Glimpses (6/27/13)

That drive to discover and then to abide in some inviolable ‘palace of truth’—a drive that certainly had its way with my mind and soul for many years—was gradually whittled down to a trickle of intermittent ejaculations after my grudging recognition that such a palace appears only in fairy tales, but not in reality, or at least not in the reality I have precariously and gradually come to inhabit. And when the target of one’s restless yearnings is seen to be a phantasm or, worse, an elaborate deception willed into (fictional) existence out of the yearning itself, then honesty counsels us to temper rather than inflame and nurture that drive.

It was by such a circuitous course that I arrived at a more pluralistic—or polytheistic—view of that most elusive of mirages, the Truth. At bottom, it may very well be ‘true’ that eventually all roads lead to some privileged center that is synonymous with Truth (deserving of a capital T) in some thoroughly comprehensive or complete sense. But, in all honesty, from where I am presently situated on my journey, my understanding is infused more with the sense of polycentricity, variety, and complexity than with unity, simplicity, or oneness. I am not saying that oneness is not implied, but as of now, such implied, ultimate unity registers far more faintly to my mind than the image of multiple inner galaxies, each with its own abundant supply of distinctive solar systems, composed, in turn, of various planets—all of which dwarf in size and complexity the individual creatures (or features) found thereupon.

I have spontaneously employed a cosmic analogy to express my point here. In the enormity of its scale, this cosmic image underscores the puniness and the restrictedness of the individual human ego’s field of vision, or range of experience. Always keeping this image of the puniness and restrictedness of the ego’s range of experience clearly in mind helps me to maintain my salutary mistrust of convenient ‘unitary models’ and all simple, self-consistent schemes. As far as I can see, all such models and schemes ultimately do more to hamper and slacken my thinking (and the questioning behind such thinking) than to invigorate and push that thought as far as it can go. It may be different for other thinkers, but for this one, the seductions of oneness and of all-embracing unity are a bit like the pull of a so-called ‘mother-complex’—a hankering to return to mother’s breast—or even to climb back up into her warm and watery belly. Of course, we could just as easily invoke the ‘father complex’ here, insofar as it stands for the urge to submit, in complete, selfless obedience, to the will of the All-Seeing Nobodaddy. At any event, nothing so successfully collapses or ‘shorts’ the electrical tension that is the sine qua non for soaring (or deep-delving) thought than such pat unities and crude simplifications.

I would suggest that a glimpse of authentic unity is possible only after we have courageously weathered and withstood this profound electrical tension—and emerged, as it were, on the other side of the charged field. Note that such glimpses are fleeting—even if the ‘mark’ they leave behind is as indelible as a tattoo. If I may be permitted to employ an erotic metaphor, such a ‘mark’ is like the memory of a supremely satisfying consummation of love with an ardently pursued partner—after many struggles and frustrations have been endured.

By way of contrast, the crude and spurious unities resorted to by the impatient, the careless, the shallow, and the negligent are like a doorbell or telephone ringing just as we are about to achieve our ‘climax.’ They ruin everything!

On Edinger’s “The New God-Image” (4/4/11)

I will begin this entry by confessing that the Edward Edinger book (The New God-Image) is stirring up powerful feelings ‘below deck.’ I am currently re-reading the middle chapter on ‘The Paradoxical God,’ in which the problematic coexistence of good and evil—or light and dark elements—is attributed to God, along with unconsciousness! These ideas strain even the most fertile imagination and test one’s spiritual courage as few ideas can. They are beyond our ‘Christianized’ ken, while at the same time, the attitude we assume towards these perplexing questions would seem to have profound implications for us, psychologically. And even if we ignore or pay grudging respect to these questions—or never adequately register them so that we can, in turn, be infected or stung by their disturbing power—they will still be there lurking like cancer cells in the unconscious. Of course, as long as they are lurking murkily in the unconscious their power to darken and cripple our journey through life is only that much greater because, in that case, they’re operating ‘behind our back.’ Perhaps most of us will never arrive at the point (of conscious appreciation of these profound religious riddles) ever to recognize what has been eating away, like a corrosive acid, at our insides.

But if, like Jacob, we wrestle with ‘God’—if, that is to say, we surrender to these searing questions which implicate us not only in God’s coming-to-be-conscious, but in the dangerous work of harmoniously reconciling cosmic good and evil—we may emerge with a serious limp, but also as walking and talking contributors to the founding of the way ahead. For me—because of what I now so strongly suspect—opting out of the wrestling match is no longer a viable option.

So where does my own anxiety and inner turmoil come from when I read from Edinger and from the uncharacteristically direct passages from Jung’s letters, where he seems to be very much out on a limb by himself—making connections, speculating, creating a new way to imagine deity?

Part of the anxiety stems from the central notion that God is not ‘perfect’ (nor as capable of looking out for us, like a good Daddy, as many of us were brought up to believe since childhood), but should perhaps be regarded as a ‘work in progress.’ To seriously entertain this notion—which, for me, means getting inside of it and inhabiting it like one might dwell inside a myth or story—is to suffer the most intense deprivation of metaphysical comfort conceivable, for it injects the God-image with a stronger dose of chaotic indeterminacy than of stabilizing cosmos. To be sure, Jung is willing to concede a latent meaning behind this work in progress, which is certainly preferable to a stance wherein no such latent meaning suffuses our experience of existence. But because of where present-day humanity is situated, historically and psychologically, the consolation offered by this idea of latent meaning gradually becoming manifest over the next few centuries is not quite consolation of the deepest and most gratifying sort. If the integration of the ‘Cosmic’ shadow—or the reconciliation of the split halves of good (love) and evil (naked will to power)—does actually take place over the next few troubled and disaster-marked centuries, none of us alive today (who are supposed to draw consolation from this possibility) will be around to enjoy the benefits of such a ‘healed’ split. As for the rest: well, they are left to feed like scavengers upon the rotting corpse of the dead ‘God-image.’

