No Name #1

You do not have to crest that hill,
Nor may you cast aside that light you bear.
Its slopes ask not – nor brook – the force of will
You do not have. To crest that hill
— Be that your secret burden, lifetime’s thrill,
Voice and vitiation of life’s bitter dare:
“You do not have to crest that hill,
Nor may you. Cast aside that light you bear.”

Aesthetics II: The Most Beautiful Cope

[Aesthetics I to come in the future.]

For the last month I’ve been really aware of aesthetics. 

It’s not just that beauty is more salient to me, though, yes, that: everything and everyone and all that humans do and all that happens in the world can captivate me, and glimmers with a beauty that seems too little acknowledged. 

It’s also that I’ve started to see more of the role beauty plays in my life, and — I suspect, extrapolatingly, and extrapolate, suspectingly — in everybody else’s, too. Typical mind fallacy aside, I think this one is an aspect of most or everyone’s psychology, and if not, it can be learned.

So, first, perceiving beauty, or opening to it, is a choice we can make. Sometimes we choose not to, and that’s totally legitimate — it can distract us from being totally lost in the moment, and/or distract us from conceptualizing a situation the better to resolve whatever problem we’re facing or complete the task at hand. For example, there’s a way in which it’s beautiful that I’m finally writing, after years of wanting to and not doing it, but to contemplate that at length would distract me from the matter at hand — bringing this post into existence.

The second point is that there’s a distinctive way or mode of being where the perception of beauty is prioritized. I want to call this aesthetizing. I am nearly certain some German or ancient Greek philosopher has already beat me to this, and if you can point me to some relevant analyses, I’d be grateful. This one’s handcrafted by my right and left hemispheres without any collaboration, knowingly at least, with Aristotle, except to the degree that the man runs my whole deductive logic system, probably.

I want to draw attention to this mode, make it a “thing,” because I think it’s pretty fundamentally important (though maybe different people experience it differently), and I think it connects in crucial ways to really “mundane” stuff like how we might decide what to do, how to communicate effectively (even when discussing “factual” stuff), and lots of other important pragmatic concerns. Also, like, beauty is a terminal value for me — and for you too if you’re reading this, probably — and there’s something I find beautiful about the simple crystallization of aesthetizing as one of our human modes and things.

I’m not sure if it’s clear what I mean by aesthetizing. On a concrete level, aesthetizing might look like asking “What is beautiful about this moment, this situation, this person I’m being right now, …?” It could look like finding visual beauty in one’s environment, going looking for it or intending to see it or removing resistance to seeing it. It could look like doing the same with felt senses — maybe lovingly spending time with one’s felt sense, making ample room for it, letting it speak through beautiful metaphors and caringly presenting it through words (poetry! circling!) or not-words (dance! singing! vague movements!). It could look like finding a beautiful narrative as a lens on the current situation.

I see people doing these a good amount, at least in the meditation and circling and therapy worlds. In the broader world people do it too but less often, to their detriment I think.

Aesthetizing contrasts with the many, many other ways we can be. Most specifically I think it contrasts with problem solving and making-better. I think it also subtly contrasts with less explicit ways of engaging with what’s pleasurable, beautiful, and good about a moment — stuff that’s more like just vibing where drawing attention explicitly to anything, even something beautiful, can pop you out of the vibe, though that’d be a whole other post.

And I think there’s an interesting conflict or tension here. 

Because, in addition to being awesome and worthwhile and powerful, aesthetizing is an amazingly powerful coping strategy. By engaging it, we can get in touch with beauty that’s inspiring and motivating. We can touch into gratitude, wonder, and awe — and we all know both how good those feel and how supportive they can be, Aesthetizing can be a gateway into kinds of play that unlock new perspectives on the current moment. Aesthetizing together — including aesthetizing focused on the relationship itself! — can be highly bonding, too. 

(Note that all of what I wrote above is kind of from within a problem-solving, goal-oriented perspective. A lot of it is getting at “What is aesthetizing good for and what are its pitfalls?”)

These are powerful feelings and energies! No surprise, then, on one level, that problem solving mentality would find them threatening. In a way, they’re more powerful than it is, more primordial. 

Yet the concerns the problem solving mentality has about aesthetizing and other similar ways of being aren’t crazy. There is something fraught about the aesthetic mode.

For example, if we overuse it, it can become wirehead-y. There’s always beauty to be found, even in the most fucked up situations. I’ve seen people weaponize aesthetics — actually I think it’s common in different kinds of propaganda — and we might accidentally weaponize it against ourselves, especially if we’re really desperate to be able to see beauty, and if we have a knack for perceiving it, and if we’re suffering a lot. 

Beyond “wire heading = bad,” it’s just that wire heading in this way … doesn’t work. My sense from my experience is that sometimes aesthetizing shows up where it’s not what’s best for me, not what I truly integratedly want for myself. In those moments, I think I’m maybe dissociating, subtly or really thoroughly. And avoiding doing what is perhaps less pleasurable, less connected to any sense of wonder or awe or beauty, but more valuable and ultimately more in service of my values and even of the part of me that wants to engage in the perception of beauty. 

There’s more to say here, but I’m gonna leave it here. I might collect more of these “modes of being” and write about them. It seems like a fruitful inquiry, and thinking about this one has actually clarified another thing for me that I’m going to put into Aesthetics Part I eventually.

Psyche, Mapped and Unmapped

Here’s a lens on trauma. 

I was born in the Soviet Union, just three months before its demise. My parents were desperate to leave; they’d spent their whole lives living in brutal material, psychological, and spiritual deprivation, and they knew it didn’t have to be that way. Thousands of miles away, across a whole continent and an ocean after that, a country waited for them where they could live better. And so we went. In early 1992, when I was just a few months old, we packed into a train to Moscow and then took a long flight and landed in New York City. We made it.

What my parents didn’t know, maybe couldn’t have known, is that they could take themselves out of the Soviet Union but they couldn’t take the Soviet Union out of themselves. Or perhaps they “could” in some sense — either way, they didn’t. Life here didn’t suit them, for complex reasons, and they didn’t adapt. They had their own traumas, too. God knows they had more than their fair share of curses. Within a few years, they were divorced. I lived with my mom and visited my dad, sometimes. We had little money, and the little we did have went fast. There was always something to worry about at home and always an argument just waiting to begin. On my mom’s side it was all unbridled emotionality and passion; on my dad’s, all detachment and cognition. 

