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The Passion of the Western Mind – ¿Paradise Regained?

December 23, 2013

path of descent

Now that I have a better internet connection in Mexico, I have been watching the series of ten one-hour lectures on YouTube that Richard Tarnas gave about the life and work of James Hillman in 2012 as a course in the Philosophy, Cosmology and Consciousness Program at the California Institute for Integral Studies.

These lectures are excellent for two reasons. First, they are an informative, interesting and accessible account of the important and challenging work of James Hillman, (which I have written about before on this blog in relation to ayahuasca). Secondly, they illustrate well the ideas of Richard Tarnas, as he presents what he calls a ‘trialogue’ between the ideas of Jung, Hillman and himself.

From 1974 to 1984, Richard Tarnas lived and worked at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, studying with Joseph Campbell, Gregory Bateson, Huston Smith, James Hillman, and Stanislav Grof, and later served as its director of programs and education. He, therefore, was exposed to the ideas and presence of some of the most interesting and original figures outside the confines of  the mainstream of twentieth century thought.

Between 1980 and 1990, Richard Tarnas wrote the hugely impressive book ‘The Passion of the Western Mind’. This is a scholarly and highly readable account of the evolution of the Western philosophical tradition beginning with the Greeks and ending in the contemporary postmodern era.

It’s the kind of book that should be basic reading for any program in liberal arts or anyone interested in the history of ideas that have shaped our current worldview. Not only does Tarnas lucidly expound and link together the ideas of the major figures in the Western philosophical tradition but he also locates them within a contextualizing framework, which sees our current time as a transition between different world views.

These are, on the one hand, the scientific, modernist, skeptical, rational paradigm which has been dominant since the sixteenth century and, on the other hand, an emerging postmodern, relational, holistic, participatory paradigm which includes the return and integration of all (especially the feminine) that was repressed in the former patriarchal, colonialist, modernist worldview.

Especially, in lectures eight and nine on the YouTube series, Tarnas presents in brief his overview of the development of Western philosophical thought and the role he sees that that Hillman’s work plays in the current transition to an emerging world view.

Tarnas starts the evolution of philosophical and religious thought in a context in which the self and the world are not differentiated. Both the self and the world of nature are infused with soul and spirit. The self is not apart from the world of nature but intimately connected to it. Tarnas, following Jung, calls this form of consciousness, ‘participation mystique’. Jung wrote:

“Participation mystique is a term derived from Lévy-Bruhl. It denotes a peculiar kind of psychological connection with objects, and consists in the fact that the subject cannot clearly distinguish himself from the object but is bound to it by a direct relationship which amounts to partial identity.”

Tarnas then shows, (to cut a very long story short!), that with the development of Western philosophy and religious modes of thinking – especially the Judeo-Christian tradition of a transcendental, monotheistic God – a different kind of self comes into being – one that defines itself against and sets itself apart from the environment in which it is situated.

This self most clearly emerges in the period of the scientific revolution of the sixteenth century and the subsequent Enlightenment. It is deeply questioning, emancipatory, democratic, skeptical of all traditions, autonomous, assertive and embracing of novelty. Its gifts are the ability to think critically and not take anything – including any authority – for granted, which propels it in the direction of freedom.

However, this self has a darker side, which can be seen in a number of significant ways: in its insistence on the sole validity of knowledge being provided by rationality (“I think, therefore I am”); its belief in its own superiority (and therefore of Western rational, scientific knowledge); its uncritical adoption and assertion of progress; its separation and alienation from nature; and its instrumental view of the environment as being solely containing resources for its own benefit. In short, we are talking about the patriarchal ego – as embodied in both women and men – and the contemporary ecological crisis this self and its worldview have led to.

Beginning around 100 years ago, particularly ushered in by Nietzsche, then followed by Freud, Jung and Hillman in the depth psychology tradition and then the whole subsequent thrust of postmodern philosophy including feminist, ecological and post-colonialist thought, this self centered around the patriarchal ego, and the accompanying paradigm which it both defines and is defined by, has come under siege and been critically deconstructed.