Another cause for inner unrest lies in the (psychological) fact that in pursuing the questions and themes of absorbing interest to me since I was young, I have—nolens volens—become conscripted into this unfinishable project that, as Jung rightly said, consists of ‘endless approximations.’ And as I have noted many times before, the deeper into this work I descend, the more alone I feel since few are seized and caught by this strange and strangely consuming task. How many authentic practitioners of alchemy were there? Because I have the compelling sense that this work and this path are my fate—and therefore cannot be forsaken or abandoned without inviting terrible guilt (the guilt of having betrayed or neglected one’s calling)—I naturally want for my life and my work to contribute something of substantial value to others after I’m gone. And yet, what I have to offer is so very different from the more solid and readily acknowledged contributions made by those talented and creative persons who serve men as they are now. I do not seem to be serving man as he now is—do I? And it’s doubtful that I ever will. My inner sights seem to be trained upon the way ahead—the way beyond the fragmented, decomposing culture I have already diagnosed and painfully come to terms with over the years.

The Scientific Worldview (Part Two) (4/22, 4/23/11)

How can we claim to be ‘objective’ when we consciously or unconsciously ignore or undervalue those qualitative aspects of experience which happen to lie outside the quantitative, strictly-defined parameters of scientific criteria/methodology—precisely those aspects of our experience which decisively outweigh and overshadow the comparatively restricted set that science is actually equipped to deal with? And how can we claim to be neutral (or unbiased) when these same highly selective and narrowly restricted criteria conspicuously constitute a bias—i.e., decisively in favor of statistically measurable and materially observable phenomena? Because there is so much more to human experience (that matters—seriously matters) than the comparatively slender portion that can be weighed, measured, classified, and manipulated by the scales and tongs of science, we ‘lay’ persons must learn to be as careful as actual practicing scientists are in recognizing the bounds and the built-in biases of science itself. Only thus will we be protected against the very real dangers of psychological blindness and lopsidedness to which we otherwise consign ourselves. Most scientists, because they have consciously assimilated and mastered the strict methodological constraints of science, recognize these limits simply because they confront them on a regular basis. For those of us who are uninitiated and unaccustomed to the employment of these rigorous principles, these boundary lines tend to be more fuzzily defined. Consequently, we are more likely to over- or under-value science as an institution or way of seeing. It is perhaps for this reason that all of us who regard ourselves as ‘educated’ should, if possible, undergo scientific training so that the power and the actual limits of science can become thoroughly and intimately known to us. There is no authentic substitute for this if we genuinely desire to protect ourselves from the erroneous ideas and questionable valuations that comprise an important part of the ‘scientific worldview.’

We must bear in mind that a collective worldview—in this case, a so-called ‘scientific’ one—is a very different kettle of fish than the purer and more concentrated source-ideas that spawned it. Merely by virtue of its broad extension and its general character, a worldview cannot help but dilute, debase, and distort the foundational ideas in the very act of adapting the worldview for mass consumption or, as Bacon said, for ‘the apprehension of the vulgar.’ If we take a moment to contemplate the gulf that separates the actual words and deeds of Jesus and the Apostles, say, from Pope Alexander the Sixth and the Catholic Church of Renaissance Italy, we get an idea of how wide the gap between a source and the resultant cultural offspring or worldview can be. Nominally ‘Christian,’ but as ‘pagan’ in its actual values and practice as anything from the height of the Roman Empire, the ‘Romish’ Church exerted its powerful authority over the dutiful lives and innocent minds of the masses in a manner that Jesus would no doubt have found questionable, if not palpably appalling.

And yet, if we could question and examine the millions of ordinary men and women who peopled ‘Christianized’ Europe for well over 1,000 years, we would find in almost every instance sincere professions of the most orthodox faith. The collective trust in the once-living myth of Christian redemption is what constituted the Christian worldview—as, in a coarser way, collective faith in the value of today’s ‘fiat currency’ dollar prevents (for the moment) an economic meltdown. It was the implicit trust (by the overwhelming majority of living men and women) in the ultimate truth of this revealed religion that mattered most—not whether priests, bishops, and even the popes behaved in a Christ-like manner, or that ordinary persons were able to fare much better. It was Christianity as an organized ‘way of seeing’ and of finding (or projecting) meaning in(to) human existence that lent substance and cohesiveness to that now beleaguered and gasping worldview. If our not so distant ancestors placed their hope and their trust in God’s mercy and omniscient understanding—because that’s all they had, we and our children invest the same trust, the same hope, in technology, medical innovations, and the penetrating minds of our best and brightest scientists—and for much the same reason: because it seems that’s all we’ve got.

Today, under the aegis of the scientific worldview (or is it the sword of Damocles we’re under?), which has superseded the former one, our collective attention is pointed, for the most part, in a very different direction—not up to heaven where ‘God’ once watched over our ‘simpler’ ancestors, but down to the earth and to the practical business of enjoying (or consuming) as much as possible of what this earth has to offer—before we’re dead and the rest is silence. The ‘myth’ of science and the ‘dream’ of technological-material ease and comfort are the bases of this relatively new worldview. What do I mean by the ‘myth’ of science? Don’t we, today, see something akin to a ‘religious’ faith in the honest-to-goodness power of science to get down to the bottom of things—to uncover the truth about the universe and about ourselves? If physics and biology, chemistry and behavioral psychology, are telling us—in so many words—that we, too, are simply ‘material’ and therefore subject to the same fate or destiny shared by all merely physical creatures, then it suddenly seems the height of folly to invest our time, energy, and attention in any ‘meta’-physical or otherworldly concerns or pursuits. Such foolishness is unworthy of the honest and savvy man of today because such pursuits are—literally—immaterial!

