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Archive for April, 2014

Kermit the Frog Prince

 

Archetypal Dimensions of Kermit

 

In today’s post, we derive our inspiration from an often overlooked passage of the classic Muppet melody, “The Rainbow Connection,” a song that unquestionably and unapologetically takes up a dialog with the wisdom of the Other Side.

 

     “Have you been half asleep and have you heard voices?

     I’ve heard them calling my name

     Is this the sweet sound that calls the young sailors?

     The voice might be one and the same

     I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it

     It’s something that I’m supposed to be”

          -Kermit the Frog

 

The role of frogs and toads in folklore and fairy tales is widespread and well-documented throughout the world. As a window into the collective unconscious, fairy tales serve as a kind of secular scripture, and it is no exaggeration to say that the frog takes a preeminent place in this light-hearted yet deep-seeking genre. The Brothers Grimm’s “Frog Prince” is among the best known stories in their comprehensive anthology, and one that has equivalents from dozens of other cultures across Europe and Asia where the motif is repeated and revised into countless variations.

One need not look hard to find the traits that give frogs a unique, if not magical, status among the animal kingdom. Their very life cycle is a wonder to behold, as they mature from aquatic tadpole into amphibious adult. Water itself is an elemental symbol loaded with meaning. As a source of life, water can mean the mother; as a taker of lives, it can equally denote death. It can be clear and cleansing or dark and murky, smooth and reflective or rough and choppy, but always deep and mysterious, like the cloudy depths of the subconscious.

In the variety of frog prince fairy tales, the creature’s capacity for transformation is explicit, but the frog’s greatest fascination comes from its dual nature, as much at home in the water as it is on land. It’s a rare being who has knowledge of both elements and can move effortlessly between the two. Archetypally speaking, this amphibious nature suggests a preternatural ability to move between realms of the conscious and the unconscious, or mythically speaking, between the land of the living and the land of the dead, heaven and earth.

Such characters are of chief importance in the mythological pantheon, generally referred to as tricksters or psychopomps, the best known in western culture being Hermes (or Mercury). In addition to his function as divine messenger, Hermes is known as a “guardian and guide,” and “bringer of good luck.” (Iliad) Besides stirring up mischief, deities of this sort serve as the connective tissue between the sacred and the mundane, holding the communicative key that unlocks the secrets of the spirit world. The frog’s cyclical lifespan and amphibious lifestyle have also earned it a mercurial reputation in the Far East, where Taoist tradition associates these pond squatters with healing and immortality, and regards them as spirits recovered from the deep “well of truth.” (It is noteworthy that Hermes carries the staff of Caduceus, whose twin snakes have come to symbolize medicine, making the link between Greco-Roman trickster and Oriental toad even less remote.)

Certainly Kermit’s keen intuition and ardent empathy support the frog’s legendary distinction as intermediary to the stars. When he speaks of voices who call when you’re half asleep, he is recalling the language of dreams, the language our unconscious uses to address our waking mind. It is a language scarcely intelligible without the aid of a skilled amphibian to perform the translation. But a creature like Kermit has the rare ability to see through what ordinary beings would consider an opaque boundary, and to guide us across the barrier like Charon over the river Styx.

The text further invokes the voyage of Odysseus, whose crew of sailors are lured by the sweet song of Sirens, one more obstacle on his epic journey back to Ithica and his long lost Penelope. The sweet voices in the case of our text, however, are not a distracting temptation, but the true calling. So beware, Kermit warns us, listen closely and discern, for the truth can all too easily be mistaken for the distraction, and vice versa. Listen carefully to the inner voice, have trust in your self, and you will know not to ignore it.

“And some day you’ll find it, the rainbow connection.” When the light of higher truth penetrates our temporal reality, the deep will suffuse the shallow, and a ray of light will spread out into every color of the rainbow. The imagery points now to Mount Ararat, where Noah has survived the flood and docks his trusty ark on the hilltop. After delivering the devastating, nearly apocalyptic deluge, God promises never again to enact such destruction, and seals his promise with a rainbow, to signify the “everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.” (Genesis 9:12-16)

After showing the way as translator and spirit guide, the prophet Kermit also guarantees his words with a rainbow. Like the Noahic covenant of the Old Testament, the Rainbow Connection seals the pact between the earthly and the divine, the sacred and the profane. The voices have entered from another realm, and with highest thanks and praise to Kermit, we are blessed with “ears that hear and eyes that see.” (Proverbs 20:12)

Stay tuned next week when excessive toad licking leads me to do my best impersonation of a bump on a log.

