The Edge of the Universe

“Western reality has no prerogative or supremacy over other brands. It may be the present operating system for modernity on Earth, but its roots are no more rooted, its arising no more fundamental or absolute. No one species’s or planet’s deposition has primogeniture or is endorsed by the universe. The same claims are made implicitly by the spider and the mouse.”

In Richard Grossinger’s book, Dark Pool of Light, Volume One, he offers the above statement as a generous invitation to consider the broader nature of what we call reality. What seems increasingly important to me is to encourage and facilitate the awareness of just how provisional, and yet, universal are some aspects of our human experience. We live in amazing times. The shape of the world, its cultures and people, seems not nearly so distant anymore. We are at the threshold, perhaps, of realizing a global community.

Therefore, all cultural views and distinctions are being questioned, continually ripped apart by people who were once their very advocates and true believers. For some, this is truly devastating, threatening deeply held beliefs and traditions. We want to belong and we need meaning, even if it comes down to a fatalistic acceptance of meaninglessness or stricter adherence to fundamental religions. For others, a vision of unity brings hope that the human race may one day live cooperatively in peace and harmony between themselves and all that inhabits planet earth. I think we live in mystery, an outcome, or teleology only tempts us to leave the mystery.

The myths we live by might, and do, change. Every prior culture has eventually lost favor with succeeding generations. In the bigger picture of time, our culture in the west, post-modern, Judeo-Christian, like older paradigms, will unfold into something else. The push towards change has its own momentum, bigger than any culture or individual. Even in abundance, the drive to explore and reinvent ourselves remains. Yes, some individuals settle into comfortable beliefs that makes sense to them. But in the bigger picture of time, all cultures and paradigms drop out of favor, unfolding into something else. This doesn’t nullify particular aspects of cultures past and present, but incorporates them to more accurately reflect what was previously hidden.

Myths are not adopted necessarily because we prefer one version of the story over another. Myths that influence us at all, cannot reach us as myth, but as truth. When something resonates strongly with us, its irresistible pull helps us understand ourselves and the world we find ourselves in. Convinced of the certainty of what we believe, either by a historical perspective, teleology, or a charmed feeling of the experience it provides for us, we become storied, immersed as characters, even as our story conflicts with the stories of others. As they do for us, we become characters in a plot sometimes known only to ourselves.

So, does recognition and understanding of how myth works in us change anything? Can we see the implications of the story we find ourselves in and opt out? Yes, I think so, but can we ever be without myth? Is there a hard and objective reality, that when intellectually accepted as truth, replaces myth? What about science?

The structure of part of a DNA double helix

Science, perhaps more than ever, is an expression of a modern myth that seeks moving beyond and living without myth. It may be true that we are reaching a place we’ve never been before and that our rejection of myth in favor of reality may want something from us. But if so, can we ever leave behind the subjective states restricting us from objective experience? The next unfolding may not be about dispelling the mythological way of apprehending the world, but seeing how myth itself is an unfolding of the universe. Carefully, of course.

“The moment you let go of your habit addiction, you explode in all directions.”

Addiction to habit, yes, bringing us both the blessing of familiarity for survival and social skill, along with the curse of self-destructive beliefs that bring us pain and confusion, both which lock us into a mytheme that eventually outlives its purpose. We see this on both the personal and collective level.

And so, it may be the case, that by placing faith in science and technology, we fail to recognize its curse of personal and environmental destruction because of how blessed we are through the benefits received. Perhaps the force of the myth itself satisfies –  promising, and to some extent delivering, both health and wealth, along with a belief that we’re relieved from superstition and the bullying nature of the old guard of patriarchal structures.

I like to imagine that we live at the edge of the universe, unfolding a little more each day, both personally and collectively. The tension between the individual and the collective may be the springboard of revolution. We can look back on thousands of years of wounding through collective agreements, conventions and authority, and hunger for individual expression. But as the fullness of my individuality is experienced, I feel a desire to extend the boundaries of myself outward into the tribe.

When the need to distinguish self from other ceases to tempt us into positioning our relationships in terms of power, alienation and annihilation ceases to have a hold on us. Perhaps then we’ll be able to experience ourselves anew as “beings” in relation at all times, to everyone and everything, and without the fear or threat of losing ourselves to authoritarian figures or “foreigners.”

“Our identity crisis— a crisis of possession —has progressed in the last hundred years into a crisis of meaning and a moral and spiritual crisis as well. We do not know who we are or if in fact we are. We cannot escape the Voudoun “who” has turned us into animated corpses. Every day we fear that we could be supplanted unaware by automatons because we experience how the global capitalist imperative has already turned us into something like automatons: desire machines without souls—workaholic, funaholic slaves.”

It’s not desire that destroys soul, but desire missing its aim of seeking to know others; to distinguish self from other in relationship by risking vulnerability and acknowledging a need for the other. Our attraction to machines, automation and technology bypasses the need for relationship. What we don’t get from each other we can get from automated devices, which increasingly invites us to treat ourselves and others as automatons.

All quotes : Grossinger, Richard (2012-08-21). Dark Pool of Light, Volume One: The Neuroscience, Evolution, and Ontology of Consciousness: 1 (Reality and Consciousness). North Atlantic Books. Kindle Edition.