But science—as a myth—has proven to be sorely deficient precisely because it is silent, and must by its own foundational principles remain silent, about meaning and about value. While scientific criticism and the rational-materialistic standpoint have aided enormously in draining the old Christian myth of its former prestige and credibility, they have done nothing to replace or to fulfill the value-positing function served by the Judeo-Christian worldview—because they cannot. Harkening back to what was said earlier: because science, in order to be science, has banished to the margins those aspects of everyday human experience that are irrelevant to it, those important aspects of our experience have suffered a tacit devaluation or loss of status insofar as the scientific worldview now governs our general sense of the rank order of things and provides our criteria for what truth consists in. Moral and aesthetic questions, political issues, religious and spiritual concerns? Because these are all off limits for it, science has nothing evaluative or normative to say, one way or the other, about issues and concerns in these areas of vital interest to every member of our species. Science does not go so far as to say that morality or religious activity are worthless as such—only that they have no worth or importance to scientific research and activity. Apples and oranges. Through applied science we continue to learn how things work in the natural world (and increasingly in the man-made or technologically-altered world)—and how to make things do what we want them to do. But science can offer no guidance or solid advice to us if we ask, ‘Is there more to us than just our bodies?’ and ‘What is the best way of living our lives in this world? Is the present way of life healthy and good for us as psychological beings—or is it threatening to the balance and well-being of our psyches?’ How can we learn what our true spiritual and physical well-being consists in if such questions are not of vital concern to our educators, our elected leaders, our parents, and our friends? Ignoring these questions does not make them go away. They rise up, reliably, in both the young and the old.

Addendum

My initial approach to philosophy was that of an intellectual accumulator or consumer of written knowledge. This approach, while perfectly valid, up to a point, gradually gave way to a very different approach, which is now primary. The new approach consists for the most part in an ongoing dialogue between the ego and the unconscious. This dialectic is much more than a merely intellectual activity, even though the intellect plays a crucial role in the transformative process. Because the archetypes of the unconscious, as Jung clearly recognized, are affectively charged psychic energy centers, the dialectic between ego and unconscious is dramatic and often suffused with a welter of powerful passions and emotional states. Ego consciousness is transformed by its contact with the archetypal images and energies—and such transformation involves a destructive as well as a creative aspect. What often suffers destruction are formerly held assumptions and convictions which are no longer adequate containers for the ‘new wine’ that is fermented by reflection upon the new insights that are produced in the ongoing dialectic. Journaling provides one of the principal arenas within which this dialectic is advanced for me—perhaps the most fruitful one. Careful reading of relevant (psychological, philosophical, poetical, spiritual, historical, etc.) texts and serious conversation also contribute to the ongoing development and transformation of my ego-consciousness.

The transformation of ego-consciousness entails much more than intellectual development and expansion. It encompasses our moral attitudes and behavior, our aesthetic tastes, our feelings about ourselves and others, to name but a few of the areas of importance affected by this transformative process.

The conventional or customary mode of becoming educated today is markedly egocentric and almost exclusively bound up with the intellectual acquisition of factual knowledge and documented information—which should only be the beginning, certainly not the bulk, of our education. The contrast with this model was long ago provided by Plato, wherein the soul, and not the ego, assumes the place of central importance. This approach does not altogether dismiss the value of accumulating the knowledge provided by one’s cultural inheritance (poetical, historical, religious, etc.), but it sees this as the point of departure for the more important form of education which involves entering into a dialectical relationship with the ‘soul’ (which, for many moderns, because reduced to a mere superstition, has been relegated to the unconscious). Because Plato held that the soul’s knowledge and insight were of a higher order than the comparatively ‘shadow-like’ knowledge that comes from the senses and from formal (conventional) learning, a kind of shift occurs in the student’s mental center of gravity at some point—and thereafter he is oriented chiefly by the light of the soul, and not by the very different, less trustworthy ‘lights’ of the conventional or local environment and of the senses. The ‘local’ culture is compared to a ‘cave’ by Plato, while the truer light of soul-wisdom is compared to the sunlight, which can be experienced in a direct way only by those courageous individuals who manage—against numerous obstacles of inner and external resistance—to escape from the ‘cave.’

 

A Word about Jung’s Religious Fantasy (5/6/14)

Jung, in ‘Answer to Job,’ sketches out what the reader might initially suppose to be a significant advance over the traditional Christian idea of man as a puny, impotent creature—a creature who, though created by God (in His image), does not thereby share in God’s divine power or knowledge. Jung’s proposal is that God needs man to carry out or fulfill His creation. This re-definition of man as God’s little helper—his ‘eyes’ and ‘hands’ in the world—is intended, I suspect, to elevate man’s status, to dignify him by assigning divinely creative potentials and a divine telos in the ongoing task of world-creation and world-maintenance. This active-creative function is implicitly contrasted with the stubborn old image of man as the passive, woefully finite and wayward product of God’s unlimited power (Job). Man as mere creature—unable to fully partake in God’s divine power and knowledge—is, at bottom, a kind of prisoner and victim of creation, tainted since the Fall with Original Sin. While I am not about to try and defend such a degrading and pessimistic view of the human being, as such, I’m not sure that Jung’s ‘doctored’ portrait—wherein man is endowed with a divinely creative role, working with his creator to redeem the world—amounts to anything more than a glorified fantasy image of man—perhaps a merely compensatory inflation of the formerly puny creature. Instead of transcending both man and God—as Advaita appears to do—it retains the old fictional dualism (between creator and creature) but with certain ennobling embellishments accorded to the creature. So, the social mobility of the post-Enlightenment, ‘liberal’ West is subtly echoed in the theological mobility of Jung’s philanthropic myth of Judeo-Christian redemption.

Moreover, the Advaitist would unhesitatingly note that Jung’s religious fantasy takes the world—the field of history and temporality—as real, while it is in truth no more than a vivid hallucination, a trick of the mind, a nightmare from which we are better advised to awaken—and not cultivate like some kind of reclaimed Garden of Eden.

Self and Psyche, Jung and Ramana Maharshi (3/18/13)

The thoughts that occupy our minds may profitably be conceived as symptomatic of the mental context or perspective in which we are, for the moment (or, as the case may be, for decades), situated. Our thoughts are the fauna and flora native to that psychic ‘habitat.ʼ To pursue and to work up these thoughts is, at the same time, to further substantiate the enfolding context or perspective—thus making the perspective look and feel all the more solidly and compellingly established. Often, we unwittingly attribute causal status to these thoughts, although when regarded from the standpoint of their generative context or matrix, they are better regarded as symptoms or effects, just as whales, sharks, plankton, and starfish are ‘consequences’ of the life-generating sea, and not its cause.

