political conservatism (or muted pessimism?) he actually espoused.

Earning (2/2/16)

When a person has devoted a good deal of care and effort to the cultivation of his/her thinking or feeling function and that function has been brought to a high level of excellence, such excellence cannot justly be criticized or dismissed by someone who has done little or no work upon his own psychological functions. Many persons who are inspired to cultivate their intellects or their feelings do NOT do so chiefly in order to gain the applause of their peers and the admiration of their less ‘cultivated’ brethren and sistren, but this does not mean that they are undeserving of somewhat greater respect than someone who starts off with the same amount of ‘investment capital,’ so to speak and—instead of putting it to fruitful use, squanders it on frivolous pleasures and trifling entertainments until he has bankrupted himself.

Do we not come perilously close, here, to suggesting that there are implicit standards of attainment in the operation and deployment of thinking and feeling—standards that might be invoked as criterial grounds for some kind of hierarchy or meritocracy? Should it come as a surprise that such speculations often meet with popular hostility in a democratic regime that is continually ‘lowering the bar’ and ‘leveling the playing field’ (intellectually, educationally, politically, ethically, spiritually, etc.) in order to flatter itself and to avoid seeing this ‘mediocracy’ for what it truly is? Such exacting standards constitute a direct affront to the ‘mass man’—an unflattering, unforgiving mirror in which all that is there and, perhaps more importantly, all that is not there stands nakedly exposed. We can certainly be forgiven (that is, by ourselves, which is what matters above all) for not doing or becoming more than we are capable of doing or becoming. Miracles and prodigies are not to be expected. But a feeling of profound regret is a perfectly natural response, I would argue, for those persons who are honest and courageous enough to acknowledge how much spiritual, moral, creative, and intellectual potential they have allowed to ‘fust in them, unused’—in choosing to ‘go with the flow’ (of a muddy and often stinky river) instead of strenuously swimming ‘against the current’ towards the clearer, livelier source-waters, upstream from the sluggish, swampish delta.

Moreover, when we reflect upon earning, it can take on a different character, depending on whether what we are earning is intended chiefly for the personal profit of the separate self or for the more enlightened purpose of loosening the hold that such self-interest has upon our soul. Shakespeare wrote plays that were, for the most part, popularly successful at the Globe Theatre, of which he was part-owner. His professional and financial success as a playwright and business owner allowed him to retire comfortably to Stratford after his long and distinguished career. Would anyone be so churlish, myopic, and reductive to suggest that it was only—or even mostly—for these personal/material motivations that Shakespeare wrote plays like Hamlet and King Lear? While there is no need to categorically deny any or all self-interested elements found within the complex concatenation of motivations at work within even the most ‘selfless’ saints and philanthropists, we can readily see the relative prominence or insignificance such self-interested motives play in a person’s psychic economy by carefully observing their actions, words, reactions, etc.

Nowadays, I resist the temptation to judge selfishness primarily as a symptom of a morally debased or vicious soul. Instead, I find it makes wiser sense to regard selfishness as an almost necessary, if preliminary and comparatively immature, stage of moral-psychological development or unfoldment. It is simply something that is to be experienced, properly appreciated, and gradually outgrown—even if vestiges of that selfishness, that flare up from time to time, will always remain part of us. My suspicion is that self-interestedness can neither be completely eradicated nor leapt over, but must be accepted and ‘come to terms with’—rather as we come to terms with the fact that we have BODIES that make pressing demands upon us and which eventually decompose and die.

Socrates, early on, recognized the crucial difference between arguing simply for the sake of winning and analytical inquiry aimed at deepening the understanding of all persons involved—where everyone, potentially at least, comes out a winner. The first—self-serving and extremely limited—technique was called eristics (from ‘Eris,’ the goddess of strife), while the second was called dialectics.

