Sunday, April 10, 2011

Transpersonal Psychology and the Hero's Journey

Each of us are a product of our life experiences, the things that we are taught as children, the beliefs we have etc. Together these forces combine to create, for each of us, our way of viewing the world. This view of the world has a deep impact on the way that we live and in particular with how we process the stimuli that are fed to us every moment of our life to create knowledge within ourselves.

For ancient man, religion played a deep and abiding part in the construct of our world view. However, since the renaissance started to peel back the veneer of religion and allow us to understand the world around us, man has increasingly shed the beliefs of our ancestors leaving us bereft of many of the traditional rituals that allowed us to find our place in life and the universe.

Traditionally belief and ritual have played important roles in providing a basis for how we lived our lives. Religion, and more specifically the concept of God provided for us an epistomological putty that filled in anything we didn’t understand (why does the storms destroy my crops – ah it must be the wrath of God for my failing to remove that neighbor who doesn’t share my absolute knowledge of the truth – therefore if I don’t want to lose my crops next year I better get rid of that neighbor, or at least convert him to my ways that he may know the truth too). Ritual provided for us a way to undertake those key transformative journeys that marked the passage of key milestones in life.

Today so much of the epistemological putty has been prised out and filled in with scientific knowledge and understanding that we find God committed to being the God of the fringes. At the same time we have ceased to observe many of those key rituals and as a consequence we are left without a process for marking transition in our lives, and no belief framework in which to place ourselves and give us a yardstick against which to measure our actions.

Yet for many, the beliefs of the past are still an integral part of existence, even though the body of scientific fact has destroyed the basis for those beliefs (for example we once knew that we were the entire purpose of Gods creation and sat at the centre of the universe- today we know that we live on an insignificant planet in an insignificant solar system on the edge of one of trillions of galaxies). Our centre has been removed.

Yet in the midst of that we still have to live and try to find some purpose or meaning to our existence. Without those key transformative rituals, for example, how does a young man grow up and take his place in society without experiencing significant difficulties in settling to the role that society would have him fill.

How then, can we transform ourselves and effectively take our place in society?

Several years ago I started on a piece of writing where I drew on the work of Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung and many others to look at the transpersonal journey that many take in the second half of life. This piece of work has been sitting unfinished as I tried to deal with my own transpersonal journey. I have now picked it back up and I am going to try and puull the threads together.
Given the volume to be discussed and the range of issues to be considered, it is somewhat beyond the scope of a blog based discussion. Instead I will undertake this piece of work in the form of a personal wiki.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Sitting in a Chair and Looking in the Distance

All religions will pass, but this will remain, simply sitting in a chair and looking in the distance. (V.V. Rosanov)

I open this blog with Rosanov’s thought, for that is what I would like to do in this entry – sit in my own chair, look in the distance, and tell you a little about the view from here. I wrote the first version of this blog for the Joseph Campbell Forum some three years ago. Since that time much has happened in the world which has reinforced my thoughts at that time. So I thought I would update this blog.

It is important to note that this is my view. I am not making a declarative statement that "this is the way it is", nor attempting to get the reader to agree with my world view. One of my strongest beliefs is in order to find our authentic selves as humans, it is important to find our own path.

And where is this chair placed?

Over on the Joseph Campbell Forum, a thread started in 2004 titled "Self-Induced Transformations[context defines]" (my user name in the forums is "sladeb"), I suggested that during the journey through the forest there are times when all travellers need to stop and take a break – to pause at an Inn along the way, look at our maps, determine what we have learned and try to discover a little about what lies ahead (noting that the traveller who follows a new path can only know in general terms about the beasts roaming the forest). So my chair is placed in the window of that Inn, and I look to the forest ahead, noting that behind me lay many lessons which help forge how I try to solve the challenges of the future.

In the existentialist tradition one philosopher to whom I most relate is Karl Jaspers, who, like me, discovered the joy of human philosophy in the second half of life. In his work Jaspers turned the discussion of philosophy back to the issues of life as it is lived and experienced by the individual in one’s own time. He did not suggest abandoning consideration of the history or inherited traditions of philosophy, but rather that "Our own power of generation lies in the rebirth of what has been handed down to us. If we do not wish to slip back, nothing must be forgotten; but if philosophizing is to be genuine our thoughts must arise from our own source" (Jaspers, 1941). It is in the context of our time and our challenges that we must consider the lessons of myth, metaphor and philosophy.