 

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brain diagram

To Form a More Perfect Union

 

Anyone who’s ever tried to plan an event with a non-profit organization knows that decision making by committee can be a grueling process. Yet we do it every day in the conference rooms of our minds, trying to coordinate the disparate elements of our selves as we give serious consideration to our actions and beliefs. Though our minds and souls may lack a certain unity, I will at least aim to preserve some modicum of continuity by picking up where we left off in the last blog article. Through a fast and furious odyssey across the annals of world religion and old-time mythology right up to modern day psychology, I offered up some evidence and examples to demonstrate humanity’s ancient and ubiquitous obsession with the tribulations of a divided psyche. Today I’d like to consider the possible responses to this fractured state of mind.

 

Concomitant to the diagnosis of inner discord, what I call congenital ambivalence, there comes a pervading longing for wholeness. But first, let us review the symptoms of the affliction. The human mind is a slippery fish. On the one hand, we know our brains to be physically situated in the comfort of our well-rounded skulls; on the other hand, our minds are made up of thoughts, memories, sensations and impressions that have no definitive coordinates in time or space.  Furthermore, our cognitive quivers are filled with many different arrows pointing us in many differing directions, and what’s worse, many of those arrows exert influence without our even realizing, below the radar of our awareness.

 

Now I’d like to identify two general forms of ambivalence, a strong type and a weak type. The weak ambivalence is simply the result of examining conflicting information or looking at a list of pros and cons. For example, should I take the low risk, low paying job at the record store, or should I accept the dangerous but well-paid position on the fire crew in the national forest? Maybe it’s a difficult decision, but not the kind that should produce any existential angst.

 

Then there’s what I call strong ambivalence, a position of indecision resulting from a conflict of genuine inner drives, opposing forces, antithetical emotions. (Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive, and many scenarios involve a combination of the two.) For millennia, prophets, polytheists, Platonists, Freudians and others have wrestled with this inner turmoil, giving names to the inner personalities that vie for control of our beings. It is the uneasy sense of being pulled in two or more directions at once, not just by external duties and responsibilities, but by our own internal voices.

 

In its simplest form, we are familiar with the drive of rudimental instincts which may be tempered by a higher conscience, what Freud calls the struggle between the id and the superego, respectively. The urge to satisfy our carnal desires, in most cases, can be held at bay by acknowledging that we are social animals who must live by certain rules and norms, rather than simply take things by force in response to a sudden surge in appetite. On the surface, we imagine that this kind of conflict can be mollified and the continuity of the psyche preserved. We are thoughtful, conscious people, after all, and the fact that we have rudimentary instincts is no secret.

 

But once we’ve identified their presence and given them labels, it’s all too easy to underestimate their potency and suppose ourselves to be in complete control. We evolved from animals, but the evolutionary distance between ourselves and the beasts whose behavior is dictated by instinct alone is only a hairsbreadth. Our sense of total awareness is partial and illusory; as our illustrative creation myths have shown again and again, one hemisphere is illuminated, while the other remains shrouded in darkness.

 

This is plainly the territory of Freudians, who spend hours and lifetimes trying to reconcile the conflicted natures of their reclining customers — I mean patients. Healing the souls by casting light on the dark recesses of the netherworld and exposing the secrets of the id may run contrary to our very natures, but it continues to be a pursuit that many consider worthwhile. Knowledge, after all, is power, and there’s nothing our egos craves more. But knowledge and power aren’t the only ideals that may psychic unity so desirable. As the third century Greek philosopher Plotinus once said, “We ourselves possess beauty when we are true to our own being; ugliness is going over to another order; knowing ourselves we are beautiful; in self-ignorance, we are ugly.” (The Enneads)

 

This is also the well-worn realm of monotheists who profess moral certainty and declare an absolute obligation to obey the higher Law. The fact that their words and actions are often completely at odds may be the subject of another long-winded diatribe, but it proves that the inner battles can be hard fought and highly injurious. Again, their claims that the line between good and evil can be easily drawn and then set in stone might make for some good fairy tales, but the nuances of reality are far more challenging to parse out.