That’s my trauma. Part of, but not the main point here.

In the US in 2020, we’re used to the idea that people can leave their hometown. Many of us don’t just move away, we ditch most of our high school friends, then maybe our college friends, too. We move cities, go through relationships and breakups and maybe even divorces, change careers, reinvent ourselves many times over. One year we get into BJJ, the next it’s tennis and gardening. One year we try therapy, the next it’s Christianity. Flux, ever-present, is the law of the land.

Yet for some number of us — probably all in small ways, perhaps many in bigs ways — we never leave our spiritual and psychological hometown. We’re born there, and it’s where we grow up, slowly learning the cross-streets, the landmarks, the seasons. We come to love it the way we love any place we’ve lived for a long time. Unlike our physical hometowns, which we can point to on a map (maybe) and which we share with dozens, thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of other people, the hometown of the spirit might have a much smaller population. It might be the size of one family. It might be the size of one person. Where in the physical realm, stories and then the TV and now the internet told us all along a bigger world lay beyond the borders of our neighborhoods, in the psycho-spiritual realm, there might be no such advertisements. A person can be living smack dab in the middle of New York City in physical space and simultaneously be living in a never-before-visited-by-outsiders mountainous valley in psychological space. This is wild and tragic, and I have no intention of forgetting this fact as long as I live (though life is long, so who knows). 

Maybe we’re kinda just behind in the psychological realm. People leaving their hometowns and uprooting from their communities and families is a pretty modern phenomenon. I haven’t looked at the numbers, and so take this analysis for what it’s worth, but in Western Europe I doubt these departures became truly widespread any sooner than the 1800s, maybe even the 1900s. Before then people stayed put

One step closer to the realm of trauma itself and our post-post-modern (or whatever) understanding of all things psychological and spiritual, we have religion. People have literally killed each other over religious questions certainly for literally thousands of years. And for most of that time, as far as I know, it was expected that one adopt the religion of one’s parents. For some people, life is still like this — for better and for worse.

The way we relate to the ways of seeing and being we grew up with is still in the pre-modern (not a dunk!) phase. Some — many, I’d guess all on some level — of us are living in our hometowns, maybe literally driven to alcoholism or some other addiction or just unhappily hanging out with the same crowd year after year. Or maybe happily running a small business and reaping the benefits of community — my analogies here are both aimed at the case of trauma, which is the negative/shadow side of this phenomenon, and colored by the realities of modern life in the US, where the prospect of physically staying in one’s hometown seems less and less appealing as community declines and economic opportunity concentrates more and more in the cities.

Everything makes sense, one of my mentors insists, and I want to apply that lens here. We’re still in the early days of making the maps that would allow us to put our psychological hometown in some kind of framework. We live in the era of unreliable cartography in the psycho-spiritual realm, where “Here There Be Dragons” signs are scrawled all over the terrain, continents are misshapen, and where for many human beings the idea of a psychological map at all isn’t natural. Most of us, except the absolute most dedicated people in the world in this area, live in a psychological world still haunted by ghouls in the forest, whether real or imagined, and those of us who choose to go out to the frontier are… well, we’re on the frontier, and who knows what’s there where we haven’t been yet. 

We hold on to what we know and we stay on this side of the terrifying forest or the impassable mountain range for the same reason — we’re afraid. 

Even more so, the lack of maps has a further consequence. Even if I find Paradise after my own seeking, it’s doubtful I’ll be able to bring all the people with me I’d want to. And for some of those people there’ll be no Pony Express to take my letters back to them. 

Book Review: The Hero With A Thousand Faces

I.

Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces is a difficult book to summarize. I expected it to be focused mainly on laying out a great unifying theory of mythology. The commonalities underlying all myth would be exposed, their psychological significance explained, and all tied up neatly and presented in a way that made the overarching theory elegant and easy to digest.

That’s not the kind of book it is, it turns out. Campbell definitely does lay out a theory of myth; it’s just a partial and fragmentary one. Partial in that it leaves many important questions unanswered, even about its basic application. I’d be comfortable making some predictions about the structure of a myth I hadn’t read based on Campbell’s Hero’s Journey model for example, but on a number of points I’d have to demur, even though they seem pretty basic. (More on that below.) Fragmentary in that I couldn’t quite figure out how different parts of Campbell’s analysis fit together, giving the book more the feel of a catalogue of admittedly interesting myths and psychological insights, just not one with a discernible main thrust — at least not one that’s easy to name.

To the degree the book does have a central idea, I’d say it’s this: myths are a roadmap for life. They express in dramatic form certain fundamental psychological truths about human beings. These truths are more or less timeless: they applied equally to the earliest human beings as they do to us. Each of us is, for example, called upon repeatedly to embark upon the Hero’s Journey. In the language of myth, we stumble into an adventure that takes us away from home and into the cavernous den of a dragon we then slay, and whose gold we bring back for the benefit of our community. In more quotidian terms, circumstances upset whatever equilibrium we’ve established for ourselves and we’re called upon to face the unknown, learn something new (and perhaps unlearn old behaviors), and come out the other side transformed, empowered, and of greater use to others.

And there’s a lot more where that came from. Myths teach the dangers of biting off more than you can chew; the dangers of failing to submit to the inevitabilities of life; the true nature of the most powerful forces at work in the world (no, not the Strong Nuclear Force…); the necessity of continual adaptation; and more.