With this idea in mind—the diametrical contrast between strife-sowing, competitive eristics and therapeutic, soul-making dialectics—we have a fresh angle from which to approach the often hidden connections between thinking and feeling. Socrates aptly described himself as a ‘midwife’ of ideas. What he meant, it seems, is that in his carefully directed question-and-answer dialogues with his listeners, he was able to ‘bring to birth’ thoughts and formulated beliefs/opinions (doxa) that had erstwhile existed only as ‘fetal’ or ‘embryonic’ possibilities lurking in the unlit, unexamined psyches of those he questioned. Sometimes the ‘offspring’ born from such ‘obstetrics’ would be healthy and noble (as with Glaucon), while some would be ugly, deformed, or undernourished (Callicles, Meno). But one thing is fairly certain: unless and until these hidden, inner possibilities are lured out of seclusion in the ‘background’ of the psyche, there is little or no chance of applying therapeia to them. So long as these contents remain latent or unformulated—they continue to have an enormous, if unrecognized and ‘mysterious,’ influence upon us, but we can do little or nothing to challenge or override that influence. Now, when these mysterious influences (or ‘invisible angels’) are benign, many persons are content not to ‘look a gift horse in the mouth,’ so to speak—but will simply ‘get out of the way’ and let these inner guides ‘do their thing.’ But when they are more like imps, mischief-makers, satyrs, and devils, a very different situation often obtains. Then, the ‘victim’ of his troublesome inner figures is given every incentive to turn within and face the (menacing) music to which he is otherwise condemned to dance out the rest of his days.

 

Seeing Beyond (8/25/17)

The ordinary human eye is capable of responding to visual stimuli or data within a certain range. We know, of course, that there is plenty of data beyond the visible light spectrum – beyond ultraviolet and infrared light, but such information transcends the bounds of ordinary human eyesight. Other instruments – electronic eyes – must be devised and utilized for such “transcendent” vision.

Likewise, each one of our psychological functions – thinking, feeling, intuition, and sensation – is naturally associated with a corresponding arena or domain of distinctive experience (thoughts, feelings, intuitions, sensations), just as the eye is associated with objects within the visible light spectrum. This is not to say that the thinking function cannot perceive/apprehend a feeling-content. It can acknowledge that something is there, but that something gets automatically translated into a thought-concept – the sort of content it is equipped to deal with in its own terms. And, as we know, a feeling that is “translated” into a concept is no longer a feeling, but something quite different. In being carried across the wide border between the two functions, the feeling has been transformed into something quite alien to its original form – like a light wave being transformed into a particle, a caterpillar into a moth.

Naturally, the reverse is true, as well. When a concept or thought enters the airspace of the feeling function, a feeling value is either consciously or unconsciously assigned. This is what the feeling function does, for this is its role within the psychic economy. What it does not do is evaluate and analyze the concept as a “thinking type” would. This is not a choice or a decision made by the feeling function. It is simply beyond its power or ability to make such an analysis or logical assessment. This incapacity, however, seldom prevents the feeling function – or the decided “feeling type” – from generating all manner of feeling judgments upon thoughts, ideas, and arguments that it is incapable of understanding or appreciating in their own terms, within their own proper sphere or domain.

This analogy holds true for the ordinary human ego, as well – or so it would seem. Just as the human eye is confined to visual information within a certain limited range – and just as thinking and feeling cannot help but falsify and degrade phenomena that they are unfit to deal with and to properly assess – ego-consciousness, as soon as it begins to arrogate authority and to pronounce judgments upon phenomena that lie beyond its purview, proves to be pitifully inept.

There are almost as many definitions of “ego” as there are egos, but for the sake of discussion we will focus on two features of ego-consciousness that are widely agreed upon: a natural tendency to literalize and a more or less “heroic” drive to bring things under one’s control within one’s sphere of influence – either by hook or by crook. And, to prevent any misunderstanding, let me say at the outset that my aim here is not to denigrate or disparage the ego, as such, but simply to explore and assess its proper sphere of activity and its rightful jurisdiction within the larger totality of the psyche. To be sure, the ego is vulnerable to various maladies and potentially dangerous excesses, but – like the human heart, brain or liver – it serves a vital and necessary function in the “psychic economy.” When the body is afflicted with congestive heart failure or a brain tumor – the diseased organ can bring the whole organism down with it. Analogously, a perilously inflated or stunted ego will often lead to serious trouble for the individual and for those under his/her sway and influence.

With these ideas in mind, let us glance quickly at the functional role played by the ego’s tendencies to literalize and to “heroically” establish a more or less stable and secure place in the world. If we can imagine for a moment the helpless vulnerability of the human infant – or the susceptibility to suggestion, “possession,” overpowering drives and terrors in the primitive – we get a glimpse of the condition that exists before the ego has developed properly. The infant and the primitive are, as it were, submerged or immersed in the enveloping sea of psyche with no solid platform upon which to land. In the case of the infant, a sense of security must be provided, initially, by the mother, the father, and the external circumstances within which its fledgling identity develops. For the primitive, rituals and social roles/duties provide the exoskeletal structures that serve in lieu of a differentiated ego-complex.