 

Equally interesting, even if not so fundamentally upsetting, are the subtle struggles between virtues, debates that might lead even the most reflective individual into a philosophical cul-de-sac. Is it more important, for example, to pursue truth or kindness? Let’s say your aunt asks you how she looks in her favorite dress. Now let’s say she bought that dress sometime during the Carter administration. On the other hand, she’s just gone through an awful divorce and needs some cheering up. On the other hand, she heading to a party where a certain very eligible bachelor is likely to see her. So right action can often be a moving target, and many cases will demand the sacrifice of one virtue in the name of another.

 

Take another example, what is the higher virtue, justice or compassion? A young man, clearly guilty, is on trial for holding up a liquor store. The judge will do everything to exact justice from criminal; he is expected to pursue justice, anything less would be disappointing and shameful. The young man’s mother, however, will cry for mercy and compassion. Again, it’s fair to say that it would be immoral for her to do otherwise. Ethical behavior is not a cut and dry issue, but one subject to circumstance; morality has perspective as well as gradations. (Thanks to Michael Greer for this helpful example.)

 

Then there are questions of tolerance and rectitude. Do you chastise a society that forces its women to cover their heads in public, or do you respect their cultural differences? How then is it possible to be a moral person when our highest ideals come into conflict with one another? Some of these example may appear superficial, and a case of paralyzing ambiguity for one person may be crystal clear for another. We each have our own crosses to bear, and every disposition will suffer from a different form of ambivalence, sometimes highly spiritual, sometimes deeply personal, other times more external and social. Take the case of freedom and equality, two virtues that are so cherished and revered in our culture, but currently they are driving our nation to the verge of civil war.

 

As we heed the whispering voices and consult our deepest feelings, we’d like to think we understand ourselves, but we inevitably run into areas of uncertainty, instances where the head and the heart are utterly irreconcilable. It’s more than just tugging on multiple strings in different directions, it’s the tugging of strings we can’t even see. Even with the deepest probing, our conscious minds are unable to access the secrets, and perhaps that’s what keeps the churches full on Sundays and what keeps the analysts’ rates north of $200 an hour.

 

Better than the black and white of classical monotheism, a return to polytheism, with its widely varied cast of characters, might render us better equipped to recognize the nuances of moral ambiguity and inner strife. Today however, Westerners are more likely to run to a psychiatrist to quell their confusion. The prevailing schools of thought there divide the mind into what we think we know (the ego) and what we don’t know we think (the unconscious), and those are useful labels in terms of helping people realize that they are subject to more that just their conscious appetites and desires. But sometimes we need more than a set of labels to empower ourselves with a sense of mastery, what we need to do is confess our impotence and acknowledge the mystery of forces we cannot see.

 

Spiral Dynamics and the Yogic Chakras give us hierarchic models which can very effectively describe the variety of voices that cheer us on. Each of these models divides the human soul into about seven color-coded stages, from our lowest levels of basic instincts in red or amber, up to the conscious ego, into the compassionate heart and outward to the transpersonal spirit of turquoise and indigo. Though the various stages or chakras each have their own goals and priorities, they all operate more or less concurrently, simultaneously influencing our thoughts and actions, but generally positioning just one commander (or possibly two) at the helm at any given time.

 

The metaphors can be piled on like layers of lasagna, but my favorite image comes from the original Star Wars, where the band of characters are all crammed in the cockpit. Chewbacca occupies one seat, as the animal instinct, and next to him is Han Solo, the self-interested mercenary. Behind them stands Luke Skywalker, the neophyte Jedi in training, watching and learning. Princess Leia embodies the feminine aspect, though she is seldom noticed for anything but her charming looks at this early point in the heroic saga. The voice of reason will gradually prevail, as Han and Luke absorb the wisdom emanating from the sagacious Obi Wan, who slowly reveals the unifying ways of the Force. Meanwhile, the droids chime in from time to time with their own tidbits, the more useful advice coming from RD-2D, whose voice ironically cannot be understood without the aid of an otherwise annoying and chattering C3-PO. Han Solo, the ego pilot, holds the steering wheel, yet a whole choir of influential — and in this case helpful — voices surround him.