Our efforts to ‘objectify’ and to extricate ourselves from these enfolding mental contexts or inherited perspectives will be thwarted if our attention remains engrossed in their enchanting or vexing fauna and flora. It behooves us to be mistrustful of the metaphysical pretensions of all bounded mental contexts, along with all the indigenous creatures spawned within their Garden-gates or horizons. Only thus—with such salutary and sobering mistrust as our loyal ally—are we able to wake up from the dream of the ʽmany worldsʼ and learn, at last, to imaginatively play, where before we moiled and toiled on various maintenance crews.

From this perspective we are granted a somewhat fuller view of the crucial differences between Jungian psychology and Ramana Maharshiʼs spiritual standpoint. Jung speaks on numerous occasions of the reality of the psyche. I think it is fair to say that what Jung is calling psyche Ramana Maharshi would call mind plus the vāsanās (the innate or residual tendencies of the mind). And more importantly, Ramana Maharshi does not dignify the mind or the vāsanās with ‘realityʼ status. Only the Self is held to be real and abolute. Everything else—including the psyche—being derivative, is less than real, since nothing but the formless Self is self-subsistent, and this self-subsistence is what constitutes reality in RMʼs book. At first, this may seem like a logical quibble or set piece, like Anselmʼs ʽproofʼ of God, but thereʼs more to it than this.

Before the reader is tempted to make a fateful choice between Jungʼs psychology and RMʼs spiritual teachings concerning the all-embracing Self, let us dive a little bit deeper into this subtle business—a region of deeply intriguing questions where mere words and general concepts are more apt to get in the way than to be of assistance to the diver. In order to begin properly, we would do well to place both Jung and RM within the contexts they were responding to in their seemingly different teachings.

As we know, Jung was up against the thick, proud wall of 19th century European materialism at its zenith, while RM was operating snugly within the well-established Indian spiritual tradition. He was, as Jung famously referred to him, ‘the whitest spot in a white space.ʼ In order for Jung to gain cultural relevance (in order to fulfill his fate?), he had to come to terms with the materialist context in which he was immersed. The generally embraced metaphysical presuppositions of materialism implicitly denied full reality status to immeasurable and intangible spiritual/psychic phenomena. Within the jealously guarded fortress walls of the empirical-scientific worldview, there were no entry visas for anything that was not demonstrably reducible to matter or energy in quantifiable terms. It was agreed that terms like ‘mind,ʼ ‘soul,ʼ ‘God,ʼ and ‘ideasʼ referred to intangibles that nonetheless meant something, however vague and confused, to human beings (even to clear-thinking, no-nonsense persons like inorganic chemists and physicists). Accordingly, these weightless, immeasurable, and immaterial factors could not simply be ignored or categorically dismissed as utter poppycock or ‘silly nothings,ʼ although more than a few ‘Positivist’ zealots advocated such a wholesale rejection of all non-quantitative ‘phantasms.ʼ Nonetheless, even among those who granted a kind of provisional reality status to these insubstantial elements (of intellectual-imaginative-moral-spiritual experience), there was a generally shared belief that eventually all of these features of consciousness would be adequately accounted for in material terms—e.g., electrochemical processes; stimulus response of the human organism within its environment; neural pathways; behavioral habits rooted in the brain; and so forth.

When Jung argued for the reality of the psyche he was not embarking on a philosophical-metaphysical quest or campaign. He was not attempting to credit intangible psychic contents with quite the same ontological or metaphysical status that material objects and processes had been endowed with by the ruling scientific establishment. Perhaps his move—his intellectual stratagem—was a bit tricky or super-subtle, but instead of trying to induct intangible, invisible psychic contents into the exclusive club of materialist metaphysics, he simply dismissed dogmatic metaphysics altogether as a standpoint having anything of real or authoritative value to say about the psyche as such. And he accomplished this bold, brazen maneuver by simply turning the whole question on its head. By inverting the order of priority—by making the psyche the primary datum of experience—Jung, in a single move, made metaphysics a dependent subset of the psyche, which for him became the precondition, the sine qua non, of all experience. Some critics of Jung have called this move ‘psychologism’—the undermining of all possibility of philosophical truths by exposing their roots in that protean, irrational datum: the unconscious psyche.

In this way, Jung—who was not a professional or trained philosopher (although he had read Kant on his own, and was deeply impressed)—had delivered as deadly a blow to Western metaphysics as Heidegger had done (from the phenomenological direction). Instead of painstakingly unraveling it, after the manner of Heidegger and his deconstructionist followers, he simply cut the Gordian knot in one fell swoop. To repeat: he argued, in effect, that because all metaphysical positions, claims, and assertions are generated by the psyche (just as dreams, myths, and symbols are), they can never be more comprehensive, more authentic, or more grounding than the matrix out of which they emerge spontaneously and autonomously. Basing his findings upon years of experience with the phenomena of the unconscious psyche (gathered from his patients, from himself, and from the myths, religious symbols, and other recurring motifs in human cultural history), Jung concluded that the psyche is ultimately opaque, mysterious, and irreducible to any of the categories and forms of thought that we have at our conscious disposal. But, he claimed, despite its ultimately unfathomable mysteriousness—despite its transcendence of all our rational categories and methods—it appears (again, phenomenologically, and therefore, in Jung’s perhaps idiosyncratic view of phenomenology, empirically) to operate in accordance with certain ‘heuristic principles’ or observable patterns. Like the interplay of yin and yang—or between various elements in chemical processes—the psyche, of which our consciously differentiated ego-standpoint is but an outgrowth, is not a merely chaotic mystery, but a mystery that holds out the promise of wise understanding and a fuller participation in life. And since the psyche is itself the matrix of consciousness, it provides us with the means with which to make some kind of meaningful sense of it: dreams, myths, ‘archetypal’ images, ‘Gods,’ etc.

