Exlibris – Wild Mind: A Field Guide to the Human Psyche

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It’s time to take another look at ourselves – to re – enliven our sense of what it is to be human, to breathe new life into ancient intuitions of who we are, and to learn again to celebrate, as we once did, our instinctive affinity with the Earth community in which we’re rooted. We’re called now to rediscover what it means to be human beings in a wildly diverse world of feathered, furred, and scaled fellow creatures; flowers and forests, mountains, rivers, and oceans; wind rain, and snow; Sun and Moon.
– Bill Plotkin

Exlibris is the beginning of a series that highlights literature that aids us in self-inquiry. Many authors from a wide range of disciplines will contribute to our transformative work. I would like to focus on books that aid us in diverse ways, that help shape the ground of experiment, and that bring us into an engaged and newfound dialogue with the ideas these authors present.

Wild Mind: A Field Guide to the Human Psyche, by Bill Plotkin, is a rich psychological work that aims to bring humans back into the fold of a vibrant world. It is essentially a handbook for creating healthy lives and societies. Its harmonious combination of the personal and the universal make it an apt addition to our personal search for truth. Through it, Plotkin catalogues the intelligences that humans possess and describes how we can best utilize them. Using self-study, we become able to integrate these intelligences into a wholistic way of life. His way of describing the human psyche mirrors natural order, and returns our attention to the stunning and beautiful world in which we participate.

Wild Mind’s ambitious work touches each level of what it is to experience the human. It creates a taxonomy that moves between what Plotkin calls the Soul, the Spirit, the Self, and the Ego. He also breaks these down further into the different categories that make a complete human being.

The Soul is what Plotkin calls “a person’s unique purpose or identity . . . Soul is the particular ecological niche, or place, a person was born to occupy but may or may not ever discover or consciously embody” (13). Spirit reveals our oneness with the universe, “the universal consciousness, intelligence, psyche, or vast imagination that animates the cosmos and everything in it – including us – and in which the psyche of each person participates.” (13). The Ego is described as “the locus of, or seat, of conscious self-awareness within the human psyche” (14).

The Self contains different resources that an increasingly conscious person can learn to express in healthier ways. Wild Mind implements these as four directions that directly correspond to various psychosomatic tools. The intelligences or modes of the psyche allow us to look within and traverse their connecting lines. We then use that functioning to actively shape human culture. We will look at these directions individually.

The North represents the human instinct to contribute to the lives of others  and is called the Nurturing Generative Adult. Plotkin describes how this facet is ultimately grounded in love:

Love. All four facets of the self begin with love, are anchored in love. Yet each facet features its own favored form of love. The North facet of the Self is rooted in a nourishing and boldly resourceful love, like Thomas Berry’s for the Earth, a parent for her child, a devoted teacher for his students, or a true friend for another . . . The north, then, is said to be the place of healing, service, caring, and creative thought – in short, nurturance and generativity. (35-44)

The South includes our intuitive connections to nature and the Earth, and is called The Wild Indigenous One. Here the human finds themselves as part of the earth, with each sense contributing to a rich lived experience. The South makes us physically remember that our original face, and ultimate home, lies in this reality, this earth, and this body. As Plotkin says:

The Wild Indigenous One is sensuous and body centered. We are embodied in flesh and are in communion with the world though our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin, as well as through our indigenous heart and wild mind. (57)

The East is the Innocent/Sage, where we express compassion and wisdom. The East is a highly complex and interesting door to qualities that we often find mentioned in religious literature. The natural associations of the East convey a sense of warmth and vitality.

The east, of course, is where the Sun rises, granting us light after the long night. The east, then, is commonly affiliated with beginnings, origins, and birth, and also with illumination and enlightenment, and, as a consequence, with Spirit, too. Beginnings and enlightenment suggest innocence and wisdom.
With the return of the light each morning, we can more readily appreciate the big picture, our world expanding beyond the immediate fears and concerns of our contracted night-selves. The east, then, is also allied with qualities that widen or sharpen our perception or understanding, qualities such as the simplicity of the Innocent, the wisdom of the Sage, the humor (‘lightening up’) and transcendent brilliance of the Fool, and the Trickster’s gift of paradox. (88-89)

The West is the last aspect, and is called the Muse/Beloved. Here is the “fruitful darkness,” where we sense the full capabilities of our imagination.

By imaginatively romancing the world and its endless unique wonders – both human and other – we keep our lives new, forever evolving, and in so doing, we participate in the ongoing evolution of the world itself. But personal evolution – individuation – necessitates a periodic reshaping of our lives that is often deeply challenging. By opening our hearts and imaginations to the daily mysteries, a romance with the world upsets our routines, making us vulnerable to the great changes destined in our Souls and in the Soul of the world, the anima mundi.
The West, then, is not only the place of romance but also the change place, the dimension of our human psyches that seeks and savors ecstatic and troubling transformations. (97-98)

Plotkin follows up this discussion with sections on what he calls the “subpersonalities.” Each direction receives a subpersonality which represents an unhealthy mode of functioning for that particular direction. They exist as that direction’s inverse and when we act from them, they prevent us from functioning in adaptive ways and turn us stagnant and neurotic. These subpersonalities are Loyal Soldiers, Wounded Children, Addicts and Escapists, and the Shadow and Shadow Selves, respectively.

One of the most welcome things that Wild Mind offers is the inclusion of exercises that develop each of these directions, as well as bringing attention to each of the subpersonalities. Integrating these personalities is imperative for achieving a more complete self-understanding.  The directions Plotkin gives are extensive and excellent and make this book even more useful. An example of this type of exercise is mentioned in the chapter on the South side, The Wild Indigenous One:

At any moment of the day, whether you’re at work in the shop or office or garden, at play on the field or court, at home with your family, or en route between one or the other, remind yourself of your wild, sensuous, emotive, and erotic indigenity. As you re-member yourself in this way, what do you notice about the way you physically move through your activities? What shifts do you notice in your relationships? What now feels most alluring or compelling? How’s it feel to be in your body? In your animate surroundings? What emotions are viscerally present? How’s it feel to be immersed in the land? Are you fully at home? How could you be more so? (69)

Framing these points as questions helps contribute to the book’s inclusiveness. Each person is free to use Plotkin’s maps to aid them in their search and discover on their own.

Once a person manages to further integrate themselves, they embody what Plotkin calls the “3-D Ego.” We are able to access the 3-D ego the more we take the time to study its components. A human with access to their inner knowledge comprehends themselves on multiple levels – from the individual to the group, the societal, and the cosmic. Wild Mind makes this understanding into a blueprint that draws from each of its directions and incorporates it into many levels of the Self.

In a time where there is an increased consciousness about humanity’s future, Bill Plotkin’s book is a timely and necessary addition to psychological literature. Since the personal and the universal coincide, any changes we make in understanding ourselves have larger ramifications for our world. A psychology that attends to human needs and helps change our lived perception is a necessary ingredient for changing reality. Wild Mind provides a guide that helps us discover ways to understand ourselves, how we can fit into natural communities, and how best to use our collaborative resources.

You can purchase Wild Mind from the publisher here.

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Pleasure and Impermanence

Spiritual practices, like many other activities, can be a gateway to blissful sensations. Descriptions of these sensations appear frequently in religious literature, and helped spark my initial interest. An example of this type of experience is found in Aleister Crowley’s Book Four, where he lays out the foundations for his magical system and explains his own progress in meditation.

Finally something happens whose nature may form the subject of a further discussion later on. For the moment let it suffice to say that this consciousness of the Ego and the non-Ego, the seer and the thing seen, the knower and the thing known, is blotted out.
There is usually an intense light, an intense sound, and a feeling of such overwhelming bliss that the resources of language have been exhausted again and again in the attempt to describe it. (13)

It was hard not to be intrigued by these passages. Making my forays into meditation, I had experiences that more closely resembled heightened sensory states. I did not encounter the bliss that Crowley described here. I continued out of the possibility that these states were only the beginning. I could feel the effect of the practice as time passed, and I began to feel less anxious, more peaceful, and better able to cope with the stress of life.

As I discussed in my previous article, the floodgates truly opened for a brief time of around a month, and I had began to have increasingly pleasurable states. In the midst of everything that was happening they were confusing and disruptive. Even after things had subsided and I returned to my normal routines, something has happened with the practice and I’ve become much more aware of my own approaches to pleasure. These are not limited to meditative bliss. Instead, this change has become all-encompassing.

I’ve found that pleasurable sensations exert a kind of gravity and become bound up with our attitudes of them. In time, these attitudes come to reflect and reinforce them, masquerading as our own opinions and impeding us from changing them. We often repeat these behaviors endlessly, simply for the sake of repeating the behavior and without enjoyment.

