Monday, June 10, 2013

“Tarry a While” The Imagination of a Lasting Culture

We have found that culture is dynamic, that it requires endless pilgrimage, and that it is often reached through intense suffering. How, then, can we imagine that it could become in any sense permanent or even long-lived? How could even the cyborgs and ubermenschen of scifi sustain a culture that lasts more than a moment? More important, why do we imagine this possibility?

To begin to explore this question perhaps first we should ask what an enduring culture could be like.  Hindu and Buddhist theories of heaven might be a place to start, for they tell us of realms of fulfillment that are long-lasting but temporary. One may earn eons, for instance, in the god Indra’s heaven, enjoying the company of celestial nymphs (apsarases) or demigods (gandharvas) while experiencing the delights of ambrosia, heavenly music and dance, living a completely pain-free existence. After one’s merit (karma) is used up, however, one returns to the world of rebirth at some point on the chain of becoming. But what is heaven like while it lasts? Is it what Eliot means when he says in the Four Quartets “you are the music while the music lasts?” Eliot appears to be referring to the transcendence one experiences by entering World Two when culture (World Three) fulfills its function.  All humans, even before or without true culture, go back and forth between Worlds One and Two, suffering and bliss, but with culture for the first time we become able to do so consciously, voluntarily, intentionally. Culture (World Three) does not just transport us beyond suffering and frustration, it shows us how we are being transported and to some extent at least allows us to walk the path to World Two under our own power. Of course the degree to which culture is a conscious process varies. A professional musician may follow a Bach chaconne more consciously than a 9th grader hearing it for the first time (indeed, for the latter it may not succeed at all in evoking World Two).  Is heaven a fully conscious state? Is its nature as World Two being reaccessed at every moment in full awareness? Not according to the usual understanding of these places (lokas) found in Hinduism and Buddhism. It is a tenet of Buddhism that seems to have been adopted by the Hindu schools afterwards that only human beings can reach (as opposed to be in) a World Two state. At least the highest moments of consciousness (technically, purely sattvic buddhi in Samkhya/Yoga, and similarly in Buddhism) are only possible for humans, so logically the gods are not walking the walk on their own but rather passively enjoying (I am tempted to say wallowing in) the effects of their past good deeds. This in turn suggests that they have fallen into a World One attitude of possessiveness and complacency towards their World Two experience, the phenomenon named by Chogyam Trungpa “spiritual materialism.”

Clearly heaven in Buddhism and post-vedic Hinduism is an ambiguous state, pointing to the possibility of an enduring culture with one hand while taking it away with the other. Let us move on to what may be better visions of lasting cultures, the Buddhist sangha (community of monks) in its essential function of teaching the laity about karma and nirvana, the world of Vrindavan where Lord Krishna plays with his family and beloved disciples the gopis, and the Kashmiri world of Abhinavagupta so attractively imagined in the famous painting of him in a garden surrounded by disciples. The first thing we notice in all three examples is that these realms are of this world while also of the other, they are not located, like heaven, in a World Two that is cut off from World One (however temporarily). The difference between heaven and Vrindavan is essentially the same as what the analyst D.W. Winnicott called “daydream” versus “dream.” A discussion of what Winnicott intended by this distinction will help us understand what a prolonged culture might be like.

For Winnicott, “dreams” are images where our “soul” is actively involved, while “daydreams” are lazy moments of self indulgence, essentially false interludes of World Two that do not really satisfy but succeed in anestheticizing us to the World One suffering we continue to live in unwittingly. We swim today in an ocean of images: no other moment in the history of civilization has approached our facility in inventing, crafting, refining, and polishing pictures of things and presenting them to us readymade, as what postmodernism calls “simulacra.” Think, for example, of what films have become in the past century, with the primitive “special effects” of the early days of motion pictures giving way to 3-D, animation, and especially to computerized digital manipulation of the images of virtually any and all creatures, times, places, worlds; even dreams, memories, and visions; and beyond the duplication of all these actualities extrapolation to what has not been and perhaps never will be. Yet, in spite of the enormous outpouring in the present day of images of our worlds and how they might develop, there seems to be less and less place for what Jung called “symbols” and “archetypes,” and Winnicott “dreams” and “imagination”; those emotionally-charged images and stories that intimate and sometimes make real a world beyond our own but also most deeply our own, a sacred realm where life can be lived creatively. Instead most of our images imagine something like a Hindu or Buddhist heaven (with the implicit condition, slipped in almost unnoticed, that we have the money to afford it). Why is this?

