Some Reflections on Oedipus Tyrannus (12/14/17)

mama  I don’t know if this somber and weighty mood I’m experiencing today is an aftershock following my re-reading of Oedipus Tyrannus, but, given the wallop this ancient text always delivers, how can there not be a connection? The tragedy is sublimely humbling to the human – insofar as Oedipus’s predicament in the play represents the ego’s inevitable fate: to always be attempting to avoid what it suspects to be its horrible destiny; but the more it runs, the tighter become the coils that bind it to that fate. That fate is not so much death as it is something far more crushing, mocking, diminishing—something that springs from the buried, unexamined links between our most unacceptable, ‘shameful’ desires and our most paralyzing terrors. Moreover, it entails a painfully conscious recognition and digestion of one’s ultimate and utter insignificance vis-à-vis the Gods and nature.

Before this realization sinks in, we see a marked impetuosity and managerial mania in the character of Oedipus. Sophocles succeeds – at least with this reader – in punching the wind out of the belly, leaving one writhing helplessly on the ground. Even so clever and beloved a savior of the city (of Thebes, by answering the riddle of the Sphinx) as Oedipus cannot extricate himself from the ever-tightening coils of Pythia’s prophecy (named after the Python-serpent slain by Apollo). As ‘tyrannos,’ he is the self-made, self-authorized ruler of the Thebans. He seized or claimed this authority after demonstrating his superiority – and yet the conditions that enable and legitimize his rise (by killing his father, Laius, and marrying his mother, Jocasta the queen) are the very fulfillment of his curse. The fact that the abominable acts and his investiture as ruler are two sides of the same coin is crucial: those who are first (citizens) will be last (the most fallen).

No one, it seems, who registers the full weight and impact of these sobering, chastening truths about our ultimate irrelevance and insignificance as separate egos, could ever again—with a clear conscience or robust enthusiasm—chase after empty honors, exotic pleasures and luxuries, or any of the countless distractions and diversions available to man – but would gratefully make do with enough. What does a thoroughgoing digestion of this overwhelming insight into the puniness of even the most proud and prominent specimens of humanity – the Pharaohs, the heroes, the Caesars, the holy Roman emperors, the Napoleons – lead to? Doesn’t it make it impossible to go back to the cramped old anthropocentric perspective, where such childlike hero-worship is still possible? It is in this sense that Oedipus Tyrannus is unmistakably a religious work of the highest order – if one of the chief functions of religion is to reveal to man his actual place in the grand scheme of things – and to make him feel it. Does such a humbling and purging realization necessarily or invariably crush or permanently cripple us – so that we are thereafter consigned to a pessimistic paralysis, unable to work up any further enthusiasm for existence?

I would say it all depends on how much resilient strength of soul there is to begin with. Certainly there are plenty of spirits that are broken by gentler impacts than the one considered here – persons whose will to press on through life is extinguished under lighter weights than this. But for other, few in number, this is precisely what is called for in order to balance and temper their oversized spirits properly. No doubt, it is fortunate for most of us that our minds – unlike that of the relentlessly probing Oedipus – have an instinctive awareness of where to shrink back and stop asking questions the answers to which we are scarcely strong and brave enough to withstand. Perhaps this helps to account for why Oedipus Tyrannus won only second and not first place the year it competed in the drama festival at Athens! Its true impact, while powerfully sensed, failed nonetheless to be fully acknowledged even by perhaps the most spiritually resilient audiences ever to fill a theater.

It would be foolhardy not to frankly acknowledge the double-edged or equivocal character of this initiatory vision – this staggering insight into human insignificance, blindness, and fragility. The peculiar light that floods the mind during such momentous initiatory experiences cannot help but have a destabilizing effect upon our familiar bearings. From the standpoint of our established understanding of things, the inrush of light, rather than merely illuminating and valorizing that understanding, exposes its grave limitations and gaping inadequacies. Some “victims” of this flood of penetrating-exposing light (from the unconscious?) never really recover from the shattering ordeal. Like a literal tsunami that sweeps over a coastal town, the flood of light dissolves and washes away all those once trusted, once-stable structures. “Madness” is one name for such fateful encounters with this transgressive and irrational light (or is it a kind of darkness?) from beyond the usually secure perimeter of the human, all too human.

This exposing, disruptive light – and I am proposing that Sophocles’ play has artfully embedded within it a spark or scintilla of this equivocal light – both reveals and, in a sense, magnifies what is already there in the character of those it penetrates like an X-ray. What does Oedipus’ self-blinding tell us about his fundamental character? By ensuring thereafter that he could never again look upon those his actions, however unintentional, had wronged or desecrated, his blinding suggests that he still adhered to notions of taboo (against father-slaying and mother-laying) that, for another character might have been rendered null and void by the very light that throws the human conventional domain into dwarfish irrelevance. It is precisely this property of the equivocal, transcendent light – its inherently transgressive character, “beyond good and evil” – that makes it so potentially undermining of salutary, civilizing human laws and institutions – including the incest taboo and religious proscriptions against parricide and matricide.

Are we getting close, here, to the reasons why religion has been regularly and systematically tamed by those, ever a minority, who astutely recognized just how dangerous and destructive it can be in undiluted, uncompromising doses? By selectively emphasizing only (or mostly) its civically and morally edifying powers and potentials, these teachers, poets, philosophers, and prophets labored to transmute a potentially lethal and maddening substance into one of civilized humanity’s principal supports and comforts! No small feat. Was Carl Jung, who surely knew, firsthand, of the equivocal power of religion – with its rootedness in the archetypes – one such artful, philanthropic tamer of (explosive-corrosive-animating-electrifying) religious materials? Was he attempting, with the other hand, to recover its lost or watered-down power to turn our lives upside down? While reading Jung, we cannot fail to notice the indisputable sense of awe with which he confronts the mystery of the unconscious. And, for him, the unconscious was the true source of “religious” or numinous experience, as it has forever been for all genuine initiates and “victims” of that transcendent-transgressive light.

Contrast Jung’s reverential, respectful stance towards the numinous with the comparatively dismissive, cavalier, or patently hostile attitude towards religion that we see in Voltaire and most Enlightenment philosophes (including our Founding Fathers, as “deists” and diehard rationalists), and it is difficult to imagine that the latter had any feel or natural susceptibility for the numinous core of religion. For them, it was simply superstition and delusions—which, to be fair, it certainly can be for those who lack openness to the numinous. Nevertheless, it was recognized that religion—because of its ‘irrational,’ spellbinding appeal and its power to override commonsense as a compass and guide for some persons—had to be controlled through the spread of “rational enlightenment,” which was to supersede and supplant religion by exposing its roots in childlike or primitive beliefs. Thus, the separation of Church (which is not synonymous with “religion,” as I am treating it here) and State was a relatively superficial or peripheral matter.

A far more significant campaign against genuine religious (transcendent-numinous) experience sprang from the general elevation or exaltation of (scientific/pragmatic) rationality to an authoritative status that had never before been dared by our ancestors. (Something akin to this was underway in the Athenian Enlightenment—with the rise of ‘atheistic,’ tradition-eroding, skeptical Sophists—when Sophocles wrote Oedipus Tyrannus, partly as a warning to his fellow Greeks, as Bernard Knox argues in his excellent study, Oedipus of Thebes.) Thus a rather narrowly defined (but materially transformative and momentous) form of human rationality was raised, by design and via “modern education,” to a position of unprecedented authority over human affairs. Religion was implicitly demoted in dignity and authority in this “transvaluative” campaign conducted by proud, “enlightened” men on both sides of the Atlantic. It would take some time – after the intoxicating “high” of this myth of progress by means of pragmatic reasoning began to wear off, following a couple of world wars – before a sizable number of reflective persons began to realize that modern rationality had no bottom or grounding to it – and that it was essentially just instrumental, a mere method. Moreover, there was no natural aim or teleology to it, unlike ancient (ontological-speculative) reason.

Nietzsche and the Naturalistic Fallacy (9/5/13)

It seems clear that both as a philosopher and as a psychologist Nietzsche falls prey to the naturalistic fallacy. Instead of acknowledging the independence and autonomy of the psyche—and conceding that, for example, a ‘blighted elm’ or a ‘hog-nosed snake’ in a dream does not refer to a natural tree or snake, but to ‘imaginal’ trees and snakes—Nietzsche, like Freud, tends to ground the psyche in the naturalistic realm. As a consequence, it follows that he comes perilously close to reducing philosophies, ideas, and ideals to instincts and drives that preserve a particular biological-physiological form of life. A corollary of this naturalism (which, as Hillman notes, ‘soon declines into materialism’)—when it underpins a philosophy—issues in a campaign to ‘change the world’ by means of its ‘transvaluation of values.’ In other words, it seeks to change culture as a mechanism for literally changing mankind’s nature. This is to be accomplished by pedagogically modifying the order of rank of man’s drives, or so it would seem. Nietzsche—as I understand him—seems to move back and forth between a kind of monism (where the mind, or psyche, of the human is essentially an offshoot and epiphenomenon of nature, biology, physiology) and a kind of Cartesian dualism (where man’s heroic-creative ego imposes its own will and vision upon nature—if he is strong and masterful).

But all of this is very different from the Jungian/Hillmanian and the Sufi/mundus imaginalis standpoints which seem to be in agreement concerning the independent, autonomous reality of the psyche, or archetypal imagination. Because this independent realm operates according to its own very different set of laws than the natural world, there is no attempt to translate the terms and conditions of the imaginal realm into those of the realm of nature and vice versa. To attempt to do so is, in its mildest form, delusory, and in its most extreme form, murderously insane or depraved. For this reason, there is a continual effort to maintain a clear distinction between the natural and the imaginal (or psychic) realms—or the dayworld and the underworld, to put it mythologically. Nietzsche—with every bit as much ambition as Marx or Hitler—wants to see his dream actualized. His dream, of course, is his vision of the Overman, of a carefully modified return to the Homeric-Sophoclean, tragic poet-creator who enthusiastically says ‘yes’ to existence in all its horror and sublimity. He wants for ‘conditions on the ground’ to change in accordance with his subtly worked out vision. He wants culture to model itself in accordance with a blueprint that he provides. He wants to be a ‘commander and legislator’ over the world of actual culture, in its formative power over the furniture of posterity’s heart and mind. He wants to remake man and redirect the species’ trajectory.

Why do the Sufis knowingly laugh at such ambitions and campaigns? What do they understand that Nietzsche appears to be blind to? What makes Nietzsche blind? What, really, is the will to power for Nietzsche and how does this idea taint his thinking about the psyche? If Nietzsche is primarily committed to an aggressive, ego-driven competition for world-historical-cultural supremacy, then how capable was his feverishly active mind of understanding and justly appraising the stillness and serenity that can only appear after all such driving, competitive, heroic ambitions have been silenced?