Part of our culture is based on nurturing these feelings of anticipation and consumption. When we become addicted, an initial high is experienced and pursued, even though these sensations are ultimately unstable. In another post on awareness and developing meditative focus, we discussed the three marks of existence. In Buddhist terminology, these are defined as impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and no-self. In examining pleasure and pain, we find these same qualities at work. A pleasurable sensation, for example, comes on, fluctuates across a certain spectrum, then degrades. All sensations are transient, and none can be a foundation.

I think we all realize how unsatisfactory this feels, attempting to pin our expectations on something so liquid. As focus improves, this makes more intuitive sense, and we notice these fluctuations more. There becomes little point to continuous pleasure or pain when they both change into the other. The more we comprehend that this is going on, the more we occupy a fulcrum between denial and excess. Buddhism often talks of a middle way, and this approach enjoys the pleasures of life while not turning them into something destructive and harmful. We are then entwined with a more judicious sense of pleasure.

The instability of pain and pleasure expands our capacity to enjoy beyond what we thought to be able. Rather than narrowly circling a few types of pleasure, once we see their impermanence, we can take increased delight in the broad palette of life’s experiences. Events unfold in their own way, and even what we consider unimportant has its own poetry in its expression. This includes the many small sensations in every day. All of these sensations contribute to the wonder and richness of this life. This is due to not making our usual hard-lined distinctions, which lies waiting in your own mind, ready to be unlocked by continuous awareness.

The Forge of the Path

Before we begin, I should clear up something that should have been discussed long ago. I am not an ordained teacher in any path. I have not been given permission to teach, nor do I have any experience involving students. My opinions are my own, based on years of meditative practice and research on myself. My writings should not be read as representative of any spiritual or religious tradition. They are given in the hopes that they might help people and give them some context for the spiritual and meditative paths if they are on them, or about to embark.

This context was something that was largely absent from my initial forays into meditation. I had begun to read books on the subject and made some tentative steps towards daily sitting. I did not begin going to my local Zen Center until later on. Due to my stubbornness, I had not studied intensively with a teacher.

Without knowing what I was in for, I persisted with meditation as it slowly began to change everything I thought to be true. I went on a short retreat, and began reading and studying even more. Eventually, I reached a point where something inside had reached critical mass, and I began a shocking and terrifying transition that would last for weeks.

This transition loomed and I entered what could only be described as total psychic meltdown. I seemed to experience a complete range of psychotic symptoms including panic attacks, sleeplessness, inability to eat, and agoraphobia. I also experienced a range of ancillary states, including oceanic feelings, overwhelming energy, and intense bliss. I began having suicidal impulses. I also became aware of what I sensed to be a primordial terror of some of the most recessed parts of myself.

These feelings are difficult to describe due to their intensely personal nature. Imagine someone cut open your heart of hearts so deeply that you could see every part of yourself inside. Every malicious and evil impulse came up for me to understand and process.  My lack of context did not serve me well in making this transition. Since my practice was largely self-referential, and I had not come across these experiences in my readings, I had no way to understand what was going on at that time.

I could no longer work, and lay in bed in fear. Somehow around this time I began to understand what was occurring inside me. I took up journaling, trying to put into words how I felt. It was like being on a bridge, with a drop into night below and darkness reaching up to touch the path on either side.

At this point I also began talking to teachers and psychotherapists, who all had different approaches to what was going on. My family was frightened for me, but was also genuinely caring and supportive. The teacher at the Zen Center referred to what was happening as a Crisis, and its associations of decay, collapse, and transformation stuck with me. He said that sometimes our self image is dropped in the practice, and sometimes it is burned away. This complemented what I was feeling at the time. As I did more research later on, I discovered how incredibly common this was for other practitioners.

Many traditions have described this phase in similar terms, with images of being forged, flayed, and remade. In this respect it becomes more than a mere metaphor, and describes an actual process of phase transition. The Crisis is a true test of our mettle, to allow us to open ourselves to all that is inside us, shattering our confines in the most painful of ways. The Crisis prepares us for an acknowledgement of our own freedom. It is our initial reactions and resistance against that freedom which cause us to enter some of the most protracted elements of the Crisis. The limited self we have built up only breaks down in its encounter with what is felt to be its other, as we digest these experiences.

I consider meditation and its associated trials to be some of the most significant events in my life. They healed me, returned my sense of freedom, prepared me for more fulfilling work in the world, and gave me the courage to try newer, creative endeavors. However, the Crisis is a frightening process, and sometimes people never return from it at all. In the book A Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism Reader, there is a brief discussion of mystical experience that very clearly emphases the dangers of these endeavors:

Our Rabbis taught. Four entered an orchard: Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Asher [Elisha Ben Abuyah] and Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva said to them: When you reach the stones of pure marble, do not say, ‘Water, water!’ For it is said, ‘He who speaks falsehood shall not be established before my eyes.’ (Ps. 101:7)
Ben Azzai gazed and died. Of him Scripture says: ‘Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.’ (Ps. 116:15). Ben Zoma gazed and was stricken. Of him Scripture says: ‘If you find honey, eat only what you need, lest you be overfilled with it and throw it up.’ (Prov. 25:16). Aher cut down the shoots. Rabbi Akiva departed in peace. (B. Hag. 14b) (34)

In his associated commentary, the author Daniel Horowitz elaborates:

Ben Azzai and Ben Zoma are damaged physically and psychologically by their visit to the pardes; and Elisha Ben Abuyah is understood to be spiritually damaged . . . One must be fully respectful of the Owner of the orchard before reaching and appreciating such heights. Because of this, not only is he not granted a full understanding of the pardes [the orchard], but he is led further astray into outright heresy . . . Only Rabbi Akiva was qualified, sufficiently mature, or had properly practiced the various aspects of the journey; only such a person was able to handle the experience and come back . . . Later mystics suggests that one who aspires to this experience must be willing to approach a ‘curtain of fire’ to merit consideration for admission to the inner sanctum. (Ibid., 36-37)

I would be remiss if I did not mention the specific dangers of meditation. A quick search of the internet reveals numerous articles on the subject that are worthy of time and attention. If you decide to meditate, read this literature first. Go and talk to meditation teachers in your area and see if they have had difficulties from their meditation. Even if you can find one to help lead you through the Crisis, it is still dangerous, with a unique path to the self, soul, and God that you must undergo yourself.

Tread carefully.

Heart/Mind Practice

We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.
– Giovanni Pico della Mirandola

Your embodied practice is what separates an actual spirituality from intellectual exercise and speculation. It is the willingness to take risks and embark on turbulent seas towards something we’ve always been but haven’t known.

It is part of an ability to question everything and delve into what we have been taught to be true. Meditation aids us in this. It is a way to observe the body in a vivid and experiential way. Meditation brings up the frameworks, assumptions, and secret pains lying in wait within. Looking at the same tired cycles of behavior makes them seem less pressing; and things we took to be important are eventually seen through.

Meditation is a highly physical way of understanding yourself. Reading books on it and speaking with others are no substitute for it, although these are all important when joined to the practice itself. It would be the difference between reading books on a subject such as the Kabbalah, committing its many abstractions to memory, and climbing the tree of life towards union, seeing its concepts for yourself. Consistently returning to the cushion will convert it into lived experience.

We become better equipped to physically express the insight meditation offers the more we come back to it. Although a distinction between “inner” and “outer” is misleading, we can say that this insight has both an interior and exterior expression. The internal aspect is looking with clarity at ourselves. This is how we understand ourselves in a comprehensive and nuanced way. Our subjectivity is changed by our ability to take on the beneficial or harmful patterns we find. The external is the articulation of that interior choice. Although impulse and thought coalesce in many different ways for us, they may not bleed out into expression until we so choose.

In The Zohar, this choice is split in humans between good and evil. We are capable of great purity and defilement, depending on which position we decide. The harmful patterns we are capable of are expounded on as “the evil impulse” which defines every human since birth.

Rabbi Yehudah opened, ‘For He will command (mal’akhav), His angels, to guard you in all your ways’ (Psalms 91:11). This verse has been established: The moment a human being comes into the world, the evil impulse appears along with him, inciting him constantly, as is said: ‘At the opening sin crouches’ (Genesis 4:7) – evil impulse . . . who is called king, ruling over humanity in the world. ‘Old and foolish,’ for he is surely old, as already established, since as soon as a person is born, emerging into the atmosphere, he accompanies that person. So he is ‘an old and foolish king.’
– The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, Volume 3 Pages 1, 85-86

Seeing through the evil impulse, and how much of it we have in common with others, helps us become more adept at choosing for ourselves. We can learn from other people’s mistakes, fully commit to our own, and make more lucid decisions. Wiser decisions and more compassionate living require time and skill. This gets easier with repetition, and adds another dimension to the meaning of practice. Like any craft, we must throw ourselves in.

Meditation is open to anyone with the time to give it. This is truly an intriguing premise that displays spirituality’s egalitarian nature. In his landmark study Mysticism: Experience, Response, Empowerment, Jess Hollenback claims that what unites mystical traditions is a practice called recollection.