Sacred Transgressions

“Although paranormal phenomena certainly involve material processes, they are finally organized around signs and meaning. To use the technical terms, they are semiotic and hermeneutical phenomena . Which is to say that they seem to function as representations or signs to decipher and interpret, not just movements of matter to measure and quantify.

In his book, Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred, Jeff Kripal takes a look at occult phenomena and their relationship to writing and reading that serve as bridges to the sacred and a superconscious realm.

“…paranormal phenomena are semiotic or hermeneutical phenomena in the sense that they signal, symbolize, or speak across a “gap” between the conscious, socialized ego and an unconscious or superconscious field.”

More than this, he attributes to reading and writing a power to:

“..replicate and realize paranormal processes, just as paranormal processes can replicate and realize textual processes.”

Reading and writing then become a participation in a process whereby we tap into a superconscious realm through story and myths of an occult or paranormal nature. Occult (meaning hidden) reading and writing, become a way in which one transgresses societal and cultural norms of perceived limits of reality. Occultism itself is a fairly modern phenomena which perhaps parallel the advent of communication technology, whereby we perceive and transcend cultural limits through access and comparison to foreign or alien (pun intended) notions of culture and reality.

The process of incorporating new ideas and symbols that shape and color perception and consciousness have always been at play. Through modern technologies that extend our view and reach, we now experience an unprecedented exchange between cultures inviting everything from amazement, disorientation, to war and destruction. Perhaps they also invite a reorientation towards a more expansive view of both the physical and non-physical boundaries of experience. It may not be surprising that the scientific aim of finding the edge of the universe coincides with expansive explorations of the boundaries of awareness through dreaming, meditation, hallucinogens, music and art. Explorations of the physical nature of the cosmos seem to be reflected in explorations of the non-material, hidden or occult nature of the world.

Even the marginalizing of the occult, for Kripal, serves a purpose by allowing irrationality to flourish off the cultural grid. He sees too, a sacred aspect to occult experience which becomes more viable in a secularized world. Ultimately serving a religious function and reclaiming for a secular society a valid experience of an invisible, imaginal, esoteric world of a superconscious field. To occulture then, is to create opportunity for a new dialectic between science and religion.

Superconsciousness then, is a realm transcending cultural differences and is accessible to anyone, regardless of time and place. Although the potential to experience superconscious awareness is ubiquitous, language and customs of culture limit awareness by creating perceptual boundaries. As I imagine it, this realm includes universal pre-figured archetypal, symbolic, religious and mythological forms as expressions of the conscious aspects of a totality that includes the physical forces and constraints of the universe.

“It is within this same dialectical context that I understand occulture as a kind of public meeting place of spirit and matter, as the place where Consciousness both occults or hides itself in material and symbolic forms and allows itself to be seen, “as if in a mirror,” so that it can be cultivated and shaped into definite, but always relative, forms. Occulture, then, both conceals and reveals.”

There remains a necessary and creative tension between the exploration of hidden dimensions of experience and the rigor of materialist science that fascinates me. I enjoy listening to popular scientists explain the necessity of space travel and cosmological laws for it often reveals symbolic and religious parallels. It doesn’t matter if scientists, or any of us are aware of this or not, it still feeds the expression of an ever-broadening cultural psyche. In the same way, occult, sci-fi and fantasy writers (think Philip K. Dick), through the esoteric dimensions of their imaginings, sometimes feed scientists with ideas for technology.

The existence of a superconscious realm also has parallels to Plato’s idea of anamnesis, or learning as remembering, especially the remembrance of archetypal and symbolic forms, whether from a personal or transpersonal past or future. If the source of consciousness and our very existence is the superconscious realm itself, it is no surprise to feel a sense of deja vu, or a hint that there is more to existence than meets the eye that only sees from within its culture, time and place.

La Vie Mysterieuse magazine, Number 55, April 1911

Why some of us experience these hints more often, I do not know. In recalling my own childhood states of awareness, I was occasionally aware of something both hidden and forbidden, never completely able to ignore the presence of something beyond my senses. In my early teens, a time when my family life was turned upside down, I began to experience frightening poltergeist phenomena accompanied by an overwhelming sense of disorientation. Because of my family situation, it’s no surprise and can be written off as a by-product, or hysteria. But the effect of this experience increased my respect for the irrational and the sometimes inexplicable nature of life.

What intrigues me about Kripal’s ideas as well as those of Frederic Myers, is the connection of writing with the occult and revelation, and specifically to the idea that we are stories being written, especially as we read and write the impossible, or Henri Corbin’s imaginal.

“Corbin understood the imaginal to be a noetic organ that accessed a real dimension of the cosmos whose appearances to us were nevertheless shaped by what he called the “creative imagination” (l’imagination créatrice).”

I think he’s on to something quite meaningful to suggest that throughout our lives, we are writing and authoring, and at the same time we are being written and authored by glimpsing the imaginal, which in turn reveals through our creativity. Also, he quite comfortably acknowledges the necessity of ambiguous ideas, which to my mind most accurately reflect the nature of human experience.

“On one level at least, the human personality for Frederic Myers is an evolving story written into and read out of the cosmos over and over again within what he calls a “progressive immortality.” Read and written thus, we are all occult novels composed by forces both entirely beyond us and well within us. As a One that is also Two, we author ourselves, and we are authored.”