The Hero’s Journey is perhaps the best known idea from the book. It’s best regarded as a schematic model of myths; it specifies a common structure that many, perhaps most or all, myths exhibit. The structure unfolds as follows:

    1. The Call to Adventure. This is exactly what it sounds like. Something happens to wake the hero out of the tranquility of his life and challenge him to leave its comforts behind to pursue an adventure of some kind.
    2. Supernatural Help. Provided the hero accepts the call and sets out on the seemingly impossible journey, he immediately — to his happy surprise — encounters a benign supernatural power that helps him on his way.
    3. The Tests. No adventure can go by without some trials. This is the stage of the adventure where the hero endures those trials on the way to success. It’s the whole of The Lord of the Rings from the moment Frodo sets out from Rivendell to the moment Gollum falls into Mount Doom with The Ring. It’s also at this point that motifs like the whale’s belly, battle with the dragon, and crucifixion appear.
    4. The High Point. The high point of the adventure can take many forms. Campbell identifies four main ones that recur: the Sacred Marriage, in which the hero marries a goddess or princess; Father Atonement, in which the hero at least finds his father, who turns out to be divine; Apotheosis, in which the hero ascends to the realm of the divine himself; and Elixir Theft, in which the hero steals something precious from a divine force intent on hoarding it (think Prometheus here).
    5. Flight. An optional stage in which the hero must flee from the wrath of some greater power after achieving his great victory. This seems most relevant in stories where the hero wins by guile, without actually permanently defeating the enemy who blocked his path.
    6. Recrossing the Threshold. When the hero took up the call to adventure, he crossed a threshold from ordinary life into the life of myth; he must now return back, which occurs at this stage. The return may manifest as a straightforward return to his home, a resurrection of some kind, or a rescue by others.
    7. The Gift to the Community. Having gained knowledge and sometimes a precious physical gift from his adventure, the hero must bring back this boon to his community to benefit those who stayed behind.

It’s easier to think about this list in terms of four points, with the other points occurring within these four:

    1. The Beginning. In which the hero is called to his adventure and meets with unexpected favor from the divine if he accepts the call.
    2. The Trials. In which the hero must prove himself capable of withstanding all sorts of difficulties.
    3. The High Point. In which the hero gets what he came for — whether that’s marriage, reunion with the divine, or a sought-after treasure.
    4. The Return. In which the hero must get out of the adventure world he spent so much time in and return to the world of ordinary life, equipped to help those who stayed behind.

Campbell does a great job of chronicling how each of these elements really does occur in a number of myths. That goes for the items in the longer list, too.

The way Campbell talks about the High Point (my term, like all the other names) makes it seem like perhaps it can only manifest through marriage, reunion with a divine father, ascent to a heavenly realm, or theft of a great treasure from the gods. I suspect that’s a mistake, or at least it’s easier to use Campbell’s framework if you imagine that the High Point is just when the hero gets what he was after. In some myths — Campbell might say, the most profound myths — the hero’s adventure has carried him all the way into the domain of the divine, where one of the Sacred Marriage, Father Atonement, Apotheosis, or Elixir Theft occurs. In others, the hero might “just” have slain a dragon. Either way, the High Point is the point of triumph.

I’d be inclined to take a similar attitude toward the other elements. Some myths might (and do, in fact) shift focus away from some of them, but all of them occur in every adventure — in some form, even if the myth omits their mention,

This ambiguity of application is one of Campbell’s weaknesses. He throws out all the structural elements and explores their significant in depth (more to come on that). Yet he never really gets around to addressing how they all fit together, what alternations occur in the presence or absence of particular pieces, and how the different flavors of myth relate to each other — given that they all fit this model reasonably well, but differ in some of the particulars of how it manifests.

Campbell writes most grippingly when we comments on the psychological significance of the myth elements. Here he is on what happens when the call is refused — a pattern that occurs in some abortive myths where the adventure never begins (e.g. the story of Daphne, who ran from the god Apollo’s romantic advances and turned into a laurel tree to protect herself):

The myths and folktales of the whole world make clear that the refusal is essentially a refusal to give up what one takes to be one’s own interest. The future is regarded not in terms of an unremitting series of deaths and births, but as though one’s present system of ideals, virtues, goals, and advantages were to be fixed and made secure. King Minos [whose son was the Minotaur] retained the divine bull [sent by Poseidon], when the sacrifice would have signified submission to the will of the god of his society; for he preferred what he conceived to be his economic advantage. Thus he failed to advance into the life-role that he had assumed—and we have seen with what calamitous effect [—namely, the birth of the Minotaur]. The divinity itself became his terror; for, obviously, if one is oneself one’s god, then God himself, the will of God, the power that would destroy one’s egocentric system, becomes a monster. (50-51)

Or here’s another one. After recounting the story of an Irish hero who deigned to kiss a hag and thereby discovered her to be a beautiful goddess, Campbell launches into this analysis. (It’s important to know for this that the hag says to the hero, “And as at the first thou hast seen me ugly, brutish, loathly—in the end, beautiful—even so is royal rule: for without battles, without fierce conflict, it may not be won; but in the result, he that is king of no matter what shows comely and handsome forth.”)

Such is royal rule? Such is life itself. The goddess guardian of the inexhaustible well—whether as Fergus, or as Actaeon, or as the Prince of the Lonesome Isle discovered her—requires that the hero should be endowed with what the troubadours and minnesingers termed the “gentle heart.” Not by the animal desire of an Actaeon, not by the fastidious revulsion of such as Fergus, can she be comprehended and rightly served, but only by gentleness: aware (“gentle sympathy”) it was named in the romantic courtly poetry of tenth- to twelfth-century Japan….

The meeting with the goddess (who is incarnate in every woman) is the final test of the talent of the hero to win the boon of love (charity: amor fati), which is life itself enjoyed as the encasement of eternity. (99)

Campbell is pointing here to the relevance of the Sacred Marriage motif to the psychological life of all people. “The mystical marriage with the queen goddess of the world,” he writes, “represents the hero’s total mastery of life; for the woman is life, the hero its knower and master.”

(Those with a squeamishness about traditional conceptions of the masculine and feminine might find Campbell hard to stomach. He has absolutely zero qualms about discussing them openly, though it should be said that mostly he’s interested in what’s sometimes called the symbolically masculine and feminine — which map only partially onto the gender of human beings.)

II.

Commentaries on the psychological theses in the book could easily fill up a long essay themselves, probably even a book of their own. For here, in the interest of the big picture, I’ll move on to the second part of the book: the “Cosmogonic Cycle.”

You can think of the Cosmogonic Cycle in several ways. On one level, it’s the great cycle of the entire universe. At least a few ancient civilizations held that the world was habitually destroyed and recreated, according to a more or less predictable timetable. I think it’s systems of myth like that that gave us the 2012 Mayan scare, for example. On another level, it’s the cycle of birth and death that every human being participates in: we’re born, coming into existence out of nowhere, and then we die, returning to that non-place whose nature we don’t really understand.