Nature, for Nietzsche, is not, for instance, the nature of the Great Goddess of corn and crops, but the nature of the “hero, a world of outer things or inner impulses to be conquered and harnessed. And these ‘natures’ differ again from the virginal pristine nature of Artemis, the nature of Pan, the nature of Dionysus, or the mechanistic rational nature of Saturn.” (James Hillman, Revisioning Psychology, p. 85)

Julian Young writes:

As indicated, Nietzsche’s positive metaphysics is above all naturalistic. Nothing exists outside nature, outside space and time. The starting point for his metaphysics is, it seems to me, Darwin’s theory of evolution. (Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, p. 414)

And later…

Since life in general is will to power, when it comes to human life in particular, ‘psychology,’ a branch of physiology, should be grasped as ‘the morphology and the doctrine of the development of the will to power which is what I have done.’ (ibid., p. 415)

Young likens Nietzsche’s outlook, epistemologically, to that of American pragmatists (whose ‘roots’ are to be found in Schopenhauer’s and Nietzsche’s philosophies). Thus, a theory (such as the will to power hypothesis) is likely to be true—though not guaranteed to be so with absolute certainty—if it works. Further evidence of his fundamental, inescapable naturalism. Young, on p. 417, writes:

Nietzsche calls modernity a ‘half-barbarism’: ‘half’ because we have civilization—plumbing and the police—‘barbarism’ because we lack culture. ‘Culture,’ recall, is defined as ‘a unity of artistic style in all the expressions of the life of a people.’

I realize that very close to the core of my chronic suspicions about Nietzsche’s philosophical project is my uncomfortableness with his naturalistic metaphysic, which stubbornly refuses to recognize the ‘truth value’ of anything that transcends of space, time, causality, physiology. While he took himself to be the ‘first’ genuine psychologist, I take him—in a certain, restricted sense—to be a kind of anti-psychologist, at least to the extent that he insists upon reducing the psyche to a more or less compliant servant or instrument of man’s physiology. As with Freud—who owes more to Nietzsche than he ever admitted to—the contents of the psyche all ultimately point back to instinctual drives, erotic wishes, and other physiological urges, which they represent by means of dream images, fantasy material, and other subconscious material. Neuroses occur when the physiological-instinctual needs are being thwarted or repressed by social or religious constraints, guilt, etc. There is just enough truth in this limited set of claims to have worked as a satisfactory and comprehensive account of the psyche for the millions of persons who cannot (or will not) see any further than this. But for a psychologist of Jung’s caliber, this theory of the unconscious did not go far enough or deep enough to account for the full range of psychic phenomena and numinous experiences that he was personally and intimately acquainted with.

Jung ultimately found Freud’s psychology reductive, just as I find Nietzsche’s psychology reductive. It tries to cram far too much into the Procrustean bed of ‘nature’…of physiology. Moreover, his insistence upon interpreting all moral thought and action as ultimately rooted in the ‘will to power, and nothing besides’ is one-sided and counter-intuitive. This is not to say that it is of no value in helping us understand ourselves and moral phenomena. Nietzsche’s brilliant insights have added greatly to our arsenal of weapons for combating ignorance about ourselves. I am simply making the unremarkable claim that his brilliant approach and his explanatory scheme are far from being sufficient—let alone, exhaustive—just as with Freud’s and Adler’s (who adapted Nietzsche’s will to power concept to depth psychology).

It suits my (still mysterious) purposes to radicalize the distinction between nature and culture (or ‘anti-nature’?), whereas for Nietzsche, it is usually quite the opposite: he is almost always maneuvering to ‘translate’ man back into nature. Why? Because he believes (Western) man has become sick (‘diseased,’ ‘decadent’) from buying into 2,000 years of anti-nature—namely, ‘Christianity.’ This powerful, coordinated assault upon the ‘manly’ (‘master morality’) instincts—this ‘effeminization’—has cut us off from our actual, natural-instinctual roots and propped up an illusory, unnatural, non-existent ‘ideal world’ in its stead. Nietzsche is sincerely and justifiably concerned about the damage that this colossally effective fraud has inflicted upon Western culture. My question is: has he thrown out the baby with the bathwater?

If I may be permitted a joke: you can drive out anti-nature with a pitchfork, but she always returns. My little jest with Horace points to something very basic about human beings—something any genuine philosopher must acknowledge: as creatures, as a species, we are a marriage of nature and culture—and culture exists in a fundamental state of tension, perhaps even a kind of antagonism, with mere nature. Without language and culture we simply cannot become fully human. That’s how crucial—how utterly indispensable and ineradicable—our cultural induction is. Now, I am certainly not accusing Nietzsche of being unaware of this basic fact about humans (as such, anywhere, anytime). Nor do I wish to discredit his very astute criticisms of Christianity’s unhealthy impact on many persons—and not merely upon ‘master’ types who are encouraged to feel guilty or ashamed of their strength, their heroic ‘ambitions,’ their contempt for weakness, their pride in themselves, their very happiness, etc. I simply want to argue that he went too far in blaming a cultural/pedagogical institution—an ideology—for all the negative effects that he saddles it with. It is a gross simplification unworthy of so fine a mind as Nietzsche’s. I believe that as individuals and as a species we are always engaged in a kind of balancing act between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ within ourselves. When either side of this pair of opposites tyrannizes over the other, we are certain to run afoul. As Jung said, ‘too much culture makes for a sick animal, while too much nature leads to barbarism.’

A Note on Ambition: Moral Heroes and Moral Zeroes (6/22-23/12)

These past few weeks I have not been as focused or as disciplined as I was prior to this passive patch I seem to have entered. This dearth of productivity (especially with respect to meaty journal entries) weighs noticeably upon my conscience, I must confess. I suppose I would be lying if I were to deny that ambition, of a sort, plays a part in my personal psychology—and when I am not being productive or creative I soon feel as if I’m just taking up space on an already overcrowded planet. Being human would be an unendurably ‘stale and unprofitable’ affair, indeed, if it were not for those precious phases of focused, creative writing that I am fortunate to experience.

Of course, when I am ‘graced’ with these creative phases, they are their own sufficient reward. Because the intense awakening of my ‘higher’ faculties and my creative potentials bring such substantial satisfaction, I care not about ambition while the ‘juices are flowing.’ It is only after the source-springs of inspiration appear to have mysteriously dried up—only then do I fall prey to such ‘pedestrian’ thoughts and concerns. It would appear, then, that these slightly awkward and uncomfortable musings about the value and importance of my writings for others kick into gear only when I find myself stuck with nothing of vital importance to express. Perhaps this is as it should be. The very idea of writing about spiritual and psychological matters so that my personal ambitions may be advanced is morally objectionable to me—on a par with quack therapists who profit materially by exploiting confused and ailing patients without ever really being able to resolve their psychological problems or to enlighten them about their true sources.

I want to be careful here. I want to try to avoid hiding under the skirts of my moral indignation, for this is always an easy way to bring a quick and tidy end to a deeper investigation of the (usually) complex matters at hand. If I am to be quite honest, I must admit that my own moral indignation, when it valiantly sallies forth, almost always functions in this way—namely, as a (psychologically suspect) stratagem for shutting down an otherwise promising investigation into gnarled, twisted, and murky psychological factors. Either I become uncomfortable with the unflattering secrets I am likely to unearth there, or the following of such poorly marked trails simply requires more energy and effort than I am willing, at that moment, to expend. At any event, I have come to believe that perhaps most moral judgments and reactions—my own and those of others—boil down to this laziness and fear (of discovering uncomfortable truths) that I notice in myself. Of course, I am not recommending (for myself or for others) the jettisoning of moral judgment altogether. I’m only saying that—from a more rigorous standard of ethical values—it is not advisable to stop there. We might profitably think of our moral judgments and reactions as the frontier or boundary line beyond which we are not easily able to extend our thinking, our feeling, our limited light. Looked at differently, these boundary lines become the proper starting point for genuine psychological, as distinct from merely moral, understanding.

When I pause here to reflect, I have to say that it is precisely because of this commonly encountered abuse of moral judgments and posturing (as a means of warding off any further exploration of the countless possible ‘trails’ that open up before us every day) that I become suspicious the moment I am confronted by strong moral pronouncements and proud moral convictions—whether from others or within myself. From the standpoint of depth psychology, such decisive, ‘cauterizing’ moral judgments amount to ‘closing the case’ and refusing to consider any more evidence.

All this simply confirms our old suspicion that morality and psychology are often quite antagonistic rivals when it comes to interpreting human behavior, motivation, and so forth. The moralist—apparently—clings to the reassuring belief that his moral judgments and interpretations are not merely adequate responses to psychological phenomena—but inherently preferable to a psychological reading. And why does the moralist need to believe such a thing? Isn’t it because—dimly sensing his own limitations of will, patience, understanding, compassion, and self-control—he fears that without raising the rampart of moral defiance, ‘chaos will come again’ and swallow him up? So, why can’t the moralist simply admit this? Why can’t he admit that he resorts to moral judgment as a means of protection against certain drives, against disquieting bits of knowledge, against efforts, against uncertainties, etc., that he is simply not up to dealing with? The simple answer, of course, is ‘his pride stands in the way.’ To be fair, few persons relish the experience of being out of their depth, so it shouldn’t strain the imagination for us to grasp why the moralist leans so habitually upon his moral judgments, always striving to strengthen them and patch them up as soon as they start to become porous—allowing ‘psychology’ to leak through.

The intrepid psychologist who imaginatively presses past these moral prohibitions and boundaries within himself in order to probe more deeply into the complex and unlit roots of his own psychic life will not begrudge the more numerous ‘moral’ men and women these protective walls that shield them from ‘knowledge of (their own) good and evil—or good versus evil.’ Nor will he deride their pride in what frankly amounts to their limitations, as distinct from their (more dangerous) potentials. He will let sleeping dogs lie, as the old saying goes.

A conventionally moral life—at least where exceptionally ‘spirited’ human beings are under consideration—necessarily involves significant self-sacrifice, effective mastery over unruly drives and riotous inclinations, as well as a considerable amount of cognitive dissonance, due to the strained and occasionally preposterous interpretations of his experience that he is limited to when denied the benefits conferred by true psychological understanding, which is always subtler, more complex and more comprehensive in nature. On these grounds, alone, the life of our little moral hero can scarcely be regarded as an enviably untroubled life. He is up against real dynamisms, conundrums, and conflicting currents within himself each day as he struggles to sail a straight course through turbulent waters and maelstroms. Such efforts are not to be scoffed at. Even if these moral ‘heroes’ enjoy the support of an admiring public (the encouraging and vitalizing effects of which should never be underestimated, where the heroic ego is under consideration!), their valiant efforts to keep their ‘white hats’ unshakably fastened upon their proud heads are worthy of our respect. At least—like an ambitious or competitive athlete—he really tries his level best to be ‘good’ and to avoid being ‘bad.’ He knows first-hand the torments of a troubled conscience when he detects baseness or mediocrity, villainy or slavishness, within himself. His efforts to vanquish or to eradicate these dark, shadowy, shameful elements of his human, all-too-human nature may be doomed from the start—but the mere fact that he struggles probably sets him apart from those, probably a majority, who struggle no more than they absolutely have to.

Thus, our moral hero is situated, let us say, somewhere between the many, on the one side, and the genuine (and I don’t mean professional) psychologists, on the other. The genuine psychologists have managed, through their very different (and by no means popularly supported!) efforts, to move somewhat beyond the arena of moral heroics into the less dramatic, less ‘humanistic’ arena of psychological enquiry. Moral heroics have no recognized place in this very different realm of experience and investigation. To enter this realm one must have first loosened one’s mental ties and attachments to the other one. ‘Can’t serve two masters,’ and all that. Game change. Heroics of a sort may be involved in the new realm but they are heroics of a radically different stripe—since they have, as it were, no witnessing audience, no leaping cheerleaders, and little public fanfare.

