Reason’s Rudder

“To challenge your misery, try science. Give it a real chance. Work at thinking rationally, sticking to reality, checking your hypothesis about yourself, about other people, and about the world. Check them against the best observations and facts that you can find. Stop being a Pollyanna. Give up pie-in-the-sky. Uproot your easy-to-come-by wishful thinking. Ruthlessly rip up your childish prayers.
Yes, rip them up! Again – and again – and again.
Will the millennium then arrive? No. Will you never again feel disturbed? I doubt it. Will you reduce your anxiety, depression, and rage to near-zero? Probably not.
But, I can, almost, promise you this: The more scientific, rational, and realistic you become, the less emotionally uptight you will be. Not zero uptight – for that is inhuman or superhuman. But a hell of a lot less. And, as your years go by, and your scientific outlook becomes more solid, less and less neurotic.
Is that a guarantee? No, but a prediction that will probably be fulfilled.”
Albert Ellis, How To Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything Yes, Anything

“These new methods present a unique opportunity to assess the origins of a fundamentally human condition: the costly yet advantageous shift from a primitive “live fast and die young” strategy to the “live slow and grow old” strategy that has helped to make us one of the most successful organisms on the planet.”
A Long Childhood is of Advantage, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

“The god I believe in isn’t short of cash, mister.”
U2, Bullet the Blue Sky

 

The god I believe in is not afraid of science – to crib off U2 – nor reason, psychology, or engineering. Nor does the ground of all being fear the negative way of atheists, for they too see there is a real absence, and that that too is part of the mystery. There is nothing verboten to study, though not all things are equally of benefit to the cause of liberating the student from the shackles of thinking-too-small. All the details of the elemental molecular world are just so many signatures of the all-pervading intelligence that forms the ground of our being. Does that make sense? The truth cannot be one thing in the Sangha, Mosque, Temple or Cathedral, another thing in the laboratory or counseling office, and yet another thing in the streets.

God is a term with so many different possible connotations that without careful definition it is best if we comprehend it as our pointer word; it points to truth or being directly and as such is not a noun, verb, adverb or adjective in any ordinary sense. Eastern traditions are careful to include the emptiness features of any positive assertions when talking carefully about these ultimate things. We see this in Buddhism and in the Eastern Orthodox Church’s Apophatic traditions. I mention this because for some people the thought of allowing a rational, dare I say scientific, view to guide their daily lives seems to be a threat to their faith. In my experience that is not the case. Surrendering ourselves to what is real is the Way.

We are an incredibly complex psychobiological phenomenon actively interpreting and adapting to our environments. With physical bodies always needing to be protected we also use minds to position ourselves within the greater scheme of things that we encounter within our understanding of how the world works. The complex psychobiological phenomenon has evolved in an on-going quest to open to that which nourishes and avoid that which poisons, in fulfillment of life’s primary objective: its own continuous survival obtained by maintaining mental and physical homeostasis. Steer your complex psychobiological phenomenon incorrectly and you end up mad on the one hand or feverish and without immunity on the other. The point of homeostasis in the psychological realm of daytime consciousness is rational discourse.

When we talk with others we project an expression of our character. When we talk to ourselves we do the same thing. This inner dialog that spins around in our minds every day of our lives is a very important ingredient in determining the type of life experience we will ultimately have.

What type of life do you want to look back on when the day comes to lay it down? It can be helpful to ask ourselves what sort of influence we have had so far on the world around us and assess if we could use a course correction, large or small, while we still have the chance. The time will come when the choices for how we think, feel and act will no longer be our own to make. There will come a time when all our choices will have been made, at least for this life, at least for this personality.

When the day comes to lay our bones down in the dark earth, consume them in fire, or feed them to the mountain birds, we will become the summation of our whole life. For as long as breath lasts we have the power of choice. This leaves the future open, radically open. The whole story of an individual’s life cannot be known before the whole story has been played out – but once it has, it enters the domain of humanity’s inheritance. While we live, our lives are a whole piece with the generations around it and the society in which it unfolds. After we have passed, our lives leave ripples in the webs of cause and effect. Others will enjoy, or suffer, from the inheritance we leave in the same way we have when our generation was in the ever changing spotlight of psychobiological awareness. This is the truth. It is self-evident. It is spoken to us from the witness of our senses.

Our senses provide us with the gates through which our complex psychobiological phenomenon participates in reality. Our perceptual apparatus maintains an on-going physiological communion between our characters and their unique expression of the will to live and the worlds they find themselves participating in. They teach us there is no isolated self. They also teach that there cannot be a unitary self, for how could one compare the input of sound to that of sight or touch to that of smell? These are fundamentally different data streams, wholly unlike one another so that cannot be simply summed. Things are more subtle and complex than a simple summation. It is in the orchestration of many different parts that the on-going maintenance of our being takes place.

In Tibetan Buddhism the mind is considered a sense just like vision or taste. It too has the function of adapting ourselves to the environments in which we find our lives unfolding. It too has a data stream, one not of scent or color but one of thought. The words and images of the mind are the intimate arena where our choice making is most clearly expressed, for to some degree we choose what it is we will spend time thinking about. This is hardly the whole story however, as anyone who has spent any time minding the mind will know; things pop into our heads for often the most obscure of reasons. It is part of being a complex psychobiological phenomenon. Sometimes those winds of thought larger than our ego are pleasant and inspiring and other times they are terrifying and bring fear. However these bully thoughts appear, the power to make choices in the mental realm remains. This is an important point. When the bully thoughts arise our freedom to choose is not expressing itself in choosing what to think about but in how we will think about what has, quite literally, captured our attention.

Those things that capture us most deeply typically involve the interpersonal hopes and fears, loves and losses, and the most profound regrets and traumas we have experienced. We ruminate on these things in the process of adapting ourselves to our environment. For us social primates there is no environmental feature more dominate than our interactions with other human beings. Our complex psychobiological inheritance has seen to it that this is so, beginning with our long childhood and extending into our most intimate thoughts which are of necessity couched in a language we inherited and did not make ourselves. The result is that we have the images of the society’s roles and expectations within us. It is as if the mind sets up semi-automated puppets as stand-ins for the people we have met and the various roles they have played in the development of our psyche. We must deal with this internalized community just as surely as we must deal with the people we meet with each day. Most of them are quick to judge us and tell us what we must do at all times if we are not to be no-good bums tossed out of the tribe. Many of them cause exaggerated emotionally driven reactions in us before we even recognize our buttons are being pushed.

The start of wisdom in matters of mind seems to be when we fully recognize that our own thoughts might be wrong. It becomes possible to sit as a judge over one’s own thinking only when we lose the narcissism that fails to question our own cognitions with the same skepticism with which we greet other’s ideas. Some of what passes through the ever-changing thought streams is hardly worthy of entertaining at all and other bits are useful but packaged all wrong. In order not to get lost in the tides it is imperative that there be a place of reliable reference back to the real world associations the thoughts are involved with. This ability to stay grounded happens when the person’s innermost is able to trust reason as the rudder of the psyche. Reason is not the devil’s tool to trick us out of our faith in a good creation; reason is the expression of that faith by trusting in that which is.