So, now we can see that while Jung posits the reality of the psyche (as an immediately experienceable datum that is directly presented to us in the form of autonomously produced images and fantasy material, which constitute its natural language), this ‘reality’ has a very different status than we encounter in rational philosophy and traditional metaphysics. It is the ground or basis of all possible experience (a claim RM will make about the Self), but it resists all comprehension by necessarily limited human rationality. From one angle, this disqualifies the psyche from being a suitable object for traditional philosophical treatment or analysis—since, as we have noted, it transcends the very terms and axiomatic principles upon which rational philosophy is founded.[1] And while the unconscious psyche is ultimately opaque and stumpingly enigmatic, it nevertheless appears to generate forms that invite (or elicit) meaningful interpretations from us. As Jung saw it, this need for meaning (and for the mental orientation it can provide) appears to be innate in human beings. Our languages, myths, rituals, religions, philosophies—and more recently, our rather threadbare ideologies—have served, with mixed success, to organize meanings and values into systems that mediate for us, collectively. They serve as cultural interfaces between human consciousness and the enigmas of the collective unconscious.

When viewed against the backdrop of his cultural-ideological milieu (namely, the scientific-materialistic-rationalistic modern Western worldview) Jung introduced both creative ideas and corrosive criticisms that left many of the ground-floor presuppositions of that worldview utterly untenable.[2] By opening up the psyche as phenomenologically explorable territory—territory that is situated well beneath the cultural forms and artifacts acquired and assimilated by means of the best formal educations available to us—Jung not only greatly expanded the scope of the discernible and the intelligible. He also introduced more exacting standards of subtlety in treating these little-explored factors and phenomena—standards of subtlety that make former (reductive) methods seem ham-fisted and narrow by comparison.

In our efforts to better understand the points of difference between Jung and RM, then, we must first take note of these differences between Jung’s subtle, inner-directed, culturally assimilative depth psychology and the generally outer-directed, (largely) psychologically unreflective material science that still commands the most respect where questions about the nature of things are at issue, at least here in the West. So, how did the reality of the psyche—or its validity as a ‘scientificʼ hypothesis—become established? Due to a combination of cultural, educational, and other collective factors, the realm of the psyche (or soul) had been pretty much relegated to a marginal zone inhabited by impractical or ‘madʼ poets, the ‘innocent’ faithful, dubious charlatans, theosophists, and lunatics. It was only when members of the ‘normalʼ and ‘respectableʼ bourgeoisie began to suffer from troubling and embarrassing neurotic symptoms that serious attention started to be directed towards the mysterious source of these bizarre maladies of the mind.

Freud is generally credited with having discovered the subconscious—but the groundwork for his valuable theoretical and practical contributions to the new ‘scienceʼ of depth psychology had been prepared by dozens of pioneering minds before him. Jung, having worked closely with Freud as a young psychiatrist, inherited the best that his simultaneously celebrated and reviled mentor could offer him—and then carried the flickering candle deeper into the transpersonal realm of the archetypal unconscious. His theoretical writings on the structure and dynamics of the psyche—founded upon extensive clinical work with patients from around the world, and supported by his own life-altering, protracted encounter with the unconscious during the years before and during the First World War—stand proudly beside the most eminent and revered works of psychic cartography within the possession of Western humanity. Written in a prose style that reflects the scientific temper of the times in which they appeared (but which always points beyond the limits of that worldview), these works possess a lucidity and power that speak to the innermost depths of the attuned modern reader. Suffice it to say that Jung’s writings—along with those of the other genuine depth psychologists—have succeeded in communicating the strange but partially intelligible inner processes of the psyche. Today, for anyone who has been initiated into a dialectical relationship with the unconscious psyche, there is a new dimension of experience that is every bit as vast, complex, and mysterious as the outer universe is—but immediately accessible, unlike the outer universe. Speaking about the outer realm, the British evolutionary biologist, J.B.S. Haldane said: ‘The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.ʼ This observation certainly applies to the psyche, as well—that ever-present but perplexing source from which our angelic and demonic impulses, our transcendent and bestial yearnings, and our fate-shaping dreams and imaginings mysteriously arise.

[1] I suppose I don’t need to point out the fact that ‘irrational philosophy’ is simply an oxymoron.

[2] Physicists and biologists living today will no doubt insist that no one who fails to grasp the fundamental ideas of relativity and quantum mechanics, of molecular and evolutionary biology, can claim to be fully or adequately educated. With much the same brazen temerity, I would argue that any contemporary thinker who has not thoroughly assimilated Jung’s fundamental insights and perspectives is living at least a hundred years ‘behind the times.ʼ

Walking the Plank (8/18/12)

We are not in a position to ‘see through’ the world until we have first made significant headway in seeing the world as it is. Only after we have begun to see the world as it is do we become properly suspicious of our cozy comfortableness in that world. When we have come to deplore lax conformity and passive compliance with the terms and conditions of the socio-political world and—from the other end of the spectrum—after we have stepped back from our fiery-passionate campaigns to alter those terms and conditions: only then, perhaps, do we properly begin to ‘see through’—and beyond—the world as it is.

The perspective that is able to see through and beyond the world is already situated beyond or outside the bounds of the world as it is, even though it is unconscious and not within easy reach for many of us. Therefore, seeing through and beyond the world as it is consists principally of learning how to establish our consciousness within that centered, neutral position, and to hold that position. This is the eye of the storm—the inner standpoint where ‘the lion lies down with the lamb.’ It is not a physical paradise, a socio-political utopia, or some heaven in the sky. It is a quiet, undisturbed inner state of balance—upon a razor’s edge. It is what is left over after we have glutted and rutted, beaten and drubbed, our way into the world—and ultimately found the world to be even more devouring and consuming than our own unbridled appetites!

As we know, all the world’s great religions have both an exoteric body of teachings and an esoteric one. Exoteric Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism have evolved, over the centuries, to provide moral guidance, a more or less coherent worldview, and metaphysical comfort for the many, while the esoteric traditions provide teachings for the few—teachings that pertain to release, enlightenment, spiritual liberation, centeredness, and mystical vision. Responding to the human situation as it is—and as it will no doubt continue to be—exoteric religion provides rules and instructive examples to be followed by the many (and their all too frequently venal and mediocre political leaders). It is hoped that such moral instruction will serve as a check against doing mischief to themselves and to others while they are confined or embedded within the world as it is. They are promised rewards—usually in an afterlife, but sometimes in the here and now—if they will only abide by these rules and try to imitate the saintly exemplars. The rewards and punishments that are implicit in the moral teachings which are central to all exoteric religions naturally function as ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’ for the followers. As long as they respect these moral prescriptions, they feel themselves to be human beings who possess inherent dignity and are, therefore, deserving of respect from other humans. When they violate or ignore these traditional moral commands they are little more than wild beasts, and are made to feel so—both by other decent humans and by their own guilty consciences. Exoteric religions, at least in the West, are not about release from (or genuine enlightenment about) the nature of the world as it is. They are chiefly concerned with establishing and preserving social and moral order within that world, and are therefore ingredient to human civilization as such.