Recollection refers to that procedure wherein the mystic learns to focus one-pointedly his or her mind, will, imagination, and emotions on some object or goal. This focused total mobilization of the mystic’s affective and intellectual powers, if successfully carried out, eventually shuts down the incessant mental chattering that is normally present as a kind of background noise behind all our activities in the waking state. Once mystics stop this process of silently talking to themselves, they transform their mode of consciousness and begin to have their first tangible encounters with that spiritual world that otherwise remains imperceptible to the five senses.

The great saints of the past have been dedicated men and women who progressed humanity’s self-knowledge. They did so through a more complete understanding of themselves. They had a baseline of recollection which they used to develop that understanding. Our searching of their religious systems helps our own practice grow. What we find is that their religious and mystical insights can be applied by anyone who marries them to their own spiritual practice. This is what separates any artist: giving their methods time and room to grow.

A change in awareness greets those who can make meditative practice part of their lives. As that awareness changes, it reveals our own ability to change in turn. It also opens new doors back to the profound. Ultimately, our practice will be transmitted through everything we do in our lives. Our bodies will become that practice, and we can better compose each new movement, along with the communal truth which defines us all.

 

Re/activity

One of the keystones of meditative practice is an awareness of our habitual, encoded behaviors. These habits remain enshrouded in our past until we pay attention to the influence they exert on our lives. Although pervasive, there remain important openings through these kind of influences, including meditation. Once we become increasingly aware of ourselves, our meditative practice can truly take root.

One of the first openings I experienced in meditation was perceiving the continuous loop of thought. Without any intervention on our part, thought continuously propagates itself. The mind frequently calculates, fantasizes, and attempts to gain advantage. Thought has both verbal and physical components for us, which tend to follow and merge into one another. They influence and reinforce each other in countless ways. This means that thoughts arise out of emotion, expressing the content of those feelings, and vice versa. If we leave our thought alone, it tends to engage with itself instead.

Once I understood this more concretely, I noticed thoughts that budded off of other thoughts, establishing a separate internal dialogue. That dialogue was integrated with a desired self-image.  A negative thought was quickly countered with a positive one. This created a strange dissonance, as both thoughts were equally valid but I attempted to identify with one more strongly than the other as “myself.” The less desirable thoughts were encapsulated out. As my body reflected on itself, it attempted to establish a bulwark against any perceived negativity. That negativity was tied to some of my deepest fears and anxieties.

This internal dividing line we create is completely arbitrary. That was surprising, since I viewed my thoughts as produced by a self, and that those thoughts reflected who I really was.  Watching thoughts merely arise, expend themselves, and disappear on their own helped cause a complete restructuring of my understanding.

Both of these experiences began to loosen the hold that these sensations had. We tend to perceive these thoughts and sensations in sequential patterns, and then extrapolate from that perceived regularity. This pattern recognition helps our bodies make sense of how we describe ourselves to others and in our thoughts. We also do this with other people, and part of the social dialogue is an ascribing of attributes to others in the community. We circumscribe people with this image, which tends to narrow our focus and causes us to react accordingly.  Reacting to people as an abstraction is problematic, and we discard people’s (and our own) deep spontaneity.

Instead of merely taking whatever arises and engaging with it unquestioningly, we learn to sit with everything. Although this is a start to a long journey, this basic insight remains a crux of meditative practice. It allows us to see our tendencies and act against our own grain. Since we have learned how to sit with everything that comes up in our meditation sessions, we do not have to establish any kind of internal or external dividing line. We can see through these as needed. On a more integrated level, we are able to focus, pull back, and learn what these feelings reveal.

Knowing how the mind structures itself is part of understanding the human experience. With frequent meditation, we can displace our reactivity out of any given situation. Our reactivity is often simply a part of our own desire to be right and our habitual patterns of thinking. In letting these drop, we can listen with our whole body to what is being expressed. That often reveals a more beneficial path for ourselves and others. And when we see through our reactivity, we come much closer to an authentic compassion. Seeing the ways that we all become lost in our programming fashions us that much closer together.

Noticing this connective tissue with others allows us to see things in a much clearer light. Finding ways out of blind reactivity is something we can offer all beings, and show them different paths to take within themselves.

The Collective, The Expanse, and the Imagination of Earth

Welcome to the churn.
– The Expanse

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In the introduction to #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader, Robin Mackay and Armen Avanessian state:

Such convenient extremist caricatures, however, obstruct the consideration of a diverse set of ideas united in a claim that a truly progressive political thought – a thought that is not beholden to inherited authority, ideology, or institutions – is possible only by way of a future-oriented and realist philosophy; and that only a politics constructed on this basis can open up new perspectives on the human project, and on social and political adventures yet to come. This assumption that we are at the beginning of a political project, rather than at the bleak terminus of history, seems crucial today in order to avoid endemic social depression and lowering of expectations in the face of global cultural homogenization, climate change and ongoing financial crisis . . . The new possibilities it opens up for the human conceived not as an eternal given, fated to suffer the vicissitudes of nature, but as a historical being whose relation to nature (including its own), increasingly mediated through technical means, is mutable and in motion. [4-11]

In light of the challenges that humanity faces, it is beginning to transition further away from archaic, all-encompassing ideas. Conceiving of new paradigms is a challenge to orthodox ways of imagining the world. Books such as Inventing the Future (linked to #Accelerate) take up this challenge and attempt a reversal. In this book, the authors argue for building a liberal hegemony, instead of the current Left’s retreat into what they describe as “folk politics.” These political methods use local models of self-sufficiency and resilience but fail to account for capitalism’s larger networks. The liberal hegemony this book describes embraces technology as a means to make cultures that are “utopian without apology.”

We have entered a space that resists our more limited descriptions of reality. Part of humanity’s current project is to create new conceptions of self and the world. This project is tied to our inner work. Both need us to be brutally honest with ourselves if we are to create realistic change. Through sitting, we exhume more and more of our experience that is shared with others: aggressive thoughts and impulses, overriding selfishness, and the nadir of human experience which is our birthright. Humanity will need to take stock of it’s own tendencies toward aggression and violence in order to shift its cultures to more beneficial ends. Past lessons on corruption, power, and environmental disintegration will hopefully serve us well as we make these changes.

These lessons are a necessary part of humanity’s journey, both individually and collectively. In St. John of the Cross’ book The Dark Night, he describes the process of mystical purgation and union with God. In order for the aspirant to realize this, they must be tried in the fires of contemplation. He brilliantly describes this process:

Similarly, we should philosophize about this divine, loving fire of contemplation. Before transforming the soul, it purges it of all contrary qualities . . . [it] brings to the fore the soul’s ugliness; thus one seems worse than before and unsightly and abominable. This divine purge stirs up all the the foul and vicious humors of which the soul was never before aware; never did it realize there was so much evil in itself, since these humors were so deeply rooted. And now that they may be expelled and annihilated they are brought to light and seen clearly through the illumination of this dark light of divine contemplation. [417]

Here St. John is describing something that religious teachers and mystics have long been aware of: the transformation inherent in meditation. Contemplation, observation, and meditation are all part of spiritual praxis. By undertaking these practices, you will begin to discover different ways of perceiving. Observing oneself is a gateway, for in knowing ourselves we can act in ways that are less clouded by conditioning. Through these practices, we can better change our understanding as well as the world at large.

This enlarging of understanding ourselves is often reflected in popular culture. After finishing the first season of the TV show The Expanse, I am amazed at how well the show conceives of new offshoots of the human experience. It allows us to rethink how humanity is leaving the confines of adolescence for the open spaces of its adulthood. Through cultural artifacts like The Expanse, we are better understanding the power of human ingenuity and imagination. Currently, I think humanity is edging closer to removing the barriers of its past. As we leave old mythologies behind, we become more capable of engineering the planet, and possibly, any worlds beyond. This dissolution is painful and frightening, like the dark night, as we begin to build an understanding that can better accommodate our freedom.

This kind of understanding starts within us. Instead of existing on a higher plane, it instead sprouts up out of the earth through us. It is saturating our world with increasing awareness. In doing the work to understand ourselves, we can realize and accelerate the Great Work of humanity: knowing and increasing our collective ability to shape the world

Creative Experimentation and the Philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari

Thought is a ‘witches’ flight’ in the sense of carrying us to beyond the frontier of what the body and the mind have been presumed able to do.
– Joshua Ramsey

A book I am currently working on is called Hands-On Chaos Magic by Andrieh Vitimus. Throughout the sections I’ve read, the author lists many exercises that develop visualization and concentration skills. The book uses these examples to encourage an open source approach to its exercises, inviting the reader’s participation in making their own magical frameworks. It has us adopt a questioning attitude and develop exercises that are effective and have meaning to us.