If the first part of the book concerns psychology, you can think of the second part as concerning spirituality. In Campbell’s own words:

And so to grasp the full value of the mythological figures that have come down to us, we must understand that they are not only symptoms of the unconscious (as indeed are all human thoughts and acts) but also controlled and intended statements of certain spiritual principles, which have remained as constant throughout the course of human history as the form and nervous structure of the human physique itself. Briefly formulated, the universal doctrine teaches that all the visible structures of the world — all things and beings — are the effects of a ubiquitous power out of which they rise, which supports and fills them during the period of their manifestation, and back into which they must ultimately dissolve. This is the power known to science as energy, to the Melanesians as mana, to the Sioux Indians as wakonda, the Hindus as Sakti [accent omitted], and the Christians as the power of God. Its manifestation in the psyche is termed, by the psychoanalysts, libido. And its manifestation in the cosmos is the structure and flux of the universe itself.

The apprehension of the source of this undifferentiated yet everywhere particularized substratum of being is rendered frustrate by the very organs through which the apprehension must be accomplished. The forms of sensibility and the categories of human thought, which are themselves manifestations of this power, so confine the mind that it is normally impossible not only to see, but even to conceive, beyond the colorful, fluid, infinitely various and bewildering phenomenal spectacle. The function of ritual and myth is to make possible, and then to facilitate, the jump—by analogy. Forms and conceptions that the mind and its senses can comprehend are presented and arranged in such a way as to suggest a truth or openness beyond. And then, the conditions for meditation having been provided, the individual is left alone. Myth is but the penultimate; the ultimate is openness—that void, or being, beyond the categories—into which the mind must plunge alone and be dissolved. Therefore, God and the gods are only convenient means—themselves of the nature of the world of names and forms, though eloquent of, and ultimately conducive to, the ineffable. They are mere symbols to move and awaken the mind, and to call it past themselves. (221-222)

The idea is simple enough. It’s also in keeping with what ancient meditative traditions teach about the nature of subjective experience. As most every Buddhist meditation text teaches, all sensory, emotional, and cognitive phenomena arise, remain in consciousness briefly, then pass away into the oblivion they came from — to be replaced by the next arising phenomenon. From that perspective, life is Cosmogonic Cycle all the way from the largest individually-observable scale (a lifetime, let’s say) down to epochs of a life (childhood, university, one’s time in a particular job, or in a particular relationship) down further to the fine level of particular moods, sensations, and thoughts.

One of the more interesting and practical manifestations of this cycle is its appearance as the cycle of deep sleep (non-existence), dream (creation-dissolution), and waking (the fully created world). As Campbell puts it, waking life is the domain of “hard, gross facts of an outer universe, illuminated by the light of the sun, and common to all,” while in dreaming we become aware of “the fluid, subtle forms of a private interior world, self-luminous and of one substance with the dreamer.”

This formula puts words to an experience I’ve often had, yet had never articulated. It’s not just that the logic of dreams shows, as Campbell puts it, a “baffling inconsistency” with the logic of practical life. So does the logic and language of emotions and art. I always notice this when I’m overcome by a really intense emotion; something really angers me, or really saddens me, say, and suddenly I’m transported: the concrete, light-world realities of the moment cede the stage to a fuzzier, shadowy set of perceptions — inwardly compelling, yet nebulous, hard-to-articulate, and in some cases tied to reality so distantly, interpreting them properly is its own act of dream interpretation. I can have similar experiences when I’m moved by music, a book, a movie. And just like a nightmare dissolves in the light of the next morning, the mood or feeling can disappear in a flash, leaving nothing behind except a question. In Keats’ words, “Fled is that music — do I wake or sleep?”

Knowing that these two modes of experience exist and really differ from each other seems genuinely valuable. When the dream world intrudes into waking, serious problems ensue. It’s incursions like this that lead to the most extreme unhealthy behavior, I’d guess: we argue with and curse at our partners, make significant practical decisions to appease feelings we don’t understand, or numb ourselves to avoid facing the terrors of that other world. If we can recognize the intrusion of dream into waking, though, there’s at least a chance we can stay with the experience and recognize it for what it truly is — a message from deep within, carrying, maybe, a wisdom we’d do well to decipher.

This part of the book is filled with mystical reflections. Depending on your temperament, you might find yourself gripped by their poetry, or you might find yourself wanting to throw the book across the room and angrily demanding why Campbell is wasting your time. For me, these seem to correspond to the dream-world and waking-world perspectives. There is something compelling and deeply true about the mystic’s perspective, yet it also baffles the mind and must be handled with care — treated as metaphor, as a guide for contemplation, but not as practical guidance that can be immediately assimilated.

Take these passages:

In mythology, wherever the Unmoved Mover, the Mighty Living One, holds the center of attention, there is a miraculous spontaneity about the shaping of the universe. The elements condense and move into play of their own accord, or at the Creator’s slightest word; the portions of the self-shattering cosmic egg go to their stations without aid. But when the perspective shifts, to focus on living beings, when the panorama of space and nature is faced from the standpoint of the personages ordained to inhabit it, then a sudden transformation overshadows the cosmic scene. No longer do the forms of the world appear to move in the patterns of a living, growing, harmonious things but stand recalcitrant, or at best inert. The props of the universal stage have to be adjusted, even beaten into shape. The earth brings forth thorns and thistles; man eats bread in the sweat of his brow. . . .

Herein lies the basic paradox of myth: the paradox of the dual focus. Just as at the opening of the cosmogonic cycle it was possible to say “God is not involved,” but at the same time “God is creator-preserver-destroyer,” so now at this critical juncture, where the One breaks into the many, destiny “happens,” but at the same time “is brought about.” From the perspective of the source, the world is a majestic harmony of forms pouring into being, exploding, and dissolving. But what the swiftly passing creatures experience is a terrible cacophony of battle cries and pain. The myths do not deny this agony (the crucifixion); they reveal within, behind, and around it essential peace (the heavenly rose).

The shift of perspective from the repose of the central Cause to the turbulation of the peripheral effects is represented in the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They ate of the forbidden fruit , “And the eyes of them both were opened.” The bliss of Paradise was closed to them and they beheld the created field from the other side of a transforming veil. Henceforth they should experience the inevitable as the hard to gain. (241, 247)

These passages are just a few of many where Campbell develops the idea of the essential unity of existence. Although he doesn’t ever exactly nail down what that means to him, I think I see what he’s getting at. Advanced practitioners of meditation regularly report experiences of identification with the broader world — a dissolution of the ordinary boundaries of our identities as just ourselves. Some even report that a careful examination of subjective experience undermines their belief in the separateness of individuals. What I imagine they perceive instead is a roiling mass of thoughts and sensations, appearing in the consciousness of different people, yet so linked across people that it becomes strange to say that people are totally separate from one another, given how cause and effect don’t seem to respect those boundaries.