Furthermore, twentieth-century developments in science itself have further eroded the supposedly solid foundations on which this self and its worldview are based. First, in quantum physics, through undermining the scientific principles of objectivity and the dualism of a strict separation between subject and object by showing that the act of observation inevitably effects what is being observed. Secondly, through the sciences of chaos and complexity, which show that the world cannot be adequately understood mechanistically but is inherently uncertain, unpredictable and open-ended.

Tarnas views the effect of this sustained critique, which uncovers, questions and sees through the illusions and pretensions of the Western egoistic self as leading to a decentering, fragmentation and to what he calls a ‘descent’ of the self. Hillman’s work is particularly helpful here as he consistently affirms this descent and embraces the so-called pathological forms it can take, notably depression, as part of the process of soul-making, which the dominant culture has  devalued – preferring the upward movement of spirit to the downward movement of soul.

As the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr says: “The path of descent is the path of transformation. Darkness, failure, relapse, death, and woundedness are our primary teachers, rather than ideas or doctrines.”

Tarnas, influenced  by Stan Grof and his work on non-ordinary states of consciousness, views this descent as a potential death-rebirth process. Two of its accompanying dangers are over-fragmentation of the self and an extreme self-consciousness in which everything is cynically or despairingly seen through and nothing, therefore, has value. (As an aside, it seems to me, from my own experience and talking to others, that marijuana can provoke this disenchanted, hyper self-conscious, somewhat paranoid state, which may be one reason that it is viewed negatively within traditional Shipibo medicine).

This descent, however, can also lead to a return to the original matrix from which the Western Mind emerged in which the self is no longer separate from the world but permeable with and within it. Both self and the cosmos recover their enchantment, and we are able to experience what Hillman calls the anima mundi – that nature and the material world are not inert mechanisms but purposive, beautiful and ensouled.

In his lectures, Tarnas represents this whole process developmentally and diagrammatically as the evolution of a kind of mandala, where the Western mind now returns to the original state of participation mystique – a deep connection and relatedness with nature, which is often identified by anthropologists as the mode of being and thinking of indigenous people before sustained contact with the West.

However, where most commentators see indigenous people existing in this relationship in a largely unconscious way (because they lack the particular egoistic self-consciousness developed in the West), the journey the Western Mind has taken to come back here, to Paradise potentially regained, means we now re-enter this state in a different way.

I find this perspective invaluable in helping further understand my and others experiences with La Madre Ayahuasca. As the use of ayahuasca appears to be rapidly growing in the West, she is  helping facilitate the descent that Tarnas refers to on both an individual and a collective level, and, thus,  helping midwife a new, emergent cosmovision.

Tarnas’ perspective also shows that we cannot help but bring our own cultural paradigms to our experiences with Madre Ayahausaca. We are not like the Shipibo and other indigenous peoples who can enter more easily into the world of spirits and other realities because these realities are so much an intrinsic part of their culture and have been so for millennia.

We, (or at least I), enter these other realities and forms of consciousness with our Western-shaped minds intact and functioning. Whilst La Madre Ayahuasca is profoundly helpful in dissolving our egos and the cultural paradigms which support and are supported by these egos, we also filter and make sense of these experiences through those same cultural paradigms. I don’t think we can go completely native, even if I/we would forever like to escape the limitations  and restriction of our Western egos.

What Madre Ayahuasca can provide us with is this endlessly enriching encounter between our Western world views and the realities that these very same world views have denied and suppressed. Personally, following Hillman and the translation of ayahuasca as the vine of the soul, I tend to understand these realities as belonging to the soul. As Heraclitus said, towards the beginning of Western philosophy:

“You would not find the limits of the soul although you travelled every road: it has so deep a logos.”

  1. Michael Guy permalink

    Very concisely and clearly laid out Paul. A scholarly piece !

  2. Great post on a wonderful book! Tarnas’ book really did introduce me to Hillman, and many other western writers. I agree with you, it should be required High School reading.

  3. wow powerful i will defenatly be watching these as soon as i get a chance. thanks for sharing.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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