East meets West
And these basic ideas I call myth, not using the word 'myth' to mean simply something untrue, but to use the word 'myth' in a more powerful sense. A myth is an image in terms of which we try to make sense of the world. Now, for example, a myth in a way is a metaphor. If you want to explain electricity to someone who doesn't know anything about electricity, you say, well, you talk about an electric current. Now, the word 'current' is borrowed from rivers. It's borrowed from hydrolics, and so you explain electricity in terms of water. Now, electricity is not water, it behaves actually in a different way, but there are some ways in which the behavior of water is like the behavior of electricty, and so you explain it in terms of water. Or if you're an astronomer, and you want to explain to people what you mean by an expanding universe and curved space, you say, 'well, it's as if you have a black balloon, and there are white dots on the black balloon, and those dots represent galaxies, and as you blow the balloon up, uniformly all of them grow farther and farther apart. But you're using an analogy--the universe is not actually a black balloon with white dots on it.
In Cosmos and Psyche, Richard Tarnas makes essentially this same argument, pointing out that the reduction of our cosmic understanding at a certain historical juncture (the dawn of Enlightenment science) to the tenets of Newtonian mechanics - which posits the universe as an impersonal, clock-like machine - is largely responsible for our blindness to the “personality” of the universe. In such a Newtonian understanding, there is no room for visions of the cosmos as “psychological” - with moods, emotions, and all the other unpredictable qualities that constitute human beings.
In Chinese the two poles of cosmic energy are yang (positive) and yin (negative), associated with the masculine and the feminine, the firm and the yielding, the strong and the weak, the light and the dark, the rising and the falling, heaven and earth, and they are even recognized in such everyday matters as cooking as the spicy and the bland.
Thus the art of life is not seen as holding to yang and banishing yin, but as keeping the two in balance, because there cannot be one without the other.
The experiences resulting from the use of psychedelic drugs are often described in religious terms. They are therefore of interest to those like myself who, in the tradition of William James,1 are concerned with the psychology of religion. For more than thirty years I have been studying the causes, the consequences, and the conditions of those peculiar states of consciousness in which the individual discovers himself to be one continuous process with God, with the Universe, with the Ground of Being, or whatever name he may use by cultural conditioning or personal preference for the ultimate and eternal reality. We have no satisfactory and definitive name for experiences of this kind. The terms "religious experience," "mystical experience," and "cosmic consciousness" are all too vague and comprehensive to denote that specific mode of consciousness which, to those who have known it, is as real and overwhelming as falling in love. This article describes such states of consciousness induced by psychedelic drugs, although they are virtually indistinguishable from genuine mystical experience. The article then discusses objections to the use of psychedelic drugs that arise mainly from the opposition between mystical values and the traditional religious and secular values of Western society.
It is Nietzsche who shed the most light on the relationship between knowledge and temperament, teaching us that neurotic moods beget neurotic forms of knowledge, that an unstable temperament gives birth to troubled categories and concepts. The infamous German iconoclast was one of the first to suggest that knowledge was not objective but rather evolves differently based on the underlying mood that conditioned the emergence of that knowledge. In other words, knowledge is cultural and circumstantial.
There is a thought-provoking story about the surgeon who first advocated for kidney transplants, before these were standard procedure. As is often the case with trailblazers, the wider community of surgeons claimed it could not be done, or at least, they claimed, no successful one had been done at that point that would warrant any other surgeon performing the operation.
Fresh on the heels of my Peru trip, today I took a walk near my Bushwick home in a state of subdued clarity. The world always seems to order itself more cleanly following periods of travel. On the way to my morning coffee, I came across a new work of graffiti, and in the bottom left corner was a little message from the cosmos: “rest in power”.
Close your eyes. Trace the direction of your attention when you think "self" to yourself. Note where your awareness resides when you think "me" or "I". Perhaps somewhere around the head? William James once considered, when he turned his focus inward, that he perceived his self to be something related to the "motions" between his head and neck. A contemporary version of the same idea might be the notion that all of our psychological life can be reducible to the life of neurons, the activity of the brain.
"Be free!" It's an imperative about as American as Hollywood hero movies and pumpkin pie. Independence is indeed pushed from childhood as the true mark of maturity. But what kind of independence is this? Claiming independence from those who would oppress us, from dictators, from domineering parents, from tired social mores, from our own repressive self-images – history abounds with tales of casting off chains and gaining independence from something. But when we’ve cast off all our chains, what are we left with? Perhaps some of us have become so addicted to independence from something that we have in turn isolated ourselves and forgotten that life is to be lived with others. What might “independence-with” look like, a more integrated independence?
Intuition has long been a tricky concept for me. Trained in the skeptical tradition of Western philosophy, I have in the past castigated intuition as the not-to-be-trusted byproduct of social forces and unconscious psychological structures, the latter often shaped by traumas and illusions rooted in past experience. I preferred the company of abstract concepts and rational thought processes. But such company proves not so friendly for the purposes of taking action, as taking steps forward gets deferred in the game of more thinking, more deducing, more heady living – which is perhaps really NOT-living.