The poetic turn of phrase, the emotionally colored perception of beauty, these and so many more of our cognitive experiences are obviously entwined with our emotional natures. In moments of emotional distress this harmony of heart and head is disrupted. The mind, as we say, gets carried away. Exaggeration and irrational conclusions can lead each other into loops that can spiral out of control until what the internal dialog is telling a person leaves them incapacitated for dealing skillfully with whatever is troubling them. Things in the mind will bully you around if you let them  by causing you to tell yourself all kinds of things about your sense of worth that just do not stand up to a rational examination.

“Oh I never do anything right!” or “People always take advantage of me!” are typical of the kind of thoughts that might accompany an emotional outburst or period of emotional pain. Peace of mind can be reclaimed to the degree we learn to recognize when our thinking is going off the rails like this. Looked at with a calm, cool and collected mind it is obvious that all of us have done some things right and other things wrong. The statistical odds against “I never doing anything right” are beyond astronomical. Additionally the definition of what is right for you implied by that first sentence is likely not at all what would actually express your true will but is nothing more than the mores of your family and culture. These are valuable but not the last word for you as you seek to work your way through the adventure of your own life. The second sentence is no less insane than the first. It is a willful blindness to all those other times when people extended compassion and aid to you in your struggles or celebrated with you your life’s sweet victories.

Perhaps a simple example will drive the point home. I hit my thumb with a hammer as I try to drive a nail. On some days I respond with a quick ‘Ouch!’ and carry on a bit more carefully. Other days, however, that same event might lead me to tears. On those days it is as if the pain found in this moment of working with the world has been lumped together with every disappointment and pain the world has ever inflicted on me. The world for me seems a mean and dangerous place which doesn’t really give a hoot about me at all. My mind echoes the sentiment that no one cares if I live or die or what it is like to experience things the way I do. This cognitive and emotional attack aims directly at our self-worth.

The hammers that really hurt are swung by tongues. We need to understand how hurt and frightened people strive very hard to control other people. To do so they develop a range of psychological manipulation techniques. These include the injection of guilt and threats of violence if the injection process is pointed out. It happens in families and it happens in nations. This temptation towards manufactured consent remains the dark underbelly of human interactions: ‘I am here to be satisfied’, this impulse runs, ‘you are here to be used.’. Ask yourself how often your speech involves getting others to change what they do and how they do what they do or otherwise dismisses their own style or character? Do you place the whole world into your personal boot camp and sergeant-over all you meet? Anyone who continues to look to others for a confirmation of their self-worth exposes themselves to these dark manipulations. It is in our resistance to their crazy-making that we come to find the path to our own personal best.

Once someone really understands that this is the lay of the land psychologically, they become capable of taking a-hold of the rudder for themselves. In every step we make towards that trusting in our own ability to live our own lives well, we become a more genuine human being. Instead of being little more than a spokesman for an institution, or a holy book, or a dead relative, we become a voice speaking up for our real selves and their real needs. These are needs for love and respect as much as they are needs for food and shelter. We can tear each other’s dignity to shreds by calling one another heretics and apostates, the lost and damned, populating our world with the anti-Christs and devils of our angry damnations but this will not change our need to be understood one whit. Each of us wants to be loved by those we love, though many a tragedy is rooted in the fact that we cannot force someone to love us. Love is a gift that can only be accepted, we can only yield if we are to know another’s loving-kindness, but to yield is to open oneself up to their rejection. These are the issues we confront in the judgment of the heart and the on-going dialog with our conscience it provokes. Our loved ones, as they say, live in our hearts forever. They are trying to teach us the lesson of compassion. At times it is a very hard lesson.

If we had to tackle the whole psychological meaning and biological substratum of these things at once we would be overwhelmed. Instead the psyche unrolls these things in its own good time. What we experience is the tip of the ice berg where thoughts haunted by exaggerations and irrationality come into our conscious awareness. When they arise in these forms we can be sure that under the surface some of these heart-issues are stirring. What is downright liberating is when we understand that our conscious minds are meant to be the guiding light for all these semi-conscious aspects of our dreaming and transcendent self. The daylight mind with its ability to reason can teach the irrational and exaggerated thoughts just where they have lost their way. It is a cop out to expect your dreams to reveal to you what you should do. Harry Wilmer in Understandable Jung captures what we are discussing quite succinctly: “By accepting our fate, that is, our present reality, we take the first step to change our destiny. Our destination is another matter. Dreams do not tell us what to do or where to go. If one attributes such knowledge to the dream, one abdicates responsibility.”

Peace of mind comes, in part, from recognizing how comforting it is to encounter the same molecular world each and every morning when we awake. Though the evening’s psychic experiences may be all over the map, the powers of conscious awareness return to greet a grand continuity when we wake up. Because the environment we find ourselves in is always there much as it was the day before, the daylight world offers us a chance to improve our skills in living the one life we have as it unfolds here and now. If the daylight world followed the same a-causal associations we find in the nighttime world this would not be the case. Here is the human middle way, difficult to find, but once found it cannot be perturbed by either gods or devils. The day consciousness learns to ride on the deep of the night consciousness as a talented jockey rides their great and powerful horse. The day consciousness can become wise and loving only with the cooperation of the denizens of the deep, if the wisdom and love are to be more than a thin veneer over a raging beast inside just waiting for a chance to attack others for the painful self-abnegation it has been subjected to. Force your ego into the straitjacket of a saint and you only invoke the beast. If instead you work with the spirit that moves across these deep waters in a patient alchemy ruled by gentleness, then, it is taught, another type of wholeness – holiness becomes possible. Not one that would castrate humans and turn them into angels who are forever gazing at visions of gods but instead a holiness born within our most genuine humanity.

We are here to carry on the mission of art, the art of living. This is the clay we are each working with for as long as we draw breath. In the slow leavening of the daily contemplative discipline we pursue a more spiritual life, yet hope to obtain, in the end, one that is more genuinely human. We are training not to fear what this entails as we come to recognize we are beings with cosmic roots dwelling in a sacred land.

Respecting Minds

It is so easy to overlook the astonishing capabilities of the human mind. Like fish who do not notice the water they swim in, our immediate experience of mind is so familiar we simply take it for granted. To successfully navigate the practical concerns of day to day life is a major accomplishment, one for which we as a species have yet to learn to give ourselves enough credit for. What the mind is able to accomplish is downright humbling when examined fully and should lead us to respect its abilities and, perhaps even more importantly, its vulnerabilities.

Consciousness seems to consist of a collection of factors which must be kept in dynamic balance. Mind seems to do this by a series of cybernetic-like adjustments which allows it to stay on track. Psychological development is never a straight line from point A to point B but more like the way a sailboat proceeds, tacking first to the right and then to the left. A moment of excess marks the trespass into extremes and the need to change course if sanity is to maintain its even keel.