 

Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves, who is really flying this thing? How can we resolve the conflict of interests and put our best selves in charge? The theme of inner discord echos throughout the myths and fairy tales of every age, but along with it comes the longing for wholeness. The question, perhaps the ultimate question, is what can we do unify these disparate aspects? Indeed, that is the essential objective of religious experience and psychoanalysis alike. For if we could answer that question, accomplish this Herculean challenge, we would feel whole. Realistically, that may be more than we should reasonably expect, but if we can recognize the members of the team and the dimensions of the playing field, and make it a life long quest, our lives might at least have some meaning, even if they still lacked total unified harmony.

 

Mythology offers useful illustrations of the problem, the sundering of heaven and earth, the separating of darkness and light, but where then is the solution? Followers of Kundalini speak of aligning their Chakras as the path to inner harmony, and students of Spiral Dynamics preach the importance of integrating their multiple stages of consciousness. Jungians profess the individuation of the ego, and ancient Greeks would re-enanct the Eleusinian Mysteries. Basically, it’s just different jargon for the coordinating the elements and harmonizing of the soul. It’s hard to conceive of a clearer symbol for the restoration of unity than an image the all-power One himself. And though the heavenly Father of the Old and New Testaments may not be a concept we can embrace for ourselves, the divine notion does become slightly more manageable when we can identify its origins in the turbulent state of our emerging minds.

 

One of God’s greatest adversaries, Dr. Freud, rejected the the illusion of religion, then proceeded to establish his own holy trinity of divine personae in part to explain what called the “Oceanic Feeling.” Freud’s greatest disciple and apostate, Carl Jung strayed from Freud’s godless religion of the Oedipal Complex, recognized the value of spirituality, and gave priority to healing man’s soul. Ultimately, Jung ended up with a new mythology of his own, where a character called the Ego descends into a deep netherworld he calls the Unconscious, seeking to be reunited with an omniscient, omnipotent being he calls the Self. He also brings into the fold a pantheon of supporting characters, called Archetypes, whom we recognize from settings as diverse as the temples of ancient Greece to the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon.

 

The analogies, whether mythical or psychological, can never do more than speak indirectly about this mysterious cleavage of the soul. At the end of the day, all we have are metaphors to help us grapple with a set of invisible and semi-intelligible forces. The Egyptian myth of Osiris — dismembered and reassembled — gives us one of the oldest, best preserved and most explicit tales of dividing and uniting. The legend of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, tells another stirring story about man’s struggle to obliterate Maya, the illusion of separation, and restore his perfect state of interconnectedness with all things.

 

But for today, I leave you with the words of another ancient teacher, who incessant presence over the last 2000 years has made him, for many of us, less of a flower to cherish than a thorn to remove. Yes, I’m talking about the bearded, sandal-wearing peacenik whom the secular humanists like to give short shrift, the one and only Lord Jesus. The shining example of material man reunited with transcendent mystery, Jesus Christ undergoes the cruelest of suffering only to come out the other side of the dark cave and be made one with the supreme order of the cosmos. It’s a promising allegory, when interpreted appropriately, and if we can’t succeed in locating our true selves, it at least gives us a good excuse to go hunting for Easter eggs.

 

The following passage comes from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, one of the heretical scriptures that were outlawed in the fourth century and lost in the desert of Nag Hammadi until just 60 years ago.

 

Jesus said to them,

“When you make the two into one,

when you make the inner like the outer

and the outer like the inner,

and the upper like the lower,

when you make male and female into a single one.

so that the male will not be male

and the female will not be female,

when you make eyes replacing an eye,

a hand replacing a hand,

a foot replacing a foot,

and an image replacing an image,

then you will enter the kingdom.”(Saying 22, Gospel of Thomas)

 

 

Stay tuned next week, when I arrest my inner heretic and have him burned at the stake.

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Light

Separation Anxiety and the Origins of Congenital Ambivalence

Prior to anything we can remember as a species, long before history’s first page, humanity enjoyed a state of wholeness and perfection. The mystics, sages and visionaries, as we will see, have told us and shown us as much. Our collective memory begins at some archaic point of separation, with the cessation of this paradise, but through all the meandering metaphors of creation and supernatural showdowns, it is difficult to make out the precise meaning of this cosmic disruption. What exactly is the fantastic act of separation referring to?