This book feels like a natural extension of developing individual, creative approaches. Interestingly, I think this kind of experimentation prevents its practitioners from too narrowly channeling their creativity. Rather than focusing all of our efforts on a particular form of art, any circumstance becomes creative. We become a kind of craftsman, but for all of life, and through a kind of inquisitive play with existence, new solutions emerge. Although there is much that is outside of our control, we can experiment in every moment. By nurturing the details of our lives, we find novel and often beautiful possibilities.

This kind of free play is present in the work of some of the twentieth century’s most important philosophers, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. They carve out the still-beating heart of the Entrenched Position, giving it over to the cascades ever in the process of desiring-production. Deleuze and Guattari provide us with concepts that allow us to think differently, shifting away from a blind insistence on our possession of Truth. Their concepts, collected under terms like schizoanalysis, provide a pivot for creative experimentation and expansion in our own lives.

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I will try to focus on some important concepts from their studies in A Thousand Plateaus. By observing how these concepts relate to each other, we can then grasp what Deleuze and Guattari are offering us when we work to understand it. They give us a truly rare and wonderful thing. Not only is their conceptual system coherent, it also adheres to lived experience. By being highly realistic, and not necessarily idealistic, its range of practical applications is enormous.

Two of Deleuze and Guattari’s most useful concepts are the rhizome and the assemblage. The rhizome offers a model for connections within reality between what are referred to as heterogeneous elements. These can be understood as aspects that occupy a network of connections that constantly fluctuate, connect, and re-connect. In A Thousand Plateaus, it is described as “[passing] between things, between points.” [505]. In its process of connection, the rhizome creates new realities of its own.

The assemblage expands upon this, offering us a way to understand provisional collections of these heterogeneous elements. An assemblage:

[extracts] a territory from the milieus. Every assemblage is basically territorial. The first concrete rules for assemblages is to discover what territoriality they envelop, for there is always one: in their trash can or on their bench, Beckett’s characters stake out a territory. Discover the territorial assemblages of someone, human or animal: ‘home.’ The territory is made out of decoded fragments of all kinds, which are borrowed from the milieus but then assume the value of ‘properties’ . . . [504]

The environment organizes itself in particular ways, pulling itself together into coherent groups that make an assemblage. Depending on how these differences are brought together changes the territory and therefore the assemblage. This process of constitution is elaborated on with Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts of territorialization and deterritorialization.

These territories have certain exit points within them to other states of being and intensity, called lines of flight. Since the territory occupies a certain level of organization, when we change how that matter organizes, we begin moving along these lines towards deterritorialization. These are transitions that embrace the fount of possibility and our ability to move along different paths at any time. Interestingly, Deleuze and Guattari describe two different parts of this process. The first is when we move outside of a territory but “reterritorialize” on a different one. The second is when we reach the “plane of consistency,” an extremely abstract and difficult concept to describe. The plane of consistency underlies all universal order and allows it to exist, but it is more fluid and potential. If we transition from more rigid conceptions of order, we can reach the plane of consistency and find more creative freedom.

I think this understanding helps shed light on human habits. For example, we tend to move in default patterns of thought, behavior, and organization. This can be conceived as a territory. It is a particular state of energy that we occupy at any given time, with tendencies to move in certain directions, whether intellectual, verbal, etc. This can be observed in children, with a more chaotic creativity limiting itself over time to the construction of a personality. However, this cuts both ways, and we can follow our personality back across time, along the paths of its formation, and sense its limitations. This is to realize our freedom. It is helpful, once we recognize that incredible freedom, to understand the balance of crafting and dissolving transitions along the flux of events. Our territories contain “lines of flight” that describe other possible states of becoming and how we may best follow them.

These ideas all tie into the concept of a body without organs. A body without organs is a process of reality in becoming, of how we each give shape to a life’s work. As I understand it, the body without organs is how each of us shape actualities in accordance with our deepest desires in ongoing experiment. It “pulls” potentials into existence. Set in motion, the body without organs constructs itself through the events of our lives. Since reality is processual, it necessarily follows that any moment we express opens onto multiple dimensions, including the full scale of heavenly bliss and hellacious suffering. The body without organs teems with possibility and danger, that we may not survive beyond this moment to carry on this grand experiment.

At any rate you have one (or several). It’s not so much that it preexists or comes ready-made, although in certain respects it is preexistent. At any rate you make one, you can’t desire without making one. And it awaits you; it is an inevitable exercise or experimentation, already accomplished the moment you undertake it, unaccomplished as long as you don’t. This is not reassuring, because you can botch it. Or it can be terrifying, and lead you to your death. It is nondesire as well as desire. It is not at all a notion or a concept but a practice, a set of practices. You never reach the Body without Organs, you can’t reach it, you are forever attaining it, it is a limit. [149-150]

Understanding these concepts clarifies Deleuze and Guattari’s purpose.  These concepts are not held in a death grip.  Instead, they energize and reconnect language from within, allowing us to conceive and feel other dimensions of existence. Their writing mirrors this, teeming with the associations, loops, and spirals of life. We can observe new connections forming and see what can be drawn from them. We then enter and better effectuate processes of change. An application of this philosophy is how best to use this framework to liberate ourselves. Through it, we continuously work to realize a much broader and diverse experience of life, a “nomad science” and philosophy of freedom.

Let There Be An Expanse: The Cosmology of the Zohar’s Parashat Be-Reshit

This is a continuation of this website’s series on the Zohar. For the first part of this series, click here.  This commentary used the Pritzker Edition of the Zohar, Volume One by Daniel Matt.

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Parashat Be-reshit is a passionate reading of the Book of Genesis. Through its passages it follows the deluge of emanation back into the infinite. Seeking this universal corona is described in the Zohar as “a journey on concealed paths.”

The beginning of the cosmos woke within Ein Sof, the endless. To emphasize the non-conceptual nature of Ein Sof, words are invoked and just as quickly discarded. Like a mountain disappearing into the clouds, our landmarks collapse and withdraw into singularity.  The Zohar takes the reader on an odyssey back to the birth of existence as it gives way to its own expansion:

At the head of potency of the King, He engraved engravings in luster on high. A spark of impenetrable darkness flashed within the concealed of the concealed, from the head of Infinity – a cluster of vapor forming in formlessness, thrust in a ring, not white, not black, not red, not green, no color at all. As a cord surveyed, it yielded radiant colors. Deep within the spark gushed a flow, splaying colors below, concealed with the concealed of the mystery of Ein Sof. It split and did not split its aura, was not known at all, until under the impact of splitting, a single, concealed, supernal point shone. Beyond that point, nothing is known, so it is called Reshit, Beginning, first command of all . . . Then this beginning expanded, building itself a palace of glorious praise. There it sowed seed to give birth, availing worlds. The secret is: ‘Her stock of seed is holiness’ (Isaiah 6:13). Zohar! [Radiance!] Sowing seed for its glory, like the seed of fine purple silk, wrapping itself within, weaving itself a palace, constituting its praise, availing all. (107-110)

The Zohar does not shy away from drawing provocative conclusions from its interpretations of Torah. As it continues, it gives the reader a unique rendering of the sentence Be-reshit bara Elohim. The sentence is turned into an opaque treatise on emergence. It is often translated as, “In the beginning, God created.” In the Zohar, God’s origin stands out as a lacuna in that sentence, referring back to Ein Sof, “the unknown concealed one.” This gives an inspired twist to the sentence’s meaning:

With this beginning, the unknown concealed one created the palace. This palace is called Elohim, ‘God.’ The secret is, Ba-reshit bara Elohim, ‘With beginning, ______ created God’ (Genesis 1:1).

This universal history, sketched out in Be-Reshit, is contained within the iconic map of the Sephirot.

image

The Sephirot are key to understanding Kabbalah in many ways. One level of interpretation describes the characteristics of God as He manifested. These are the qualities of will, wisdom, understanding, and so on. The first three Sephirot are the beginning of this dilation. Out of Ein Sof comes Keter, the will, transitioning into Hokmah. Hokmah is a point of light, the beginning act that moves on to fertilize Binah, creating the palace of the world. The imagery utilized in these descriptions is of the two Sephirot of Hokmah and Binah uniting in a current of energy. Binah then becomes the womb of all forms:

The primordial point is inner radiance – there is no way to gauge its translucency, tenacity, or purity until an expanse expanded from it. The expansion of of that point became a palace, in which the point was clothed – a radiance unknowable, so intense its lucency. This palace, a garment for that concealed point, is a radiance beyond measure, yet not as gossamer or translucent as the primordial point, hidden and treasured. That palace expanded an expanse: primordial light. That expansion of primordial light is a garment for the palace, which is a gossamer, translucent radiance, deeper within. From here on, this expands into this, this is clothed in this, so that this is a garment for this, and this for this. This the kernel; this the shell. Although a garment, it becomes the kernel of another layer . . . All for the arrayal of the world, and so the world is. (152).