Or here’s another. Ordinarily, each of us have some sense of self. We know what we like and dislike, what we hope and what we fear, and generally how different circumstances affect us and what we want out of life. Yet, it’s possible to change a lot of that; some degree of change happens naturally, and once we get the hang of it, we can learn to change to a surprising degree. Moreover, we are not the authors of our selves. We became who we are in this moment in significant part due to the specific circumstances life threw us into, due to a combination of necessity and the preferences and influences of the people we came into contact with.

Knowing all of this raises some difficult questions. How much of who we habitually are and how we habitually act do we still want, and how much of it would we better off letting go? Could it ever be worth letting go of some of our most cherished self-concepts and hopes and fears? In the name of what would such a surrender make sense, when those conceptions and feelings seem to form the basis for our very navigation in the world?

Myth — and here I think myth actually gives way to religion — provide one set of answers. At the top of the list is the answer to the question of fundamental identity. If you strip away everything by which we define ourselves ordinarily, what remains?

In poetic terms, we are manifestations of the Imperishable. Each of us is a manifestation of the great unfathomable reality of this world, a particular incarnation of the laws of mind, body, and spirit. Just like a mountain bears witness to awesome geologic forces, or like a black hole illustrates the cataclysmic extremes of physical law — and just like all such things inspire wonder and love — each person, if looked at properly, testifies to the sublime pre-verbal grandeur of the universe, and to its essential goodness. As a meditation teacher I know once told me, “To see a person in their essence is to love them.” Exactly, and that’s part of what myth tries to teach.

The other part of the answer is that the essence of a person is a form of nothingness. That’s why seeing truly makes it so easy to love. We are not, the great myths teach us, the sum total of our family circumstances and professions and preferences and life experiences. We are not even the sum total of our choices and characters, our sins and virtues. Prior to all that, each of us is a person, and the life we’re leading, a human life. Each of us is part of the whole, and each of us bears the same responsibility to act in a way that is conducive to the flourishing of self and other. Each of us lives with the same basic constraints, the same basic pains, and the same basic dilemmas. Each of our personalities also shares something in common with the great spiritual heroes — a capacity for self-transcendence and for consistently choosing Good over Evil, to the benefit of ourselves (though we might not always see it) and to the benefit of others. That essentially heroic and divine nature — accessing which enables us to undertake the struggle we all desperately need to undertake — is, however, often obscured by our desire to be spared from the difficulties of life and our desire for life to be other than it actually is — safer, more controllable, less constrained. Part of the function of myth, Campbell argues, is to help us let go of that desire and step into our roles as fully-mature adults capable of seeing things as they are and acting accordingly.

This last part brings us back, from the quasi-theological reflections that fill the second part of the book, to the hero whose adventure filled the first part. The hero can now be characterized as a person who has completed the journey to wisdom. He has discovered the great secrets of life — the mysteries of meaning, joy, fulfillment, relationship, purpose, place, or in a word, flourishing. He is the “master of the two worlds” and of their interplay, the worlds of waking, practical life and dreaming, emotional life. He has the “freedom to live,” having finally broken out of the limitations imposed on him by the mistaken meaning-making systems he learned in earlier life. He also enjoys the freedom to love unconditionally, seeing as he does the presence of the Divine in everything and everyone and no longer getting caught in needs for others to treat him a certain way.

Campbell ends his book with a reflection on the role of myth in the modern world. Certainly, he says, we’ve lost touch with our mythological roots: “Within the progressive societies themselves, every last vestige of the human heritage of ritual, morality, and art is in full decay.” He wrote these words in 1949. In 2020, they seem only more true, though there appears to be a new surge of interest in ancient teachings and so perhaps the pendulum is beginning to swing back.

In Campbell’s estimation, we need new myths — or new ways of relating to the old myths — for a new time. Our problems are different and so, too, must be our language for grappling with them:

The problem of mankind today, therefore, is precisely the opposite to that of men in the comparatively stable periods of those great co-ordinating mythologies which now are known as lies. Then all meaning was in the group, in the great anonymous forms, none in the self-expressive individual; today no meaning is in the group—none in the world: all is in the individual. . . .

. . . The modern hero-deed must be that of questing to bring to light again the lost Atlantis of the co-ordinated soul.

Obviously, this work cannot be wrought by turning back, or away, from what has been accomplished by the modern revolution; for the problem is nothing if not that of rendering the modern world spiritually significant—or rather (phrasing the same principle the other way round) nothing if not that of making it possible for men and women to come to full human maturity through the conditions of contemporary life [which have caused the old mythological-religious systems to become outdated and even harmful]. (334-335)

In other words, the great pendulum of attention and action has swung. For most of human history, our teachings about life emphasized role and place in society. Even in modern times — as anyone from a less individualistic society than the US can attest — the legacy of that way of thinking persists.

Yet, in the most affluent societies in the West, the focus has shifted. We live with a profound awareness of our individuality. In its positive aspect, we see our individuality as freedom, potential, and inherent worth — though, interestingly, we seem to struggle with that last one. In its negative aspect, we see our individuality as an ultimate burden and an ultimate loneliness. As Galadriel says to Frodo: “You are a ring-bearer, Frodo. To bear a ring of power is to be alone. This task was appointed to you, and if you do not find a way, no one will.” To me that encapsulates the all-inclusive meaning and all-crushing responsibility of the individual in the modern world: each of our lives is an adventure assigned to us specifically — and in religious terms, I might add, each of our salvations is a task appointed to us alone — and, although we might come to see in that an inherently worthy project, it’s a project that also feels profoundly lonely.

That profound loneliness might in fact be a symptom of the magnitude of the pendulum swing. As Campbell tries to point out, we don’t quite seem able to reconcile our individuality with our place in the collective. Some of at least don’t know how to live out our individual sacred adventure in a way that other people — both near, in the form of our friends and family, and far, in the form of those mysterious others who write the stories that fill pages and screen time — will honor, in a way that is genuinely honor-able.

