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Participation Mystique – An alternative to secular materialism

Mystiques of malabar

Mystiques of malabar: Seema K K via Flickr

Participation Mystique is a psychological and spiritual idea proposed by the anthropologist Lucien Lévi-Bruhl. It concerns the alleged mystical relationship that so-called primitives had with objects in their environment.

In Lévi-Bruhl’s own words:

In the collective representations of primitive mentality objects can be…something other than themselves…they give forth and they receive mystic powers, virtues, qualities, influences which make themselves felt outside, without ceasing to remain where they are.¹

The depth psychiatrist Carl Jung used the term participation mystique to denote two arguably related ideas.

First, Jung describes cases where his clients believe they have some kind of mystical connection with another person. This may involve a love affair, real or imagined or, more disturbingly, a kind of paranoid, fear relationship.

Over the years Jung modifies his thinking on this. Early on, he seems to say that participation mystique mostly involves a distorted understanding of the collective unconscious. That is, one mistakenly assumes a two-way mystical connection and that the other feels what they feel.

But later in his career Jung seems to open up to the notion that real, two-way relationships can occur through the matrix of the collective unconscious. These may be mutually conscious, conscious on the part of one person, or mutually unconscious.

Second, Jung talks about participation mystique in terms of the numinous power of the archetypes spilling over into ego consciousness. This doesn’t necessarily involve a relationship with another person, per se. The power of the archetypes can be experienced internally like the power of, as Jung suggests, the old gods. As such, they can be helpful or harmful, depending on how the ego relates to this power.

Lévi-Bruhl and Jung’s theories suggest that so-called primitives had an intimate relation with spiritual powers, good and bad.

For Jung, the ego is a high point of modern civilization. But the ego can also obscure the process of participation mystique. The psychological development of the ego gives mankind planes, trains and automobiles but robs us of an inner psycho-wealth apparently enjoyed by our ancestors.

This scenario has been questioned by Michel Foucault and others who say it is a romantic reconstruction of the past based on little or no fact. Foucault studies different understandings – in postmodern terms, constructions – of the self throughout Western history. He touches on themes like dream analysis and the sacrament of confession. But it seems he never really experiences the numinous in a mature way. Like many intelligent but overtly conceptual thinkers, his only understanding of spirituality comes from experimenting with mind-altering drugs.

The American mythographer Joseph Campbell builds on Jung’s work, suggesting that moderns can enjoy a sense of the numinous and feel spiritually connected to all of creation through archetypal films like Star Wars

Campbell implies that, contrary to what some might say, Europeans do not have a monopoly on deep culture. Culture is alive and well in North America—not so much through majestic old buildings and the classical arts but through the staggering achievements of Hollywood, the media, technology, and a higher standard of living. However, Campbell also appreciates the great cultural riches of European and most other civilizations.³

Darth Vader as a dark archetypal image – Vader has insight but uses it to destroy and conquer rather than to build up and share

Participation mystique is a pivotal idea because it links the individual to something greater than secular materialism. It opens the door to inner exploration and social dialog, both important and best kept in balance. Inner exploration without sincere dialog could lead to madness or charismatic authoritarianism. And social dialog without inner exploration might contribute to the same old worldly ideas being tossed around without any real insight, inspiration or meaningful innovation.

¹ Lucien Lévi-Bruhl, How Natives Think, trans. Lilian A. Clare, New York: Washington Square Press, 1966 [1910],  p. 61.

² The Romanian scholar, Mircea Eliade, says much the same thing in his own critique of modern culture. In Myth and Reality Eliade claims that mid-20th century comics like Superman “present the modern version of mythological or folklore Heroes” (New York: Harper & Row 1963, pp. 184-185).

³ These observations refer to about 1949-1987, when Campbell’s influence was at its peak. Everything has changed since then. I once knew a professor who came to Canada from a European country while it was under the grip of communism. Unlike Campbell, this professor implied that European culture was vastly superior to North American culture, the unanswered question being: If the professor likes the old country so much, why is he still in North America?

Johann Heinrich Füssli, Le Cauchemar (The Nightmare), 1781 via Wikipedia

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Surya (Asian deity/deities)

Konark Sun Temple Panoramic View via Wikipedia

One of the main identities of Surya is an Indian sun god associated with fantastic temples, like that found at Konark.