There’s more to the book which, if time allows, I’ll continue to write about.

All quotes: Kripal, Jeffrey J. (2011-09-16). Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred. University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

When Science Dreams

“I’VE ALWAYS WONDERED WHY my brain doesn’t simply rest at night, as my body does, but instead sets to work creating an artificial world that seems as real as waking life.”

The use of the phrase, “my brain,” in Andrea Rock’s book, The Mind at Night: The New Science of How and Why We Dream, beautifully displays the problem of language, where body parts become separate entities, and dream states are artificial in comparison to waking states.

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“Landscape with the Dream of Jacob”

Rock’s book collects an amazing amount of research on brain function and dream states, including a look at the cause of dream content, sleep disorders, lucid dreaming and dream states of non-human animals.

For science though, causality, function and purpose are valued, while quality, meaning and subjective states are deemed unreliable. Scientists tend to over-value measurement, as acceptable verification of objective fact. What we dream takes a back seat to how and why we dream:

“The current revolution in thought about how and why we dream debunks some elements of the theories proposed by both Freud and Jung. But as you’ll see, there are significant pieces of each of their theories that are now supported by scientific evidence.”

The book dabbles in the fascinating but contentious debate over the source of consciousness.

“Ultimately, dream research may also help answer what many consider to be the most intriguing question of all: what is the source of the peculiar brand of self-reflective consciousness that appears to separate humans from other creatures—that nebulous quality that allows us to make intricate plans, fantasize, string memories together to create a personal history, or use abstractions such as language and art to represent our own mental processes?

At the end of the book, consciousness is said to be, “a con job beautifully carried out by neural circuitry of astonishing complexity.”

“Thanks to those who are in the forefront of the quest to comprehend those larger questions about how brain becomes mind, we are now seeing that even when we are interacting with the “real” world in waking hours, our experience actually occurs not “out there” but within the brain itself, just as it does in dreams.”

1345672If only the measurable is real, the source of consciousness will be sought only within the material brain itself. At its worse, there are more than a few scientists who are quite certain that free will itself is an illusion, because so much behavior corresponds to measurable brain physiology. One has to wonder though, has all of nature evolved only to realize that we are machines programmed to realize we are programmed?

Measuring electrical circuitry and chemical reactions does not address what drives fluctuations. Passivity and lack of agent is assumed. Can the human quality of our awareness, as it changes over a life time, affect measurable brain function? If so, I await the day that science seeks to measure our willful attempts at change over a larger span of life.

The author discusses J. Allen Hobson’s theories that all dream imagery is dependent on externals absorbed from waking states. The stranger in your dream is an amalgamation of people you have seen, that’s it. But, can you measure an unknown or prove the image is a blend of people you’ve seen? This assumes that all of our states of awareness come from internal sources.

Anytime I hear the word random being used, I am troubled. For example:

File:Museo del Prado - Goya - Caprichos - No. 43 - El sueño de la razon produce monstruos.jpg
The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters

“In this altered state, Hobson says, the brain does its best to spin a dream plot to match brainstem signals that may randomly stimulate an intense feeling of fear one minute or a sensation of freefalling the next. Hobson and McCarley’s landmark study maintained that since the signals that initiated the creation of dream imagery came from the primitive brainstem and the more highly evolved cognitive areas of the forebrain were just passively responding to them, the dream process had “no primary ideational, volitional, or emotional content.” The resulting dream was the product of the forebrain “making the best of a bad job in producing even partially coherent dream imagery” in response to chaotic signals from the brainstem.”

Does measuring neurochemical activity in the brainstem prove involuntary stimulation, or that dream states have no correspondence to anything outside the physiology of the brain? Perhaps the seeming randomness of brain activity in sleep states is driven by something not yet understood. Can it be proven that the signals from the brainstem are “chaotic?” Here is where I think dream content itself could be studied for patterns corresponding to an individual’s dayworld experience. Correspondence between waking and dreaming states might be found to have conscious, volitional correspondence. It would be interesting to monitor the dreams of people who are in therapy or doing dream work to discern meaningful physiological brain patterns.

Below, Rock refers again to Hobson’s work on the physiology of dreaming:

“In his view, the settings and characters our brain dredges up from our personal memories or imagination as it scrambles to form a plot to respond to this chaotic electrochemical state may reflect our emotional preoccupations, and reflecting on those preoccupations can provide insight.”

The choice of the words “dredges,” and “scramble,” reveal the difficulty in accounting for the images in the dream. If not dredging and scrambling, what else might we discover to be going on in the formation of specific dream content? Perhaps there is a bridge between physiological process and symbol formation, even if locating it in matter is not possible.

Hobson concludes that many dreams in which we are trying to move, but can’t, have a physiological basis:

“Those circuits in turn are issuing orders for your body to run, but since the brainstem is preventing those signals from reaching your leg muscles, the perception carried through into the dream is that you’re trying to run but you’re stuck, so you weave that into the dream’s plot.”

What is not accounted for are the dreams in which we are moving. Having had many such dreams of walking, running, drumming, singing and even riding a bicycle, Hobson’s idea is not convincing.