One way to think about the transition we have made as an organism is this. For most of human history, the natural world presented a baffling terror to the human mind: baffling in that we struggled to discern its patterns, terrifying in that it regularly brought us death through disease, famine, and injury. To some degree, of course, the fearsome unknown of the external world persists; I’m writing this as the number of people infected with coronavirus inches ever closer to 100,000, its death toll already in the thousands, reminding us that, no, we haven’t truly conquered nature. The potential catastrophe of climate change reminds us of the same thing. But, on the whole, we’ve achieved a control over our physical world that our ancestors would not have dared dream of. It’s this habitual control that makes it even possible to forget that our lives, ultimately, are not our own and that we are in an important way, the playthings of the gods (or of God, if you prefer).

The greatest mystery left in the universe is… us. The hidden laws that govern individuals and societies — studied by psychologists, economists, social and political “scientists” — represent the most urgent frontier of our knowledge. Where before we feared the next famine, now the locus of fear in the developed world has shifted more to unemployment and other forms of financial ruination, personal failure, loneliness, trauma, and even political disempowerment (real or imagined). This is of course truer the richer one is, since the poorest members of even American society still struggle with the timeless problems of poverty: hunger, homelessness, and total lack of control over one’s circumstances.

Campbell puts it eloquently:

Man is that alien presence with whom the forces of egoism must come to terms, through whom the ego is to be crucified and resurrected, and in whose image society is to be reformed. Man, understood however not as “I” but as “Thou”: for the ideals and temporal institutions of no tribe, race, continent, social class, or century can be the measure of the inexhaustible and multifariously wonderful divine existence that is the life in all of us. (337)

And that’s where he leaves us. There’s nothing tidy about spirituality, and the ending of the book reflects that fundamental untidiness. So many questions remain. Is the disintegration of the old mythological-religious systems a problem, exactly? It seems that some people would say yes, others no. If myth can provide an ultimate release, through wisdom, from the torments of daily life, how do we drink from that well of relief? No easy answer comes. In fact, we get the opposite: “And so every one of us,” Campbell concludes, “shares the supreme ordeal—carries the cross of the redeemer—not in the bright moments of his tribe’s great victories, but in the silence of his personal despair.”

Is there a less satisfying answer than that? Probably, but this one’s up there. In the end, the deepest significance of myth, like the deepest meaning of life, is not something to be known conceptually but something to be discovered in the act of living. And so we have to take both the stories Campbell tells and the sense he tries to make of them as roadmaps, or signs, pointing to a place and a truth that we can’t just grab and hold onto, but that we have to struggle to discover and rediscover in a forthright pursuit of the greatest good.

      

Fantasy or Reality (Part 1)

[Epistemic status: Still trying to understand. Expect a lot more of that….]

[This is the first post in what I intend to be a series that goes roughly like this: 1. Concepts are not as high-fidelity as we normally (act like we) believe. 2. What exactly are we doing with concepts? 3. Productive vs. destructive uses of concepts. 4. The “emptiness” of all concepts.]

I.

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently thinking about the contents of our consciousness. What I mean here is: moment-by-moment, sensation-by-sensation, thought-by-thought, what makes up human experience. Meditation traditions, and in particular Theraveda Buddhism, offer a hypothesis, namely, in Sam Harris’s words, that most people most of the time live in a “waking dream.” There are several ways to think about this assertion I suspect; in this post, I want to take a look at one of them.

It seems to me that most of what occupies my consciousness at least is mental content. I would hazard the same is true of most human beings, and the ability to live otherwise is one of the key goals and offerings of meditative practice. In other words, most of what we routinely pay attention to is, in a certain sense, not real. (I want to punt on the issue of what is real, if the meditative model of human experience is accurate. That is a deep question, and I’ll save theorizing myself into a black hole of confusion for another night.)

Narrative is the classic example of this phenomenon. When we sit down to read a book, it seems clear that our attention primarily rests on mental content. When you’re sitting in a comfortable chair, book open on your lap, the only physical sensations you’re experiencing come from the tactile interaction between your body and the chair (and the air, etc.), any sounds that might be around you, and the irregular black and white pattern printed on the pages you’re staring at. None of these capture “the story” as it ultimately exists in your mind and in the form it can be communicated to others. So that must be somehow constructed, through vision and language, by your mind.

Despite not being real (again, in a certain sense), narratives can capture attention in a very sticky way. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with Lord of the Rings. Lots of other people are, too. Tolkien crafted such a compelling world that it just feels good to let the mind sink into it, wandering through the Shire, or the Misty Mountains, or pondering what it was like when the Witch-king ruled Angmar, when he was still human. Even now, despite basically never reading fantasy novels, when I find myself out in the woods or mountains, I sometimes imagine myself as a member of the Fellowship, or wonder what it’d be like to descend into the dwarven city I imagine beneath my feet.

Novels and other storytelling forms occupy a special place in our culture. We enter the narratives communicated by these forms in a circumscribed way. The stories are accepted as real while we’re engaging with the book, movie, or whatever, and lose that status when we get up from reading. The bleed-through, though it probably exists (due to shared stories that come from popular movies, etc., and other things like that), is well-contained; at least, that’s definitely what we tell ourselves.

The stories I feel more concerned about are the ones we don’t normally think of as stories or concepts at all. Self-concepts, which is to say the labels we put on ourselves, are like that. We’re all carrying around all kinds of self-concepts. Ones I see a lot are: “intelligent,” “successful,” “attractive,” “funny,” “curious,” “spiritual,” “artistic,” “creative,” “free-spirited,” and — just in case you thought this post was gonna go in a positive direction — their opposites. Of course, there’s no reason to stop at the self; we apply labels like this to other people all the time.

To me, these concepts feel one step closer than novels or movies to being out-there-in-the-world. I suspect most people share that intuition. It just feels like, yeah, people are “kind” to varying degrees (for example) and, sure, the labels are part of the map, but it’s a pretty good map and definitely reflects something about the territory. What’s more, I think that’s actually true. It’s just the map often isn’t as reliable a guide as we’d like to believe.

The divergence between map and territory can be viewed from two perspectives. The first is the way we normally think about it. When it comes to people, one of the most basic divergences comes from the fundamental attribution error; FAE is a basic error most of us constantly make in which we attribute people’s behavior to static personality traits, failing to account for how much people’s behavior (and therefore perceived personality) varies across situations.