Take a moment to consider the contents of your mind. We balance an awareness of our mundane and earthly position with a simultaneous awareness of our cosmic position in our galactic neighborhood and the unspeakable immensities of space. Alongside a thought about the ancient vastness of the night’s starry sky and pondering the meaning of human existence in the grand scheme of things, will come another thought trying to decide if the sandwich you are currently making would benefit more from Djon or yellow mustard. We maintain an awareness of grand themes playing themselves out in the theaters of international relations and the history of ideas spanning centuries and millennia, side by side with an intimate knowledge that our own allotted span on the stage of human affairs will run but a small handful of decades, if we are fortunate. Whatever might be the purpose of the stars and the grand scheme of things, each morning when we awake we are able to dedicate our energies (some people and some days with more enthusiasm than others) towards the indispensable needs of the individual life we are living – consuming our sandwich we are off to work or school or to find a mate, change a diaper, hoe a garden, pay our taxes or blow our noses.

There are also the balancing acts of the heart no less necessary if conscious awareness, just good old everyday conscious awareness, is going to function properly. Heart’s emotions intermingle with rational cognitions just exactly as language based thinking intermingles with images born from memory or imagination. We recognize our own bodies have needs of nourishment which must be balanced each day with the equally legitimate claims of others. We are aware of the suffering and needs of those sentient beings all around us and our hearts go out to them in their distress. One part of us remains aware, always, that right now an innocent is suffering reprehensible cruelties, be it from war, miscarriages of justice, or abuse. One part of us remains aware, always, that at this time there are lover’s vows being exchanged, babies being born and made, artists completing great works of beauty, and moments of sacred grace descending into the mystic’s breast. In the heart we balance our fierce love for our mates, if we are coupled, with a determined hatred to oppose anyone or anything that refuses to grant them the respect they deserve. This is another difficult balancing act our minds are accomplishing ceaselessly on behalf of maintaining our sense and sanity. These opposites are representative. The tension they create constitute the basis by which consciousness is conscious.

This stressful weight of knowledge is ever present to our minds, pressuring them in every moment to avoid what we fear and obtain what we desire. And what opposes all that? We find ways to balance this survival imperative with a more carefree attitude. If our lives are not to be wall to wall nightmares, we need to have times and places in which we allow ourselves to bask in the warm, peace-filled glow of contentment. The emotions and intuitions around gratitude, safety and well-being cannot be strangers to our everyday awareness as well. Yet the will ever beckons, there is the next valley to be crossed and the next mountain to climb on our endless hunt for our rainbows by which we might reconcile our individual existence with the whole of existence. In the interplay of opposites, which is the play of consciousness, even the proper gratitude can be taken too far and leave us kneeling and groveling (or simply drunk) when we should remain standing upright, shoulders back, capable and self-reliant.

Moment by moment our mind must balance the energetic alertness our nervous systems maintain as they are primed to be on the lookout for unexpected dangers, at all times ready to zero in on threats, with the relaxed, kaleidoscopic perception of the general reality of our environment which we understand does not contain these active threats most of the time. Every moment we combine a dismal fear of the future, quite rational for mortals subject to pain, with hope that this same future will bring us satisfaction. We all know some dreams come true and some tragedies strike wholly unexpectedly. We balance knowing these things are simultaneously true as we carry on performing the tasks of the present moment.

In what is perhaps the most profound balance of all, consciousness arises ceaselessly from the exact point at which the past disappears into emptiness and the future springs forth from the same. We balance the fact that the past is gone – that it was once real and now can be found nowhere while implied everywhere – with the fact that the future, as such, does not exist. There is a continuity in this kiss between the contained and the container that forms the essence of our time-riding consciousness. It is so mundane and yet so profound. One way we experience this psychologically is as our hope and fears for the future balanced against our pride and regrets from the past. It is from this crucible that wisdom is said to be born.

We altogether too easily take for granted this complex balancing of mind that allows us to navigate consciously in the cosmos. Taking all this and more for granted, we are often discontent, searching for more; we need a fix, an answer, a final understanding. I think we would be better served if we understood consciousness to be a very hard thing to create well in this universe as it really is, and that the mind as we experience it and the universe as we experience it participate equally in an ongoing act of creation’s manifestation in each unique, fleeting moment. We needn’t fear that each moment includes an irreducible element of novelty and the unknowable; it is ok that every detail doesn’t exist pre-planned in some cosmic mind. It seems instead that mind works in time, hard, calling on all the powers and forces of animate and inanimate existence to aid in its ongoing emergence. It seems that the uncertainty principal we find down among the sub-atomic particles extends right through the exercise of the free will we experience most intimately. Free or determined, particle or wave, mass or momentum, timelessness or time: these are the grand opposites mind plays with as if the paradox of their extremes were of no concern.

Our minds are born curious. To guide them through the difficult process of learning they have developed the ability to contrast that which is experienced as real with that which is experienced as a dream. From this most basic contrast among phenomenon the ego is able to establish what psychology has termed the reality principal. Hemmingway colorfully referred to this as the mind’s “bull shit detector.” It is a direct manifestation of the archetypal Self in so far as incorporates not just the ego but the personal and collective unconscious aspects of consciousness as well. The ego alone is not allowed to decide what is real and what is not, though it often wishes it could. The ego must learn to bow before that which makes the real seem real to it. It must embrace the Kantian categories of time, space and causality trustingly. Which leads us back to the subject of magic and miracles we looked at in last week’s post.

Is there evidence for a miracle-causing supernatural realm wholly outside the perception of humanity, as the priests claim? Is there evidence that magic works and that holy men have powers far beyond that of us normal mortals? Can the ego find in these tales of magic and miracles some real foundation for its hope to become immortal and forever blessed? This is how the BS detector takes on the subject of religion. Eastern or Western makes no difference since both abound in tales of magic and miracles.

I am going to suggest that this search for evidence for magical power has two results. In the realm of physical manifestations the evidence supports the null hypothesis. No miracles in the walking-on-water and severed-heads-being-restored variety are ever found to exist. It is always trickery, altered states of consciousness, or hearsay one is left with at the end of careful investigations of claims that these types of magical things have come to pass. On the other hand, there are the types of magical power involved with human psychology. There are love potions and death spells, holy incantations and powerful rites and ceremonies galore. The evidence for this kind of magic having a real world affect is rather abundant. Psychology is just beginning to grapple with some of what is involved when one human mind exerts “undue influence” over another. The proliferation of destructive cults in our midst has made this subject of “brainwashing” a very practical one for psychologists to deal with. Though today we call the visible, physical results of curses psychosomatic illnesses, that new label doesn’t cure people suffering from them nor is it able to keep people from occasionally being terrified to death by these same means. The evil eye and pointy sticks of the black magicians of today present themselves in more modern garb but they play on the same mind-body linkages around fear and panic, desire and pain, that they always have.