The esoteric teachings from all the religious traditions, on the other hand, speak to that part or perspective within us that is not merely embedded in ‘the world as it is,’ but which silently and detachedly observes. It is a kind of seeing that gently resists merger or identification with that which is seen. To the extent that it is able to preserve this distinction between itself (as seer) and the seen, the observer within is free, unbound, and content. As a contented, self-subsistent seer, there is no compulsion to act, to go anywhere, to alter anything. For all these actions are perceived either as disturbances or modifications—either faint or tremendous—of the quiet abidance in Being in itself. This state, when assessed from the standpoint of normal human (or ego-) consciousness, appears to be utterly and perhaps shockingly transpersonal. Although the stubborn sense of ‘I-ness’ or personal consciousness begins to dissolve in the centered, uncompelled perspective like a salt crystal in water, this state is by no means sterile, nugatory, inhuman, or devoid of vitality. It is, however, the vitality of light, and not of a dynamo or of spirited animality. The terms and qualities that we are forcibly obliged to employ from the ‘normal’ standpoint of ego-consciousness are simply inapplicable to the serene, centered consciousness of the seer within. [1]

Over the years, my own efforts to deepen and to extend my experiences of this centered state have not been infrequent or half-hearted. Ever since I first experienced ‘mystical’ or ‘transcendent’ states as a youth I have repeatedly undertaken a serious and energetic pursuit of the contemplative life. Nevertheless, my path has certainly not been a straight or direct one. My journey has taken me into a dozen or so different regions of study and experience, but I have always remained faithful, down deep, to the path of liberation, even when I venture from this path from time to time. The state of centeredness is, for me, the most real, the most comprehensive, and the most intrinsically free perspective that I know of from experience. All else—including all that the world and ordinary human experiences have to offer—is, alas, of peripheral or relative worth, and pales by comparison.

Now, whether it should be trusted or deeply suspected, I have long been governed by an inner determination to try to reconcile my intermittent transcendent experiences with my cultural-philosophical-moral knowledge and experience. This seems to be my inwardly assigned, or fated ‘task’—although I am all too painfully aware of how colossal and unfinishable this task ultimately is. It dwarfs my meager abilities and exposes the paucity of my learning. And yet, my commitment to the task is a commitment that I do not—perhaps cannot—shirk or argue away, so integral it is to the health and integrity of my soul. It is my modest contribution to the general campaign—undertaken by spiritually-motivated persons everywhere and at all times—to construct bridges from the bank of the world to that of the contemplative and serene seer.

Although my journey thus far has been circuitous and, at times, seemingly episodic, the ultimate aim has remained unwavering: liberation by means of ingathering of my attention, attaining a state of centeredness, and attempting to maintain a critical distance from the devouring seductions and allurements, the boogies and the threatening phantasms, of the world as it is—the world as it is seen through the distorting lens of the de-centered mind. The seemingly episodic character of my journey stems from my having explored a number of well-traveled regions of typical experience—regions such as ‘romantic,’ conjugal, and friendly love; archetypal psychology and the Western philosophical tradition; artistic creativity and literary studies; politics and moral theory; comparative religion and mythological studies. From the standpoint of the centered seer all of these regions or arenas of knowledge and experience constitute more or less reliable platforms from which we may involve ourselves with the world. They are interrelated but relatively independent realms. And, perhaps most importantly, they can be traps or snares in which the seer may become lost.

My own involvement in each of these realms is ultimately governed by a will to release. Consequently, I have learned to approach them like a latter-day Houdini who is chiefly alert to the often hidden orifices and weak links that allow one to wriggle out of one’s bonds. The strongest weapon against entrapment in any particular domain of relatively coherent and compelling experience is—as I have observed many times in the past—the mental ability to melt literal forms into metaphors. In viewing and experiencing forms and phenomena imaginally instead of concretistically, symbolically instead of literally, we are able to divine the meaning trapped within these forms—meaning that is obscured or blocked from view so long as we think exclusively in literal terms. Unfortunately, this literal, matter-of-fact, reductionist manner of seeing things has been encouraged by the dominant scientific/materialistic worldview lurking behind virtually all ‘acceptable’ and culturally sanctioned statements and positions.

Why am I engaged in this work of searching for weak links and escape routes from the various regions that have captivated my interest throughout the years? I believe now that I was initially drawn to these arenas of experience and these ‘ways of seeing’ precisely because they promised—each in its own distinctive way—to provide a path towards a viable form of personal or spiritual fulfillment. The more I invested in these particular studies and personal involvements the more I came to see that these prospects of fulfillment were only half-true at best. The steps taken within these arenas—as my knowledge and understanding deepened—were like rungs on a ladder. The rungs would mysteriously vanish below me as I climbed higher (or descended lower, as the case may be, since ‘the way up and the way down are one and the same’). My thoughts and insights would progressively become subtler, more inclusive and synthetic, as I moved deeper and deeper into each region. I could see and feel myself becoming absorbed by the realm as I became more absorbed with its particular phenomena. There was certainly as much that was limiting and circumscribing about such immersions as there was liberating and transcendent about them. There would, for example, be a sense of exhilaration or momentary transcendence (say, of a lower or former ‘rung’) as I had an articulate experience of the next depth or stage—but this would soon enough settle into a new norm, or average, and the ‘shine’ of its earlier numinosity would fade.

What I have gradually come to realize is that with the formal, intellectual, emotional, and even imaginal experiences that we undergo as we delve deeper and deeper into the roots of a realm—say, of epistemology or romantic love—we ultimately wind up on a kind of plank, on the side of the craft we’ve been sailing in. The ‘plank’ ordeal is the liminal experience—the encounter with that strange frontier between the continuity of thought and the coherence of familiar experience, on the one hand, and the transcendent mystery that defies adequate formulation and representation by the human intellect, feelings, and imagination, on the other.