Some cultural prejudices are apparent below  that I would question:

“As Jonathan Winson argued, dreams were never intended to be remembered in the first place, so when we do recall them, we’re just getting an unintended glimpse of our brain at work in its off-line mode. “It is a matter of chance, not related to their function, that we are aware of dreams at all,” says Winson.”

“Intended” by who, you might ask? “Function” for Winson, must be physiological only, which makes it “a matter of chance.” How one determines that dreams were never intended to be remembered is beyond me. Many cultures outside of western europe see dream states and images as meaningful initiatory experiences vital to their relationships with each other and the world.

Rock, however, is reporting the research without necessarily taking a stand on what she presents. I do though, sense her desire to show that dream states primarily have a physiological function. Although she acknowledges that psychological meaning is useful, she does not address its possible effect on brain function. Can we conclude that physiological brain function never corresponds to willful, active insights of meaning and symbolism that are a part of every person’s life? While correspondence may be difficult to measure, a less reductive approach to neuroscience may be useful to the field of mental health.

For many modern scientists, it seems taboo to speak of qualitative meaning as having a physiological basis or correspondence. Perhaps from a fear of losing objectivity, science believes that measuring and repeatability are the only means of validation. For those who have done dream work leading to meaningful, life-changing experience, it may be awhile before the results are recorded in the annals of science.

For a look at a more technical description of dreaming, I do highly recommend Andrea Rock’s book.

All quotes: Rock, Andrea (2009-03-25). The Mind at Night: The New Science of How and Why We Dream – Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

 

 

 

Life Against Death – Part II

A consideration of the aim and purpose of artificial intelligence (AI), provides a fitting introduction to this followup post on Norman O. Brown’s book, Life Against Death. AI seeks to build a model of human intelligence for the purpose of:

1) The thrill and power of creating, fathering and possessing a better than human machine, a substitute for flesh and blood body.

2) Putting AI to work as servants so we save time for some other purpose.

3) To reach immortality either through an AI computer programmed to replicate itself, or to perfect our flesh and blood bodies with mechanical replacement parts allowing humans to at last say goodbye to death.

File:Robot Fish (4651519523).jpgA desire to recreate intelligence that matches or surpasses our own is perhaps the climax of a long history of our struggle against death. Does not attempting to mimic our likeness in an AI machine reflect back to us a sense of ourselves as discardable matter, preferring mechanical automatons better than we but without the messiness of life; our flesh, blood, pain and guts? Does it not also seek to be rid of the heart, the center of feeling?

Near the end of the book, Norman O. Brown quotes Henry Miller:

“The cultural era is past. The new civilization, which may take centuries or a few thousand years to usher in, will not be another civilization— it will be the open stretch of realization which all the past civilizations have pointed to. The city, which was the birth-place of civilization, such as we know it to be, will exist no more. There will be nuclei of course, but they will be mobile and fluid.

The peoples of the earth will no longer be shut off from one another within states but will flow freely over the surface of the earth and intermingle. There will be no fixed constellations of human aggregates. Governments will give way to management, using the word in a broad sense . The politician will become as superannuated as the dodo bird. The machine will never be dominated, as some imagine; it will be scrapped, eventually, but not before men have understood the nature of the mystery which binds them to their creation. The worship, investigation and subjugation of the machine will give way to the lure of all that is truly occult. This problem is bound up with the larger one of power— and of possession. Man will be forced to realize that power must be kept open, fluid and free. His aim will be not to possess power but to radiate it.” Henry Miller

Brown offers us a big view of the history of consciousness through an examination of Freud’s ideas alongside those of Whitehead, Bachelard, Goethe, Blake and Boehme, Rilke and others. He delves deeply into the question of how the disconnection between mind and matter/body at the level of human consciousness has turned us against our animal nature and in so doing, pitted life against death. By sacrificing the infantile pleasure instincts for the common good, repressed instincts become sublimated; turned away from oneself in service to the group through work, art, sport and religion. But in postponing and repressing the ability to feel pleasure, the all work becomes compulsive and all pleasurable states bring guilt. We then seek to possess, to become immortal through the legacy of building and owning stuff. 

In a long chapter on anality, an important theme in both Freud and Protestant reformer Martin Luther, Brown makes the point that from primitive to modern man a split between mind and body can be associated with our discomfort of the dirt and filth of matter. Increasingly in Christianity we see the ancient split come into light:

“This paradox means that the Christian is split into two dimensions, spirit that belongs to Christ and flesh that belongs to the Devil…The whole realm of visible reality, the world and the flesh , belong to the Devil; God has retired into invisibility— Deus absconditus.”

Quoting Luther:

“It is nothing new or strange that the world should be hopeless, accursed, damned; this it had always been and would ever remain.”

The world as forever corrupt, the domain of the devil leads to an expectation of suffering, pain and misery as inevitable for the flesh, which we abandoned by retreating into spirit, a separated mental realm. This division between spirit and flesh increases our alienation to bodily pleasure and sense which in turn extends our alienation to the world of matter which we seek only for power and possession.

Although the eventual secularization of protestant beliefs in the modern world could not sustain a belief in the devil, we also fail to seek a grace or redemption of matter, still unable to break the chains of the compulsion to work and postpone pleasure to some imagined future.