The arts of persuading the human mind have become common place in the emotional manipulations we see displayed in advertising. Ads are messages designed to change the behavior of those watching, namely to get them to purchase the product being hawked. To do this effectively across a wide percentage of the population the advertisers found that using emotional appeals instead of intellectual arguments delivered the goods. The familiar voiceover extolling the facts about some car, drug or whatnot is often included as no more than a veneer atop the visual short story the ad conveys. Not everyone will respond to these efforts on the part of advertisers to directly influence behavior. The cheerful mind, confident in its position, is less susceptible to the allure of their appeals. This is because those appeals almost always begin from an injection of a negative self-image into the mind of the viewer who is then given relief through the purchase of the product. The target of these mini soap operas are unhappy, lonely, confused, stressed, unpopular, stinky, failures but luckily for them, the old snake-oil pitch runs, we have just the thing to turn your life around!

We say that the successful tunes and jingles the mass media saturates our minds with are “catchy.” Our minds catch them, like a cold or a virus. For example, in 1982 the song Jack & Diane by John Mellencamp was receiving repeated radio play. I still, 35 years later, occasionally get the catchy chorus popping up in my head, “Oh ya, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone.” Those of my readers close to my age may have just heard the same notes accompanying the jingle I do when this virus takes hold. There is big money to be made in programming the human mind with pessimistic mantras like this.

I think we need to discuss this like a viral epidemic. These act as mind parasites as they so easily loop endlessly in our minds in some vague, semi-conscious fashion. These internal tunes provide a bounce to our step throughout the day but they also are programming the mind with a point of view. The music, the Dionysian element Nietzsche recovered for European philosophy in The Birth of Tragedy, helps us move our bodies with more rhythm, more like dancers. This is why devices allowing us to have earphones on throughout the day have become so popular; they answered a deeply felt need in this time of ours which has so consistently insisted our bodies are little more than DNA built machines. Machines don’t dance. It is the music of these jingles that gets to the heart. The words on the other hand, the words are carrying what are more or less intelligible messages from the daylight realm of Apollo. The mind feeds on thought, finding some nourish and some do not. Those which do not nourish are like the empty calories of a fast food meal; they crowd out the place nourishing thoughts might have been. The jingle mentioned earlier is a good example of a type that I find all too pervasive. It’s Apollonian message is basically adolescent romantic angst, playing on the fear that after 30 years old life is nothing but one unremitting downhill slide. This is a useful message if you want to sell things to younger people. It paints a picture that their youth is the only time of their lives that really counts – so rack up that credit card!

“Oh ya, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone.” Think a moment what it is you are telling your mind about life and what types of experiences one can expect as one gets older every time that little ditty loops around inside one’s skull. So many lives of quite desperation haunt the cities and towns of our modern world. One is left to wonder how much of it is the result of mind programming tricks like this. What is the jingle but a claim of corporate property rights in your inner landscape? This is what the thinkers of the past used to call the battle over the human soul. There is a reality to the psyche, as Jung was at such pains to point out, call it what you will.

It is only when we think that what our minds are capable of is trivial, so easy as to become unworthy of our continuous respect, that we can fail to properly protect them. It is then that we can become haunted by wanting more out of self-conscious mammalian life than it is prepared to deliver. In doing so we become susceptible to the wiles of the uncouth manipulators of mind. When we want more like this, we open ourselves up to the tragedy pattern which always starts when a person or a group pursues a fantasy that is not aligned with reality. Such projects do not end well, how could they? Better to work hard ourselves to acquaint consciousness with the art of paying attention to that which actually concerns us as self-conscious, caring individuals alive on a threatened earth.

Respecting Stories

Last week we looked at a dense information source, the book What’s Really Happening to Our Planet? by Tony Juniper. This week I want to dive into some very controversial territory by examining another dense information source and the phenomenon it represents; Christian fundamentalism American style.

Torchbearer is the latest film directed, produced and written by White House strategist Steve Bannon featuring Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson. It is another type of information source claiming to share a number of facts. It is presenting a picture of the world in which the only thing a person really needs to know is the Bible. In the film aspersions on man without god multiply until the message is basically to be human is to be a hell creature – fallen, fallen, fallen! This narrow interpretation of Christianity embraced by fundamentalism is, in my mind, a perversion of Christianity through and through. Man does not come off looking like something so loveable god would give his only son to reveal to them his unending love for that which he had created. Man comes off looking like the devil, no, better, comes off looking like nothing so much as an unruly adolescent in need of a good beating by those in authority.

The problem with this Bible-only approach to truth is that it dismisses many of the most important insights other compassionate human beings have discovered outside the confines of religious thought over the last two thousand years. Misunderstanding the ecological crisis is the most obvious problem with this type of intellectual mono-vision from my point of view but the psychological understanding of trauma and the effects of abuse run a close second. People who wish to nourish a love of their fellow man cannot, in good conscience, ignore these modern insights. To do so is to dismiss the very spirit of revelation as it is talking to our age, to use the mythic terms from our monotheistic background. The person in front of you is alive and real, to kill them because a book tells you to is to make that book an idol. Instead of worshipping the living god, one has been seduced into necrotic worship of the dead. God is not found among the dead.

This is what I fear: the patriarchs of the bomb are invoking the patriarch in the sky, cloaking their oil procuring war plans in the most giant beat stick of them all. They are calling on a wrathful god to bring his holy beating to earth “for our own good,” as Alice Miller explained.

I appreciate the sincerity with which a fundamentalist approaches the problems of the world. Much of what seems to inspire the fundamentalist is a virtuous desire to protect their children from the fallout of a consumer culture gone over the edge, refusing to recognize any limitations on its hunger and greed. I feel in many ways more akin to them then to the shallow people of the endless party our mass media teaches us to be. I applaud their willingness to look the darkness of history in the eye and not flinch. Torchbearer includes a number of gut wrenching film clips of our historic atrocities and unspeakable cruelties. More people should remember these things more often. Still, it is traumatizing to gaze into the abyss and fundamentalists, I believe, are traumatized. These people’s sincere soul-needs are being shepherded through the topsy-turvy world of symbolisms of the highest order, those which directly concern the archetype of the Self. There is a healing potentially working its way through their love of the Christ as portrayed in the Gospels which these true believers try to nurture and discover. It is like they are so close, and yet…. Instead of that which liberates, they are under the pall of that which enslaves.

The Self archetype is not to be toyed with. Miss your shot at god and you arrive at the anti-god of the feared meaninglessness and nihilism which has inspired the misbegotten faith of the mind parasites we looked at last week. As James Hillman pointed out, if we are off just a few degrees when the projection of our path between where we really are and the foot of the cross takes place, we end up kneeling before a thief. Now there are good thieves and their are bad thieves, but they remain thieves. What they steal is life itself; these parasites are Vampires feeding on days spent serving false gods and nights spent dreaming in theologies fantastic, instead of theophanies properly imaginal. So many hours sitting in meetings, fearfully praying to invisible powers, listening to preachers, doing what you are “supposed” to do and following orders, writing checks, judging everyone not in your cult damned, talking always about your religion and little else – in so many ways the days of a life of a fundamentalist are stolen by the false infinities haunting their minds, born of the traumatic wound.