 

Of course, if it were a simple matter of separating the good, the bad and the ugly, we would never have resorted to these esoteric and arcane images in the first place. But the fact is, most every creation myth from around the world has at its core a common and unmistakable theme, in which a state of paradise, wholeness or nebulous chaos is interrupted or destroyed by a supernatural being who comes along and splits everything in two. Indeed, we find the legend of the chaos monster has suffused human history and human consciousness, from Egypt to India, from Babylon to Olympus, from Zion to Valhalla. Sometimes, as in Maori mythology of New Zealand, the dark void is personified by a pair of interlocking cosmic parents, doomed to be slain by their curious offspring. Elsewhere we hear of a Cosmic Eggs from which the primordial deities hatch as the shell shatters and the light enters.

 

As a classic example, we read from the Babylonian epic of Enuma Elish, which opens with the following lines:

 

When the sky above was not named

And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name,

And the primeval Apsu, who begat them,

A chaos, Tiamat, the Mother of them both,

Their waters were mingled together,

And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen;

When of the gods none had been called into being.

 

It is the time before time, before names, before the pairs of opposites, and it deserves a closer look. It is a watery void without differentiation, the domain of Tiamut, the oceanic water which encompasses all, and her consort Apsu, who represents the fresh water. Tiamat produces a new generation of gods, Enki and his brothers, who continue to reside within mother Tiamat. Apsu gradually wishes to kill the offspring, but Tiamat resists. Advised of Apsu’s evil plan, Enki kills Apsu in his sleep. The powerful Enki goes on to have a still more powerful son, Marduk, whose stormy disposition unsettles Tiamat, in whose belly the pantheon continues to dwell with increasing discomfort. Eventually Marduk, representing the younger generation rises to challenge the mighty Tiamat and a colorful battle ensues, ultimately resulting in Tiamat’s destruction, or so the legend roughly goes.

 

In his victory over Tiamat, Marduk establishes his supremacy over all the other Babylonian gods, including Enlil, who had always been top dog in the Mesopotamian religions. This is significant because none but the mightiest hero could be capable of slaying the primordial monster of darkness and chaos and tearing her in half to make the earth and the sky. And from there, Marduk goes on to make the stars, the planets and the weather.

 

The motif of a storm god defeating a serpent or sea monster and proceeding to divide heaven and earth appears again and again. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Atum slays Nehebkau, a two-headed snake that binds parts of the soul together. In the Prose Edda epic of Scandinavia, Thor hammers to death the Jörmungandr (a.k.a., the Midgard or World Serpent) who enveloped the world in its long tail. The Midgard is described as an ouroboros, a snake that swallows its own tail, which is just another symbol for the union of opposites, the primordial state before the separation of beginning and end, alpha and omega, man and god. Even the Old Testament includes a story, recounted in Chapter 41 of the Book of Job, of Yahweh overpowering the Leviathan with harpoons and fishing spears before performing the act of creation that made Him famous.

 

And this brings us to chapter one of the best-selling story ever told. The Genesis story of creation lacks the battle between hero and sea monster, yet the serpent does play a pivotal role, and the separation theme could not be more explicit. You need not look far to find it, in the very first two sentences of the Bible, “God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void.” And in the next verse He eliminates the darkness: “Let there be light.” (Genesis 1:1-3)

 

The Creator then proceeds systematically to separate darkness from light, day from night, heaven from earth, water from land, and so forth. After making man, he gives Adam the painstaking task of naming all the plants and animals. He then warns Adam and Eve of the Tree of Knowledge, whose fruit when eaten will endow its victims with the knowledge of good and evil and render them like the gods, a transgression that requires their banishment from Paradise. The imperfect mortals are thus removed from Eden’s original state of perfection. (Genesis 3)

 

 

SEPARATE SPHERES

So it goes, the introduction of light into the void, followed immediately by acts of separation and  division into pairs of opposites. From around the globe, similar examples are countless and well documented. How so many peoples of such varied cultures could independently produce such a common set of narratives presents us with a riddle of some profundity.

 

Either these legends all refer to some objective history of the creation of the world and the prehistoric struggles between primordial megafauna and superhuman warriors, to which these ancient and far-reaching people all had some genuine access, as demonstrated by the general consistency of their far-fetched legends; or perhaps (and you will see that I find this second theory more convincing) these widespread mythologies all attempt to illustrate a breakthrough in human psychology, the dawn of human awareness, the birth of self-reflective consciousness.