             Daydreaming fantasy, as Winnicott shows, is a dissociative and defensive activity that aims at hiding reality; it adds nothing to life, drains our energy rather than renewing it. Not that this is not recognized from time to time in our art, especially films—which after 100 years remain the premiere canvas on which psyche projects her insights. As an example, I would like to reflect on the recent film “Inception,” whose premise is that a near future technology would allow its possessor to enter and control the dreams of others. Of course these are no longer dreams, in Winnicott’s sense, but rather daydreams or fantasies without soul or depth, instruments of power and control motivated by the spirit of capitalism and self aggrandizement. “Inception” images for us the possibility of levels of dreams, dreams within dreams, and of a distortion of time such that a minute at one level equals hours in a deeper dream. All this recalls the time expansion of Hindu heavens where one might dwell in pleasure for millions of years before being dumped unceremoniously into one’s next life. The outward “spectacle” of dreams (to use Aristotle’s term) is brilliantly portrayed, but there is no sense of the mystery and depth of natural dreams. Instead, we are plunged into the tedium of being trapped in a (day)dream world where nothing new can ever happen, much like Hindu and Buddhist (and vulgar Christian) visions of heaven. The protagonist of Inception, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is tempted to give in, as his wife had done, to the blandishments of the spectacular—but finally banal—daydreams they had constructed in what felt to them like 50 years trapped in a third level dream. On returning to the real world she jumped to her death, thinking reality a dream. He rejected the daydream simulacrum of his wife pleading for him, too, to jump, and chose ordinary reality; paradoxically, because it was more real, deeper, than daydream. As he said to his wife’s image, recognizing that he had (re)created it, “You’re not good enough.” Real memories and authentic mourning are superior to mechanized fantasy. “Inception” is a bracing and valuable film because it reveals the nihility at the root of fantasies like those of heaven and what is (on a more everyday level) the same thing, media-driven daydreaming.

Buddhist social organization might be thought to be an antisocial activity, and the opposition of “renouncer” and “man in the world” was thought by Louis Dumont to be at the root of Indian social tension. To understand that the organization of monks is not antisocial we need to review the nature of World Two transcendence in Buddhism. Essentially, the answer is easy: World Two is nirvana, the “going out of the fire” of karma. Almost exactly the same thing is said in the first words of the Yoga Sutra (which was deeply influenced by Buddhism) “Yoga is the extinguishing of the fluctuations of the mind.” While Yoga is more obviously concerned with the mind and Buddhism is equally interested in the whole human organism, Gombrich (2008) has clearly shown that Buddha understood the fire (process) of life to be based on intention (samskara in Sanskrit, samkhara in Pali), which is a mental event. Nirvana, or release, is the cessation of that process of digging ourselves deeper and deeper into the suffering of what I call World One and the Buddha termed dukkha (Sanskrit duhkha). Almost exactly as in Yoga, the way out of this pain is through good conduct (sila), peacefulness of mind (samadhi) and insight or gnosis (prajna, vijnana in Sanskrit, panna in Pali). These activities, supplemented by some others to be discussed in a moment, lead to the ecstatic vision of nirvana, a World Two state of bliss beyond though totally aware of suffering.  The social function of the sangha, the community of monks and nuns established by the Buddha, is to help others to achieve nirvana, now or in the future, through practice of the World Three techniques of conduct (sila), peace (samadhi), and insight (prajna). By wandering from village to village begging food and disseminating the Buddha’s dharma (teachings) the orange-clad monks keep the possibility of World Two (nirvana) alive in the social world. Upholding the virtues of loving kindness, equanimity, and empathy the monks provide an example, frequently repeated, of another possibility for humans beyond the all-too-well known suffering of World One.  Culture in Buddhist society revolves around the teachings and tales of monks; in everything they do their vey presence in the midst of the world is the essential cultural fact, though in the modern age they are called to be present in new ways, a few in their writings or on television, and others in compassionate self sacrifice to resist oppression and uphold the dharma (the self immolations in the Viet Nam war are examples).

