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:
- 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.
- 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.