In my own journey through the forest in recent years, after passing through the battle with the dragon "Thou Shalt," I entered the cave which the dragon guarded. Within the cave I found many boons to be had, including lessons from the past, looking-glasses to help understand a little of the future, and crystal balls that dimmed the clouds of my own prejudices and beliefs enough to allow a glimpse of the world through the eyes of another. It was difficult at first to see what prize would be of most value. After a time I placed these treasures in the context of the current world need and then it became easy to see which gifts were the ones I was best equipped to bring back to society. I grasped these and left the rest for others to find.

It is not easy to describe this gem, but suffice to say it is a contribution that is needed in our time. I hope I can articulate a little what the treasure is at this pause on the path.

Moving from the personal to the collective, as I look out the window and gaze into the distance there are very large mountains looming ahead - mountains which mankind as a whole must cross. Unfortunately, some of these appear to be heights we have crossed before, which some world leaders appear to be suggesting we should visit again (for example, the resurgence of Cold War rhetoric and behaviour). Some of the mountains have been raised by the geological impact of our own human journey (environmental problems, sustainability, global food shortages) and some just seem too hard for humanity to cross so far (religious fundamentalism, for example).

The sad truth is that those most impacted by the struggle to cross these mountains are those least able to carry the burden and adapt to the difficulties inherent in traversing such dangerous peaks. Global food riots and street protests triggered by the high cost of basic commodities, drought, severe storms and a rising level of global conflict all point to the challenges we face. And it is in the light of these challenges that I selected the tools and boons I have taken from the cave.

The tools I've chosen are those which I can best employ to help others safely cross those looming mountains. Extending the metaphor, some are core tools - the pitons and ropes of short term aid and the lifeline of basic medicines - to assist the struggling climber. But the most powerful boon, which the dragon had hoarded for far too long, proved the crystal ball that allowed me to dim the clouds of my own prejudices and beliefs enough to glimpse the world through the eyes of a fellow traveller. The abandonment of my own rigid belief systems has let me understand that belief and prejudice cloud our judgement and colour our view of the world. It is difficult to get struggling fellow travellers to grasp the rope thrown, or hold tight to the piton, when they think that they must sacrifice their own beliefs in doing so.

And so, with these tools in my kitbag, I look to the distance and see the mountains. The course I chart is coupled to the tools and boons I carry. And, having taken up these tools, like Campbell I found that somehow doors do seem to open; by using those tools to help others I am living out of the center of my own bliss.

This is not to say that I can dictate how the tools are used by others. How they use them will be their own responsibility.

(This is an extremely poignant lesson I recently learned. We struggled to provide assistance to the people of Myanmar to help them recover from the recent devastating cyclone - but, for their leaders, political exigencies proved more important than the provision of real aid to sustain their own citizenry.)

So much for the journey ahead. What have I learned from the journey behind?

It is clear that the only way that the human species can solve the complex problems that lay before it is for each individual to realize the unique treasures that he or she can bring to our human challenges. We in the West have invented many things to avoid the potential abyss of a Godless existence. Yet, as Paul Tillich pointed out, it is the "deep questions" which constitute our ultimate concern as humans, and the way that we respond to these ultimate concerns is called religion.

I cannot help but come to the conclusion that what is needed is a religion that allows every person the right to explore and experience life in his or her own unique way. Furthermore, this experience should, for the sake of a holistic approach to the wonder of life, include experience of the sublime, the Spiritual.

Equipping individuals with the tools to look beyond the boundaries of commonly accepted practice and belief to find new solutions that lead us forward is key to overcoming some of the so called "intransigent problems" of society.

This, I believe is the key message which I draw from the ancient hero’s quest myths. If one chooses to move beyond the boundaries of conventional religion, pass the guardians and enter the realm of the quest, one can survive the journey, learn new lessons, gain boons and bring those boons back into society - gifts of knowledge that allow humanity to step forward. In this realm, human mythology is essential to the work of many psychologists, anthropologists and philosophers. An understanding of mythology is key to Jung’s process of individuation, to Maslow’s peak experience, and to Assagioli’s field of transpersonal psychology.

And yet that path through the forest is, ultimately, an individual journey ...

A religion of the Self?