After Binah followed Hesed, “Love,” which then fragmented into darkness. The Zohar does not retreat from is its inspection and elucidation of evil in the world, which is represented by the left column of the Sephirot, and referred to as the Other Side. Evil is found on “the Countenance of Days” in a complex and subtle sense. Evil twisted apart from the unity at the beginning of creation as a destructive force.

Good and evil are bound together as the right and left hand of God. The radical nature of this is that evil is not separate from the divine. Instead, the Zohar reveals how darkness is another name of God:

‘Darkness’ – upon it rests the name Elohim . . . Here is mystery in detail, separating upper waters from lower through mystery of the left. Here conflict was created through the left side. For until here was mystery of the right, and here is mystery of the left, so conflict raged between this and the right. Right is consummate of all, so all is written by the right, for upon it depends all consummation. When the left aroused, conflict aroused, and through that conflict blazed the fire of wrath. Out of that conflict aroused by the left, emerged Hell. Hell aroused on the left and clung. The wisdom of Moses: he contemplated this, gazing into the act of Creation. In the act of Creation a conflict aroused between left and right, and in that conflict aroused by the left, Hell emerged, clinging there. The central pillar, who is the third day, entered between them, mediating the conflict, reconciling the two sides. Hell descended, left merged in right, and peace prevailed over all. (127-131).

God absorbed good and evil within itself, creating Tif’eret, “beauty,” “compassion,” or “heaven.” In the same way that good and evil are enjoined, the initial separation allowed for reconciliation. Without separation, there could be no mending. The Other Side remained, its forces responsible for punishing sin, then called Gevurah or “judgment.” Tif’eret combined the other Sephirot’s energy, moving down into Yesod, the Vitality of the Worlds, which feeds our level of existence. The world we inhabit is called Malkhut, or “kingdom,” and is depicted using the feminine symbol of Shekinah. Shekinah is the bride, with the Kabbalist as the bridgegroom.  Human sin has dislocated Shekinah, diminishing the flow of energy to Malkuth. The Kabbalist blends with Shekinah to reconnect the male and female God.

The world trembles in the thrall of judgment. Demons now lie over the altar in a broken temple, their numbers growing into widespread contagion.

One monster below, on the left side, swims through all those rivers. He approaches the side, all his scales iron-hard, stretches to suck, and defiles the site. All lights darken before him. His mouth and tongue flame with fire, his tongue sharp as a steely sword, till he penetrates the sanctuary within the sea. Then the sanctuary is desecrated, lights extinguished, supernal lights ascend from the sea. The waters of the sea split on the left side, and the sea conceals, its waters flowing no more. So the mystery of the word is as written: ‘Now the serpent was slier than any creature of the field that YHVH Elohim had made (Genesis 3:1) – mystery of the evil serpent descending from above, skimming the surface of bitter waters, seducing below till they fall into his nets. This serpent is death of the world, penetrating a person’s blind gut. He is on the left, while another, of life, is on the right, both accompanying each human, as they have established. ‘Than any creature of the field.’ For no other creature of the field is as cunning in perpetrating evil, for his is the dross of gold. Woe to one drawn to him, for he inflicts death upon him and upon all those following him! This they have established. Adam was drawn down toward him, descending to know everything below. As he descended, his will and ways were drawn toward them, until they reached that serpent, discovering worldly desire, straying at that site. Then he rose, drawn toward Adam and his wife, clung to them, inflicted death upon them and all subsequent generations. Until Israel arrived at Mount Sinai, his slime never ceased infecting the world, as has been explained. (288-289)

This reconciliation is also reflected in the Adam and Eve creation story. Since humanity mirrors God, separation is found in us as well. Love and unity fall into evil and sin, only to be redeemed in the light of heaven, found in the heart by uniting what has been cast down.

The Zohar depicts Adam and Eve in the bliss of the garden, culminating in eating the fruit of knowledge. In this reading, Adam and Eve simultaneously absorbed the knowledge of good and evil, becoming like God in the process. Among the roots of the Tree of Life, Adam grasped his own mortality and a world that “embraces all” its accompanying shadow. At the same time Adam became aware of good, then evil presented itself to him:

The blessed Holy One ate from this tree and then created the world . . . Eat from it and you will be creating worlds! So, ‘God knows that on the day you eat from it [your eyes will be opened and you will become like God . . . ]’ (ibid., 5). Because He knows this, He commanded you concerning it . . . Certainly all touched upon this tree, by which they are embraced. Whoever takes it by itself, takes it together with hordes below embraced by it, takes idolatry, murder, and exposing nudity . . . So in them all he was commanded concerning this tree. When he ate from it, he violated them all, for it embraces all . . . ‘The eyes of both of them were opened’ (Genesis 3:7). Rabbi Hiyya said, ‘Opened to perceive the evil of the world, unknown to them till now. Once they knew and were open to knowing evil, then ‘they knew that they were naked (ibid.), for they had lost the supernal radiance enveloping them, which disappeared, leaving them ‘naked.’ (225-229)

In pursuing sin, Adam allowed evil to fracture the world, bringing death and judgment to bear.  The Zohar reads this as Adam expelling God, instantly remapping the Tree of Life and removing Shekinah from the Sephirot. The separation that Adam enacts in himself is transferred upwards through the Sephriot as well.

Come and see: When Adam sinned by eating from the tree, he transmogrified that tree into a universal source of death; he caused a defect, separating the Woman from Her Husband. The fault of this defect stood out in the moon, until Israel stood at Mount Sinai, when that defect disappeared from the moon, enabling her to constantly shine. Once Israel sinned with the calf, She relapsed into defectiveness; the evil serpent prevailed and seized Her, dragging Her to him. (294)

The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil created a new level of understanding for Adam and Eve. In Eden, Adam and Eve are not really free, as they are unable to choose for themselves between good and evil. Since they chose materiality, they removed themselves from the oceanic unity of the garden. This distances the spiritual further from everyday life and helps to articulate evil in the world.

This evil may take the form of an extreme self-centeredness. This selfishness is all too often realized at the expense of others. Ultimately these actions are a bitter salve for our feelings of separation. This separation has its roots in human development, for as we become older we tend to acquire habits, desires, experiences, and propensities to act. These become codified into a self-image which we feel is separate from others. The pursuit of our imagined self’s desires exacerbates this separation, entrenching us in a cycles of dissatisfaction. However, a way out of these cycles remains.  The same action that creates our separateness can show us a way out as our awareness increases.

Both perceptions lay inside reality – self-centeredness and separation, and a cosmic, life-giving expansion. Both these paths exist inside of the human soul as well. Through evil, we understand the full range of our ability to shape cause and effect.

Interestingly, this conception has parallels to the phrase “the kingdom of God is within you.” As we journey along the Sephirotic path in ourselves, we encounter occluded knowledge, rising up like disparate and unknown lands. “Heaven” is the beauty of our fractured, contradictory existence, and of realizing these contradictions within us. Consciously striving for the good cause Heaven and Kingdom to join together.  In order to discover this, we have to take the plunge into the evil that shields love, sifting through our ever-present potential for sin.

It seems that the world continually remakes and goes beyond itself. The world is free, and humans have the privilege of remaking the Tree of Life.  Enlightened individuals recognize this, and see the light of creation in every existent thing. In the Zohar’s conception, these individuals hold up the pavilion of Shekinah. They are caretakers that work to heal what humanity has torn asunder. Moving outside of the self-centeredness that many humans take for granted, they aid the world in all its forms. They are “the mending of the moon,” restoring Shekinah through beneficial action. As they meld with her, they harmonize the full span of the Sephirot.

The enlightened will shine like the radiance of the sky – these are pillars and sockets of that pavilion. The enlightened – supernal pillars and sockets, contemplating in wisdom everything needed by that pavilion and its supports. This mystery accords with what is said: ‘Happy is one who considers, the poor’ (Psalms 41:2). ‘Will shine’ – for unless they shine and radiate, they cannot contemplate that pavilion, looking out for all it needs. ‘Like the radiance, of the sky’ – standing above ‘the enlightened,’ of whom is written: ‘An image above the heads of the living being, a sky like awesome ice’ (Ezekiel 1:22). ‘Radiance’ – illumining Torah. ‘Radiance’ – illumining the ‘heads of that living being. Those ‘heads’ are the ‘enlightened,’ who constantly radiate and shine, contemplating that ‘sky,’ the radiance flashing from there, radiance of Torah, sparkling constantly, never ceasing. (117-118).

For they constitute the mending of the moon.’ (168)

The Zohar’s radiant words show us to wholeness, and in exploring it, we find our participation in God. Let there be an expanse, above and below, to fuse all into unity. May there be good and evil, so that humanity can know them both, and be free. And let those who see this become like Tif’eret, guiding others back to the paths of judgment and compassion.