So, to return to the point from which I started this essay: ambition makes no sense where there are no witnesses to behold and to envy one’s success. To the extent that the focus of my own work has moved beyond the exclusively human (and therefore predominantly moral-political) realm of concerns, I have begun to opt out of that game. My ‘ambition’ is simply a vestige from that earlier phase—the pre-psychological phase—of my unfoldment. Perhaps, like the little spurs at the tail end of certain snakes, where legs used to be in the evolutionary past, such vestiges are never completely ‘transcended’ or dispensed with—however fond we may be of ‘pure’ and ‘unalloyed’ fidelity to our new fields of experience. It is nevertheless worth repeating: I seem to be susceptible to such concerns only during these interim phases when the ‘muse’ is mum. When she sings in me I am sufficiently fulfilled so that I crave no beholding witnesses or approving supporters. Such solitariness appears to be the price one must pay in order to glimpse—and only fleetingly—secrets that are denied even to the most muscular of moralists. And why are they denied to them? Precisely because the moralist—as such, and due to the very nature of his divisive-dualistic campaign wherein he plants himself firmly at one end of a vast polarity—refuses to embrace and to integrate all that ‘shadow’ at the far end of his ‘pole’ of Goodness. He turns his back—and, in some cases, the tip of his righteous sword—upon those very contents, states, and perspectives that are prima materia for the psychologist.

No wonder, then, that I have long had ‘ticklish’ relations with fervently ‘good’ (or ‘good-identified’) persons. Persons who live in a state of moral oblivion or obtuseness fail to grasp what I’m ‘up to.’ Typically, they sense nothing amiss (or threatening) about me. But this is precisely because they know or choose to know little of me behind my genial ‘mask.’ Morally heroic persons, on the other hand, have every reason to be unnerved by me when, as an occasional psychologist writing from beyond their ‘good and evil,’ I no doubt come across like the lapping waves of the sea against their carefully sculpted sand castles on the shore.

There is a type of ambition that is rather more innocuous and forgivable than the cutthroat, vaunting variety that usually leads to trouble of some sort or another. We observe this benign form of ambition in children who seek the praise of their parents by making high marks at school and in adults who strive in a polite, inoffensive manner to win the respect of their peers through charitable deeds. In such striving the line between personal egotism and the social/familial instincts become blurred. As long as his striving for excellence and for success is not directly in conflict with the well-being of the community or social order, a man’s ambition is not only excused—it is praised and encouraged, since his virtues and contributions become part of the community treasure chest, as it were. As long as the benignly ambitious man continues to make valuable contributions that can be put to good use by his society, the expansion of his personal power and importance will be tolerated. But as soon as he behaves in such a way—or introduces ideas—that his society regards with disapproval or with cold indifference, the mutually satisfying and mutually beneficial love affair hits a speed bump, if not a brick wall.

As long as a person is content, therefore, to remain a faithful servant to the collective will and interest, he will be warmly embraced and handsomely rewarded by his society. The moment, however, that he bends his chief efforts to genuinely individual[1] problems and concerns, he is more likely to come under suspicion by the very society that honored and celebrated him while his best energies and virtues were earmarked for that society—or at least by those within that society whose consciousness is wholly collective and lacking in any consciously differentiated individuality. If the will or fundamental attitude of the collective—any collective—could be reduced to a simple statement, it would be ‘Either you are with us or you are of no use to us.’

Lip service is paid in this country to the idea or theory of the sanctity of the individual, but in practice, it is almost always the will of some group or another that carries the day. This de facto ‘tyranny’ of the group over the individual springs not so much from a cruelly imposed will-to power (although mob-power and group-arrogance are certainly real forces which must be taken into account) as from the inertia of the group and its extremely limited ability of its leaders to cope with the actual subtleties and complexities of human life, the hallmark of individual consciousness.

Groups vary in size and strength—and the greater their size and strength, the greater the leveling and simplifying power of the group will. It is far more difficult to stop or to change the direction of a moving herd than it is for a single individual to stop and/or redirect his own steps. In order for a single individual to change the powerful but blind will of a mob, he must not only be extraordinarily persuasive, but there must also be a latent willingness within the soul of the mob to listen to the exceptional orator. An example was provided by the great willingness on the part of Soviet society to listen to Gorbachev when the time came for dramatic reforms. If the individual orator is insufficiently persuasive, he will be unable to rouse that hidden seed of willingness and the status quo will prevail. Or, if that potential for redirection is not present, the blandishments and cajoleries of even the most impressive orators will fail to elicit any notable response from the intractable crowd. Only when these two come together—extraordinary persuasiveness on the part of the inspired leader or spokesman and a fundamental, if latent, readiness for change, on the part of the group—for a new direction, a new myth, a new vision—only then will the ground shift. The group may be as small as a board of directors for corporation or as large as the amassed members of a culture or a shared language.


[1] Jung is careful to make a noteworthy distinction between individuation and mere individual-ism:

Individuation is always to some extent opposed to collective norms, since it means separation and differentiation from the general and a building up of the particular—not a particularity that is sought out, but one that is already ingrained in the psychic constitution. The opposition to the collective norm, however, is only apparent, since closer examination shows that the individual standpoint is not antagonistic to it, but only differently oriented. The individual way can never be directly opposed to the collective norm, because the opposite of the collective norm could only be another, but contrary, norm. But the individual way can, by definition, never be a norm. A norm is the product of the totality of individual ways, and its justification and beneficial effect are contingent upon the existence of individual ways that need from time to time to orient to a norm. A norm serves no purpose when it possesses absolute validity. A real conflict with the collective norm arises only when an individual way is raised to a norm, which is the actual aim of extreme individualism. Naturally, this aim is pathological and inimical to life. It has, accordingly, nothing to do with individuation, which, though it may strike out on an individual bypath, precisely on that account needs the norm for its orientation to society and for the vitally necessary relationship of the individual to society. Individuation, therefore, leads to a natural esteem for the collective norm, but if the orientation is exclusively collective the norm becomes increasingly superfluous and morality goes to pieces. The more a man’s life is shaped by the collective norm, the greater is his individual immorality. (C.G. Jung; CW, vol. 6, par. 761)

More on the Spirit and Soul as Bases of the Coniunctio (8/6/11)

Have I become too hard on humans—my own human side, as well?

Sometimes—this morning, for instance, when I woke up in my typically somber and mildly fretful mood—I view my human side as a brow-beaten, neglected and abused dog. It is loyal to its daimon master, suffering all manner of privations on its behalf. But what if these austerities, this forced seclusion in a state of emotional-erotic ‘purdah,’ could be relaxed a bit—allowing this starved and shivering little mutt to grow into a mature and respectable man—to ‘come into his own’?

It stands to reason that there will be more sadness, regret, and frustration in my life than perhaps needs to be there, so long as this condition persists—this power arrangement where the daimonic taskmaster restricts the opportunities for ordinary human happiness for the anxious ‘host’ he now exploits and dominates. And it seems ridiculous to suppose that the ‘human, all-too-human’ sadness and pain experienced under this rather draconian ‘regime’ do not find their un-merry way into my philosophical and psychological reflections, strongly coloring the general worldview that is emerging therefrom.

It would also make sense that the frustration and sadness, the dour disappointment and deprivation, that my human side suffers under the current arrangement gets ‘translated’ into envy and resentment towards those—the majority?—who more freely enjoy what life (this life) has to offer. Of course, it would be difficult for me to acknowledge this envy and resentment because that would suggest that somehow I got things seriously wrong about how life should be lived. Then all of my criticisms of collective norms start to carry the ‘stink’ of a rearguard attempt to defend a stubborn ‘spiritual’ prejudice, a proud blindness, and an inability to relax and enjoy life with moderation.

But what would this move entail? If the restraints and repressive habits currently in place are relaxed, can my life as a whole be fairly expected to improve? In exchange for the ‘promise of greater sensual and social happiness,’ won’t I be running the risk of slackening this spiritual tension it has taken so much care and time to establish?

And what form would this happiness I’m currently deprived of be likely to take? Isn’t it the companionship of like-minded friends that I yearn for more than anything else? But this raises additional questions, does it not? If these ‘like-minded’ persons I’m interested in befriending are like-minded insofar as they, too, share many of the same exacting critical standards and ‘unpopular’ concerns that fuel and propel my thinking and writing, then don’t I run the risk of jumping from the frying pan into the fire—at least where my impatient distaste for slack feeling and slack thinking is concerned? Such ‘like-minded’ friends might serve only to reinforce and intensify my ‘ascetic’ and asocial leanings. Maybe, maybe not? Perhaps what I need to cultivate is simply greater compassion for my fellow humans.

A passage from Jung’s Mysterium Coniunctionis (par. 175) sheds relevant light upon my present question. Fittingly, it is found in a chapter dealing with the alchemical symbol of the dog:

The theriomorphic form of Sol as lion and dog and of Luna as a bitch shows that there is an aspect of both luminaries which justifies the need for a ‘symbolizatio’ in animal form. That is to say the two luminaries are, in a sense, animals or appetites, although, as we have seen, the ‘potentiae sensuales’ are ascribed only to Luna. There is, however, also a Sol niger, who, significantly enough, is contrasted with the daytime sun and clearly distinguished from it. This advantage is not shared by Luna, because she is obviously sometimes bright and sometimes dark. Psychologically, this means that consciousness by its very nature distinguishes itself from its shadow, whereas the unconscious is not only contaminated with its own negative side but is burdened with shadow cast off by the conscious mind. Although the solar animals, the lion and the eagle, are nobler than the bitch, they are nevertheless animals and beasts of prey at that, which means that even our sun-like consciousness has its dangerous animals. Or, if Sol is the spirit and Luna the body, the spirit too may be corrupted by pride or concupiscence, a fact which we are inclined to overlook in our one-sided admiration of the ‘spirit.’

As usual, Jung packs a cluster of potent insights into a compact passage. First, I would make these links: Sol = daimon = spirit; Luna = ‘human’ = ‘abused/neglected bitch’ = body. What’s missing here is soul, and yet I certainly associate soul as a perspective with a generally melancholy, somber mood. It is feminine (in the sense merely of being absorbent, passive, not dynamic like the daimon) and it has links with both the daimon (spirit) and the body, for which it ‘feels’ a measure of compassion.

I have become increasingly sensitive to this ‘concupiscence’ that Jung ascribes to the spirit or daimon. Occasionally I sense the ruthless, single-minded driven-ness of the daimon, with its uncaring, indifferent—nay, contemptuous—attitude towards the body and its ‘human’ needs and yearnings. The important psychological observation here is that the daimon or spirit is not the serene, neutral, blissed-out topos within the totality of the Self, as I have erroneously supposed it to be in the past. It can be like the sunlight intensely focused into a point by a magnifying lens or a raging fire that burns through everything upon which it is directed—evaporating the moisture of feeling and even of imagination. In other words, it very definitely has a destructive aspect or character where all (imaginative, personal, and feeling-related) forms are concerned, while being a reliable force of liberation at the same time. Whether it is experienced as ‘creative’ (liberational) or destructive depends, it would seem, on whether or not we are identified with these ‘forms’ which are shattered or incinerated by the all-penetrating sun-like fire of spirit—or to what extent we are.