Many of us are aware of the existence of FAE and sort of correct for it. Instead of the basic model where someone who is, say, “kind” always behaves generously and warmly toward people, we carry around an upgraded model where a person who is “kind” is just more likely to behave that way. If we’re feeling especially sophisticated, we might upgrade the model further to admit that kindness can inhere in relationships more than people; someone who’s generous toward you might not behave that way toward all, or even most, people.

II.

But now things get complicated because the other issues with the model/map becomes apparent. One, the closer you look at the map, the more it wavers and falls apart. And, two, on some level we prefer looking at the map rather than the territory, the model rather than the data underlying it (more later on whether that’s actually a problem).

It doesn’t feel like the point can really be made with simple labels like “kind” and so on. So, screw it, let’s dive into the deep end: how about “helping someone”? I personally derive a lot of satisfaction from “helping people.” That can mean a lot of things. Sometimes it’s teaching someone an interesting concept; sometimes it’s holding space for someone to express themselves openly; sometimes it’s going a step further and talking through interpretations or solutions of an issue someone is having; sometimes it’s guiding someone through a difficult bouldering problem they didn’t think they could do. Whatever.

What does it even mean to “help,” though? I think this question is actually why traditional wisdom insists on care when giving advice. It’s clear that I’m offering something to the other person when I do the activities above, so the giving aspect of “help” does seem to be present, but there’s a lot of complication hidden underneath the simple label.

At the most basic level, to me, the concept of “help” entails some improvement, that the person’s life was made “better” in some way by my involvement. The problem is, how would I know? Part of the problem is the limited visibility I have into the other person’s mental state. At one point, I was listening a lot to a good friend talk about some problems in his life, and offering interpretations and ideas related to them. After we’d talk for a while, it seemed like he felt lighter and more energetic, more capable of doing what was right for him. And that seems “good.”

If I look more closely at that statement, though, further complexities emerge. For one thing, it’s unclear on what basis I concluded that he felt “lighter.” Maybe he was laughing and smiling more, maybe he talked more about concrete productive actions he could take, maybe something else. Whatever it was, I fundamentally don’t know the mental state that underlay the behavior I saw and the speech I heard. It’s fully possible he ended up taking the exact same actions he would’ve taken without talking to me. Of course, even then, maybe he felt “better” about those actions and about his problems. One way I’d know that is he described himself as “feeling better,” which sometimes he did.

The recursion doesn’t end there. Mental states are complicated, and tagging them as “good” or “bad,” “better” or “worse,” is a questionable endeavor. If by “better,” we mean “more pleasurable,” it’s unclear that “better” really is better. One reason for this is sometimes we have to go through highly unpleasurable mental states to reach pleasurable ones. That happens in pretty much any difficult project, and our society has drilled the story of progress through difficulty pretty deeply into our psyches. Sometimes it won’t be so obvious that an unpleasurable mental state is a necessary part of movement toward a more pleasurable one, however, and in that case, the story of progression doesn’t grip as tightly, and the likelihood of giving in to aversion increases.

Another problem is that “more pleasurable” doesn’t seem like the right way to gloss “better.” In my working model of what it means to lead a good life, pleasure is a necessary but not dominant component; the thing to optimize for is a complicated amalgam that philosophers, especially virtue ethicists, call “flourishing” (or eudaimonia). To me, that concept encompasses meaning, community, capability, physical and emotional intimacy, adequate food and shelter, and probably other subtler goods that aren’t coming to mind right now. And the tricky thing about flourishing, as distinct from pleasure, is that it cannot really be assessed on a moment-by-moment basis. It appears to be a property of segments of life trajectories, since moment-by-moment it can include many unpleasurable states that in isolation could easily be viewed as undesirable.

In other words, even under an expanded definition of “good” as encompassing “eventual good,” we can’t really know if a particular mental state is desirable or not, in terms of what is overall “good” for us as human beings. Ditto for states of the world. If the flourishing view is more correct than the pleasure view, which I believe, then there’s a further complexity in that assessments of “goodness” can only be made for sufficiently long periods of time (which also: how long exactly is long enough?). And even the concept of goodness is unstable and open to debate. Philosophers have been debating it for thousands of years; even apart from that literal debate, the same debate plays out implicitly in each of us as we make decisions in our lives.

Ask David Brooks. A good life is one of virtue, rooted in community, contribution, and character. Cultivate yourself, find what you can do for the world, and watch as your life begins to seem “good.” Some people lead this life with great success; others, not so much.

Or: a good life is one of freedom and simplicity, preferably out in the natural world, unencumbered by the boondoggles of civilization. Go out and adventure, experience the surfaces of things, and in that, you’ll find salvation.

Or: a good life is one of contemplation and understanding, maybe with some asceticism thrown in. Give yourself up to God, or meditate ten hours a day until the True Nature of Experience becomes clear to you. Everything else is sin, or delusion and suffering.

Or: a good life is one of animal satisfaction. Our human needs are very simple, when it comes right down to it. We need a tribe, food, shelter, and sex. Get those things, vanish into the world of the object-level, and everything else will sort itself out.

These visions of the good life often conflict, and though it may be possible to reconcile them, it’s difficult. The truth is they all offer an view of what a good human life is. They’re ultimately all right, just incomplete.

Even taking just one element of one of these visions, zooming in immediately leads to further confusion. For example, I feel very confident human connection is an important component of a life well-lived. Even Thoreau and Abbey valued friendship to punctuate their solitude.

But… “connection” turns out to be as elusive as any other concept. I used to think I knew what connection was pretty unequivocally; my mind recognized it by a very specific pleasant feeling. The good news was that I got increasingly skilled at behaving in a way that would produce that feeling, so much so that I thought I’d become “good at connection” (hahahahaha). And then I moved to a new city, and unsurprisingly, getting that feeling became a lot harder. I started to notice how much effort I was exerting to produce that feeling, how that effort often failed, how painful the whole thing was.

Possibly the explanation is that, well, I moved to a new place with unfamiliar people. That’s definitely part of it (dependent origination, etc. etc.). I suspect it’s deeper than that, though. I suspect my mind had tagged one specific form of connection as the One True Form, insisting that any other experience of another person’s presence is disconnection, loneliness, solipsism. As I pay more attention to what the experience of being with someone else is actually like, and to let go of the enormous effort I was exerting, I’m discovering a new ease in the mundane flow of human contact. I’m noticing the moments when I feel alone and when my mind can truly notice and let in the other person’s presence. It feels like I’m finding that connection is more common than I’d thought, though also more complex and subtle.