Crisis and Dissolution

A traveler sets out on a journey; crossing into verdant hillsides. Her route undulates and snakes into unseen territory. Roaming farther beyond the previous confines of her own maps, the wilderness is suddenly upon her. The moon hangs red in the sky, enormous and swollen like a leech. The night is thick and tangible now. It draws around her, pulling tighter, until she wears it like a second skin.

Peering into a nearby lake, she catches sight of her distorted reflection. It ripples and fragments in the gentle currents. She feels her heart begin to beat faster as the image breaks. An ancient, terrible laugh echoes through the forest. Looking up, she sees forms dancing in the trees and crawling up out of the water onto the shore. Their eyes, teeth, and skin blur together in a welter of confused perception.

Beyond her borders, something waits, watching her with her own eyes. The unclaimed parts of her slide forward with an accompanying agony she only distantly remembers.

The Crisis can be one of the most important experiences we undergo. It is a journey into humanity’s common darkness in which we are tested and reshaped. This helps us access feelings and memories that have lain dormant in us, waiting to grow into renewed intention . These are deep clefts in our inner life that go unloved and unnoticed; doomed and lurking at the periphery. They exist on the margins; subsisting in unseen spaces.

Over time, our self-image ossifies and becomes more concrete. Hewn from the raw material of experience it hardens into abstraction. The ego pulls at the threads of life, weaving them into a single narrative. Any aspect of our experience is capable of being subsumed into this vast apparatus we call the Self. In this development, parts of ourselves are inevitably cast aside. We make the simultaneous movement of appropriation and rejection, fearing the imagined instability past this image. This rejected material is the province of what we define as the psychotic, irrational, and alien.

Our childhood experience provides the impetus for this ruthless self-selection. Although we attempt to repress certain of our aspects, they simmer underneath the surface. Trying to drown out their urgent whispers, we may lose ourselves in certain experiences and pleasures. This helps us forget, for a time. The extreme control and attempted modulation of these undesirable features are a temporary relief for the terror brought on by their repression. Those outside the gates clamor through the night. Communication ceases as they slip below the lines drawn out in the interior.

A longing for the open ocean gnaws at us, as the land is gnawed by the sea. A dark fluidity at the roots of our nature rebels agains the security of terra firma, provoking a wave of anxiety in which we are submerged, until we feel ourselves drowning, with representation draining away.
– Nick Land

Meditation and other methods can open up these lines of communication once more. Dredging up long forgotten experience, the unloved return once more to the fold. The door leading to unimaginable depth is thrown open and our memories stream into the light. The process begins with the shock of recognition. Our disintegration is aided by the discarded parts of ourselves. Unable to harmonize these aspects, the person’s self image begins to change, becoming something other than what they had supposed.

It is no wonder that this personal breakdown is evidenced across such a wide spectrum of humanity. It is bound up in symbolism that attempts to help the person experiencing it navigate its unfamiliar paths. Often viewed in the context of an initiation into new orders of reality, the person undergoes what is represented as a death to old symbolic, personal, and cultural systems and a birth into new life. Let’s take a look at some concrete examples of this and see how they apply.

The tradition of Shamanism is one of mankind’s oldest spiritual blessings. These men and women underwent a profoundly painful and transformative process in the loneliness of solitary nature. Feeling themselves begin to open, they had to confront and understand what they found there. They learn the shamanic cosmogonies and the plurality of beings. The Shaman can then move among the worlds of heaven, earth, and the underworld. This has been termed an “initiation”.  Religious scholar Mircea Eliade cites several examples of this progression in his book Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy:

For example, a Yakut shaman, Sofron Zateyev, states that as a rule the future shaman ‘dies’ and lies in the yurt for three days without eating or drinking. Formerly the candidate went through the ceremony three times, during which he was cut to pieces . . . The candidate’s limbs are removed and disjointed with an iron hook; the bones are cleaned, the flesh scraped, the body fluids thrown away, and the eyes torn from their sockets. After this operation all the bones are gathered up and fastened together with iron . . . the ceremony of dismemberment lasts from three to seven days; during all that time the candidate remains like a dead man, scarcely breathing, in a solitary place . . .
According to another Yakut account, the evil spirits carry the future shaman’s soul to the underworld and there shut it up in a house for three years (only one year for those who will become lesser shamans). Here the shaman undergoes his initiation. The spirits cut off his head, which they set aside (for the candidate must watch his dismemberment with his own eyes), and cut him into small pieces, which are then distributed to the spirits of the various diseases. Only by undergoing such an ordeal with the future shaman gains the power to cure. His bones are then covered with new flesh, and in some cases he is also given new blood.

This incredibly detailed description evokes the descent into the forbidding regions of ourselves as the Shaman watches his own dismemberment. Undergoing these trials creates new understanding. The Shaman becomes instantiated in their new communal role in the process. This comprehension of levels of the cosmos and planes of reality bleeds out and makes the Shaman the focal point of interaction between these worlds and the Earth. In order to achieve this, they must undergo some of the nightmarish aspects of initiation. Eliade continues with another example of Shamanic initiation:

Then the candidate came to a desert and saw a distant mountain. After three days’ travel he reached it, entered an opening, and came upon a naked man working a bellows. On the fire was a caldron ‘as big as half the earth.’ The naked man saw him and caught him with a huge pair of tongs. The novice had time to think, ‘I am dead!’ The man cut off his head, chopped his body into bits, and put everything in the cauldron. There he boiled his body for three years. There were also three anvils, and the naked man forged the candidate’s head on the third, which was the one on which the best shamans were forged. Then he threw the head into one of the three pots that stood there . . . The blacksmith then fished the candidate’s bones out of a river in which they were floating, put them together, and covered them with flesh again. He counted them and told them that he had three too many; he was therefore to procure three shaman’s costumes. He forged his head and taught him how to read the letters that are inside it. He changed his eyes; and that is why, when he shamanizes, he does not see with his bodily eyes but with these mystical eyes. He pierced his ears, making him able to understand the language of plants. Then the candidate found himself on the summit of a mountain, and finally he woke in the yurt, among his family. Now he can sing and shamanize indefinitely, without ever growing tired. 

These examples (and many others in Eliade’s book) are linked and share a symbolism. The Shaman is taken apart, and put back together, acquiring his powers in the process. He not only gains powers of communication with spirits, but also improves in full-body functioning. The Shaman gains the ability to cure mankind of many of its self-wrought afflictions.

When they came to a high place, the guides showed him seven tents with torn roofs. He entered the first and there found the inhabitants of the underworld and the men of the Great Sickness (syphilis). These men pried out his heart and threw it into a pot. In other tents he met the Lord of Madness and the Lords of all the nervous disorders, as well as the evil shamans. Thus he learned the various disease that torment mankind.

Through the Shamanic awakening, the person discovers new frontiers and lands beyond their “everyday” levels of discernment and common sense. Eliade concludes that there are affinities at work between these accounts, describing a mystical death and rebirth. It is particularly worth pointing out that in this text, the Shaman is instructed by demonic beings:

. . . from the Cosmic Tree and by the will of the Universal Lord himself, he receives the wood to make his drum; semi-demonic beings teach him the nature of all disease and their cures; finally, other demonic beings cut his body to pieces, boil it, and exchange it for better organs. Each of these elements in the initiatory story is consistent and has its place in a symbolic or ritual system well known to the history of religions. To each them we shall have to return. Taken together, they represent a well-organized variant of the universal theme of the death and mystical resurrection of the candidate by means of a descent to the underworld and an ascent to the sky.

As we will see from other examples, many seekers have undergone some variation of this journey, as a descent and purification, culminating in renewed insight. Another author who delved into his unmapped psychological realms and described them courageously was psychologist C.G. Jung. Jung wrote eloquently on this matter, the ancient depiction of man’s descent through darkness, and passing into the light (using symbolism that includes heaven, fusion, and kingship). This procedure can be expressed through the duality of solar and lunar, the liminal and subliminal factors of the human organism.

In his classic work on alchemy, Mysterium Coniunctionis, Jung analyzes this and the movement through the frail walls of the ego.

In this psychologem all the implications of the Sol-Luna allegory are carried to their logical conclusion. The aerobic quality which is connected with the dark side of the moon, or with her position midway between heaven and the sublunary world, displays its full effect. Sun and moon reveal their antithetical nature, which in the Christian Sol-Luna relationship is so obscured as to be unrecognizable, and the two opposites cancel each other out, their impact resulting – in accordance with the laws of energetics – in the birth of a third and new thing, a son who resolves the antagonisms of the parents and his himself a ‘united double nature.’ . . . The moment of the eclipse and mystic marriage is death on the cross . . . It is clear from this text that the ‘hidden’ thing, the invisible center, is Adam Kadmon, the Original Man of Jewish gnosis. It is he who laments in the ‘prisons’ of the darkness’ . . . He is the product of the conjunction of sun and moon.