The realm of Sri Krishna in the mythical (but also actual) village of Vrindavan is a much more everyday (orthodox Hindu) version of a genuine World Three “dream.” Here, Krishna lives as infant and youth among his foster family, demonstrating his power over the snake king Kaliya, the Vedic god Indra, and his evil uncle King Kamsa. He dances and makes love with the gopis, low-caste cowgirls who are completely devoted to him and (at an earlier age) steals butter from foster mother Yashoda. While the time period is short (perhaps fifteen or sixteen years), and despite the number of trials that must be surmounted in that time (the poisoned breasts of Putana besides those alluded to above, and many others) there is a sense in the story of Krishna’s life in Vrindavan of a World Three that does not go outside the realm familiar to householders. Monks are not needed to remind villagers of the World Two that lies beyond the village bounds because within the village itself God lives, constantly intervening to stop the downward spiral of karma and return time, as it were, to the golden age (krta yuga). Vrindavan is an ideal culture for village Hindus (and urban dwellers also). Its events are built into the sacred space and time of village life, and when threats come from outside  (as when Krishna must lift Mount Meru to protect the village from Indra’s thunderbolts and rain, or wrestle the serpent King Kaliya back into the oceanic abyss) this is done to return matters to their rightful, and “ordinary” state. Vrindavan is World One as it should be but can never be in actuality without the constant intervention of World Two’s god breaking apart the afflictions that the ordinary world inevitably attracts.
Tantra is undoubtedly Hinduism’s most powerful and sustained effort to imagine a culture that endures over time. As my teacher used to say about his own teachings, tantra “turns obstacles into means” of transcendence. All the afflictions of life, the impurities and sins (papman-s) are turned to the use of the tantric gnosis and become ways to transcend themselves. Abhinavagupta, generally acknowledged to have been India’s greatest tantric thinker, makes this clear.

Friday, May 24, 2013

the anthropic principle(s)

Cosmologically we are at the instant, the moment of recognition of the utter relativity of existence. Modern history consists of a series of “decenterings,” “Copernican” moments when we recognize that our former seemingly-solid frame of reference is in fact just a minor part of something larger.  E.g., realizing that the earth goes around the sun, the sun is one small star in a galaxy, which is one of billions, and that our universe is just one part of a larger reality. Even physical laws are not definite.

Recognizing our finitude, our composite character, our emptiness, our sense of self fragments, dissolves, explodes. But this World Two, the transcendent, nirvana!  The anthropic principle tells us not merely that if we weren’t in a suitable world we would not see what we do, but that we recognize the infinite depth of reality by being who we are. That is, to be fully human is to see through our limitations. The crucial point is not that we are just who we are and where we are, and that these two facts are correlated (the weak anthropic principle) but that our existence is in its essential nature one of recognition.  The fact that only beings placed where we are in the cosmic order could see the truth is much less important than the bare reality of that seeing itself. We cannot but recognize (because it is part of the recognition of emptiness) that that recognition is itself of ultimate significance.  The strong anthropic principle is not a “fact,” it is a realization, and seeing it is enlightenment. 

The above is a statement of the conclusions of the Yoga Sutras and Samkhya Karikas. My discusson of the “purusarthic” principle (at says the same thing.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Jung and Heidegger

     Clearly "God after God" (title stolen from Steven Wasserstrom) is the shared theme between Heidegger and Jung. Of course it is also the theme of the whole of the modern age since Francis Bacon (and well before, back into the Greeks and their Indo-European--and Laurentian and Gondwana ancestors, following Michael Witzel). Having said all (or nothing), I do believe that the opposition between Enlightenment and "shadow" culture (Eugene Taylor) is the fundamental basis for understanding Jung. He wanted to be both, Personality # 1 and Personality #2, and when in either of them felt an unreasonable animus (or anima) for the other.

     Jung was fundamentally a man of the Right, as Jay Sherry and others have demonstrated, and in this a man of his social class and era--Burkhart and Bachofen, etc.-- but he was at the same time a Kantian and a scientist (association experiment, astrological statistics, etc.). Heidegger invested his life in the same aporia, paradox, conundrum or Mystery: that what is "correct" may not be fundamentally "right." It's rather parallel to Plato's "pleasant" versus "good." And this is where we are today, as Jungians and postmoderns. Do we live in facticity or in meditative thinking, and can--as Jung imagined--we have both? Imagination has been shunted off onto the highest of high culture and the lowest of the low. The vast middle range is the domain of "science." Which of the borderlands should we Jungians explore? Both, of course, but at the same time we have to invade science.

     Here's my latest thought on that subject: God arose as a symbol to mediate two parts of the brain, the reptilian/mamalian (sometimes characterized as the "fast") brain (brainstem, limbic, basal ganglia), and the human ("slow") brain characterized by inhibition (frontal cortex). Jung thematized this opposition when he talked about the "sympathetic nervous system" and in his fascination with the dream image of the radiolarian (wholly "sympathetic"). Finding a way to integrate the two is hard, and happens seldom in human life. The great religions all aim at this, and do occasionally succeed (minfulness in its essential similarity to nirvana is a Buddhist example).

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Does World 2 require World 1 (does mystical experience rest on ordinary life?)

Robert Segal and most other writers on religion these days claim that the experience of God (what is later said to have been "God") requires first the concept of "God" in some way. One cannot have an experience that is not prepared and framed by a concept that understands it.