There is another way to say we should have respect for facts as facts. We say the same thing when we say we should have respect for stories as stories. That stories move us so deeply is one of the greater parts of the mystery of our being. That they do play such a central role in our ‘soul’ or ‘psyche’ is simply a fact, a feature of our humanity. We have had to live with this mind a long time and have learned a thing or two about it. Replace facts with stories and the result is tragedy. Enliven facts with stories and the result is a living grace.

Fundamentalism denies the reality of the psyche. It denies the realm of symbol, insisting on literal interpretations driven by a fear that if it something was not historically real, it has no reality at all. In this they are mistaken. Carl Jung once commented that all of his work was to try and convince modern man of the reality of the psyche. There is very much a reality involved in these mythologies that guide civilizations but it is not the reality of the Calculus and molecules. It involves the psychological and philosophical underpinnings of how we derive meaning from perception and love from flesh. The problem the fundamentalist has is that they cannot trust the symbol to point beyond itself. For them everything is literal; wheat cannot be transmuted into flesh, the grape and the wine it gives us to make our hearts glad cannot be transmuted into the emotions of our fiery blood, they do not hear the Word in our words of kindness and comfort we give freely to one another. Yet this is just what happens on the earth. The fundamentalist has a problem of faith, they lack its “fundamentals” and so are unable to see the sacramental nature of our sacred world. They cannot bring themselves to believe in the miracle, existence as it is, nor that at its fundamental root this creation is good. They are instead driven to seek magic and miracles, not as symbols but as real events, to prove existence is not as it is. They are the great doubters among us, making themselves over as true believers in reaction formations. Their wounds keep them away from the healthy faith in an intelligent creator and good creation that enlivens compassionate and wise actions undertaken with a cheerful heart out in the real world just as it is. They cannot forgive god for including death in the way of life.

The symbol of the crucifixion captures the sorrows of the world like no other. Here goodness is tortured by Empire: that which is compassion is scorned as weak by those blind to the fact that this is god among us. As they kill they triumph for a day, but in doing their deed of devilry they have also released the spirit of the Christ. There is nothing they can do about that. Everywhere eyes are opened and the poor are given the good news as the dark deeds of devilry expose the emperor’s nakedness. The alpha males are brought to answer to the voice of thunder, their ego fortress shattered in a confrontation with the real power that runs the cosmos. On that same cross the poor and suffering are comforted by the voice of god who they find not in the thunder but in the still small voice, the voice of conscience. At that moment of Christ’s death the veils of the temples were torn and the mysteries openly proclaimed to all the world. This is just what Clement of Alexandria proclaimed so long ago in his Exhortation to the Greeks, that Christianity was the public revelation (exposure?) of the heart of the pagan mystery religions. Fundamentalists are a return to the pre-Christian mystagogue and a Gnostic reading of creation as the work of a demented god. Christian fundamentalism is a misunderstanding and misuse of our own Western tradition, pagan and Orthodox.

The truly faithful are to live in “joyful participation in the sorrows of the world”, as Joseph Campbell once put it. This is what the grace in our myth is there to assist us with, for this is hard. It is truly an ongoing challenge to lean towards the good in a world where life feeds on life and Empires so often seem to crush all that is good in the world. (Ring any bells?) This learning to live in “joyful participation in the sorrows of the world” is a challenge worthy of human beings with our many skills and abilities. When the symbolism of the human imagination is working properly so that facts are facts and stories are stories, this is the result. A deep joy wells up from the depths of our consciousness, unassailable by the tides of time. The Vajra diamond, or Kant’s transcendental, or the image of god in man, whatever the metaphor – that which they point to cannot be stained by human folly for we do not create ourselves and this bliss pours forth pure out of that mysterious emptiness from which the next moment comes. This deep joy is a reflection of that which we are building up in our characters over a whole life time of choices and there is no short cut to getting there, no magic words that suddenly make everything over into what it is not. This is the great insight seen in the moment of repentance; that what you do matters, what you say less so. This Self is the over arching archetypal reality of who and what we are as unique individuals, which is created and expressed through what we do with ourselves and with others during that whole lifetime. We never see this Self in its totality, yet we are never separated from it either as long as we live. This Self will weave its thread into the interdependent fabric of earth life whether the ego cooperates with the process or not, learns to embrace its mortality and human limitations, or not. Though rooted in ignorance vs. wisdom instead of good vs. evil, the end result is no different in the East or the West: be careful of those crying Lord, Lord.

“Go ahead and cheat your neighbor, go ahead and cheat a friend,
do it in the name of heaven, you can justify it in the end.
There won’t be any trumpets blowing, come the judgment day
and on the bloody morning after, one tin soldier rides away.”
One Tin Soldier, The Original Caste

 

The Threshold

“Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a meter and stepped aside.
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)

How many times does an angel fall?
How many people lie instead of talking tall?
He trod on sacred ground, he cried loud into the crowd
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar, I’m not a gangstar)

David Bowie, Blackstar

 

This week, in a rather longer post, I would like to touch on a piece of information that might be relevant for some readers at some point and, I hope, interesting to all. It deals with one of the ways the human mind has evolved to deal with trauma. The reason it is a necessary subject to deal with in this set of posts about subjectivity is that it gets to the heart of what it means to be an embodied awareness. It does so by showing us how that awareness behaves under extreme duress.

One of the more interesting things about our understanding of ourselves as human beings is how the so-called occult, or discarded knowledge of our culture often forms a mirror-like impression of what the mainstream knowledge contains. If the mainstream is convex, the occult underground is concave. Among the many tales of ghosts and angels, spirits and demons, magical and psychic powers found in the occult literature, there are traces of actual events people have experienced. Many of the events are encountered in what we call altered states of consciousness, states that range from the slightly unusual to full twilight consciousness in which we seem to be transported bodily to other realms or places.

Some altered states seem to teach us more about our body and mind in the place we actually are. These are what we seek in our contemplations of ecology. Other altered states seem to go the other direction, providing us an escape from the material world, leaving the limitations of the body and earth far behind. Anyone who engages in any spiritual discipline needs to know about these very different currents. If I may indulge in a too simple metaphor for a moment I would suggest this is why Buddhists meditate with their eyes open and seek the middle way. Others teach meditating with the eyes closed and seek cosmic consciousness. There are two currents. This makes things sound black and white which in practice are anything but, yet there is an important distinction here that this simple metaphor captures.