Thus, without an adequately developed ego, we are at the mercy, so to speak, of the Gods – or of the elements, or Fortuna, the unconscious, etc. – while a functional ego equips us with a kind of breathing space between our “selves” and the mysterious, enfolding whole. As it happens, some human beings are naturally more favorably disposed towards this surrounding, ineffable mysterium than others, who do everything within their limited power to block it out of their awareness – usually by clinging like barnacles to everyone and everything that is soothingly familiar, predictable, diverting, and reliable.

So, if the ordinary, run-of-the-mill human ego’s chief function is to provide a more or less stable foothold within an otherwise mysterious and uncanny world and/or psyche for the “individual consciousness,” should we therefore assume that the establishment, cultivation, and extension of the ego’s power and sway is the proper aim of human life – and that some persons, like great athletes or musicians, are simply better at ego-ism than others? Nietzsche, as I read him, certainly comes close to such a position – if we bear in mind the fact that he shows a decided preference for what he calls “spiritualized expressions of the will to power.” He is referring here to artistic, ethical, intellectual – i.e., cultural – forms of excellence. Philosophy – for Nietzsche (as well as for Nietzsche’s Plato) – is regarded as the most spiritualized expression of the will to power because it has the responsibility for humanity’s future on its conscience.

So, what about those other persons for whom the strange, the unfamiliar, and the unknown exert greater attractive power than the known, the familiar, and the securely nailed down features of life? These are persons who are more likely to find the whole arena of “normal” and “commonplace” experiences boring, cramping, and even suffocating. This aversion and this sense of frustration with the generally lawful and stable surface of everyday experience do not come from some shallow hankering after novelty and diverting variety. Instead, it seems to arise from a deep skepticism about the adequacy of the ego, alone, to guide us – as humans – to a full and rounded existence. Such seekers after the mystery – beyond the obscuring veil of the familiar – have made the crucial discovery that it is the illegitimate sovereignty of the ego that is behind this appalling, flat, frothy normalcy that is both bowed down to and kept on the throne by the many – now as ever. In effect, it is collective fear and loathing for the abnormal, the pathological, the paradoxical, the anomalous, the bizarre, the uncanny – in a word, the mystery of existence – that is responsible for the sovereignty or tyranny of ego over soul.

Here I have introduced a new term – soul – to denote the perspective that exists, imaginatively, in between the banality of the familiar and the ineffability of the mystery. Jung, in attempting to give a name to this perspective that contrasts with the ego-perspective, spoke of the “transcendent function.” “Active imagination” was enjoined as a means of “dialoguing” with the “inner figures” or archetypal images that serve as the faces presented by the Mystery (of the unconscious). Of course such language and such activities – introduced at a time when positivism still had a strong purchase in most educated minds – sounded like a species of madness itself. Hence, quips like the famous maxim of Karl Kraus: “psychoanalysis is a disease for which it purports to be the cure.”

Wholeness and Time (8/15/17)

If I’m on the right track and supposing that “called or not, the Gods are present,” then the quest for wholeness – or the full unfoldment of the personality – may be somewhat less dependent upon actual or manifest cultural-historical conditions than is commonly assumed. How do I arrive at this view?

In the field of time, or history, the eternal archetypal drama must perforce be enacted in narrative form, as a kind of complex story-line. As a sequence of events, one episode, mood, or character conflict/resolution comes into prominence after another as the archetypes – like the colored bits of glass in the kaleidoscope – continually move into and out of new configurations. The primordial archetypal factors – like the colored chips in the kaleidoscope or the Greek Gods and Goddesses of Olympus – retain their distinctive characters, but the enacted dramas and kaleidoscopic permutations emphasize this and now that mythic situation, color scheme, mood, and set of opportunities/obstacles.