 

Self-centered creatures that we are, humans as a species have always had an insatiable desire to know where we came from, and as the sciences progressed we began looking into the origins of the planet, the solar system, the universe, and with cutting edge breakthroughs in physics we can now speculate about what came before the universe. But before we could ask any of those questions, we could just begin to spin the wheels in our nascent neocortical lobes to ponder the mystery of our Selves. It was a moment beyond understanding, a phenomenon we could only describe as the dawn of first Light, a point before which we were simply primates following our instincts to satisfy our bodily needs. And upright man thus became thinking man, homo sapiens.

 

To this today, it seems, we still lack the adequate tools and vocabulary to fully grasp this dichotomy which cognitive scientists call the Mind-Body Problem. And perhaps this inability or incomprehensibility has something — or everything — to do with why creation mythology remains so popular and capable of capturing the imagination. For those unfamiliar, the Mind-Body Problem goes something like this: Humans have physical properties which exist in time and space and can be seen, touched and measured. At the same time we have mental properties which we know to be very real but have no place in time or space, such as thoughts, beliefs, desires and much more. We identify with both sets of properties as our selves, but what is the exact relationship between the two states? That and many more questions arise from this conundrum. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

 

It stands to reason that this was certainly one of the earliest but not the only psychic separation that our ice age ancestors would have undergone, for it remains one of the largest and most difficult questions in all of philosophy. We can only imagine how primitives would have processed this developmental leap, but clearly they needed some narrative to explain it. Most likely it would have taken place gradually, with a period of “missing link” ancestors who experienced only glimpses of self-consciousness and awareness, fleeting moments in which they could think beyond their rudimentary instincts. It is unlikely, though not beyond the realm of possibility, that this mental capacity would have been a sudden, all-or-nothing evolutionary acquisition.

 

Even today we can observe a vertical scale of consciousness (cf. Ken WIlber) in which certain members of the species are more egocentric and beholden to their animal instincts, while others display a higher propensity for altruism and sympathy with others. (It’s very interesting to consider the evolutionary advantages of altruism and qualities of “higher consciouness” for the individual and for the species, and I recommend you pursue that in your free time.) The expansion of consciousness is not strictly a historical process, but is also a developmental process we all go through as individuals, the early stages of creation generally occurring in infancy, and higher stages — with their own mythic analogs — taking place through adolescence and adulthood.

 

Since the days of Plato and perhaps before, philosophers with better training and credentials than myself have devoted volumes and lifetimes to debating the mind-body dilemma, but I offer it as only one possible referent for the many legends of separation — usually of heaven from earth — that open the preponderance of creation myths from around the world. In any case, the idea that these religions are referring to an interior, psychological event or condition seems far easier to swallow than that they would be describing actual physical, historical events. And to those who might object and say that this interpretation reduces a religious narrative down to a simple human allegory and leaves no room for the presence of divinity, I strongly disagree. For those inclined to believe, the internal presence of Spirit, the Kingdom of God within us, offers a perfectly plausible explanation for the discord of elements, the higher and lower principles, the conflicting chorus of inner voices that echo inside us and influence our daily lives.

 

In The Origins and History of Consciousness, Erich Neumann offers one of the most thorough and convincing studies to demonstrate the parallels between the mythic separation — the abolition of chaos, the dawn of light, and the cleaving of heaven — and the psychological separation of the ego’s emergence out of and its subsequent disagreement with the primordial subconsciousness. Neumann’s exhaustive study plunges great depths to translate ancient mythology into Jungian terms, but just as the theme of sundering chaos to produce a whole genealogy of pairs of opposites is nearly universal in creation mythology, so the notion of a divided and internally conflicted psyche is universal throughout philosophy, psychology and cognitive science.

 

We have mentioned tow modes of bisection — mind and body, ego and subconscious — but let us go back to Plato, where philosophy as we know it begins. In The Republic, Plato puts forth his (or Socrates’) tripartite theory of the soul, which has become the quintessential model of man’s divided identity, forerunner to Freud, to Jung, and any number of other similar systems, any of which can be read as analogs to the competing cast of characters that populate the mythologies in question. As Plato explains it, the soul is made up of three components, each having its own distinct set of virtues and priorities, and often finding itself at odds with the other two. What we consider to be the primary persona, Plato calls the Logical, the reasonable decision-making aspect of the personality that relies on wisdom to evaluate what is good or bad. The Spirited part of the soul is responsible for getting excited and reacting emotionally, and it can act justly or unjustly depending on the individual. Last he calls the Appetitive, which basically functions as the opposite of the Logical, pursing basic carnal instincts to satisfy the body, regardless of good or bad.