One staple of the occult literature is the out of body experience, or OOBE. This is said to be a separation of the soul or mindstream from the body it is currently occupying. The soul is then free to wander the so-called astral planes. Much of the literature describes visits to other planets or realms populated with a menagerie of alien beings. Magicians and mystics of every stripe have added their stories to this semi-underground cultural inheritance. It is quite a mixed bag. Some of these people are little more than paid shrills. Others, however, are simply confused. And a few, we can assume, know the score.

One of the things that quickly becomes obvious as one stays with ecological studies (remaining mindful of ecology) is that there are any number of loud, self proclaimed experts who are absolutely clueless. This is a very, very important lesson to take to heart. These are all those people who are misrepresenting the facts, as we best understand them, concerning global warming, ocean dead zones and acidification, the sixth extinction, the poisoning of land and water in fracking operations and so on, right through the rest of the list of horrors we who do study ecology know so well. Some of these people are little more than paid shrills. Others, however, are simply confused. None, evidently, really know the score.

The same lesson should be applied to sources that speak to the human condition as well. Our inheritance includes any number of works by people equally clueless about what they are really discussing, just as clueless as the ecologically ignorant of our day are. The OOBE books are, I suggest, propaganda for the Descartes Error we have been exploring: that the mind is more real than the body, which is presented as little more than an optional appendage. Some of this occult tradition, including OOBE material, is the production of liars and con men flat out, nothing more. It is hard for some people to imaging using spirituality this way, just to make a buck and get laid, but history shows there is no shortage of such people. I’ve always thought this might be a really bad way to go about messing around with people if there ever turns out to be a real god or a real day of reckoning in any form. Anyway, this group is not the most dominate. Among the authors of reported OOBEs the majority are true believers. They have experienced something unusual and have done the best they can, given the contextual intellectual tools they have, to integrate that unusual experience with the rest of what they know.

There is no question that it is possible for the human mind to experience itself disembodied. There are reports by the bushel full of people seemingly leaving their body and looking back on it still lying on the bed, or the operating room table, or the floor of their torture cell. Something like this can happen. The data is there. The question is, what does it mean? Are these actual experiences of crossing the threshold of death? Epistemologically, are these experiences of the mind dying or of dying itself?

There is another set of literature in our cultural inheritance that also deals with OOBEs. This is not the occult traditions but the psychiatric ones. Here is a typical case report:
“During the raped I found myself looking down on the act from on high, from a point in the corner of the ceiling. I was looking down on my body but it wasn’t me, it was like a doll, a puppet …”

The point to see here is what has happened to the victim’s subjectivity. The body of the victim has been used as an object. When the victim reports seeing their body from a third person perspective, they too have taken the view of the perpetrator. They too are now seeing themselves as nothing more than an object to be used. There is a body over there, just a body, not my body. I – all my inner feelings and memories, cognitions and images – am up here floating; as insubstantial and invulnerably untouchable as a ghost.

The abuser has forced themselves into the mindstreams of their victims and displaced them. How? In a mistaken attempt to feel some power over what is happening to them, a part of the victim takes on the role of the perpetrator. If your only choices are between being the abuser or the victim, the urge to survive insists we take on the power the abuser seems to have. This is perhaps most familiar in the Stockholm Syndrome in which victims of kidnapping come to identify with their kidnappers, explaining to all who will listen that they really are not such bad people after all. Patty Hearst was the poster child for my generation of this frightening feature of the abused mind’s potential.

What power is that which the perpetrator wields that causes such pervasive disruptions to a person’s identity? The power to blind oneself to the value of another sentient being’s subjectivity. That is it. That is the great magical power – but it only enchants those who use it. It does not change the reality of the victim’s subjectivity. It is kind of like the two year old making the world disappear by covering their own eyes. The perpetrator pretends not to see the relationship with their victim as one consisting of I and Thou, but this is to deny what is obvious to the senses. The perpetrator knows that what they see in their victim’s eyes is equivalent to their own subjectivity. In a confused attempt to make the “I” real, to assert their own abused subjective value, they try to make the “Thou” unreal by pretending it is an object and not a fully sentient being. Then the rules governing a relationship between I and It take over, instead of the rules that are to govern relationships between I and Thou. In the narcissistic delusion the mind believes that by doing so it will become master of the world, no longer vulnerable to the shame and humiliation only another Thou can deliver.

This, then, becomes the ideal adult. It is the one we in the over-developed world have come to worship: the asshole, the action hero quick to kill a few hundred in every picture show, the gangster warlord who is a tough son of a bitch and seems to have the whole world just eating out of his or her hand. We are trying to decide right now which is the coolest – the soldier who drops cluster bombs and wipes out a few bad guys along with truck loads of children and brags about patriotism, or the CEO who lays off ten thousand hardworking household providers, then eats a feast that would have cost his workers a month’s salary and sleeps well that night. You know the types; they are on every channel, every day with the same old tiered script: “Look how awesome I can be because I do not care what you feel at all, I can torture you and eat a sandwich, doesn’t phase me a bit!” In our pain we come to believe hard-heartedness is humanity’s peak achievement.

Torture was supposed to be condemned, not worshipped.

The perpetrator has tortured their victim using sex, violence and emotional-cognitive manipulations. As the victim tries to process what has happened to them, particularly as children with no means of escaping the environments in which such tortures take place, a type of amnesia is created. Imagine, if you will, what it is like to wake up each morning in a home where you never know if you will be beaten again today, or worse. Additionally, if this is a child’s mind we are trying to empathize with, we need to add the fact that they have yet to know if they will ever be able to live a life outside the influence of their abusers. Children have yet to prove to themselves they can make it on their own. They know, in fact, that they cannot yet. They are not stupid.

The psychological solution that aids their survival is disassociation. One part of the self comes to know things about the truth of one’s own story that other parts of the self do not normally have access to. Sadly, a house divided against itself cannot long stand. The shunned part, like a thief in the night, will break into the daylight consciousness whenever the strength of repression grows weak. When that happens the human being will respond in less than skillful ways. The part that identified with the abuser will come clothed in anger at the vulnerability of the victim part that was sensitive enough to suffer so. Therapy consists of making some kind of peace between these warring parts. Healing comes when the person recognizes that the introjected abuser that is within them is not the same as the external person who caused the actual abuse. That, in fact, it is sharing the same body with all the rest of the parts of the mind’s psychological makeup.

The self is normally grounded through a set of nerve pathways connected to the major energy processing centers and senses of our physiology. When the therapist asks their client where they feel their pain they will typically point to one of the chakras. We can think of these nerve pathways as cords tying the mind to the gauges and instruments it uses to maintain homeostasis and orient itself within its environment. In the OOBE those cords are cut. To protect the ego from shattering in madness, the self is taken to a safe place concocted by the imagination. Another part of the person comes to take the place of the absent self and takes on the burden of the trauma. This part is then so disowned, repressed and denied that they come to feel like they are in another body entirely.