Interesting parallels can be drawn between this and the story of Adam and Eve. Far from being a literal creation narrative, Adam and Eve is a highly symbolic glyph that helps to clarify the spiritual experience.  The snake is known for having the ability to shed its skin, and for its associations with the nocturnal.  Upon eating of its fruit, Adam and Eve learn of good and evil, and they come to experience life’s privations. One way this can be read is humanity’s knowledge of the myriad potentials of good and evil. For how could humanity be free to act without this choice?

We eat of the tree of knowledge when we experience some version of the Crisis, and its upwelling of unintegrated material. Like many endeavors, this type of self-discovery is dangerous and its outcome is not preordained. There is no way of knowing in advance how we will comprehend this often frightening psychological landscape. Later in this same work Jung clarifies the inherent risk in this type of procedure:

From the (nuptial) impact between the two the spark is struck, the Archeus, which is a ‘corrupter of the body,’ just as the ‘chemist’ is a ‘corrupter of metals.’ This negative aspect of the scintilla is remarkable, but it agrees very well with the alchemists’ less optimistic, medico-scientific view of the world. For them the dark side of the world and of life had not been conquered, and this was the task they set themselves in their work. In their eyes the fire point, the divine center in man, was something dangerous, a powerful poison which required very careful handling if it was to be changed into the panacea. The process of individuation, likewise, has its own specific dangers. Doran expresses the standpoint of the alchemists in his fine saying: ‘ There is nothing in nature that does not contain as much evil as good.’

The Chaos Magician and writer Grant Morrison explains this so artfully that it is worth quoting extensively:

Aleister Crowley embodied the destruction of Egoic Self structures as Choronzon, the Devil 333. Choronzon, we are told, is the all-devouring guardian of “the Abyss” (the Abyss being a suitably dramatic and evocative term for an experiential “gap” in human consciousness.) The term can be applied to that state of mind during which Individual Egoic Self-consciousness begins to cannibalize itself rather than confront the usually frightening fact that Personality is not “Real” in the existential sense and is simply a behavioral strategy.

Most of us have had some small experience of the gigantic boundary complex Mega-ChoronzonnoznorohC-ageM; the Choronzonic Encounter is present in the relentless, dull self-interrogation of amphetamine comedowns or fevers, near-death experiences. Think of the chattering mind, annihilating itself in unstoppable self-examination and you will hear the voice of Choronzon.

Choronzon then, is Exisential Self at the last gap, munching out its own brains, seeking nourishment and finding only the riddle of the Bottom That is Bottomless. Choronzon is when there is nothing left but to die to nothingness. Beyond Choronzon, concepts of personality and identity cannot survive. Beyond Choronzon we are no longer our Self. The “personality” on the brink of the Abyss will do anything, say anything and find any excuse to avoid taking his disintegrating step into “non- being”.

Most of us in the increasingly popular Western Consumerist traditions tend to wait until we die before even considering Choronzon. Since we can only assume that Egoic Selfsense is devoured whole in whatever blaze of guilt and fury or self-denial or peace perfect peace our last flood of endorphins allow in the 5 minutes before brain death, the moment of death seems to me to be a particularly vulnerable one in which to also have to face Existential terror for the first time.

Better to go there early and scout out the scenery. To die before dying is one of the great Ordeals of the magical path.

The Abyss, then, is that limit to Self consciousness where meaning surrenders and reverses into its own absolute opposite and is there consumed in “Choronzonic Acid,” a hypersolvent so powerful it dissolved the Selfitself. Here you will encounter the immense SELF/NOT SELF boundary wall on the edge of Egoic Consciousness and be obliterated against it. The Abyss is a hiatus in awareness, where notions of identity, race, being and territory are consumed in an agonizing fury of contradiction.

Magicians who have successfully “crossed” the Abyss are considered no longer human, in the sense that survival of this ordeal necessitates the breaking down of SELF into multiple personality complexes.

Alan Moore has also described this in his magical studies, in which we must take a step beyond the limits of what we think we know, “outside”:

Obviously if you’re gonna be exposed to the world of magic, you’re gonna have to have taken a step past the normal perimeters of the rational world. The very nature of magic is connected to the irrational. You’re gonna have to step out of the realm of conventional sanity at the very least.

This is a journey into one’s personal abyss. There we uncover and merge with our own unconscious content. This part of contemplative practice can be associated with mortification, as the intense suffering that the crisis can produce begins to change the ego’s parameters and its self-imposed boundaries. The person then comes to a more all-inclusive view of their own polarities, and the ways in which their experience can no longer be described coherently through the framework of their personality as it has developed.

The lunar fields of our unconscious call to us, reminding us of our shared identity, and beginning the treacherous crossing back to union. This personal underworld is the entrance point for these types of experiences for many people. The modification begins when during a retreat, therapy session, or other form of intensive self analysis, we take the path into the hinterlands to see where it leads.

The shadow (or “gap in consciousness” that Morrison describes) spreads its wings into apprehension once more. This begins the descent down into our recesses, with a sense of what is happening and our own intuition to guide us safely through the labyrinth as it begins to collapse around us.

The idea of God is pale next to that of perdition, but of this I could have no inkling in advance.
– Deathspell Omega

Taking this step is to identify the different phases of the inner life. We can take a look at how our societies define concepts such as sanity and self, and see if these hold up under scrutiny. In order to do this, we have to understand the ways of thinking and sensations that make up what we consider to be beyond the pale. What do we make of these disavowed elements of ourselves? How does it feel to welcome them home? What do we fear from our demons, and what can we learn from honestly understanding them, as an indelible part of our humanity?  Can we honor them, yet still act in ways that honor the whole as well?

Abandoned hatreds, anger, and intense emotionality are only a part of this. One may also encounter the inability to eat or drink fully until the process has run its course. Sleep is often halted by disturbing and malevolent dreams. Variously defined symptoms, such as panic attacks, depression, and paranoia contribute to an atmosphere of all-consuming anxiety. There are many reports of these and similar phenomena that occur through meditation, yoga, kundalini awakenings, psychedelic experiences, and others.

Keep your eyes and ears open, and experience all to the best of your ability. Old feelings cut deep, exposing you to the quick. Once the dust of ourselves settles, we begin to see more clearly. All in all, that should be seen through to completion. The Crisis may begin to ebb when we are better able to mesh all the diverse components of our inner life.

In order to more fully come to grips with what is happening to us, we must become adept at traversing all levels of our humanity. Reject nothing that comes to you, and allow the body to organize itself in a new manner. We have innumerable repressive tendencies, and the gradual recognition of what Peter Carroll calls our “psychic censor” moves us along. It also helps to recognize that the process of ego formation, while part of the personal development process, can severely restrict and limit us in ways that become more apparent as we mature. Self-compassionate care is also of utmost importance when dealing with what at times can feel like an emotional flood. Through this we learn the value of kindness and how to practice it towards ourselves and others.

The breakdown of the self-image gives us the opportunity to drop old behaviors. Although the egoic impulse never dies out, it becomes more porous, allowing us to navigate its changing edifice. We can see, with practice, how anything in our experience can be pulled out of transience and incorporated into our reality if we claim it as our own. Life constantly breaks our imagined solidity.

A strength coalesces out of the Crisis, innermost and bright, fecundity in what had once been barren. This change in our reality truly occurs when we have more fully plumbed ourselves. The olive branch of peace is then extended to all of life, including those aspects we most fear. For we comprehend fully that they are in all of us, inseparable from who we are. A changed vision appears, able to bring together all our seeming disparities and draw from them. This is described in Jungian terms as the “Self” by Anthony Stevens:

The transcendent refers to ideas, images, and symbols which lie beyond ordinary mundane experience. It is as if the psyche is subject to a transcendent imperative which enables it to deal successfully with the opposing or conflicting tendencies of which life is full. Through this transcendent function of the psyche, thesis and antithesis encounter one another on equal terms and achieve a symbolic synthesis which transcends them both. This is a factor of great psychological significance because it enables one to move beyond conflicts which would otherwise prove sterile, and avoid narrow one-sided modes of adjustment. Its action is powerfully enhanced when one attends to dreams and if one assumes conscious responsibility for the transcendent symbols arising from them. This is essential if one is to become committed to the goal of individuation and self-completion . . . The Self is thus the living embodiment in each and every one of us of the numinous power that has always and everywhere been attributed to ‘God.’

In effecting our own healing and completeness, and seeing the “Other Side” (hell, demons, the underworld, psychosis) we can come to understand our own multiple natures. This is a portal to the new life and perspective that many have intimated, and remains for those who wish to know it. All it requires is to cease our running away, and to look honestly within. We also develop a renewed appreciation for the power of our conscious choice. The Crisis as a whole asks us penetrating questions, and how we respond to these questions is how we choose to live, and the life we may make as a result.