It also occurred to me, as I was reading the passage from Jung, that it might not be an outlandish stretch to link the spirit vs. soul/body with Nietzsche’s ‘Masters vs. Slaves,’ respectively. There is actually quite a close alignment between the two symbolic polarities.

Under the diluted but culturally pervasive influence of Christianity’s absorption and assimilation of soul into the much more powerful theological concept of spirit, I have tended in the past to conflate the soul with my ‘daimon.’ The differentiation of these two standpoints or qualitatively distinct energies can help enormously in my ongoing efforts to establish ‘where’ I am (under the principal influence of which complex I happen to be at any moment) in the psyche. By more completely and distinctly differentiating these inner figures—all of which may be said to behave like more or less organized, coherent personalities, each with its own character, aims (telos), and traits—‘I’ am in a better position to become disentangled from a state of identification with any or all of them. They become further relativized—interdependent—parts of the composite that ‘I’ am, at any given moment.

Why do I find this a preferable situation to the former one—where spirit (or the ‘daimon’) and soul were largely conflated, regarded as one and the same? For one thing, I believe I might be in a better position to understand the dynamics of my psychic life with greater fidelity to the facts—observable facts that have largely been hidden until now. I strongly suspect, for example, that there is a relationship between soul and the daimon (now that they are understood as two distinctive centers of gravity, each with its own ‘will’) that was invisible to me before. What if the loneliness and alienation I often experience is the soul’s response to the spirit’s bold and solitary forays into uncharted territory? The spirit, itself, being of a cold and inhuman character, does not register these painful feelings of isolation and estrangement from all that is comfortingly familiar, but the soul feels this quite poignantly. Thus understood, the daimon’s penetrating and subtle explorations of the remote frontiers of psychic experience invariably elicit a more imaginative, feeling-toned response from the soul perspective—and this response by the soul is a crucial part of the mapping-project itself—and psychic cartography is a central component of my life task. I have too exclusively associated my ‘vocation’ with the daimon, but now I am beginning to see that the daimon, or spirit, is only half the picture. Like a drill or a spacecraft, it ventures into new territory, but the soul is responsible for working up a suitable portrait or rendering of the newly uncovered terrain or topos. The soul needs the probing, penetrating spirit to enter into (and gather raw data from) the new territory—since it must remain anchored in the depths—which it then decodes and clothes in appropriate imaginal dress. Because this process happens simultaneously when I am writing, it has been difficult to recognize, until now, just how different these two functional properties—spirit and soul, daimon and imagination—are. Perhaps the coniunctio is between ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’ (rather than between Self and Ego, or some other pair of opposites).

Additional Thoughts about Ramana Maharshi and C.G. Jung (6/7/11)

Re-reading Ramana Maharshi’s little book[1]—which I have done periodically since I first discovered the book at an ‘esoteric’ bookstore in 1977—always presents baffling questions to me. In a number of ways it is deeper and far more radical in its claims than Jung’s, Plato’s, Hillman’s, or even Nietzsche’s. Perhaps the point of greatest divergence from Jung and Nietzsche is RM’s firm and uncompromising position towards the ego, or ‘I’ consciousness. For him, the ego is an utter illusion and it is the ‘one big thing’ obstructing the path to Self-realization, happiness, and bliss. Jung and Nietzsche, while they are not at all naïve about humans’ capacity for self-deception (and the crucial role played by the ego in this business), do not preach or recommend the annihilation of the ego by means of radical self-enquiry, as Ramana does.

For Jung, without ego-consciousness there cannot be true moral conscience and responsibility—and to dispense with these is to become sub- rather than super-human. The ego provides a crucial two-fronted defense against outer world seductions and threats, on the one side, and potentially overwhelming unconscious inner drives and impulses, on the other. But it is not merely a defensive factor; it is also integrative and assimilative on those same two, inner and outer, fronts. Jung does not make a simple equation between the inner world of the unconscious and ‘God’ (or the ‘Self’)—as such—as Ramana appears to do. Or, if Jung does recognize parallels between the unconscious (as it is perceived via its phenomenology) and a God-image, it comes much closer to the God-image of the morally ambiguous Old Testament Yahweh than to the All-good and All-forgiving God-image of the New Testament. At any event, the idea of annihilating the ego—if such a feat is even possible—and identifying with a God-image, any God-image, constitutes a kind of madness for Jung—or, at the very least, a dangerous inflation which invites a compensatory deflation by the unconscious.

To be fair to Ramana Maharshi, ‘morality’ as it is conventionally understood (or mis-understood) is irrelevant to the Self (or atman), as the very notion of a ‘doer’ or agent is obliterated in ‘final liberation.’ There is a kind of ‘Catch-22’ or inescapable paradox to this divergence between Jung and Ramana Maharshi, which may stem from their fundamentally incommensurable vantage points. Since Jung is viewing these questions from the standpoint of the ego, or ‘I’-consciousness, and Ramana has presumably transcended ego-consciousness and speaks from the standpoint of atman, it follows that their views must diverge. (Moreover, since I am still ordinarily bound within ‘illusory’ ego-consciousness, it stands to reason that I am likely, under normal conditions, to find Jung’s stated position more persuasive—since it proceeds from a psychological standpoint with which I am all too familiar.) Ego-consciousness is, by its very nature, discriminating consciousness—as Jung repeatedly informs us—while the ecstatic, mystical awareness of the sage is not. What we have here is something vaguely analogous to the difference between the Apollonian and the Dionysian modes of consciousness, as famously described by Nietzsche in his Birth of Tragedy.

The liberation that Ramana Maharshi speaks of is liberation from the pairs of opposites—those very syzygies and polarities from which ego consciousness is generated. Jung’s chief concern, in the more advanced stages of the individuation process, is the reconciliation or balancing of the various pairs of opposites. This problem of the opposites is the focus of his attention in perhaps his magnum opus, The Mysterium Coniunctionis. What are being conjoined are the pairs of opposites. But, paradoxically, the idea of the ego reconciling the opposites from which it is generated is akin to Baron Münchausen lifting himself out of the quicksand by pulling his own ponytail. The ego does not actively orchestrate the coniunctio; it endures it. One necessarily undergoes a shift in one’s psychic center of gravity during this liberating ordeal, this torturous (from the ego-standpoint) crucifixion of the illusory self as the true Self incarnates from the background. The stronger and deeper the attachment to the world of literal forms and to the ego’s accomplishments and holdings, the more painful the process of renunciation, those ‘purgatorial’ fires that burn away the ligaments binding the jiva to the realm of maya.


Another way of presenting RM’s ‘Who am I?’ enquiry (the method of dissolving the ego for which he is best known) is to explore the various meanings and interpretations of the phrase ‘seeing through the ego, or I-consciousness.’ The goal here is to gradually and systematically bring about a stable identification with the seer—and to break the identification with the seen or with the modes or means of seeing. RM repeatedly maintains that the Self or Seer is our true nature and happiness is the natural condition of the Self. In the myriad instances of particular individual beings who are ignorant of the one Self behind all the world and its creatures, the Self has become lost, or absorbed, in its projections. As each individual, one by one, breaks the spell of enchantment (of unconscious projection of Self into forms, names, objects), a splinter or spark of the Self is returned to its timeless, absolute source. The individual ego—as a conduit or fiber-optic channel for the light of the Self—has rendered its highest possible service at that point and it ceases henceforth to claim any separate identity for itself. Its very ‘existence’ is seen to have been illusory and insubstantial.

We might think of ego-consciousness as an illusion produced by the confluence of various real elements which are then viewed from a particular vantage point. It is this crucial factor—the particular vantage point of the perceiving subject—that produces the illusion of separate ego-consciousness. An analogy can be found in the rainbow and in the desert mirage, both of which depend for their appearance, upon a combination of real factors and a particular vantage point of the perceiver. In the case of the mirage—hot air, sand, and sunlight, coupled with the angle of vision of the perceiver, create the optical illusion of water, which happens to be a most alluring appearance to anyone in a desert. Likewise, the rainbow—another image of favorable import to the beholder—depends for its appearance upon water droplets in the air and the sun behind the perceiving subject, whose position vis-à-vis these real factors is crucial for the production of the appearance of the rainbow—which is not ‘actually’ there. It exists, like the desert mirage, in the mind of the perceiving subject. According to RM, the human ego, while no more real, at bottom, than a mirage or a rainbow, feels as real to most of us as the rainbow and mirage appear to be real. Those who are ignorant of the actual and perceptual factors at work behind mirages and rainbows are apt to chase and pursue these elusive (and illusive) appearances, while those who know better will remain still and not run after them. They will see ‘non-things’ as mere phenomena or appearances—and not as substantial or real.

Jung may be said to greatly expand the realm of appearances—which can be taken for efficacious or substantive realities—by including psychic contents, fantasy material, and so forth, within the category of empirical phenomena. Does he render an unequivocally positive service to spiritual enlightenment and liberation by making this move—the ‘discovery’ of the objective ‘reality’ of the psyche? From RM’s position, this is a double-edged sword since, for him, ‘Gods’ and all the psychic images that are continually being generated by the psyche are just as unreal and unworthy of our deferential attachment and belief as our bodies are.

In Hillman’s writings the ego ‘feels’ very different—and a good deal ‘lighter’ or more ‘relativized’—than it does in Jung where, despite his repeated efforts to de-reify and de-hypostatize the concept, it still comes off bearing more bulk and heft than Hillman’s, which is explicitly presented as a fiction…a perspective, even. Nietzsche’s concept of the ego, on the other hand, turns out to be just about everything under the sun; a ghost, a kind of membrane or provisional platform between the will-to-power and the world; a mere assemblage of habits (of thought and feeling); an internalized and reified ‘story,’ etc.

In seeing through the ego—an individual ego—into its murky but discernible archetypal background, Hillman has developed an ‘imaginal’ method of relativizing the ego in an impressive manner. By finessing and sussing out the underlying archetypal image or drama that is being played out (usually without one’s conscious awareness of these secretly guiding motifs), Hillman implicitly articulates and psychologically instantiates various topoi out of which the ego—any ego—emerges like a plant out of its soil.


After watching the 73 minute documentary about Ramana Maharshi’s life and teachings (on Google video), I am moved to ponder how much wider the reach of the sage’s healing wisdom and light might have been if he had bothered to take the ‘network of interconnected caverns’ (my metaphor for the modern global cultural situation —borrowed from Plato and updated) more to heart. Imagine the bridges and corridors he could have constructed and opened up if he had been able to direct the divine light of the Self into that network of dark caverns. Of course, in order to do that he would have had to first acquaint himself with the furnishings, structural features, and points of connection between these caves—along with their respective esoteric and exoteric teachings. This is what the ‘heroic’ Jung attempted, at the very least, along with other notable thinkers like Joseph Campbell, Huston Smith, and Mircea Eliade, to name only a few.