This becomes the source of the disassociative pain that accompanies most people who were abused as children throughout their lives. The part forced to play the role of the self remains a source of confusion as it continues its semi-conscious existence. It seems to get stuck in time and remains always on the lookout for the next attack. Abusive events in the external world of the adult can continue to trigger this part, which then takes over and deals with things as best it can. It has its say, speaks its truth to power, as it were, in binge drinking, violence, cutting or whatever and can then settle down again for awhile. When these things happen we say we were ‘not ourselves’ or ‘I don’t know what got into me.”

All people deal with this phenomenon to one degree or another. Consciousness itself seems to depend on opposites which creates a continuum of disassociation. Psychological maturity consists of re-associating these disparate parts so that we come to recognize, for example, that our early caregivers had elements of both good and evil in their hearts. Psychological maturity in general consists of the ability to tolerate complexity instead of insisting on the black and white thinking of childhood which would separate everyone into the overly simplistic categories of sinners and saints, angels and devils: Us and Them.

The painful dissociative confusion will remain a driving factor in the victim’s life to whatever degree the traumatized part remains un-integrated with the rest of a person’s life story. The direction is not further out into space on the wings of the ghost, out there with Major Tom that Bowie warned us about. We are not seeking the great Gnostic revelation of what the universe is all about. We are seeking to know that part of the universe given to us to know intimately. The direction is down and in. The work is to get to the place where the monster dwells and to unmask it by seeing the truth of our own past. Then we are succored by our own individual pain and our own individual joy. It puts an end to provisional living. We recognize we are living in a sacred world.

This is where this whole thing about working with dissociative persons gets rather fascinating. It is reported by councilors who work with the severely abused that often when they are dealing with a part like this, that part does not believe they are in the same body as the client. These clients suffer under the false idea that each part has its own body. The acting out associated with emotional pain often bears this mark. Those who cut themselves or who have eating disorders, to site two common examples, can be modeled as consisting of dynamic psychological parts that are using the body to make themselves heard or to satisfy their unmet needs – as if that body belonged to someone else. They use the body as if it were an object, instead of who and what they are. They treat themselves the way their abusers taught them to treat themselves.

This is where Descartes Error leads. Or, perhaps, this is where Descartes Error comes from.

The body, mind and imagination are all working together in this OOBE move to protect the survival of the victim. There is something within this body, mind and imagination complex that understands just what has happened in the psyche. It remains unconfused about what is real. The same physical continuity remains throughout all altered states of consciousness. The body does not lie, it knows the score.

There is a whole collection of psychological techniques designed to bring this truth to the alienated part, to orient the part again to the person. It is a milestone in treatment when someone is able to realize all the parts share the same body. Typically this insight requires a confrontational approach. One technique, for example, uses two chairs side by side. The councilor asks, say, the angry part to stay in the current chair while the client moves to the one next to it. Once the client is in that second chair the councilor , making eye contact, asks puzzled, ‘Hi angry part, why did you not stay in that chair?”

This might sound just too strange and of no use to us trying to get by in a time of ecological ignorance. What does it mean for a traumatized individual to recognize that all their psychological parts share the same body? Of course they do.

Yet, here we are – building weapons of mass destruction and mass deception as if we could poison one part of the earth’s skin with radiation and not poison ourselves in the process, or poison the public marketplace of ideas and not become fools ourselves. It is not a good thing that the war hawks are talking again about winning nuclear wars. It is not a good thing when we insist we can treat other human beings without concern for their individual differences, lumping the ones we do not like into object categories based on religion, race or politics and then treating them all like dirt: the ultimate It. We even treat dirt like dirt when we saturate our soils with chemicals and force it to produce the yield we desire. This too is not a good thing. All this is not much different than those occult treatises describing all manner of colorfully imaginative alternate realities the soul visits once it is freed from the shackles of the gross body. Somehow, long after the oil is gone and food harvests have become unreliable, we won’t mind because we will still be able to go shopping: our reward for keeping the faith and prioritizing economic growth above all else. We are acting as if we really believed this.

In our cultural confusion we honestly act as though a new, purified earth awaits us on the other side of our social and ecological collapse. To those who would abuse us so, to those who would hurt the earth this way, we should raise our voice and say the word that undoes the bewitchments: No. Not on my watch, not as long as I draw breath. The only tool I have in my arsenal is rational discussion. It might seem pale next to slo-mo close-ups of monsters and gore, but it has a power all its own. We cannot stop the abuse handed down the long generations. We are not personally responsible for the weapons of the mind or the weapons of the nucleus. We are asked to live our story, to contribute our thread to the tapestry of life this precious earth uses to cloak her nakedness from the cold of space. We should live them well, mindfully.

We do not need to remain in the liar’s double bind: “I am both responsible and helpless.” We can learn to train in both / and after we have graduated from the school of either / or. We do not need to remain Or Men, those who would cut everything Right In Two. It is not the case that our only choice is a bad one between becoming victims or perpetrators ourselves. We can choose to be compassionate adults, wise in the ways of the world. We can face our monsters and recognize when our gods are scarecrows of our own invention. We can learn to nurture the child within and protect the child without, the hope of our species. We can wake up. That is, we can learn to recognize when we are dreaming, dealing with psychological projections and emotion laden-images even when our eyes are open, and when we are not dreaming, when we are dealing with real things in our real molecular world.

“In the villa of Ormen, in the villa of Ormen,
Stands a solitary candle, ah-ah, ah-ah
In the center of it all, in the center of it all,
Your Eyes…”
David Bowie, Blackstar

Dead Things?

“My way has been to scour the whole world through.
Where was delight, I seized it by the hair;
If it fell short, I simply left it there,
If it escaped me, I just let it go.
I stormed through life, through joys in endless train,
Desire, fulfillment, then desire again;
Lordly at first I faired, in power and in speed,
But now I walk with wisdom’s deeper heed.
Full well I know the earthly round of men,
And what’s beyond is barred from human ken;
Fool, fool is he who blinks at clouds on high,
Inventing his own image in the sky.
Let him look round, feet planted firm on earth:
This world will not be mute to him of worth.”

Goethe, Faust. Part Two: Midnight

 

What is the role of consciousness in the universe? I think this is a very meaningful question in light of the failed relationship between consciousness and its container which the ecological crisis displays. It is worth spending some time mulling over, contemplating, even, as we will do today, speculating about.

First we should take a moment to appreciate how far our self understanding as a species has come. We understand the role of evolution through deep time so well, that today we read it at the molecular level like a vast clock. How much further might we grow into understanding what we are in another thousand years? Another ten-thousand?

How, we wonder, can the nervous system and hormone systems of the body work with the massive neural networks in the brain (and gut) to produce what we subjectively experience as awareness? As Francis Crick rightly pointed out in a book capturing the essence of our position, to believe mind arises from matter, given the Cartesian split between them modern science assumes, is an Astonishing Hypothesis. For all the world, it does in fact seem to be case that properly structured matter produces mind. But what is the cosmos herself but structured matter through and through? And is it not shot through with information in the patterns it displays? And, finally, is not information the currency of intelligence? Intelligence is the central feature of evolutionary adaptation, the means by which living things participate intimately with their environments. Notice how this requires that we grant awareness of that environment to that which evolves – we are back to the question of subjectivity.