If the sea beckons us and we leap—all our accumulated knowledge, insight, and experience are seen no longer as our possessions. They were merely the vessel that brought us to the leaping-off place. At some level we had to already know—or at least strongly suspect—that the vessel could take us no further on our journey, since vessels float upon the surface of the wide expanse of the sea. That is their nature and function, due to their buoyancy. But if the watery depths call us, we already know that in swallowing us up, they more than compensate for the paltry cargo on board the vessel we leapt from. Knowing how to swim—before we leap into the sea—may be helpful, but if we have learned how to breathe underwater, our plunge will yield even richer finds. All platforms, ultimately, turn out to be diving platforms for those who are called, by fate, to the depths, are they not?

[1] It is for this reason that we link apophatic or negative theology with mystical vision. Instead of ascribing to the seer (or the deus absconditus, the hidden ‘God’) virtues and qualities that are known and intelligible to us in our ordinary experience, the apophatic approach says what it is not. The shift from ordinary ego-consciousness to mystical identification with the seer, or the Godhead, involves the transcendence of all the ‘concepts and categories,’ the criteria and rationality, of the former standpoint.

Puzzlement (1/25-26/12; 2/8/12)

Liken the contemporary American cultural situation to an unfinished jigsaw puzzle laid out on a coffee table. A few sections of the puzzle have been completed, and they sit like modest-sized islands of isolated coherence and intelligibility upon the table. These completed sections are not connected, of course, to any other parts—and, what’s worse, the persons who are working on the puzzle do not possess a clear image of what the finished result is supposed to look like! For some who are working on the puzzle, the lack of a preexistent image of the final result has produced a sense of enormous exhilaration and excitement, while for others this absence of a guiding model is deeply vexing, almost paralyzing. Nevertheless, there is a general, shared belief that all of the pieces are present on the table—and that if everyone proceeds methodically and patiently, the successful working out of the puzzle will eventually take place.

Now, sticking with this simple analogy for our present cultural difficulties and challenges, let us expand it a bit and raise some additional questions of interest. For starters, how did it come about that these persons are without any foreknowledge of what the completed image is supposed to look like? This situation deviates from the normal state of affairs, where we are equipped at the outset with a picture of a gorgeous rural landscape, a pleasant village scene, a royal portrait, or some other worthy image—a structured and organized gestalt that guides our selection and placement of the pieces randomly scattered about the table.

And, given these unusual starting conditions, why is it that some at the table find reason to rejoice, while others feel utterly stumped and obstructed by the very same conditions? Do some rejoice because privately they disbelieve that such a guiding model or completed image has an a priori existence—and that by inventing or creating the final image (even if it means forcing some of the pieces together or deforming them, as with the bed of Procrustes, in order to make them fit), they will be revered and commemorated as great founders and lawgivers? And do those who feel deeply troubled by the absence of a guiding image worry precisely because of this arbitrary power usurped by their ambitious and inventive fellows? Doesn’t this work upon the puzzle seem far too important and consequential to be consigned to the unguided hands of self-interested human beings? For such troubled participants, an even deeper question eventually takes shape: ‘Can the image we are working on with this puzzle actually be constructed—or mustn’t it be divined?’

Can these two seemingly opposed approaches be reconciled—if not logically, then psychologically; if not rationally, then artfully or metaphorically?

*****

A variety of suggestions and questions can be generated by the jigsaw puzzle analogy—as an image of the present condition of our culture:

  1. As we have noted, some persons favor (or feel the intense need for) a given, preexistent image or goal that guides the cooperative assembly of the puzzle pieces, while others (who doubt the preexistence of such an authoritative image or goal) seek to invent such a goal and then convince or, if necessary, compel their fellows to cooperate in bringing it into being with the available puzzle pieces. For the sake of convenience, we might call the first lot ‘transcendentalists’ (since, for them, the preexistent goal transcends mere human invention and arbitrary will) and the second lot ‘pragmatists,’ since they rely solely upon human ingenuity and instrumental reason to guide and assist their efforts.
  2. Both the ‘transcendentalists’ and the ‘pragmatists’ are in agreement about the obvious fact that no guiding image or blueprint for the puzzle assembly is present to hand for all to refer (or defer) to and that such an orienting image must somehow be supplied. Otherwise, the haphazard or controversial arrangement of the individual pieces will continue, causing ceaseless bickering and disagreement among those at the table. Both groups, then, greatly prefer the acquisition of this guiding model, rather than relentless, arbitrary contention between the participants. As the contention and the bickering intensify, a growing number of the participants from both camps become so exasperated that they are tempted to withdraw altogether from the task at hand. But, being aware of how enormous the stakes are for mankind—depending on which group gets the upper hand in this urgent enterprise—they defiantly hold onto their places at the table.
  3. The transcendentalists are, for the most part, traditionalists, for they believe that the guiding image for the puzzle has simply been lost or forgotten and must be recovered, not invented. More importantly—from their traditionalist vantage point—this precious and sacred guiding image was lost or forgotten in the first place because of general neglect that came about under the influence of their anti-traditional rivals, the innovative Why, it will be asked, was the traditional image or blueprint for the puzzle neglected, and even discredited, under the powerful cultural influence of the innovative new breed of pragmatists?
  4. Although a significant number of these influential innovators called themselves ‘deists,’ they were in fact merely humanists. The deity behind deism was a kind of mechanical clock-maker who set the material universe (and all its creatures, including man) into motion, but then backed off and remained aloof from human and terrestrial affairs—just the sort of ‘reduced’ and unmeddlesome deity that was made to order for the anti-traditional humanist innovators and social engineers. The old personal, involved, and anthropomorphic deity had to be displaced—or at least thoroughly ‘rationalized’ and naturalized—in order to make plenty of room for the ‘human, all-too-human,’ thoroughly mundane plans and purposes of the new breed. It is fair to say that these innovators successfully commandeered Western culture over the past few dramatic centuries. Their impact has been so sweeping and decisive that the former ways of living, of seeing, of valuing, and of understanding have largely been forgotten in the modern West. One must swim ceaselessly against the current or burrow ‘underground’ in order to obtain a glimpse into the lost world of our pre-modern ancestors. But it is only after we have undertaken such ‘unpopular’ quests for generally discredited, ‘obsolete’ knowledge that we, for the first time, place ourselves in a position to see modernity with any degree of critical objectivity. Only by recovering these lost ways of seeing, valuing, feeling, and understanding—only then are we in a position to assess the losses and the damage that our souls have collectively sustained as a consequence of this ‘successfully’ severed connection with our own cultural past and the traditions that once provided a context for meaning and value for the lives of our forebears. This meaning and value is not something we can simply or easily produce from the radically deficient soil that presently supports the disinherited, materialist conditions we restlessly and skittishly inhabit—our ‘anti-culture.’
  5. Taking a closer look at these anti-traditional, atheistic or agnostic innovators, we find a variety of types under the large canopy of ‘humanist.’ Some are animated by a genuinely optimistic estimation of ordinary, rationally self-interested human beings, while others are cynical and see humans merely as creatures of appetite, lust, and power drives which are precariously held in check by the triple threats of legal punishment, guilt, and social ostracism. But both are of one mind in placing man at the summit of the known (material) universe, even if it is ultimately the summit of a dunghill or a strategic plateau whereupon he is best able to command the heights overlooking a squalid, teeming, dog-eat-dog valley below. During the late 18th and 19th centuries, the more optimistic sort prevailed, but after the genocidal wars of the last one hundred years, the near evaporation of noble values and exemplars, the proliferation of a vulgar form of atomized, mass, crass consumerist culture, and the steep decline of intellectual and spiritual culture, the cynical or pessimistic sort has gained ascendancy, seizing nearly complete control over the present political and socio-economic realms. This cynical greed- and power-driven system of manipulation, exploitation, and control of the ignorant and gullible masses has, in effect, taken the place of culture in the West. Even if the method of controlling the masses is closer in spirit to that of Huxley’s (pleasure-based system outlined in) Brave New World than to Orwell’s grim, paranoiac scheme in 1984—as Neil Postman suggests in his worthy little book, Amusing Ourselves to Death—the end results are much the same. Ironically, what may have begun with a ‘humanist’ philosophy has ‘progressively’ degenerated into a palpably dehumanized, subhuman system of mass manipulation and exploitation. Geopolitical directives, economic and technological affairs now thoroughly dominate and preoccupy the minds and bodies of the sheepish, soulless multitudes and their lupine, fleecing leaders. Culture and religious faith, along with the literary, visual and performance arts, formerly provided a kind of shelter or refuge for the non-economical, a-political, and comparatively ‘disinterested’ parts of our ancestors’ souls—but today these cultural protections (against our being reduced merely to consumers and pawns for political manipulation) have been effectively appropriated or conscripted into the service of socio-political, entertainment-related, and economic systems of mass control—and, in the process, much of their former power has been lost. Even our presidents are former actors, reality TV show hosts—in a word, ‘entertainers.’
  6. If, by the same token, we take a closer look at the traditionalists, we find that there is a large—if not a unanimous—consensus that religion (and in the West this means the Judeo-Christian scriptural tradition) provides the guidance and orientation that mere human beings cannot provide. In other words, a divine or supernatural dimension of the universe is acknowledged, lorded over by a deity who is not aloof but deeply involved in His creation, within which man occupies a crucial place and office. This large group may then be divided between a relatively small minority for whom spiritual experience is direct, unmediated, and thoroughly authentic, and a much larger majority who sincerely place their faith in a literal reading of the Book itself, along with its teachings (without, however, feeling a direct or individual connection with the divine dimension).
  7. To return to our puzzle analogy and the absent image or goal—which must serve as guide and orienter for those who are trying to assemble the pieces properly: we may now be in a suitable position to speculate upon what this model would need to contain within itself if it is to provide the basis or ground for a vital culture that is responsive to more than just our economic and entertainment needs. Since a healthy and wholesome culture must be able to offer place, value, and meaning to a variety of different human types—at all levels of physical, moral, and spiritual development—it must be both comprehensive and complex.

*****

Plato was certainly onto something profound when, in the Republic, he developed his analogy between the healthy human soul and the ideal city. He saw these two as mirror images of one another—macrocosm and microcosm. The health of a predominant number of individual souls would be reflected in wise and just laws for the city, and the city with wise and just laws would provide the best education for healthy and just souls.

If we approach our jigsaw problem from this fruitful direction, we can see that what is absent is a generally accepted idea (or ideal) of the ‘best sort of human being.’ It is this image that guides the work of puzzle construction. But where does it come from? It almost certainly is the image of individual human types writ large. The ‘economic’ man sees a money-making scheme at the ‘end’ of the work, while an honor-loving man sees something very different indeed, and he cannot help but regard the money-preoccupied man with a heaping measure of contempt. The philosopher-saint, in turn, sees a very different image than either the gain-driven man or the honor-seeking man. The preponderance of one type or another establishes the general character and trajectory of the regime.

It should be evident that the ‘lower sort’ of human life—and not the nobler sorts—has stamped the modern West in its image. The fact that we live in a plutocratic or oligarchic (money-dominated) scheme should not fool us into believing that our tastes—from corrupt top to crass and raffish bottom—are not equalitarian through and through. There is practically nothing nobly aristocratic about life in this country—in the arts, in politics, in spirituality, in our values. It is all about comfort, material security, and convenience for the self-interested individual consumer-particle. As a people, we are busy, restless, and narrow in our knowledge and shallow in our understanding of everything beyond the tiny sphere of our pressing personal interests or our blinkered immediate experience. Serious, broad education—rigorous personal discipline and self-sacrifice—a cultivated disdain for all debasing distractions and petty pursuits—the rare ability to stand alone—the will and determination to think and feel for oneself, by oneself: most of these basic requirements (for a nobly individuated existence) are conspicuously ignored not only by the ordinary person today (which has probably always been the case) but even by the leaders and exemplars (which is a rather more serious matter).