At the tender age of sixteen, RM leapt over and beyond the dogmatic bounds of culture—relegating most written and traditional doctrines to the potentially obstructive realm of mayavic illusion. In saying these things, I do not wish to disparage his actual accomplishment, which is undeniably stupendous and indisputably authentic. But there is much, much more to be done if the billions of suffering and confused prisoners huddled and pressed into these culture-caves are to gain a greater measure of inner freedom. This is the obverse side of mysticism—the less attractive side: its characteristic muteness and its sweeping, categorical dismissal of those oppressive or deranged terms and conditions 99.999% of us actually wake up to every day. Perhaps when RM’s ego-personality underwent its dissolution in that moment, early in his extraordinary life, when he became absorbed in Atman, his intellect—while as focused and as potent as a laser beam—was not as well-stocked with learning, literary and cultural knowledge as it would have needed to be in order to produce this very different sort of teacher—and very different sort of path. Do we not see a somewhat similar example in Western culture in the contrast between Jesus and Socrates/Plato?

These two paths—that of the Enlightened Heart and that of the Enlightened Mind—sometimes appear to converge and even to be one and the same. And then, from a slight adjustment of one’s perspective, they appear to be coming at the same questions and problems from radically different directions. But I suspect one must have a capacity for following both of these very different paths in order to see where they converge and where they diverge. Although I show a stronger propensity for the dispassionate and rather cold path of mental illumination, I have a powerful sense for the path of the awakened heart. As we approach the goal of our journey—on either path—the fundamental insights and basic virtues of the ‘other’ path come within our reach, I believe. Seeing and understanding this might prove to be very useful in arbitrating the frequent misunderstandings and tensions that occur between impassioned followers of these two paths that lead to the same goal: abidance in the Self.

[1] The Spiritual Teachings of Ramana Maharshi; Shambhala Publications; 1972

Shuttle De-plume-acy (5/28-29/11)

The space shuttle program has at last drawn to a close, not for lack of enthusiasm on Americans’ part to hurl themselves into the distant reaches of outer space, but because economic realities have at long last rendered such exorbitantly expensive enterprises an inexcusable extravagance. Whether we are proud of the fact or not, the United States has, for quite some time now displayed its strength as nation primarily through its material or economic might and as an exporter of mass entertainment—rather than through its bequeathals of timeless works of art, literature, philosophy, and spiritual insights—contributions for which a number of former great cultures and empires are esteemed with due gratitude and reverence. The ‘defense-related’ research and development programs which burgeoned (like mushrooms on steroids—or acid) after WWII—and which yielded the high-tech gadgets that no self-respecting teenager, here or elsewhere, can live without these days—were funded by independent capital and by huge federal revenues garnered from U.S. taxpayers. Now we quite literally have more computers, handheld communications and listening devices, creature comforts, and entertainment media than we know what to do with. Apparently—and lamentably, as I see it—this arrangement is perfectly acceptable for a staggering number of mortals throughout the globe. As with pampered house pets or snacking youngsters hypnotically absorbed in their video games, this state of material ease and comfort appears to be sufficient to make life on earth worth ‘suiting up’ for, morning after morning, in the minds of most persons living today.

Regrettably, I have nothing further to say to such complacent and gratified creatures. I certainly wish them the best of luck, but I must confess that I anticipate with dread the day when access to the next generation of these sought-after consumer items and desiderata (not to mention adequate nourishment and drinkable water) are no longer widely available or within relatively easy reach.[1] I address this essay, then, to that troubled and confused segment of society—a small but growing number of thoughtful and courageous men and women—who are no longer morally comfortable being part of the problem, but are convinced that they cannot change the course down which we seem, en masse, to be heading. What is that problem—in the simplest of terms—and why does the present course seem irreversible and unstoppable to most of us who are able to recognize it for what it is—and for what it is not. It most assuredly is not ‘progress’ in any positive sense of that over-used word.

The problem, at bottom, is that, with very few notable exceptions, Western humanity’s interested attention has been turned almost exclusively in one direction for several hundred years—riveted to the outer material world, the only world recognized by most of us, as it would seem. Beginning roughly with the maritime voyages of the 15th century, plunder, pillage, and wars—over land, resources, native populations, religious beliefs, ideologies, and information—have conspicuously dominated human affairs. The daring voyages and expeditions of Columbus, Magellan, Drake, Cortes, Pizarro, and others led to the ‘discovery’ of new worlds to colonize and new populations to exploit, to rob, to convert to ‘Christianity,’ and (where it was deemed ‘necessary’ or expedient) to exterminate. The shuttle expeditions, which used computer navigational systems and rocket fuel instead of sextants and mainsails, have simply been the most recent in a long line of conquests that began centuries ago with the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. As a species, we appear to be dangerously susceptible to being possessed by archaic predatory instincts—instincts that are stubbornly resistant to higher education, moral training, and religious tutelage. We are predatory towards nature and exploitative towards our own kind. In this respect, we seldom display moderation when we are strong enough to take what we want, using the justification that ‘if we don’t take it, someone else surely will.’

Why, it will be asked, has the lion’s share of our attention been riveted to externals, our spirits tirelessly hankering after outer possessions and entertainments? The answer to such a big question is complex and multifaceted, but there are certain social, cultural, and religious factors that have significantly contributed to the current state of affairs. The ‘discovery’ of the unconscious by Freud, Jung, and their less famous precursors was not an accident—but a natural outgrowth of a cultural crisis that was well underway in the 19th century. Jung writes:

Dogma takes the place of the collective unconscious by formulating its contents on a grand scale. The Catholic way of life is completely unaware of psychological problems in this sense. Almost the entire life of the collective unconscious has been channeled into the dogmatic archetypal ideas and flows along like a well-controlled stream in the symbolism of creed and ritual…The collective unconscious, as we understand it today, was never a matter of ‘psychology,’ for before the Christian Church existed there were antique mysteries, and these reach back into the grey mists of Neolithic prehistory. Mankind has never lacked powerful images to lend magical aid against all the uncanny things that live in the depths of the psyche. (CW, Vol. 9, pt. 1:21)

The ‘discovery’ of the unconscious—which was really a re-discovery of the autonomous inner world—occurred only because our religious symbols and rituals had become so emptied of meaning, following the Protestant Reformation and the spread of scientific criticism. Jung continues:

The iconoclasm of the Reformation, however, quite literally made a breach in the protective wall of sacred images, and since then one image after another has crumbled away. They became dubious, for they conflicted with awakening reason. Besides, people had long since forgotten what they meant. Or had they really forgotten? Could it be that men had never really known what they meant, and that only in recent times did it occur to the Protestant part of mankind that actually we haven’t the remotest conception of what is meant by the Virgin Birth, the divinity of Christ, and the complexities of the Trinity? It almost seems as if these images had just lived, and as if their living existence had simply been accepted without question and without reflection, much as everyone decorates Christmas trees or hides Easter eggs without ever knowing what these customs mean…That the gods die from time to time is due to man’s sudden discovery that they do not mean anything, that they are made by human hands, useless idols of wood and stone. In reality, however, he has merely discovered that up till then he has never thought about his images at all. And when he starts thinking about them, he does so with the help of what he calls ‘reason’—which in point of fact is nothing more than the sum-total of all his prejudices and myopic views. The history of Protestantism has been one of chronic iconoclasm. One wall after another fell. And the work of destruction was not too difficult once the authority of the Church had been shattered. (ibid. 22-23)

Because the religious/mythical symbols and internal structures that contained and provided channels for the archetypal energies that constitute our psyches have thus been dismantled and destroyed for so many of us[2], the inner world now bears a striking resemblance to the vast desert of ‘outer space’ with its ‘black holes’ and fiery supernovas, its gaseous clouds and its menacing immensity. Jung observes:

Our intellect has achieved the most tremendous things, but in the meantime our spiritual dwelling has fallen into disrepair. We are absolutely convinced that even with the aid of the latest and largest reflecting telescope, now being built in America, men will discover behind the farthest nebulae no fiery empyrean; and we know that our eyes will wander despairingly through the dead emptiness of interstellar space. Nor is it any better when mathematical physics reveals to us the world of the infinitely small. In the end we dig up the wisdom of all ages and peoples, only to find that everything most dear and precious to us has already been said in the most superb language. (ibid. 31)

Following the psychologically one-sided directives and inducements of the modern Western ‘outlook,’ generations of Europeans and their colonial descendents have been implicitly warned not to ‘look in,’ but only to ‘look out for themselves’ and their families in a fiercely competitive struggle for limited high-paying jobs in a capitalist economy. As an almost inevitable consequence, Western spirituality progressively degenerated into sterile dogma and cold theology, while morality was largely reduced to apish or sincere conformity to behavioral norms and posturing—cut off, as they were, from their inner source springs. Naturally, as the inner realm suffered from prolonged neglect by the cultural, educational, and spiritual institutions within the West, easy and well-lit access to the inner world, as well as to the knowledge, the ‘maps’ and myths which help to guide the initiate through its labyrinths, became more and more difficult to come by (and to make meaningful sense of when such materials were forthcoming). One usually had to go out of his or her way and ‘against the current’ to find and then to decipher such writings and teachings—as Jung was obliged to do with obscure and arcane alchemical texts, the cultural link with the pre-Christian, pagan layers of the Western psyche (that had been buried under authorized doctrine). From the prevalent, rational-materialist metaphysical standpoint, such myths, interior journeys—and even the interior realm itself—were rather arrogantly and contemptuously dismissed as childish superstitions and mumbo jumbo that were unworthy of serious consideration, except as the primitive and pre-scientific lore of traditional cultures that lacked our superior (scientific) understanding of things. Of course, in saying all this, I do not wish for a moment to deny the astounding array of benefits won for mankind by the noble exploits and brilliant insights of scientists. I am, let me repeat, concerned chiefly with any blinding prejudices which may be built into our modern Western worldview—prejudices that are still very much alive and kicking as we rapidly approach what looks very much like a dangerous cliff to a growing number of attentive persons.

The almost pathologically extraverted collective attitude of the Western mind, during the last several centuries, has its inverted, contrasting twin, which prevailed during the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ when the attention of Europeans was turned inwards to such an extent that the external world suffered from a degree of neglect that the internal one now suffers from. Monks, clerics, and even the laity were often obsessed with inner factors in a way and to a degree that occasionally matched Indian yoga philosophy—probably the non plus ultra of cultural introversion thus far in human history. Then, during the High Middle Ages (after 1348 and the end of the Black Death) we can begin to see evidence of a gradual reversal of collective attention from inner to outer factors. Perhaps we might say that this latter half of the Christian aeon, with its ‘antichristian’ (mythologically speaking) infatuation with ‘the world, the flesh, and the devil’ has at last begun to play itself out, which is to say exhaust itself, in these ‘end times’ that so many of us feel ourselves enmeshed in.