We have become comfortable with the idea that dead things exist. Not the trivial difference we recognize between here is a live cow, there is a dead cow. We have become comfortable with a conception of death that is absolute. This allows us to see things, such as oil and the other minerals used to build Homo Colossus, as mindless items we are free to do with as we please. This attitude towards the geological strata extends then to molecules in general. These too can have no purpose or meaning since they have been placed into this strange category of wholly dead things. Then we learned about molecular pathways in biochemistry. Watching the molecular exchanges within living tissue we gaze at life’s metabolism, the magic by which it’s homeostasis is sustained. Life arising from absolutely dead molecules. The philosophical blowback has been extreme: the logic of the Cartesian premise condemned our own self-consciousness to be classified as evidently dead as well, resulting as it does purely from molecular interactions.

Which leaves us a choice. We can either admit we were in error about this whole ‘we are the only fully aware living being on this dead earth’ thing. We can either admit we were in error, which will entail a new relationship between humanity and the living earth, one characterized by much more concern and care. Or we can carry on the war of all against all. In this view only the small spark of human self-consciousness is really real and, we fear, even that is likely nothing more than a delusion from start to finish; a curse from a meaningless, mindless universe. This small spark of awareness, alone in a dead universe full of rocks and fury but no mind, suffers, knowing what the rocks do not. In this view there is only one way to end suffering: to become unaware like the dead rocks (which we assume is absolute).

Opposed to this is the ecological view. It is supported by the evidence of our sciences and the great spiritual traditions of our ancestors. This view sees that which we walk upon is not a dead rock but a living earth. It is a place in which every fully interdependent thread is inseparable from a feeling and a thought somewhere, somehow. This view comes to those willing to grant subjectivity to all living things and information, if not intelligent mind, to the very rocks themselves. This view is true, you know, within the great all-inclusiveness of interdependence. The view of absolutely dead things actually existing, as they say in Tibetan debate, is not the case.

Let the soil and the compost heap be our guides to understanding our earthly sojourn. In the soil we learn how even the rocks serve the needs of life, lending it support and critical functional elemental capabilities at the molecular level. From the compost heap we learn that even death is turned to the service of life. We learn that life and death are actually two sides of the same coin, complementary like a wave and a particle.

We have prided ourselves on our heroic stance. We human animals, alone of all the species, were made aware of what we are, our position in the great scheme of things. It was a lousy position, meaningless. But we put on our stiff upper lip and got on with the business at hand, namely making a lot of money. We compliment each other on the unique courage by which we can finally face who and what we really are: evolved apes that are little more than robots sent out to battle against the stars.

Oswald Spengler was sure the Faustian myth captured the essence of our western civilization. Faust, you will recall, was a great scholar but all his learning and studies left him unsatisfied. He longed for absolute knowledge, unlimited knowledge, with a healthy dose of worldly pleasures tossed in for good measure. The myth has captured our scientific devotion in its sketch. Science has given us unprecedented understanding of the molecular world, but has not satisfied the cravings for meaning lodged in the human heart.

To obtain these desires Faust makes a deal with the devil. Have our cultures not been willing to sacrifice moral integrity for the success we have achieved? Ah, but the devil was a liar from the beginning. The Cartesian split is a lie. It said we needed to make a choice between our hearts and heads.

We understood that knowledge was power and if there was anything this poor pathetic orphan of a species, all alone on this isolated dead rock circling a non-descript star needed, it was power. Due to the Cartesian error we expected we would have to pay the price of sacrificing our emotions to gain that knowledge. It was not so much that there would be no emotions along our way. Though we prided ourselves on our objectivity, in fact, as the Faust myth illustrates so poignantly, what we did was allow the search for knowledge to blind us to the truth of our emotional nature. In our hunt for achievement we bound ourselves to competition, blinding ourselves to the value of simplicity and contentment. Ethics and compassion took a back seat in our dealings with “the real world,” the one only we moderns ever had the courage to perceive truly.

These seem to be some of the unspoken assumptions of the world we live in. I don’t think they stand up to conscious, rational examination. The heroic stance we have taken in the west was for the sake of learning to think rationally about what is real. We made heroic sacrifices in our pursuit of that knowledge, for which we should be rightly proud. We should not let our disillusionment in its dark side delude us the way it is doing now.

What our Faustian program uncovered was exactly what it set out to find, a universe of dead rocks ruled by the second law of thermodynamics, thoroughly meaningless and without emotion. Just as a patient with a neurological disorder that prevents emotion from participating properly in their reasoning soon finds that their reasoning is ultimately meaningless, so to culturally; our search for knowledge at the price of emotion found the universe to be meaningless as well. Today, of course, we have learned that it is in the nature of things to find what we are looking for. Build an apparatus to find a wave and you will not capture data about particles, though that does not necessarily mean there is no particle data to be had if other tools were applied to the observations.

We moderns wonder, how could there be a feeling in the attraction of the electron to the proton? To entertain such thoughts, we are quite sure, is to indulge in the crudest anthropomorphism. Yet, we fear, if it is not there among the particles, how could it really be in any of the myriad things they produce, including ourselves? Are we no more than chemical robots, meat puppets fooling ourselves that our awareness of our awareness means something more, something else?

We trip up on the role of awareness. To admit the electron is ‘attracted’ to its mate with an element of love involved, seems to ascribe to elementary particles the same conscious awareness we are familiar with, which is patently absurd. Is it only metaphorical to say the electron is attracted to the proton like lovers? It must be. Yet… We are left wondering just what the role of metaphor actually is in the embodied minds we think with. In a world of will and representation, many of the modern conceptions of consciousness are just too small to carry the full burden of the evidence.

And because consciousness is directly accessible to everyone, we all know a lot more about all this than we tend to give ourselves credit for. It would be good if we could befriend this western wound. Compassion is called for. Goethe’s treatment of Faust is in two parts, the first of which ends in tragedy. Parallels with our own circumstances are obvious. Part two of Goethe’s Faust, written years after part one when Goethe was an older man, begins with the spirits of the earth forgiving Faust, and mankind. How this, too, has parallels with our own circumstances is less obvious. It is the work of mindful ecology to encourage them. The final scene of Goethe’s masterpiece has Faust’s soul carried to heaven by the intercession of “Virgin, Queen of Motherhood… Eternal Womanhood.” The artful clue turns our attention to Gaia, Mother Earth, the living earth. Mephistopheles had fearfully threatened Faust that when he died he would encounter the absolute death spoken of earlier in this essay, the “Eternal Empty,” making his life meaningless. No, Goethe insists, the goddess beats the devil every time. There is only the compost heap, and the ongoing saga of our kind.