Personal Constructs

Finally, one opens the circle, opens it all the way, lets someone in, calls someone, or else goes out oneself, launches forth. One opens the circle not on the side where the old forces of chaos press against it but in another region, one created by the circle itself. As though the circle tended to open onto a future, as a function of the working forces it shelters. This time, it is in order to join with the forces of the future, cosmic forces. One launches forth, hazards an improvisation. But to improvise is to join with the World, or meld with it. One ventures from home on the thread of a tune.
– Deleuze and Guattari

Who am I? Sitting with spine erect, immersed in silence, this question takes on a greater sense of urgency. The constant hum of thoughts, intense arising of emotion, and fluxuating sensation unveil the personality’s immanent machinery. The sense of self becomes more nebulous and transparent.

One of the forms that contemplative practice can take is the intuitive apprehension of the process of our self-construction. The personality, far from being set in stone, continuously oscillates throughout our lifetime. A disruptive result of this practice is that emotions, thoughts, and behaviors are not the province of an experiencing “self,” but forms of social and personal programming. As our grasp of the mutability of this image grows, our entire personal cosmology changes. We begin to notice the ways that our cultural upbringing has imposed its own ideals upon us. Other intellectual systems and dysfunctional family histories swirl to the surface, incorporated into the self’s edifice. Our unquestioning identities begin to dissolve.

The paradoxes of self allow us to see what feelings and memories have been occluded from us.  If we manage to integrate what we had been unable to, the central fiction of a static self crumbles. Recognition of the patterns that the body identifies with are a necessary step in beginning to transition to more conscious and introspective approaches in our actions. We develop a deeper understanding of our diverse ecologies. The ego undergoes a mutation and the entire body shifts in its understanding.

Coming to an understanding of this self-image has a dramatic effect on the way we not only can change our own paradigms, but on how we communicate with others. This creates new forms of culture and unique forms of life in the process. The discernment of personal power and responsibility has pervasive roots in the mystical and religious experiences of human history.

In his outstanding book Mysticism: Experience, Response, and Empowerment, Jess Hollenback discusses how mystics consciously transform methods of enculturation within themselves and others. Mystics reflect on tradition and shift culture in new directions.

When their imaginations are empowered, mystics explicitly and deliberately manipulate, at the level of individual experience, the same processes and mechanisms that religious traditions and cultures tacitly and unconsciously bring into play at the collective level when they create those basic orientations by which their adherents live. To put it another way, mystics and ex-statics display a remarkable degree of “playfulness” with the psychological processes that operate in enculturation . . . they can sometimes consciously manipulate those mechanisms that the enculturation process subliminally imprints upon us.

Sometimes one better understands the ordinary processes of nature when, to quote Francis Bacon, one “twists the lion’s tail” and causes the things of nature to behave in freakish and exaggerated ways so that processes that normally operate subliminally can come to the surface. The extreme phenomena of mystical experience function in a similar way for they, too, bring to the surface some of the processes at work in enculturation that otherwise lie hidden from view. The ordinary nonviolent processes of cultural change and adaptation generally involve an unobtrusive dissolution and creation of symbolic structures and assumptions about the nature of the world that shape human experiences of reality into ordered and meaningful patterns. Mystical experiences often present people with situations that either challenge or else confirm in an unexpected way those tacitly accepted symbolic structures that give order and meaning to human existence.

Here we have a good example of how mediums and mystics creatively “play” with the fundamental assumptions of their respective cultures and religious traditions . . . What do we learn from these observations? We learn that mystics are not a species set above the rest of humanity. They simply appear to exaggerate, temporally compress, and consciously control processes that are always taking place slowly and quietly, in a more attenuated form and more or less unconsciously, whenever human beings are engaged in those activities that create and sustain a cultural or religious tradition. This keenness with which mystics and ex-statics lay bare the effects of culture on human experience constitutes one of the most important aspects of their cultural and religious significance.

Contemplation can reveal that thoughts and sensations that we formerly took for granted as constituting “who we are,” really bring us firmly within the ambit of our own cultures and upbringings. Throughout their lives, humans assimilate patterns of collective programming. Looking deeply into these habits of thought and feeling, we begin to grasp their deeply pervasive effects on our own lives. We see how ingrained these patterns are, and how our unthinking acceptance of them propagates the illusion of a fixed self.

As we become aware of these different patterns, we may notice that our personalities center around certain dominant aspects. In the approach therapist Ron Kurtz calls the Hakomi Method, these attractors are called “central organizers” in that they actively structure and limit how we can respond at any given time:

So what are the central organizers, the important ones at the focal points of all this fervent creativity? What are we trying to get at when we do psychotherapy? We are trying to get at beliefs, images, memories, attitudes, and the important decisions we made about who we are and what type of world we’re part of. We’re trying to locate and look at pieces of the long ago. These events established our patterns and and still control what it is possible for us to experience, feel, think and express, to this day. The central organizers are central because they organize at the deepest and most pervasive levels, affecting nearly all our experience, all the time . . . These core organizers are are definitions and blueprints of the most basic issues about our being in the world. They are our reference points, our measures of the self and others, with which we set our expectations, goals, and limits.

We find ourselves entangled in the cycles of arising and sensation.  Increasing and widening the scope of our perspective can lead us to spontaneously awaken. This is a highly inclusive metaphor that begins a sea change in the actualization of our lives. Rather than being shackled to certain methodologies, we begin to consciously change our behavior. In doing so we reshape the structure of our experience. The constrictive knots of personality that we have tied around ourselves begin to loosen, and we leverage these spaces wider with flowing action.

Knowledge of our own constructed realities begins the process of personal analysis and integration. In order to accomplish this, we begin with our own bodies in the present. Adopting an attitude of total inclusion, aspects of our awareness rise once more into perception. Compassionate intent brings out the various layers and complexities of our personal geographies. This brings a more complete understanding of the full range of our emotional expression. We become able to stay with any feeling as it flowers, no matter how painful or pleasurable. Recognizing and moving into the sensation allows it to open itself to us. We also note all the qualities associated with that feeling. This includes physical effects, internal dialogue, and any other dimensions contained in a particular experience. The way to move into a balanced orbit with these feelings is by processing them once more.

As we enact new methods of rigorous self-observation, we become aware of our inevitable and unpredictable tides of emotion. Although we cannot control the context that these emotions arise in, we can begin to remove ourselves from their unconscious expression. Typically, a feeling arises, and we respond to it in habitual and mechanical ways. Time and attention begin to dissolve the loops that this behavior accretes in. We reflect on the reinforcing and cyclic nature of feeling, thought, and action. This removes us from blindly enacting them. Doing this creates a new mode of experiencing in which we feel to the fullest while still being able to act in different extensions.

Spacious and content, without confusion from inner thoughts of grasping, effectively overcome habitual behavior and realize the self that is not possessed by emotions.
– Hongzhi

Comprehending this leads us towards further knowledge of the identification with our own pain, suffering, and victimhood. Often we do not engage in deep contemplative or therapeutic practice due to not only our systemic dread of feeling our own pain, but also feeling that this pain makes us who we are. Rather than moving into, experiencing, and moving past these personal sicknesses, we become trapped in them. Burrowing further in, we make them the center of our universe, nurturing them until they take on a life of their own. Therefore, we do not have to dwell in any set place; and can always press forward.

It becomes apparent that the more we identify with particular sensations, the more they repeat themselves, attempting to insinuate themselves into the fabric of who we are. Many of our problems are self-created in this regard. We lock ourselves into pain, unable to give it up, and use it to create our identities anew. For even the limits of pain may seem attractive compared to having to give up the whitewashed limits of self, and to take the plunge into our own fear, horror, and madness. But once we remember these aspects of ourselves, our dread of them begins to fall away, replaced with a pure flux, and an accepting attitude of unfamiliar becomings. We realize that we do not have to be constrained by any aspect of our experience, including concepts of who we thought we were. We can embark on a new course.

This reversal can be expressed by what scholar Jeffrey J. Kripal has termed “authorization”:

In the second stage, this insight into the realization that we are being written matures into the even more stunning idea that we can do something about this, that we can write ourselves anew. The final secret of the super-story, then, is that if we are indeed ‘above’ (super-it), then in some way that we do not yet understand, we are authorizing it. We do not need to be puppets at the mercy of some neurological programmer, or for that matter some faithful believer in the dictates of some authoritarian sky-God. We can become our own authors, we can recognize that we are pulling our own strings, that the angels and aliens, gods and demons are us.

The more we feel this, the more a definitive self gives way, turning its dictates to quicksand. We fall beneath the play of thought and arrive at the center of an ever-evolving mystery. Questioning who we are beneath our personal constructs, we find something that is not bound by the previous ways we have used to categorize ourselves. Here is a conceptual no-man’s-land where words fall from us and decay, turning to smoke from our lips.

Who are we, if not these ideas of self? Understanding this is the work of an entire life.