Now, whether or not we are actually and irreversibly headed like lemmings off the side of a cliff and humanity will be plunged into a new period of savagery and darkness to match any of the nastier periods of the past, it is in our immediate collective interest to rediscover the entrances to the inner world which have, as it were, been overgrown and choked with ‘vegetation’—like Angkor Wat or Tikal before they were unearthed and cleaned up a bit. Moreover, because of the general ignorance with respect to the psyche (which inevitably stemmed from this neglect and culturally-endorsed devaluation) the ‘unconscious’ has understandably acquired more of a menacing than a restorative or healing aspect for many of us. For most, it initially resembles the ‘id’ of Freudian theory—a welter of disturbing affects, amoral impulses, and aggressive drives that we have every reason to fear and to avoid encountering. Freud went so far as to equate civilization itself with the repression of these disturbing erotic, aggressive, and often asocial drives and energies, but repression brings its own demons and harpies—hence, the ‘discontents’ of civilization.

The way ahead will be led by voyagers into the interior who will be psychic cousins to those great navigators and explorers of sea and land during our outward-turned phase. The explorations and insights won by the psychic cartographers yet to come will enable the collective mind to undergo the ‘great reversal’ that has already begun for a growing number of human beings across the globe—from every cultural background. In centuries to come, the early (and excruciatingly lonely) pioneers of this neglected territory which has always been there ‘behind our backs’—and I’m thinking of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung—will be seen as the Leif Erikssons and the Marco Polos who were the first Europeans to glimpse and to bring back sketches of previously unknown realms.

Does the scuttling of the shuttle program perhaps symbolize Icarus’ fall to sea (after soaring so close to the sun with his wax and feather wings that they melted)—the ‘sea’ of the psyche where ‘scuba’ equipment makes more sense than plumage and flapping wings?

[1] My concern—and it is quite a legitimate concern, since supporting evidence for my claim is already conspicuously abundant—is that when the spigots that are now spewing out all these consumer items slow down to a prohibitively expensive trickle or shut down altogether, the restlessly acquisitive and hopeful hordes of today will become the armed and dangerous mobs of tomorrow—ready to do the bidding of ruthless gang lords, demagogues, wicked opportunists, and crafty manipulators of fear and resentment. Anyone with his eyes open today cannot help but see dress rehearsals for this general, all-engulfing tragedy already underway here in the U.S. and in many other parts of the shrinking world.

[2] This the true meaning behind Nietzsche’s famous claim that “God is dead”

The Journey from Icy Corporeality through Liquid Imagination to Vaporous Spirit (1/16/13)

Ramana Maharshi taught that ‘desirelessness is wisdom.’ It is further alleged that in the state of desirelessness we enjoy the happiness that is native to the Self. From this angle, meditation entails a conscious recognition of those desires and attachments to which our consciousness is most imprisoned, tracing them back to their source, and then attempting to ‘see through’ them in an effort to find release. In the course of my reflections, I have observed that my thoughts have chiefly served as spies, articulators, and enablers of my various desires and interests. As an ‘intellectual’ type person, I often engage in a kind of play with ideas and thoughts in lieu of physically acting out the promptings of my desires and fears, which would probably involve a more significant expenditure of energy. These thoughts and ideas serve as proxies or winged emissaries for the desires and passions that they ‘stand for.’ In fact, they may be said to be masks of the desires, attachments, and passions that they stand for—insofar as they simultaneously reveal and conceal what lies behind the mask.

A far more artfully and splendidly developed example of this process (of invoking and substituting words, concepts, and images for underlying, visceral passions—and then playing with these incorporeal masks and metaphorical forms) is provided by the marvelous tragedies, comedies, and histories of William Shakespeare. In these extraordinary plays—which hold a mirror, as it were, up to (human) nature—we are presented with a ‘virtual’ reality that bears an uncanny resemblance to actual human reality at the concrete, lived level. Shakespeare’s characters—Falstaff, Rosalind, Iago, Bottom the weaver, Hamlet, and so forth—are certainly lifelike, but being fictional, imaginative creations, they are obviously not flesh and blood persons like you and me. Shakespeare’s characters appear to be driven, inspired, dejected, compelled, and buffeted by desires, fears, and longings that are intimately familiar to us—but there is a crucial distinction (that all sane persons immediately acknowledge) between actually killing someone and pretending to kill another actor on a stage—or between truly falling in love with someone and starting an actual family, on the one hand, and empathetically watching television actors pretend to do the same thing, on the other.

Now, I suspect most will agree that we are less likely to produce dramatic disturbances in our own and other persons’ lives when we manage to keep our powerful desires, fears, jealousies, and other passions safely restricted to the realm of imaginative activity and private reflection—rather than acting out all these impulses and emotions on the stage of real life human affairs. By keeping this imaginative enactment of our desires confined to our ‘heads’—and, if we are artistic, to the page, the piano, the canvas, etc.—we are likely to live longer and more stable lives safely beyond the thick and sound-proof walls of prison or the insane asylum.

As we know, there is something deeply satisfying about the experience of watching an excellent film or theatrical production where the writer and the performers have presented us with a compelling depiction of human drama. When reading or viewing the plays of a supreme artist like Shakespeare, much of that satisfaction comes from the fact that a complex array of powerful human drives, desires, inhibitions, illusions, beliefs, and ambitions have been theatrically rendered for us in a manner that is both highly credible and beautifully organized. Because the greatest artists are often blessed with a genius for distilling the essence of the ‘raw’ materials they draw upon—and for intelligently displaying and inter-relating those distilled elements in a way that few of us can duplicate—their works provide a window into the usually concealed motors and circuitry within the human soul. As audience members, we may not be conscious of the fact that we are being granted a glimpse into depths we would scarcely be able to enter and to explore if we were relying solely upon our own less developed powers. Nevertheless, such imaginative experiences mysteriously produce a grounding and anchoring effect upon us. Aristotle famously wrote of the cathartic (purging) effect that tragedy has upon the soul of the viewer—and there is a link between his notion of catharsis and this idea of grounding that I invoke here. Before exploring this idea in greater depth, let us note that an additional benefit we enjoy while watching a play like Hamlet or Oedipus Tyrannos: in vicariously and imaginatively undergoing the trials and sufferings of the protagonists, we are spared the actual ordeal of having to avenge our father’s murder, accidentally slay Polonius, contribute to poor Ophelia’s suicide, kill Laius—our father—and breed children with Jocasta, our mother, before stabbing out our own eyes with her hair clips.

When noble and worthy art achieves its intended aim, the actions it vividly depicts spur us to contemplation.[1] To be sure, there will always be a handful of lunatics who, after watching Hamlet or Macbeth (or The Dark Knight), will feel a strange compulsion to become Hamlet or Macbeth (or the Joker)—to act out instead of act in, as is salutary and proper. The way I approach great works of art—from Homer and the Bible to Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky—is to view these works as invitations and time-tested guidebooks to the life of the imagination. As such, it is my belief that rather than aiming to strengthen and reinforce our attachment (a softer word than ‘bondage’) to the actual concrete world they depict and try to illumine, such works are intended by their authors to loosen and perhaps even to critique those bonds of attachment. They aim, that is, to liberate our souls from literal-mindedness, to nourish and ignite our imaginations, which operate in accordance with very different laws than those that we meet with in the more confined and constricted arena of mundane affairs. Induction or initiation into the world of imaginative experience may be thought of as a stage along the way that leads to the rarefied spiritual condition of desirelessness recommended by Ramana Maharshi—or to the ‘peace that surpasses understanding’ referred to in Christianity.

Just as ice typically passes through a liquid state before it proceeds to a vaporous state, evolving consciousness passes from concretistic, literalistic ego-consciousness through mercurial and imaginative soul-consciousness on its long pilgrimage to formless, serenely detached spiritual consciousness. Great artists, then, may be viewed, from one angle, as crucial ‘middle-men’ who, by helping the ego to dissolve its literalisms in the solvent of the imagination, provide a way-station or bridge between the material, sensual realm and the immaterial, spiritual one. Fittingly, then, soul—or imagination—partakes of both: it employs forms (images), just as sensory perception entails, but these forms ultimately point, as Plato and others have taught, to the formless Source, or Self, that is the ground of all.

Very well: we now have a traditional model before us, a threefold division of the whole human being into spirit, soul, and body. Great art—including the ‘pagan’ art of Sophocles and the secular dramas of Shakespeare—can be of considerable assistance (for those who have the eyes to see and the ears to hear) to our liberation from that crudest form of human consciousness, literal-mindedness, which is founded upon and ultimately answerable to the testimony of the senses. Because literal-mindedness is naturally inclined either to reduce everything to causes that are material and therefore presumably apprehensible by one or more of the five senses, it is also inclined, if not compelled, by its own criteria and methods to deny the reality of anything it cannot touch, taste, hear, smell, or see with its own eyes.

Human beings are susceptible to conceiving of many different sorts of imaginary entities, possibilities, fantasies, and so forth, but our shared senses are in general agreement about the phenomena they apprehend. Therefore, the senses—and not the imagination—perhaps understandably provide the basis for ‘commonsense.’ The very word betrays the meaning of what I have just labored to explain: common + sense = shared trust in the evidence of shared senses. I have written elsewhere of the interesting fact that modern empirical science is, from a certain angle, a kind of glorified version of this commonsense[2], so I will limit what I say here about this connection to a few comments. It is precisely because of the almost universal respect accorded to sensory evidence (among members of our species) that science is not one thing in the U.S. and an entirely different practice in India or China. But we are dealing with a very different kettle of fish as soon as we begin to consider cultural, religious, or artistic practices in the U.S., India, and China. And the reason for this should be obvious. Culture, religion, and art all allow large—if not decisively large—doses of imagination to determine their content, while sensory data and brute facts are occasionally ‘consulted,’ but seldom rigorously adhered to (as would be expected from any reputable scientist). On the other hand, precisely because empirical science is strictly limited in what it can legitimately and effectively work with (compared with that stupendous totality of imaginative and/or speculative phenomena that we, as humans, are capable of experiencing), its value as a general guide for us is extremely limited, as well. Science is utterly incapable—not simply by ‘choice’ but in accordance with its own criteria and strict methodological constraints—of making any sort of ethical or moral judgment, or of authoritatively responding to our spiritual needs and quandaries. This should caution us against expecting more from it than it can deliver. Only a fool would be ungrateful for the marvelous material benefits and conveniences that empirical science and technology have blessed us with. But it would be just as foolish to assume that science and its fruits are, by themselves, sufficient to satisfy our greater human needs. I’m referring, of course, to those ‘immaterial,’ spiritual and psychological needs against which all the material comforts and powers of the world can provide no remedy. There are some persons, now as ever, who recognize no needs beyond those that can be answered by material means. I have nothing further to say to such persons except to be careful that, in placing all your hopes in the basket of materialism, you don’t wind up learning that the more you consume, the emptier and more insatiable your neglected soul becomes.


[1] The implicit trajectory, then, leads from the realm of action to that of contemplation, or reflection—not the other way around. In other words, we are meant to think about what we see and hear, not imitate it (mimesis). As a spur to reflective thought, the art, say, of Shakespeare, is not overtly didactic or even morally exhortatory. Like good psychotherapy, it provides us with clues to potentially profound insights that we arrive at on our own, and in our own way. In great art—and I am thinking here of Plato’s dialogues, as well—comparatively little is spelled out explicitly. Rather, alluring ‘gaps’ are carefully engineered by the writer—gaps that are to be ‘arced’ or filled in by the creative intelligence of the reader or viewer.