 

The best known three-part model of the soul came from Freud about 2300 years later, and considering the interim time span, it’s surprising how little Freud added to Plato with his model of the id, ego and super-ego. According to Freud the the id directs the basic instinctual desire, roughly analogous to Plato’s Appetitive. The ego acts like a kind of commander-in-chief, responsible for cognition and for regulating the appetites of the id to function appropriately in the real world. Finally, the super-ego acts as the conscience, internalizing social and cultural rules which are often at odds with the raw instincts of the id.

 

Jung made his own modifications to the Platonic and Freudian theories of the mind, as have other psychologists and philosophers over the years. Again and again, we see a common theme of animal instincts in opposition to a higher order of thinking. From an evolutionary perspective, this endemic ambivalence makes perfect sense; our brains contain hierarchic layers of form and function struggling to operate together. From a humanist perspective, the need to understand and explain this intellectual dichotomy also makes perfect sense. Whereas science insists on drawing clean lines to categorize the divergent range of mental operations, with dualistic models, three part theories, and more, mythology instead employs dramatic scenes of confrontation, expulsion and dissection to shed light on the enigma of inner contradictions.

 

Speculating on the nature of consciousness may turn out to be the world’s second oldest profession, and its implications are nothing less than otherworldly. How the miracle of the mind is contained within the confines of our transitory, material bodies, where it came from and where it’s heading, are all perennial questions that lie at the very heart of the meaning of life. The consistent portrayal of the pre-conscious, pre-Creation state of things as unified, utopian and complete, suggests a deep collective longing to return to this state, a longing which may inhibit our own development, holding us back in the pre-personal state on the one hand, but might also stir us to aspire upwards, toward a transpersonal state of cosmic union on the other. Referring back at the chronicles of mythology, I think we can seek and find a road map to the latter, if only we look deep enough.

 

 

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Curse the Darkness, Bless the Light

I have a hard time remembering my dreams. I also have a hard time documenting and interpreting them. By the time I step out of the shower, any remnant detail I may have held upon waking has already slipped away, back into the abyss. Nothing so odd about that. But occasionally one lingers with me throughout the day, captivating my attention and begging to be analyzed and decoded. Then there are the handful of dreams, the rarest of all, that stay with me and possess my imagination like childhood memories. They rose up somehow from my less conscious recesses, but unlike the others, they managed to survive the light of day and become permanent fixtures in my waking reality. WIthout a doubt, dreams like these carry a special significance, a message to be taken seriously.

It came to me several years ago, during some extensive travels, sleeping in one-star hotels in a third-world country, but I remember the dream almost as clearly today as I did that morning when I awoke in Tehuantepec. I had been standing at the edge of a lake, its shores lined with evergreen trees, the sky was dark, and the night was moonless and still. I gazed out across the water but could not make out the opposite shore; the lake too wide and the night too dark.

I picked up a stone and pitched it sidearm across the lake’s glassy surface. It bounced a couple times on the water and then sunk. Enjoying this childish pastime, I grabbed another rock and tried again, watching it skip across the water with slightly more success. Then I picked up a third stone, turned it slowly in my right hand and looked out at the black water. In its dark and calm, I marveled at the reflection of the starry sky. Then I turned my eyes upward, rock still in hand, aimed for the stars, and hurled the little stone into the stratosphere with seemingly superhuman strength.

I watched as it soared up toward the stars and then, crash! Instead of continuing silently through space as I expected, the rock connected with the night sky like a dome of glass, puncturing the great canopy of darkness. Like the hole a baseball might make in the neighbor’s window, I seemed to have penetrated the celestial horizon, the very boundary of ordinary perception. Through this narrow, jagged aperture, I saw that the darkness was only an illusion, a facade, and beyond it was blue sky and sunshine.

The dream ended there, the light shining in as if through a keyhole, and I awoke in a state of wonder. That’s when I knew for the first time that there was more to this world than meets the eyes; more than fast cars, loose women and games on the beach; more than this patchwork of fantasy and delusion. I had ruptured the gossamer thin barrier between heaven and earth and revealed a higher source of light, a greater reality, a deeper truth, obscured by darkness but penetrable within our own means. Perhaps it’s too much to say that I “knew” all this in immediate response to my nocturnal visitation, but the moment I woke from this dream, I could somehow sense the weight of its meaning, even if it took me years to fully decipher the content of its message, and today that message strikes me as unmistakably clear.