I would agree but counter that mystical (what I call World 2) experience explodes the concept even though it begins with it. For instance, in my own life circa 1966 realizing the truth of "emptiness," while this was indeed a concept, led to and was fulfilled by the explosion into emptiness that it (does not) name (s). That is the whole paradox of World 3, that it is and is not part of World 1 (ordinary reality). "Emptiness" is a necessary but not sufficient condition for emptiness. Emptiness expresses its appreciation of "emptiness" by shattering it.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

culture and individuation

Although the personal and the social cannot be sharply demarcated, it is often heuristically useful to separate them. Jungian individuation is a process of inner development in which persons confront their complexes (split-off and limited selfhoods) and expand the self-sense to include much of the unconscious and even the outer world. Because this process, as Samkhya shows, aims at the freedom and joy of Consciousness (cit, purusa), we can say that individuation is in the service of enlightenment but goes beyond it in that it brings enlightenment into ordinary, everyday life. This "inner" process parallels the work of culture, which as we have seen brings transcendent experience, of which Consciousness is the paradigm, into mundane life (and moves us from the mundane to the transcendent).  Thus individuation is culture within, and culture is individuation writ large.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Gnostic demiurge and the 1%

The parallel between the Gnostic demiurge (essentially a selfish, egotistic, senex god) and the late capitalist cultural complex (where a similar “god” reigns) is on my mind.  Following Max Weber (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism), individualism is inherent to the capitalist vision. The elect, chosen, saved, comprise a subset of individuals (a relatively small number, and growing smaller as wealth concentrates).  But unlike Weber, late capitalism seems to have given up on the possibility of transcendence even among the elect, and in revenge against an absent god has chosen to take his place, to wall in Eden and indulge in pleasure in order to distract itself from the horror outside the gates.  This image is almost identical to the Gnostic demiurge hidden in cloud by his mother Sophia after she recognized the barrenness of her parthenogenic offspring.  There sits the false god, unable to see beyond his estate though all powerful within it.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Apocalyptic affect: The cultural complex in a selfless world

 A workshop in New Orleans, August 2012
Jungian Society for Scholarly Studies (JSSS)

End-of-the-world fantasies herald—or manifest—profound changes in psyche. The year 2000 was the occasion for a millenarian fantasy that still, twelve years later, seems unresolved. Reasons for its longevity are not hard to find: Y2K proved more than a scary dream, as a series of all-too-real catastrophes have plagued society and the planet ever since. To pass some of the more devastating in review: for the United States, two unconventional wars followed the 9-11 destruction of the New York twin towers, the largest oil spill ever spoiled the Gulf of Mexico, and a massive economic collapse now in its fourth year destroyed hope, especially of the young and poor. For the world as a whole, two massive tsunamis and a nuclear catastrophe were added to the specter of global warming and melting of the polar ice caps, which is already flooding low-lying island countries and threatening millions of people. What is the relationship of these events to the collective consciousness of the present moment, the “spirit of these times” as Jung characterized the Zeitgeist of pre-World War I Europe in his Red Book?

 This workshop will approach our current predicament symbolically, viewing it as a “cultural complex,” Kimbles' and Singer’s term for the specific psychological pattern—generally unconscious—that rules a culture at a given moment.   Although scarcely new in his time, the situation we face was most succinctly diagnosed in Nietzsche’s dictum that “God is dead,” and His demise lies behind both the ongoing terror of the millennium and its converse, the narcissistic fantasy of indefinite human potential and even physical immortality. The psychic loss of God—which leaves us wandering in an abyss of unmeaning without Him—also brings the end of “sacred time” (Eliade).  Henceforth (symbolically post-2000), immersion in the chaos of profane “history” gives rise to a multi-layered structure of anguish, denial, inflation, and narcissistic rage. Jung said that “The fundamental question for Man is whether he is related to something infinite or not.”  For modern humans, this relationship is strained to the breaking point; the other pole of our ego-self axis has been stripped away and the ego flies off into space, on the one hand asserting an inflated autonomy and individualism (a manic defense), while underneath experiencing anguish and rage at the divine failure. This is the cultural complex of the present moment in the West, the spirit of this time. Both inflation and resentment deny the reality of God’s absence, and avoid the descent into the depths that might give hope of renewal.

We suggest that the synchronistic eruption of social and planetary disasters during the past fifteen years may be compensating this failure and pushing us to go deeper. This workshop will try to respond by imagining a therapeutic intervention in culture, as we seek to penetrate the ego’s defenses and to identify the green shoots of renewal already poking up from the cinders. Participants are invited to present dreams that may reference apocalypse or God in absentia or renaissance, and to join in the imagination of healing.