With these helpful analogies in mind, let us return to our original question about the quest for psychological wholeness within the field of space-time – or the present cultural-historical context. Out here on the surface of mundane experience – the flat screen, as it were, upon which the eternal (timeless) archetypal drama is continually being projected – we are granted only a partial, slit-like vision of the whole, since certain aspects are always being emphasized at the expense of others. Thus, our actual birth in space-time – say in prerevolutionary France or postwar America – inserts or embeds us in a particular scene or worldview within a very long play or, if we get stuck, into one frame of a motion picture. If perchance we allow ourselves to become too comfortably adapted or attached to that particular scene or frozen movie frame, all our little psychic tendrils groping for wholeness will gradually wither and die. To become fully invested in and stubbornly attached to one’s “day and age” – one’s particular cultural-historical setting – is to become a conscripted servant or slave to those particular limited terms, conditions, and role requirements. This would seem to be a rough description, now as ever, of upwards of 95% of humanity.

If we are denied the freedom to literally teleport or catapult ourselves into earlier or future eras and cultures – in our quest for an experience of the full drama underway in space-time via archetypal projection through humanity – we are not forcibly prevented from vicariously experiencing other “scenes,” stages, worldviews, aeons, etc., imaginally.

It will be apparent, then, to some readers that our incremental advances towards psychological wholeness will be dependent in large part upon our ability to loosen up the mental straitjackets and manacles that confine us to our limited/limiting scene – our day and age, our inherited worldview – so that we may regard our situation from fresh and different perspectives. Thus we are continually extricating ourselves from Plato’s cave, striving to get a glimpse or two of the drama as a whole – from start to restart, from soup to nuts! There can be no vision quest that is more comprehensive or demanding.

In my kaleidoscope analogy, a reversion or archetypal reduction process corresponds with attending primarily to the turning, reconfiguring colored ships that are the source of all the particular images appearing at the far end of the kaleidoscope through the peephole. Practically speaking, this is achieved by immersing ourselves in ongoing researches into mythology, history, comparative religion, philosophy, the visual arts, world literature, depth psychology, and other disciplines in and by means of which we are granted glimpses of these archetypal figures and motifs.

There are two points I want to get across here: 1.) The development of the individual towards wholeness is significantly but by no means exclusively dependent upon the prevailing cultural opportunities, collective preoccupations, and other outer factors – but has as much or more to do with the inner work involved in germinating those seed-potentials (for wholeness) within the psyche and tending to their growth. 2.) The distinctive seed-potentials, along with the peculiar cultural-political soil into which we are born, do not – by themselves – make us into conscious, whole personalities. Together they comprise the “original state” or “prima materia” with which we began our artful work.

If we look, say, at a hundred persons who receive the same splendid formal education and upbringing or thousand persons born with the same balanced, auspicious horoscope, we will find that perhaps one or two from both groups will make extraordinary use of these exceptional, given conditions, while the majority will have un-exceptional success. And conversely, a minority among those born into palpably adverse conditions will – precisely in their creative/heroic response to these hurdles and adversities – be spurred on to achievements that would otherwise lie beyond their grasp. What is being singled out for emphasis, of course, is the role played by our individual effort, imagination, and ingenuity in the alchemical-transformative process we are engaged in here.

Mere mimesis – or adaptive inculcation and imitation of given, prevalent cultural forms, values, and directives –serves only as a point of departure for the individuation process. If we get stuck there, the process of inner growth and differentiation comes to a halt. Naturally, such compliant and obedient adaptation and conscription into the prevalent system is always being encouraged by those who profit (materially, politically, socially, etc.) from such systems and schemes. As compliant servants – say, to an unscrupulous, profit-driven corporation or a reactionary political party – we may “gain the world and lose our souls.”

That being said, unless we initially adapt to and gain an “insider” understanding, as it were, of the scheme, system, or “day and age” into which fate has dropped us, we will thereafter be hampered in our most strenuous efforts to move beyond this preliminary level of acculturation. The more clearly and thoroughly we see and understand our limited and limiting beginnings – i.e., our peculiar insertion point into time-space – the greater will be our success, later, when it becomes necessary to push off from that first platform into terra incognita. If our understanding of our early formation and stamping is dim and sketchy, our attempts, later, to differentiate our consciousness from these horizons will be correspondingly sketchy and ineffectual. The platform against which we push will feel mushy and flimsy, giving way under our feet.

Gnosis and Projection (9/11/12)

The supremely triumphant effort of Irenaeus to stamp out Gnosticism, back in the second century—in his Against Heresies—displays a politically motivated, this-worldly stance that has been characteristic of Western Christianity ever since. Elaine Pagels has observed that, unlike Islam, Judaism, Coptic Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism, Western Christianity lacks an esoteric branch or a generally recognized mystical tradition. This lamentable lack or gap within Christendom is due in large part, of course, to the relentless campaign of the Church Fathers (and their heirs up to the present day) to sniff out and eradicate all forms of imaginative or spiritually innovative alternatives to canonical dogma. Such alternatives, when they would arise, were categorically regarded as heresy and they were often punishable by excommunication or burning at the stake.