[2] In other ways, science is radically divergent from—one might almost say antithetical to—commonsense, as Goethe astutely understood in his ardent and carefully executed campaign against Newtonian physics/optics, so this issue is far from a simple one.

On Wholeness and its Enemies within the Present System (6/22/10—Asunciόn)

As human beings, we commence our life careers as relatively fuzzy and inchoate creatures—taking on greater definition and more fixed features as we grow older. Certain tendencies, ‘seeds,’ and talents become germinated, nourished, exercised and developed into conspicuous identity-establishing features of our personalities, while other, less prominent, ‘iffier’ seeds and possibilities receive little or no encouraging attention. Normally, when we are growing up, we are strongly nudged by our parents, teachers, and companions to ‘play to our strengths’—to focus upon the development and perfection of those talents and capacities wherein we shine. It only makes good sense to heed such advice and encouragements if we happen to be growing up in a culture or society that lavishly rewards (and has far greater use for) persons who become really good at doing one or maybe two things. And then, in addition to the ‘external’ inducements of monetary compensation and praise for the competent performance of our one or two developed functions or skills, there is the internal, private satisfaction many of us enjoy when we ‘do our thing’ well—whether it’s indoor plumbing or outdoor sports.

But perhaps in addition to these two types of human lives—the one type being conspicuously proficient at one or two functions, and the ‘undistinguished’ other who lacks the requisite talent, discipline, and drive—there is a third type which is neither undisciplined and untalented, on the one hand, nor content merely with the development of one or two skills or talents at the expense of roundedness, on the other. In the past, such a person might be called a ‘Renaissance man’ or even a ‘philosopher’ because of the comprehensiveness of his vision (e.g., Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare) or the scope of his skills (as with Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Goethe). Words often used to describe such ‘whole’ lives and visions include ‘versatile,’ ‘multifaceted,’ and ‘protean.’ Each of these widely recognized ‘geniuses’ made enormous or even incalculable contributions to this (western) culture they helped to shape and inform.

But must all persons who innately and consistently strive for wholeness be geniuses or cultural-historical ‘stars’? In other words, is the very quest for wholeness, roundedness, and a comprehensive life the prerogative of the extraordinary few, the exceptionally gifted and ‘blessed?’ Or could it be that this yearning quite naturally appears in many of us whose native gifts are not quite so stupendous in their reach and fertility (as Plato’s, Shakespeare’s, or Jung’s)? At any event, this yearning for wholeness appears to receive little serious encouragement or support from our present culture, our educators, and—shamefully—even from our parents and our closest friends, who perhaps share a very different notion of success, fulfillment, and of ‘mature adult responsibility.’ Are the currently prevailing notions of human fulfillment and success rather lopsidedly utilitarian or narrowly ‘practical’ in their character?

Or, mightn’t it be even more extreme than this—so that, instead of simply being carelessly and unwittingly negligent of the ‘call’ of wholeness, today’s cultural norms are actually hostile to it? Is it possible that we now live in a culture that forcibly inhibits the full development of its members with the same degree of alacrity it devotes to our partial or lopsided development? Why on earth might a culture deliberately aim at such a goal—the rearing of comparatively fragmented or woefully incomplete creatures, many of whom are nevertheless highly effective in the regular performance of a well rewarded, single function? Is such a system as I am describing here even deserving of the name ‘culture?’ And if we suppose that somewhere within the administrative and governing bodies of this hypothetical system there are highly placed men and women who knowingly and deliberately shape, steer, and implement this elaborate political-economic-educational scheme, then we must ask: what are their ultimate aims, and how did they ever acquire so much power over the minds and destinies of the general population?   Why aren’t there more critics, dissenters, artists, and angry prophets out there blowing the whistle on these social engineers who assist in a strange, systematic crusade to turn us and our children into human fragments and blinkered functionaries instead of helping us to become whole human beings?

Well, to begin with, there most certainly are such critics, dissenters, artists and angry prophets living and expressing themselves around and among us. Unfortunately, what such persons are saying tends either to be drowned out by the much louder sound of ‘business as usual’ humming along or what they are saying is simply not being taken to heart (or to the streets.) This is not the same as saying that they are not being taken seriously by readers and audiences, because many Americans will readily admit that they are very mistrustful of the ‘system’ I’ve described, along with its rulers and its official architects. So, if this nation is in fact equipped with a sizable population of mistrustful, dissenters who are outraged by the current system why are they not attacking the system head-on, withdrawing themselves and their children from its institutions of fragmentation, and rejecting its menu of generally pernicious and psychologically-unfulfilling life career paths? Could they be reluctant to stand up and make a lot of noise for the simple reason that withdrawal from the system and the forfeiture of one’s precious but limited social/economic opportunities within the system are generally believed to be greater hardships than those entailed in unresisting compliance and obedient participation? There is the sense that ‘we can’t buck the system,’ a system which depends for its continuing success upon the widespread enlistment and participation of the populace. And, of course, so long as that participation continues, the warnings and the predictions of the critics and the prophets will be heard but almost never heeded by the inwardly divided and confused participants in the spiritually deforming and unwholesome system. And unless and until a critical mass of the ‘enlightened’ members of the general population actually dismantles the current system and replaces it with something intrinsically superior, the system, its rulers, and its architects will almost certainly remain in place.

We can turn this model around and look at this phenomenon from the ‘inside-out.’ A psychologically imbalanced or barbarous condition exists where one aspect of the whole is exaggerated to such a degree that the other parts of the psyche are eclipsed. If we add too much salt to a recipe, we ruin it—unless we are somehow able to find a way to counteract the excessive saltiness. Too much emotionality hampers rational action and free choice, but an excess of rational deliberation often leads to sterility and a weak connection with the animating/vitalizing passions. A society informed by our collective system, such as we’ve been discussing, is made up of the sum of the individuals participating in or contained by that system. What this means, in simple terms, is that the present system—if indeed it is in a perilously imbalanced condition—will not be restored to a state of balance or equilibrium unless and until a decisive number of individuals have succeeded in balancing themselves. Today’s fragmenting and wholeness-inhibiting system reflects the aggregate of fragmented and lopsided psyches of its members—from the top down. Viewed in this way, the source of the fragmentation and imbalance is seen to reside in the collective psyche of America, while the formal, systemic symptoms constitute the visible exoskeleton—those institutional directives, normative values, educational practices, and so forth which, from a more extraverted perspective, appear to be the source.

While the truth of this observation should be immediately apparent to anyone who recognizes the reality and the primacy of the psyche in all human experience, for those who do not, my observation will appear simply to have inverted the problem—and that I have gotten it all backwards. But such persons, I would argue, are operating from a standpoint that is still excessively mimetic in its orientation and response to culture and its institutions. They are like actors who—at best—have thoroughly memorized and internalized their lines. The culture is the play, and the play is a script, and ‘if it’s not in the script’ these actors cannot make intelligible sense of a ‘foreign’ thing or idea—let alone a completely different kind of play.

Here I am alluding to the authentically creative (as opposed to merely mimetic or imitative) play whereby the psyche itself spontaneously generates living forms and symbols. One commonly-occurring instance of such spontaneously generated images is the nightly dream which—when recalled the next morning—leaves us in a powerfully changed mood or in an imaginatively excited state that lasts through the day, perhaps. Another instance is the reverie we become absorbed in at the office when our attention drifts from the tedious paperwork we’re plodding through. Or it’s the irrational and deeply disturbing anxiety attacks that keep recurring and leaving us with the mounting suspicion that something big needs to be changed about our lives—and soon—or something’s gonna blow.

Where are these other parts of the totality from which we have become estranged in our chronic state of collective disequilibrium (or ‘mass derangement’)? They are not far away in some remote antipodes! They are right here in and around us, surrounding and suffusing us, just like Cuba is ninety miles away from Florida—and great literary and philosophical geniuses live private lives in small towns in Iowa and upstate New York—only ‘we’ don’t recognize them. We don’t enjoy diplomatic and cordial relations with our nearby neighbors and our potential enlargers and enhancers because we don’t yet know how to see them for who they really are.

East and West: Sober Reflections (4/11/14)

Ronald Schenk, in his terse reply to a question I posed by email (concerning Jung’s and Hillman’s ‘mistrust’ of the Indian psyche) said: ‘Jung and Hillman were both influenced by Indian thought, but both felt it was problematic for Westerners to identify with it, thereby creating a ‘shadow’ of factors that are part of the Western psyche but not included by the East.’

Now, I agree that there is some truth here, but I’m not quite sure it redounds to the credit of the Western psyche—which, on the whole, may be rather more insane and out of alignment with inner reality than the (traditional) Eastern one is.

The formative influences of Christianity, rational philosophy, humanism, republicanism, and the ‘rights of man’ have all contributed to the actual (or purported) sanctity of the individual in the West—while the more ‘collectivist’ East lags behind in its very different regard for the ‘autonomous’ individual. And while no one can deny that a goodly number of humane principles and morally enlightened practices have emerged (in the West) from this more respectful stance towards the individual, this same individualism is inseparably bound up with a slew of collective ills that now threaten to do us in—both culturally and with respect to our natural environment, which is rapidly being compromised and gobbled up by the reckless, unbridled collective appetites of devouring consumers. An honest analysis of the modern ‘individual’ in the West is more likely to reveal an amalgam of generally unfettered, irrational habits, cravings, and compulsions (that demand instant gratification) than the self-controlled, liberally educated, rationally reflective citizen enthusiastically idealized by the founders of modern democracies.

Since the mindless consumer appears to be the rather unpromising and depressing creature in which Western individualism has culminated—the rationally calculating, politically impotent, narrowly-educated conscript, serving a desire-propelled corporate-capitalist economy—we have reason to pause before deeming this a real advance over the more communitarian arrangement of the pre-modern scheme, where the energies, lusts, and personal ambitions of the ordinary human being were, for the most part, suppressed and subordinated to the comparatively restricted needs and the cohesiveness of the larger group—and to the cultural-political elites who lived off this collective labor and sacrifice. The unleashing and the aggressive stimulation of these energies, lusts, and personal ambitions in the modern West has led, unsurprisingly, to evident cultural decline and fragmentation, the evils of colonialism, obscene over-consumption and waste, the ominous ascendency of what Nietzsche famously dubbed ‘the Last Man’—a shallow, frothy, short-sighted creature who is obsessed with his own material and psychological comfort—and sees nothing wrong or ignoble about this.

It is my perception that the East—particularly Indian spiritual teachings, and to a slightly lesser extent, Chinese Taoism and Japanese Zen Buddhism—has something of vital, if not absolutely crucial, importance to offer us here in the West. This perception is founded upon two firm convictions that have come from years of experience, study, travel, and reflection:

  1. The present (and all but unchallenged) scheme in the West almost exclusively promotes personal/collective competition for (limited) material goods and for (personal) power within one’s sphere of (worldly) action.
  2. Unbridled self-interest is the principal source of evil and misery in the world—and the greatest obstacle to spiritual enlightenment and liberation. On a collective scale, aided by modern technology, it constitutes nothing less than a gargantuan pair of jaws, ceaselessly devouring human souls, natural resources, and the future of our own and other species.