As it turns out, the symbols and imagery of this nighttime narrative are really the standard stuff of myth and relatively easy to decrypt. Begin with the lake that lay at my feet. An expansive body of water typically stands for a primordial state of non-duality, a unified whole where all things flow together without differentiation. It is pre-rational and pre-ego; simply put, it is the unconscious, murky content that lies beneath our awareness and runs deep.

The stars of course signify the heavens, the territory of the gods, that uppermost mystery. We ordinarily refer to this supernal realm as outward and upward, but in the dream I do not see it directly. I see it first reflected on the surface of the lake. The heavens are not “out there”, but rather they are “in here,” to be found only indirectly, within ourselves, through deep introspection. Mystics and gnostic teachers have known this for ages. It is a cornerstone of the introverted religions of the east, and even the New Testament tells us “They can’t say ‘Here it is’! or ‘There it is!’ You see, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21)

We use phrases like “shooting the breeze” and “tossing ideas around” in reference to our casual use of words. In the dream, my conscious thoughts are thrown about like stones, but only manage to skim the surface of a deeper reality. Most of our conversations skirt around subjects of only secondary importance, and like my first two stone throws, remain merely superficial. But finally, with the third rock — the heroic feats of myths and fairy tales are always performed in threes —I take a pause from the playful, carefree attitude, and hold the rock with serious intention. And with this intention I am able to shatter the illusion.

The veil is lifted and there is a new dawn, a moment rivaled only by Yahweh’s “Let there be light” in the third verse of Genesis. The separation of heaven and earth is terminated and man’s transcendent potential is revealed. The secret to reuniting the opposites is not to dive into the dark waters of the unconscious, for that would only initiate a regression to the pre-conscious, pre-dualist state. Instead, true harmony is found by overcoming the mundane, temporal reality, superseding this dual state where the ego feels so at home, venturing not backwards to the pre-rational but forward into the trans-rational. The light that lies hidden within the darkest corners of ourselves, that is the treasure to be mined if we wish to be reunited with the source.

The symbolism at this climactic moment is almost blinding in intensity. Like a shaft of light entering Plato’s cave, the glowing ray ruptures the old order and casts a new light on the slumbering mentality. Yes the source of this light remains a riddle, a riddle worth contemplating. The simple paradigm of concrete materialism fails to provide a satisfying explanation, its air airtight logic has been perforated, its holes exposed.

The idea of a supernatural, all-powerful being was never an easy one for me to swallow, but this vision came as a breakthrough in every sense of the word, revealing not an external power but an inner spirit, not an omniscient authority but a subtle and mysterious intelligence emanating from a place where the irrational prevails. When we listen closely and look deeply, we find there are elements of the human condition which defy ordinary logic and cannot be measured by the conventional tools of physical science. I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of this realm, and I intend to explore the territory by any means necessary, even if those means sometimes seem a little spacey.

Finally then, we have still another reading of the dream. We can forever speculate on what does it mean, but might it be wiser to consider what must I do? A message this intrusive and alarming must certainly include a call to action. It is plain enough; I am asked to stop clutching my words and thoughts like little stones, to stop casting them out over the wine-dark sea to sink and drown, and instead release them from the darkness and expose them to the light. So here they are for the world to see, and whether they bask in the sunshine or wither in the heat, only time will tell.

 

AFTERWORD

Recently I came across this passage from the Book of Thomas (Chapter 3, verses 1-3), one of the Gnostic Gospels that were banned in the fourth century and labeled as heresy for encouraging direct communication with the divine rather than adherence to orthodoxy and obedience to the bishops. The imagery rings eerily familiar:

 

Thomas answered, “This is what I tell you, Lord, that people who speak about

what is invisible are like archers who shoot arrows at a target during the night.

Of course, they shoot arrows like any other archers, since they are shooting at

a target, but in this case the target cannot be seen. When the light comes forth,

however, and banishes the darkness, then what each person has done will

become clear.”

 

On a similar note, I leave you with these words from Obi-Wan Kenobi, who offered this advice to young Skywalker while training him to wield his light saber blindly:

 

Obi-Wan: This time, let go your conscious self and act on instinct.

Luke: With the blast shield down, I can’t even see!  How am I supposed to fight?

Obi-Wan: Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them.

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