“But as long as (to quote Tillich) “the Protestant principle cannot admit any identification of grace with a visible reality,” and cannot repeat with conviction the traditional Christian faith that the time will come when grace will be made visible, and that this goal is the meaning of history, it looks as if neo-orthodox theology will remain incapable of casting out demons, and therefore will be of limited service to the life instinct in its war against the death instinct. It diagnoses, but it does not cure.”

History itself can be seen as part of the problem. Through our sense of time we defer pleasure, looking to the future, saving time as we go to have more time, always necessary to those who cannot live in the present. Our inability to be present leaves us unlived, and so guilty, unredeemed, haunted, suffering from sins of both our personal and ancestral past. We do not easily live in the present, even if intellectually we know that’s all we have. We are bound by our sense of time which keeps us out of the eternal present.

Brown sees the intensification of the split and neurosis as necessary to bringing the repressed unconsciousness into consciousness. In the modern industrial era of capitalism:

“The alienated consciousness is correlative with a money economy. Its root is the compulsion to work. This compulsion to work subordinates man to things, producing at the same time confusion in the valuation of things (Verwertung) and devaluation of the human body (Entwertung).”

Capitalism may have emerged along with a more secular world, but Brown reminds us that the focus of our worship has moved from the god of church to the god of money and the power and hope in possessing things:

“The money complex is the demonic, and the demonic is God’s ape; the money complex is therefore the heir to and substitute for the religious complex, an attempt to find God in things.”

Brown concludes on a positive note by seeing that all of history has brought us to this moment in which the abolition of repression may free us from the split between mind and body into a resurrection, or a giving of life back to the body:

“The life instinct, or sexual instinct, demands activity of a kind that, in contrast to our current mode of activity, can only be called play. The life instinct also demands a union with others and with the world around us based not on anxiety and aggression but on narcissism and erotic exuberance…The death instinct is reconciled with the life instinct only in a life which is not repressed, which leaves no “unlived lines” in the human body, the death instinct then being affirmed in a body which is willing to die. And , because the body is satisfied, the death instinct no longer drives it to change itself and make history, and therefore, as Christian theology divined, its activity is in eternity.”

Finally, Brown sees in the vision of mystics, gnostics, kabbalists and alchemists, both east and west, the healing between mind and body where Freud’s polyperverse pleasure of the infant is found in the experience of the eroticsim of the entire body and the transformation of historical time into eternal time:

“But there is in the Western tradition another kind of mysticism, which can be called Dionysian or body mysticism, which stays with life, which is the body, and seeks to transform and perfect it.

In Boehme’s concept of life, the concept of play, or love-play, is as central as it is in Freud’s; and his concept of the spiritual or paradisical body of Adam before the Fall recognizes the potent demand in our unconscious both for an androgynous mode of being and for a narcissistic mode of self-expression, as well as the corruption in our current use of the oral, anal, and genital functions.

The “magical” body which the poet seeks is the “subtle” or “spiritual” or “translucent” body of occidental mysticism, and the “diamond” body of oriental mysticism , and, in psychoanalysis, the polymorphously perverse body of childhood. Thus, for example, psychoanalysis declares the fundamentally bisexual character of human nature; Boehme insists on the androgynous character of human perfection; Taoist mysticism invokes feminine passivity to counteract masculine aggressivity ; and Rilke’s poetic quest is a quest for a hermaphroditic body.”

Science too, adds to the split in its attempt to get outside of its own humanity, subdue nature and discard the pleasure and importance of the senses:

“the only historian of science who uses psychoanalysis, Gaston Bachelard, concludes that it is of the essence of the scientific spirit to be mercilessly ascetic, to eliminate human enjoyment from our relation to nature, to eliminate the human senses, and finally to eliminate the human brain.”

“To eliminate the human brain,” brings us back to the question of AI’s quest and hopefully for you who have read this far, as it does for me, explains not so much why AI is a problem but that it is not a solution.

Except where noted, All quotes taken from Brown, Norman O. (2012-04-15). Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History. Wesleyan University Press. Kindle Edition.

Why Deny the Obvious Child?

Have you ever sensed while talking among friends, family or people you work with that much of our conversation is derivative from mediated cultural sources and sounds more like we’re speaking through second-hand voices instead of directly from our own authentic voice?

But maybe you wonder as I do what our interests, our sense of ourselves and of others would be like were we able to enjoy the feel of our own authenticity? Would our experience of the world then become more immediate rather than one that is heavily mediated? …and would gaining an understanding of what authenticity looks like further the effort to more cooperative and peaceful relations?

Perhaps until we are better able to experience authenticity through our immediate senses and perceptions (is this Hillman and Corbin’s Thought of the Heart?), in which it is understood how our ideas and language affect our daily lives, especially negotiating the choices and decisions at hand, we will not gain a sense of what authenticity looks and feels like, but will forever be placing it outside of ourselves and especially at the foot of a perceived expert or anyone we allow to speak for us. Of course, this is tricky because we learn and borrow ideas and language from each other all the time. That borrowing may not necessarily take away our voice if we work to develop the honesty and skill of sensing and  perceiving our immediate surroundings.

Paradoxically, without both differentiation and unity between self and other we may never know the authenticity that follows from honesty, understanding and compassion in ourselves and for others.