It may be the case that from our ‘enlightened,’ ‘sophisticated,’ ‘liberated,’ point of view, the East seems ‘backwards’ and crude, but our forward-rushing, reckless momentum is hurtling all of us into a whole series of walls and barriers that a few of our more alert observers can clearly see directly ahead of us. If going ‘backwards’ is unthinkable—not even an option—then at least we might consider the value of slowing down, of tempering our acquisitiveness, of quieting our compulsive urges and habits, of separating ourselves from the mindless herd. There may be comfort in numbers, but that comfort will vanish as soon as those in the front begin colliding with the walls and are crushed to death by the stampeding skittish simpletons behind them—all those ‘liberated’ goats and sheep who lacked the courage to stray, alone, from the group, from which vantage point they might have clearly discerned the trouble looming ahead. Perhaps for some goats and sheep, mass suicide is preferable to solitary salvation or survival. Who knows what goes on—and doesn’t go on—in the minds of goats and sheep once they get up a full head of steam as a rutting, glutting group? We must leave them in ‘God’s’ hands. Since ‘He’ made them, they are His responsibility and we must not lose heart in dire ruminations about the outcome of the dismal stampede that is so clearly shaping up—clear to anyone with an honest pair of eyes, or even one BIG EYE. Our pity—or, conversely, our outrage and resentment—must be superseded and kept under strict watch, lest we become paralyzed on the sidelines—and miss our (slim) chance of being rescued from our own very different collision with a dead-end.

Assuming we have successfully extricated our solitary souls from the mindless, ‘possessed and enthralled’ mass of self-styled ‘individuals’—and from those positive and negative attachments that prevent the transcendence of egocentricity—what next?

In the unlikely event that my critical assessment of Western ‘individualism’ (or at least its American version, which I have observed with anxious concern and care for many years) has escaped the reader, let me pronounce bluntly: ‘Individualism’ has been thoroughly and systematically debased into an empty concept—a vacuous label signifying nothing—all style and no substance—in this mass culture we presently inhabit. The actual courage, intellectual honesty, and discrimination that are the basic requirements for becoming an authentic individual are becoming harder and harder to find. The cultural soil here is simply too depleted, the air too toxic, and the rainfall too scarce to support more than a few wild and anomalous growths, here and there. And such anomalies typically have the good sense to stay well out of the crass (and, by turns, sentimental and cynical) public spotlight, so that few of us have heard of them. Wide public engagement and activity, while it may nurture mere talent—and even certain forms of genius—often spells doom for genuine individuality, which bears a resemblance to a snowflake exposed to the merciless glare of the afternoon sun. First, the glare effaces the intricate and subtle crystalline detail-work, before reducing it to a micro-puddle of featureless non-identity.

And yet, this stage—of the genuine, self-standing, critically discriminating individual—must be heroically achieved and moved through before being sacrificed in the ‘metamorphosis’ that leads to the Self—i.e., beyond confinement to the personal, individualized ego. There is no skipping over this lonely and usually excruciating baptism by fire and into the crucifixion experience of release from ‘I,’ ‘me,’ and ‘mine.’ It is harder for the bloated, inflated, puddin’-headed mass man to shrink into the modest, psychologically honest, thoroughly conscious individual (who is capable of slithering through the eye of the needle into the blissful serenity of the Self) than it is for a rich man to get into heaven. Both the mass man and the amasser of excessive personal wealth are facing in the wrong direction—in the exact opposite direction from the Self—which is to be found, if at all, in the silent, inner world, not in the noisy, fast-paced, mundane one.

Individuation as the Middle Way (4/21/17)

I woke up this morning with an ominous feeling that something wants to be born through my pen – and soon. Accompanying this weighty sensation is an exceptionally strong feeling of my personal insignificance and transience compared to the tiny handful of interesting ideas and perspectives I am charged with “birthing” in speech.

Perhaps in this instance it is the overwhelming feeling of smallness and ephemerality that is the content inviting exploration and expression here – at least, initially. I am aware of the psychological fact, I might add, that this same intense feeling of portentousness and gravitas has frequently attended the displacement of my ordinary (personal) ego-consciousness by the much deeper and weightier awareness of the daimon who shares ownership of this body, brain, and set of faculties that go by the name of “Paul.” In the past, before a clearer conscious differentiation between these two very distinct centers of gravity had been established, the anxiety level would be higher during such transitions. This was due, in part, to the fear that accompanies ignorance of the inner process of displacement – or the powerful shift that occurs when I would be pulled down into those heavy-murky depths. In the past, my ego would understandably react in a defensive or self-protective manner. It felt threatened by the very real prospect of drowning. But the resistances it put up only made the inevitable descent more violent and jarring.

Over the years I have learned how to yield to the pull of the daimon with fewer resistances – thus making my descents smoother and faster. I now understand better the crucial part employed by the sensation of the “annihilation” or near-total eclipse of the ego’s sense of personal importance as a prelude or preliminary stage in the descent process. It is my strong suspicion that this semi-paralyzing, annihilating energy/perspective is directed (like a blast from a stun gun) from the daimonic depths up to the shallows where, like a sunfish or jellyfish, my personal ego darts or floats about. As the ego-vessel is temporarily stunned – it is lured down into the depths where it can be usefully employed as a kind of portal or mouthpiece for daimonic perspectives, directives, and ideas. In fact, that is what is underway at this moment – as I have allowed my mind and obedient pen to sink down to “earshot range” of the deeper intelligence within.

It should be mentioned that as I surrender to the descent, the initial feelings of nervousness and trepidation begin to subside. This calming comes from the fact that the new center of gravity (of the daimon) is being contacted and stably inhabited. The anxious feelings correspond to the “in between” or transitional state: prior to my consciousness becoming stably situated in the deeper center of gravity while it is no longer anchored in the familiar personal ego perspective.

Now, such a description must necessarily strike some readers as a species of mental illness or a dangerous psychic condition. And, no doubt, this experience of being uprooted or dislodged from the personal ego-complex is typically observed in schizophrenics or those suffering from multiple personality disorder. The difference between what I experience (and which I am attempting to describe) and what the “mentally ill” person experiences must be thoroughly explored and clarified – to the extent that I am equipped to undertake such a task.

The two crucial factors here are: 1) the polycentric nature of the psyche, and 2) the conscious/imaginative work of bridge-building between these various psychic centers of gravity, or autonomous complexes. Before exploring these two factors, let us first take a look at the psychologically incomplete or ignorant standpoints of mentally ill and monolithically ego-centric persons who, together, vastly outnumber exemplars of the psychologically initiated consciousness I seek, by and by, to describe.

The mentally ill person who suffers from a splintered or disassociated psyche is the victim of a weak and easily “possessed” (or overshadowed) ego, so that the autonomous complexes, always lurking below the surface of the ego-platform, can easily break through that thin membrane and act out or speak out in ways that are clearly at odds with the ‘level-headed’ aims and apparent interests of the ‘rational’ ego. In other words, the ego of the dissociated person – as weak and uneducated (about itself and about the polycentric psyche) as it is – is easily overpowered and reduced to a mere puppet of these unconscious complexes over which it has little or no control. We see such cases of possession every day (in milder form) when family members, co-workers, spouses, or we, ourselves, succumb to irrational fits of rage, terror, jealousy, euphoria, romantic enchantment, etc. The difference between these ordinary cases and those of the mentally ill is a difference in degree, but not in kind. The difference lies in the degree of strength, stability, and self-knowledge achieved by the victim of his/her unconscious complexes and affects.

Those persons, on the other hand, who have invested all or most of their time and effort in the cultivation and defense of the ego against intrapsychic powers and influences suffer from a very different set of problems. Such persons have, in a sense, deified the ego – and reified it in the bargain – so that, for them, the psyche as a whole is disastrously reduced to the much narrower terms and conditions of individual ego-consciousness. For them, the cohesiveness, heroic strength, and authority of the personal ego constitute the supreme priority. Such persons often scoff at the suggestion that autonomous (unconscious) complexes and powers exist and/or exercise ultimate sovereignty over the ego. Such skeptics and scoffers regard those persons who subscribe to such beliefs – in the transpersonal psychic forces and factors – with muted contempt or with patronizing indulgence, as Jocasta regards those who foolishly believe in prophecies in Oedipus Tyrannus. But, in almost every case, what we uncover behind the egocentrist’s contempt and “superior” disdain is paralyzing terror of the very forces and factors they deny and disdain.

How, then, should we begin to describe the optimal (or psychologically enlightened) standpoint – one that avoids (by transcendence?) the two problematic standpoints I have just sketched? The ideal standpoint would have to straddle in between the flaccid, impotent extreme of the undeveloped ego, on the one side, and the fear-driven arrogance of God-like egotism, on the other. If we wanted to couch the problem in Taoist terms, we might say that wisdom consists in navigating successfully between “the Firm and the Yielding.”

Another way to frame this archetypal polarity between the rival demands of ‘heroic’ ego and the larger, enfolding psyche is to invoke the alchemical terms “solve et coagula” (dissolve and coagulate). The ego rises up from the oceanic psyche like a volcanic island, eventually returning to that great matrix – and to the undifferentiated state of its origins – but during that brief interim, a human life, a kind of dialogue or dialectic is possible between ego and unconscious. The fluidic, polycentric, “imaginal” psyche tends to have a generally dissolving effect upon the structures and materials out of which the ego-complex is constructed. For this reason, the strength and cohesiveness of the ego depends on the assertion of effort – or the personal will – as a protective measure against weakening and dissolution. A balanced or healthy ego, therefore, gravitates instinctively towards homeostasis or equilibrium between solidity and fluidity, while our problematic cases lose this precarious balance. The extreme (or pathological) egotist instinctively dreads the dissolving waters of psyche (and, by extension, by the fluidic imagination, the native language of psyche), while the impotent or rootless ego is forever the helpless plaything of whatever complex or affect seizes possession of it.

To illustrate these various standpoints by means of historical examples, we can look at Jesus and Socrates, on one end, and Nietzsche and Freud on the other, with Jung acting as a moderating figure in between the two sides. Socrates’ dialectical questioning operated like a solvent or mild corrosive upon the often-inflated egos of his interlocutors (on the level of intellect), while Jesus’ teachings and humble example may be seen as a solvent on the heart level. Freud and Nietzsche, and their different ways, were great coagulators and enrichers of the ego as a bulwark against the id or Dionysian disintegration (to which Nietzsche eventually succumbed). Jung, as champion of the dialectic between ego and unconscious (individuation), recognized the crucial importance of a strong and psychologically/imaginatively enlightened ego in following “the middle way” between the two undesirable extremes of egocentrism and ego-dissolution.

Addendum: it is tempting to draw a connection between pessimism and over-developed/inflated egotism – despite its displays of ruggedness and occasional exuberance. Pessimism is conspicuous and Freud and implicit in Nietzsche’s stridency, despite all his coaching on the importance of “cheerfulness.” There is little in or about Nietzsche’s tone(s) or content that can legitimately be called cheerful or joyous, let alone optimistic, when it comes to the human situation. Again, Jung’s more moderate (and moderating) example serves well: generally speaking, he is measured and balanced in his tone – neither unduly pessimistic nor excessively hopeful about the human condition – but guardedly optimistic.