The Gnostics, in contrast to orthodox Christianity, were startlingly original, radically imaginative, deeply suspicious of ‘natural man,’ and thoroughly antinomian. They were a big, bracing breath (pneuma) of fresh, chilly air. In attaching a generally negative value to mundane affairs, to physical nature, to the ‘official’ God of this (sensually apprehensible) world, and to merely literal words and dogmatic concepts, the Gnostics posed a potentially subversive threat to the Church as a political and doctrinal institution. Perhaps if the Gnostics had been left alone, they would have fizzled out on their own—or perhaps they would have found a way to maintain their unorthodox values and perspectives while shielding themselves from persecution and misunderstanding by the worldly Church (as the Sufis have found a haven as a kind of esoteric branch of Islam).

Plato—according to Leo Strauss and Laurence Lampert—attempted to devise and to establish such a haven for philosophers. If Strauss was right, Plato employed his writings as a means of making philosophy tolerable to ‘the city’ and attractive to that select few who are potential candidates for the life of philosophical enquiry. (By ‘the city’ we mean ordinary society with its typically power-driven, conventionally religious, acquisitive, anti-philosophical tendencies). Plato’s marvelous writings did not aim so much to turn the reader into a philosopher, although they strove to pique his/her interest in philosophy as a way of life—as embodied in the career of Socrates, the fascinating central figure in most of Plato’s dialogues. It seems that one is born a potential gnostic or potential philosopher, or one is not—just as one is born a great poet or composer, or one is not. In order to actualize these potentials—which, again, do not seem to be conspicuously present in the majority of human beings, now or ever—a special form of education by a special kind of teacher seems to be required. In the course of becoming a gnostic, a genuine philosopher, a mystic, or a visionary, it is fair to say that the world (as we first come to know it and as it is presented to us by our parents, teachers, and peers) is turned inside out.

In order to survive this inversion of values and established norms—and avoid going insane or becoming swallowed up once and for all by an inescapable tar pit of pessimism and hopelessness—the candidate for initiation must be exceptionally strong (spiritually), exceptionally humble (in terms of personal ego desires and ambitions), and exceptionally imaginative/subtle (in terms of soul). Moreover, without an exceptional degree of compassion (for all beleaguered parties in the wars for domination that typify life among humans), there is a real danger that the initiate will have his insides eaten out by anger and his will snuffed out by exasperation. Such poise and compassion can be achieved and sustained only by the practice of detachment and cultivated neutrality towards the various contending forces and groups. Injustice—when it is recognized—excites anger in the breast of the ‘good’ man or woman. Where it is unacknowledged, there is apathy, confusion, and (oftentimes) unconscious complicity with the agents of injustice. The initiate understands that the only way injustice can be eliminated from human affairs is through a transformation of human consciousness—and this is not likely to happen on a grand scale anytime soon. It happens, when it does, one person at a time.

In having experienced the world being ‘turned inside out,’ however, the initiate’s psychological bearings have undergone a stunning reorientation. As a consequence of this stupendous inversion, a significant part of the initiate’s personality has, in effect, ‘died’ to the world. The ‘old,’ inverted or subverted world seems no longer to exert its formerly invincible spell. The initiate has partially seen through that world into the core behind its mask. What this means, psychologically, is that he has recognized that the value and meaning normally attributed to events, persons, objects, and public ideas is unconsciously projected by men and women everywhere and at all times. Because it is understood that it is the unconscious process of projection that underlies (and underwrites) the value and meaning that appear ‘out there’ in the world, it is also simultaneously understood that by getting control over our projections, we loosen the world’s sticky grip upon us.

Let’s begin with a rather obvious example of projection. If we learn that the chief reason an acquaintance of ours is averse to a particular political figure—or to an entire nation, for that matter—is because he is projecting prejudices and falsehoods that have been deliberately served up to him by the news media, then we are in a position to raise important questions about ‘orchestrated’ projections with him. We may, for example, begin to ask questions like ‘Is the media presenting a fair and comprehensive picture of the politician or nation, or is it distorted in a big way?’ ‘Who owns and controls the media and why might these interested parties want you and me and millions of others to dislike the political figure or this foreign nation?’ This is just an elementary example—one that most intelligent and/or honest persons can immediately appreciate—but there are far subtler and, therefore, far more powerfully determining prejudices and valuations that we unconsciously project into ‘the world’ with its entire cast of characters and contents.