The problem of authenticity and authority is for each of us a personal issue as well as a cultural one. Who do we trust? What makes an idea viable for us? What do we mean by the idea of “real” and “reality” that we often refer to? Does our use of those terms indicate who and what we have determined to be trustworthy? These are modern terms only recently coming into use to mean “authentic” and more recently coming to mean an objective actuality referring to the state of things.

Perhaps we all look for ways to authenticate and authorize our ideas and knowledge through others because we fear claiming any authenticity for ourselves. We want to be right, and need a basis to make choices, or a way to explain why we have no choice for how we live our life, but we also need to explain, or explain away, where our ideas and decisions come from. Authority abounds, whether from the state, the church or the laboratory, but in a highly mediated collective culture it less often comes directly from ourselves.

Collective sources more than ever have become our resources for knowledge. Whether it’s the popular media of television, radio, newspapers or internet, structures of our work environment, communities, church institutions, schools and governments, getting along in society means trusting in these sources to have our best interest and the common good in mind. If we question them there are often consequences, sometimes it’s just easier to ride the bus.

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Bob Dylan

Today we are saturated with information and communication as well as choices in media – ways to participate in community activities – churches, sports, travel, even diet and exercise have become part of the cultural conversation. Although having choices can be freeing, we can only eat one meal at a time. But is it possible to eat and be healthy by attending to our own diet and feel our bodily reactions? Would we dare to?

The shadow side of being overly saturated in collectivity and culture is that the more ways we have to keep from being alone (or from boredom as some say) the less it seems that we need each other or recognize authenticity. We don’t as easily trust what a friend says, when we have placed authenticity in collective structures and a select few who have been collectively chosen as the Experts.

Expertise can be authentic, but a claim that one is an expert is an over reach; a misunderstanding of the nature of ourselves for it implies that our nature is static when it is ever-changing as much as Heraclitus’ flowing river.

When I ponder the possibility of creating a culture of authenticity, the disagreements, whether about religion, politics, science, the use of technology, limited and valuable resources, I see us more and more driven by ideas, technologies, desires, and choices that we don’t have the time or the resources to understand and so we punt, leaving it all to the experts, who also punt, and so I ask myself, who are the experts leaving it to?

“Some people say a lie is just a lie
But I say the cross is in the ballpark
Why deny the obvious child?” Paul Simon

Alchemical Psychology, Part VII – Air

“The Imagination of Air and the Collapse of Alchemy,” is Hillman’s next to last chapter in his book, Alchemical Psychology. He reminds us at the start of the chapter that it is the images of air and not their measurement that was the focus for the alchemists. The chapters of this wonderful book get meatier and meatier and so please forgive me for the increasing length of these posts. Even so, what is presented here is just a glimpse of this very heavy chapter on air.

Geist, Logos, Pneuma, Spiritus, Prana, Ruach, Psyche, Anima/Animus – words of air, forms of its imagination. Air makes possible this perceptible world, transmitting the colors, sounds and smells that qualify and inform our animal immersion.

Aspiration, inspiration, genius is structurally inherent, a pneumatic tension within each soul.

A pneumatic tension. In the latter days of alchemy, through the chemical imagination, a bridge is created leading to a new era in which the effects of air upon physical substances spurs a revolution in science birthing inventions that greatly change the technology of everyday life. Transportation powered by steam and gas for lighting streets, homes and businesses helps to usher in both the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Dispelling the dark however, removes the sense of the mystery of the invisibles from our imaginations. To us moderns, if you can’t count it, you can’t count on it.

IMG_20140517_101614815Hillman notes the shift from alchemical work done for personal benefit, to that work which leads our focus out into service of the world. One of the first of many airy inventions was hot air balloons, leading eventually to the technology of flight. Through the use of burning coal and the construction of city gas lines the illumination of the great cities of Europe, America and eventually much of the world had begun.

The control over nature, that bringing light to the masses provides, leads to the powerful ideals of a progressive movement that now envisions the possibility of improving conditions of humanity, so much so, that we might one day eliminate crime, hunger and poverty.

The enlightenment literalized and moralized: deprivation of gas-lighting becomes a privatio boni. To light the night, and actually dispel darkness, its dreadful dominion, implies the upgrading of mankind.

File:Sir Humphry Davy, Bt by Thomas Phillips.jpgHillman goes on to show us, through the discoveries of latter-day alchemists, that their work with air itself brings a spirit and a puer sensibility to their lives and undertakings. Here, he starts with the work and writings of Humphrey Davy to show us some of that puer spirit and the part he played in the transition from an alchemy of subjective value to a science that serves humanity. Davy’s work in chemistry alone identified 47 new chemical elements.

Davy gives us, further, a clue to the spirit of empiricism that informs the period from Jan Baptist van Helmont and Robert Boyle through Davy. These men played even as they measured:  Benjamin Franklin with his kite; Robert Hooke with his gadgets; Stephen Hales examining his animals and plants; Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac ascending to 7,000 meters in a balloon; Humphry Davy and his crowd sniffing.

It was not merely that magical tricks and alchemical transformations still pervaded the new chemistry, but that the occupation with air constellated its elemental force: risk, flight, fancy. The spirit of experimentation – the puer impulse had not yet succumbed to the pre-arranged intentions of what experiments came to be in later science. A lab experiment now is a senex ritual repeating what is already known. Less an investigative act of curiosity, it is more an initiation into the scientific paradigm by an imitative performance of what the figures of science, now senex patriarchs of scientific laws, did centuries ago.