The same is true of everything else.

III.

We still haven’t arrived at the bottom of the recursion, and I want to cut this off, so let’s skip ahead. Continuing the process indefinitely, we’d eventually arrive at the conclusion that the only groundings for concepts are individual moments of experience. Through meditation, we can come to observe these individual moments. You don’t have to meditate to believe this, although meditation makes it possible to see experience at a far finer level of detail than the untrained mind is capable of. Experience is there either way, however.

The point I’m trying to make is that, most of the time, I get the impression people are not doing that grounding. I definitely haven’t for most of my life, and, even now, I struggle with it. (Nothing about this point is revolutionary, by the way: the Buddha made it two-thousand years ago and it’s not exactly news in modern times, either. It’s definitely part of the point of Val’s much-discussed post on Looking.)

Staying with the consensus reality map has many benefits, no question. There’s a lot of practical folk wisdom behind the model of the world it codifies, making it a strong baseline, and it’s convenient for quick communication with others. I’m not sure this even needs to be said, since most of us are pretty big fans of the consensus model.

What does need to be said is that, for certain purposes, the model is horrifyingly inadequate. And yet despite that, people stick to it.

“Shoulds” illustrate the inadequacy in a way I find very compelling. By “should” I just mean any sense the mind generates that something should be done a certain way. CFAR puts a lot of emphasis on this concept, probably because the mind generates a lot of these injunctions. Their take on it, which I’ve more or less adopted, is that “shoulds” can be productively viewed as data and processed from that perspective.

That’s a profound shift in model and fully internalizing it isn’t easy. It seems like a lot of people carry around a model of the world where “shoulds” are atomic; I can still access that model, and get tricked by it (unfortunately). In that model, “shoulds” correspond to objective facts about the world and feel like they generate pulls-toward and pushes-away-from certain actions, thoughts, and emotions. One way to think of that map of the world is that it posits the existence of boundaries to freedom. You can do this, but not that, because you “shouldn’t” do that. Since “should” is a primitive in this model/map, no further discussion is necessary or even possible.

From the perspective of this post, CFAR’s approach is basically asking us to look more closely at what is actually happening when we encounter the “should” force field. If they wanted to teach it in a very meditative way, they could ask some question like, “Where is that force?” Or from a circling/focusing perspective, “What is the whole sense of that force?” The first question, asked with openness, leads to the obvious conclusion that the force is in the mind; it’s a felt sense, a strong one sometimes but ultimately just a constellation of physical sensations and mental impressions.

The second question leads to a deconstruction of that felt sense and the discovery of its component parts. To me, a strong “should” often comes with a feeling of tension or freezing: my back tenses, chest tightens, and a frisson moves through my entire body. It’s often associated with shame and a sense of generalized disapproval; different people whose opinions matter to me come to mind, and I imagine their disapproving faces. In other words, a strong “should” for me is some amalgam of fear and shame. It’s basically a prediction that other people will disapprove of my action and an alert from my mind that it believes that to be painful at best and dangerous at worst.

What it is not is a thing external to me. At first glance, the intense fear that comes from that prediction of disapproval feels very solid. The mind recoils from the fear and wants to avoid doing the thing that would cause the fear’s prediction to come true. Even looking at it more closely, it feels solid. It feels like a swirl of images, thoughts, physical sensations, and physical/psychological pain that add up to a single, obvious conclusion: don’t do this thing; if you do, something bad will happen.

This description fits comfortably in CFAR’s map of the world but much less so in (what I take to be) the default map where “shoulds” are atomic. And it’s helpful to access the perspective where “shoulds” dissolve into mental movements because it allows us to notice that we have the affordance to do the thing that we “should not do.”

The more refined model makes obvious a freedom obscured by the default.

Despite knowing that, I still notice that my mind often experiences “shoulds” as very solid. So solid in fact that it basically hides the constituent parts and sometimes even the existence of the should, skipping straight to the part where a certain course of action isn’t considered, or the implicit constraints on action are “magically” in line with the relevant “should.”

It’s possible to tell multiple stories about why the mind preserves that solidity. One story is simply that it allows the avoidance of the suffering associated with noticing the sensations and emotions underlying the “should.” That feels partially right: accessing the underlying feelings even just to write this post was painful, and I notice a shrinking-away from them. Even the sense of freedom that arises isn’t free of suffering. It has a melancholy aspect. It comes with a sense of the ultimate meaningnessless of all things: we are here for a while to live, to commune with the world and each other, and then we pass, having experienced both joy and suffering, into nothing; nothing lasts forever.

The suffering explanation is basically Buddhism’s explanation for the mind’s aversion to deconstruction and capital-I Insight. Underlying all sensations, so the Theravadans posit, is a global unsatisfactoriness or incompleteness that the mind wants to escape from. So clear perception comes with an inherent pain, at least until sufficient equanimity is cultivated.

Whatever explanation we give, it does seem to be the case that the mind is attached to its model of the world. Parts of it don’t want to see that the map is just a map, don’t even want to replace the map with a new, more useful map.

There’s a part of me that wants to end this post on an inspiring note. At times, I’ve experienced the noticing of the map and its replacement as incredibly liberating, in fact as the liberation from all constraint whatsoever. In those moments of falling-away, I feel godlike in my unbounded affordances.

Look how much can be done, if only all the options are noticed and considered, if only every constraint is examined and recognized as ultimately conceptual!

But the truth is, right now, I feel very human, very aware of the limitations of my own mind. The agency I exert, the forward movement in the direction of my choosing, feels less like a resolute stride and more like a (resolute) stumbling forward in darkness.

In that realization, there’s a calm, cool power, too. A knowledge that clarity and a sense of strength are not prerequisites for action. Action can feel like fumbling in the dark. It’s still action.

And I feel like that realization is also a part of updating my map of the world, maybe at some very meta-level. It’s like updating the map of the relation between my mind and the world, or of my mind’s model of its own capacity. A deep paradox wells up for me, the thought that even in clarity there is blindness and even in blindness, clarity.

I notice the attachment to the idea that my map of the world has changed, is changing — and for the better. And I notice that that, too, is part of the map that the mind wants to look at.