The initiate has learned that the only truly effective way to make these projections conscious is by momentarily interrupting the process of projection itself—and stepping back from these projected values and half-baked ideas to the extent that he can. The effect of this sort of reflection—of arresting our projected assumptions and valuations and subjecting them to careful analysis—is precisely what enables us to ‘turn the world inside out.’ What we are doing, of course, is learning about the subtle and generally unconscious process by which the world—any ‘world’—is generated and kept more or less intact by the simultaneous, interrelated projections of all our fellow humans.

The quest for spiritual freedom is fundamentally bound up with the problems of projection. If we would be free, we must first make conscious our projections, for it is these projections that—taken all together—provide structure and the specific contents or furniture of our world. Into this structure and into these contents our psychic and physical energy is pumped as gasoline is pumped into the tank of our automobile—gasoline that fuels the combustion that drives the motor, propelling us down the road. And it goes without saying that unless and until we make a projection conscious, we are in no position to manage it (to raise serious questions about its right to be part of our ‘world-forming’—and ‘world in-forming’—internal apparatus) or to dismantle it. As soon as we begin to realize that the outer events, implements, possessions, and persons depend pretty much entirely upon this projected value and meaning for their perceived significance to us (though not their existence), then it is a short step to the rather sweeping realization that the ‘world’ itself as a meaningful cosmos—which is made up of the totality of these unconscious projections—‘hangs upon the slender thread of the human psyche,’ as Jung put it in one of his grimmer moments.

Now, we eventually come to see that spiritual release or liberation really consists in release from thralldom to limited versions of ‘the world’ as it has been constituted by these unconscious projections. There is, then, no authentic liberation from these limited notions of reality so long as we believe in the independent, self-standing reality of that world—i.e., that our psyches make no essential contribution to world-making. We must first recognize the dependency of the world upon the psyche—not our personal psyches, but the psyche as a whole, of which the personal unconscious is but a tiny segment. All efforts, therefore, to ‘fix’ our spiritual dilemma by trying to modify concrete conditions and circumstances in the outer world are, from one angle, misguided—backwards—since they are founded upon the erroneous assumption that our imprisonment and the way of our release are essentially to be found in the world.

Dozens of times I have employed this analogy (traceable, of course, back to Plato’s peerless allegory of the cave, found in Bk.VII of the Republic) of ordinary human affairs and doings as an elaborate, ongoing stage play. The initiate who suffers this momentous about-face breaks free—more or less completely—from his identification with various roles upon that stage. He dis-identifies with his stage personality—simultaneously acquiring the capacity to see through the masks and the scripted roles of everyone around him. The shock and disorientation occasioned by this revelatory psychic experience can mean little or nothing to those who have not experienced this fateful unmasking, for what it reveals is the enormous—nay, the incalculable—extent to which all of us are slaves to the stage, unconscious conscripts in a generally tragic (or farcical, or trivial, or absurd, or what have you!) drama that only a tiny minority of us ever truly and completely see through, let alone, escape from. And, as I have also observed many times before, the initial reward experienced by the newly liberated initiate is an utter and seemingly irremediable sense of his aloneness in having stepped of that stage! For let it be clear: it is not as if, in stepping off the accursed stage of blinkered sleepwalkers mouthing their unoriginal lines and pursuing their pre-plotted courses, he is suddenly welcomed and embraced by throngs of former escapees waiting just offstage—waiting to celebrate his anomalous and semi-miraculous success in breaking the almost invincible spell of ‘the world.’

In fact, if there is any celebrating at all, it occurs within the privacy of his own breast. He may be warmed by the sense of kinship he feels with that select number of (mostly) long-dead unveilers of the secret that always remains hidden from mere believers. I mean, of course, believers in the pageantry and pomp of the world as it presents itself. Men as different as the Buddha, Lao Tzu, Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, Jesus, Valentinus, and Jung all speak as one in their warning against believing in the world as it is predigested and pre-interpreted for us by our early environment. All of them were outstanding un-believers, mis-trusters, and reflective deconstructors of the dominant projections that held up the inflated bubble-worlds into which they were born.