Hillman notes the shift in perspectives between those who held to the use of a substance called Phlogiston to explain chemical phenomena and those who advanced the understanding of chemistry through experimenting with chemical reactions, such as oxidation, contributing to a pivotal moment in the transition to modern science.

Let me demonstrate the paradigm shift, the death knell of alchemy, before your imagining eyes. If a strip or bar of metal is calcined, that is, dry roasted in the intense heat of a burning glass – the old alchemical operation of calcinatio  – the calx or powdery residue of the metal weighs more than the original metal. Does this heavy calx remaining mean that something volatile in the metal has been burned away, subtracted, leaving a heavy deposit? If this is your account, then you belong to the school of Stahl and would call the “something volatile” that has burned away phlogiston. If, however, you consider the heavier residue to indicate that calcining has added something to the metal that is present in the calx and was not present in the metal (at all or to the same degree), then you belong to the school of Lavoisier and the “something added” is oxygen.

This shift in paradigms moves the focus away from qualifying the material world to quantifying and measuring it.

When Lavoisier designed the shorthand symbol for his principe oxygine, he drew it with sharp points  because acids were imagined in the eighteenth century to be composed of atoms with spikes, hence their biting, corrosive effect. Phlogiston, through its sulfuric ancestry, was warm, oily, and generous; oxygen, through its acidic ancestry, was corrosive and aggressive. The chemical revolution brightened, and soured, the air.

The exchange of alchemy for chemistry was, in short, an exchange of phlogiston for oxygen. What went was vitalism and the final cause; what came was atomism and the material cause. What went was Stahl’s anima; what came was Lavoisier’s methode. What went was the meaning in chemical transformations; what came was their explanation.

The reduction to matter is not necessarily a fall, a defeat of the wing; materialization is a means by which spirit becomes differentiated, makes itself knowable.

Quoting the scientist Henry Cavendish:

Since we are assured that the all-wise Creator has observed the most exact proportions, of number, weight, and measure, in the make of all things; the most likely way therefore, to get any insight into the nature of those parts of the creation … must in all reason be to number, weigh and measure. 

Much is gained by this new method of revealing nature’s secrets.

God can thus be present in the method and not only in the material as alchemy thought. This is the watershed between alchemy and chemistry: where alchemy sought the secret in matter, chemistry imagined the secret in the modes of examining the matter – measure, weight, and number. Hence the importance of technical apparatus, mathematical models, laboratory experiment – these were divine instruments. To call this merely quantification or technology or applied science is to lose the inspiration, aspiration, effervescence, illumination, and ascension – the gas – that suffuses the discoveries and the heights of vision to which the methods led.

The collapse of phlogiston freed the spirit. It had been held in an alchemical vestige, for phlogiston was, as Stahl insisted, a kind of matter, yet one which no method could analyze. Lavoisier’s accurate method overcame that subtle matter, releasing spirit from that style of alchemical materialization. Now the place of spirit was in the method of “free” scientific inquiry, which together with the social, religious and technical revolutions that inseparably accompanied the new method, breathed the aerial soul, and its inflations, into the free-thinking spirit of the times whose watchwords were both measure, weight, number and liberté, egalité, fraternité.

Hillman spends much time detailing the lives of these new scientists and especially their lack of relatedness and particularly to women. Many of these men never married. Rather than find one’s soul through the love of a woman, nature now became the object of their adoration.

The new weightiness of air corresponded with a new substantiation of soul in the material world. Physical experiment made the invisible more visible. 

The fascinating mistress was not woman, but the mystery within the natural world.

This “fascinating mistress” though is also a call from one’s genius, often seen as a puer trait. Anytime the puer archetype is seen the senex is never that far away, which might help us to understand the drift in modern science towards scientism, where the guards of the hen-house have in some instances starved the hens.

It is easy enough to attribute inventions to genius, but genius is also an air, a nimbus around the head. Genius was the Roman word for psyche or daimon, for a vapor-like spirit that “blows.”  It is not an ego, but breaks in upon it – invenio – a gift of the genie in the bottle who speaks to the “boy,” a guiding presence telling the attentive worker how next to move his hand, waking him in the night with flashes of intuition as to how best respond to the demands of the invisible to become visible by means of invention.

Of course, these men were often solitaries; they reserved their ears for the subtle “invenio” of the airy genius.  “I do not think I could work in company,” Faraday said, “or think aloud, or explain my thoughts.”  The genius of making, poesis: apparatus as poem.

I love that Hillman sees the lives of these transitional scientists as still serving soul and that much as the myth of Eros and Psyche is a story of love and attraction that brings joy, so it is that anytime there is love you will find psyche.

We must therefore read the chemical revolution neither with progressivist heroics for what had been conquered nor with nostalgia for loss of feminine soul. The genius of air was still imagining by making new images, and these men were still serving soul as it seems to have asked to be served. 

Love was there in the work itself because psyche was there when, following Jung, we see that “suitable objects” can be “lodging places” of psychic events. The experiment, the laboratory, the apparatus, and the paper (Black, Davy, Dalton, Faraday, Boyle each wrote hundreds of papers or delivered hundreds of popular and scientific lectures): here was eros, anima, joy; and an aesthetics of usefulness.

And one last thought to remind us that alchemy is not necessarily lost to us moderns.

Though our minds are still ruled by the mechanical enlightenment, animation works in the laboratory hands, elaborating fantasy, inspiring things with new life, like the puer spirit now playing in computers. Alchemy, therefore, did not collapse – if we mean by alchemy a poesis of matter.

Hillman, James (2011-10-10). Alchemical Psychology (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman) (Kindle Locations 6604-6607). Spring Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Thank you 5th Dimension for Up, Up and Away

Love is waiting there, in my beautiful balloon
Way up in the air, in my beautiful balloon
If you’ll hold my hand, we’ll chase your dream across the sky.

Links to all posts in the series:

Colour My World , Alchemical Psychology, Part I – Black http://wp.me/pZ0y1-T7

Alchemical Psychology, Part II – Blue http://wp.me/pZ0y1-TA

Alchemical Psychology, Part III – Silver http://wp.me/pZ0y1-Um

Alchemical Psychology, Part IV – White http://wp.me/pZ0y1-UT

Alchemical Psychology, Part V – Yellow http://wp.me/pZ0y1-WV

Alchemical Psychology, Part VI – Red http://wp.me/pZ0y1-XT

Alchemical Psychology, Part VII – Air http://wp.me/pZ0y1-11b

Alchemical Psychology, Part VIII – Caelum http://wp.me/Z0y1

Go Ask Alice

Since the recent shootings in Aurora, CO and Newtown, CT, I have been trying to understand why in the last 25 years or so we are seeing an increase in the numbers of mass shootings in schools, malls, churches, workplaces and other public spaces. In the popular media there are several issues gaining traction in response to these tragedies; notably gun control and security. But focusing on the issue of more gun control legislation or an increase in building security of public places, suggests that we don’t necessarily want to look at the possibility of other causes for the increase in these types of tragedies. Do advances in gun technology or – as has also been suggested, a craving for instant notoriety serve as sufficient motivating factors to explain an increase in the frequency of these tragedies?

Perhaps typifying the corruption found in our current economic system of crony capitalism,  connecting and publicizing  the perpetrators to their known use of psychotropic drugs (aka, anti-depressants, anti-psychotics and anti-mania drugs) are under-reported in the media. Yet the use of prescription drugs with their documented list of harmful and sometimes deadly side-effects on users – along with attempts by the pharmaceutical companies and the FDA to underestimate their harm or cover them up entirely, should be considered when examining the motives of the perpetrators in any of the mass shootings.

Pharmaceutical companies enjoy an elevated status from our healthcare providers and protection from the media as both parties continue to make billions off of suggestive and easily marketable common human conditions such as anxiety, depression and mood disorders. How many television commercials do we endure telling us to “ask our doctor about…” any of the many chemical concoctions now available to fix everything from an ailing sex-drive to sleeplessness to metabolic problems, many of which are caused by our lifestyles, or are inevitable consequences of aging?

We have been repeatedly warned that marijuana use may be addictive, lead to a desire for stronger drugs and is a public safety hazard. As studies show, those very same dangers are proven to exist with all psychotropics. Not every individual is at risk, but the same holds true for marijuana users. So, how is it that we should trust the experts who warn us against the harm in marijuana use yet still believe in the safety of prescription drugs that carry similar risks? To be sure, many prescription drug deaths are from pain killers. These deaths are just as tragic, and understandably can occur when someone with chronic pain accidentally overdoses.

Studies have found that many of the psychotropics tested against a placebo are no more effective in treating the so-called illnesses they claim to treat. And if the drugs caused little harm, who would care? But most of these drugs can and do cause harm and there’s no way to predict who will be adversely affected, although children seem to be at greater risk.

You may know someone who has been helped by these drugs, or perhaps you yourself have benefited by their use. My aim here is not to challenge the veracity of your experience but to challenge the idea that continued use always equals a positive outcome, and that therefore the use of psychotropics is safe. It is not reasonable to conclude that drugs are safe just because the healthcare industry promotes their use. Your doctor may be well meaning, but s/he may be trusting the pharmaceutical companies because s/he thinks they are the experts. Many doctors do not have degrees in pharmacology.

I am no doctor or professional and there is plenty of information available on the use of psychotropics on the internet. My hope is that as the number of Americans using psychotropics continues to rise, the pharmaceutical companies will be challenged by every incident of psychotropic use that harms someone and that the Experts, calling the shots in our culture, including those who are infiltrating public schools with screening programs will come under greater scrutiny for their ties with the pharmaceutical industry, the FDA and the industry’s desire to expand their profits and legitimacy in spite of the harm they sometimes cause.

For further study:

http://ssristories.com/index.php?sort=date&p=soldier

http://www.encognitive.com/node/886

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/jun/23/epidemic-mental-illness-why/

http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/25/3/635.full

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/jul/14/illusions-of-psychiatry/

Thank you Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane for the post theme song:

“When logic and proportion
Have fallen SLOPPY dead
And the white knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen’s LOST her head
Remember what the dormouse said

Feed your head” Grace Slick