Like most mythic beings, Surya appears in different contexts. The deity variously exhibits divine, semi-divine and aristocratic attributes, according to the tradition in which it has evolved. This variety poses a problem to archetypal theorists who tend to simply complex mythic histories by interpreting them in vague, watered-down “general principles”—e.g. Great Mother, The Wizard, The Wise Old Man.¹

Surya or the Sun God, Konark.

Surya or the Sun God, Konark. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Upon closer inspection much of the data forced into conceptual boxes by archetypal theorists is far more inconsistent and variable than they claim. Mythic and religious data is linked to politics, economics, geography, and war. With war we find that the aggressive movement of populations usually results in the conquest and subjugation of peoples, whose gods may be replaced, adapted or tolerated by the conquerors, who themselves almost always introduce something new to the cultural and religious landscape.

In defending their archetypal position, theorists like Joseph Campbell and C. G. Jung assert that they’ve distilled the underlying essence or commonality among various cultural expressions of an archetype. To distinguish a cultural manifestation from the archetype, proper, they use the term archetypal image. Archetypal images of a given archetype vary, but the underlying archetype behind its imagery is (supposedly) one and the same.

To my mind that’s like saying all cities are “the same” because they share core elements such as people, a downtown, suburbs, roads, utilities, government and housing. Anyone who has compared a developing to a developed city will find it a gross simplification to say that all cities are “the same.” And so it is, I would argue, with those archetypal theorists who claim that all myths and religions are “the same.” It’s an unwarranted simplification often made with good intentions, out of political correctness, or perhaps through lack of experience.

Joseph Campbell

Joseph Campbell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

See the following for the tremendous variety found in the Surya character, according to Asian tradition and scripture: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surya

¹In the Star Wars mythos Obi Wan Kenobi arguably plays a dual role of the Wizard and the Wise Old Man. Filmmaker George Lucas actually consulted the mythographer Joseph Campbell to facilitate the idea that Star Wars would tell a modern story with timeless, mythic appeal. So, in fairness, we could say that the success of Star Wars throws a vote in favor of the archetypal theorists and their tendency to generalize. However, many films use so-called archetypal ideas and bomb at the box office. So that’s clearly not enough for the making of a blockbuster.

Related » Underworld


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Huston Smith

English: Huston Smith at home in Berkeley.

Huston Smith at home in Berkeley. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Huston Smith (1919 –  ) is a widely respected educator and media figure in the area of comparative religion. In his compact classic, The World’s Religions (1991, formerly The Religions of Man, 1958), Smith reveals many of the insights and problems inherent to a comparative study of religion.

Choosing to place more emphasis on religious experience as something integral to personal transformation, and less on historical data, Smith hopes to rekindle debate around several age old questions:

Why are we here? What gives meaning to life? Does something exist beyond the world of the senses? Is there an afterlife?

Not strictly opposed to organized religions, Smith says their group aspect makes them a “mixed bag.”

Like any term religion can be defined as one wishes, and if one links it to institutions, I think religious institutions are indispensable, but they’re clearly a mixed bag, and we’ve had the wars of religions; but I tend to think this is the nature of institutions and people in the aggregate. What government has a clean or perfect record, you know?¹

Smith is reminiscent of to another leading interpreter of religion, Joseph Campbell, whose somewhat Jungian approach to the spirit has sparked worldwide interest and debate. However, Smith, as we see in the quote immediately below, doesn’t seem to entirely equate Christianity with non-Christian world religions.²

Hans Makart 006

Japanese kimono by Hans Makart (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some interesting Huston Smith quotes via Wikipedia:³

  • Smith is a practicing Christian who credits his faith to his missionary parents who had “instilled in me a Christianity that was able to withstand the dominating secular culture of modernity.”
  • “Institutions are not pretty. Show me a pretty government. Healing is wonderful, but the American Medical Association? Learning is wonderful, but universities? The same is true for religion… religion is institutionalized spirituality.”
  • “The goal of spiritual life is not altered states, but altered traits.”

Related » Aton, Illness


¹ Huston Smith, “The Psychology of Religious Experience” in Jeffrey Mishlove, Thinking Allowed video series:  http://www.thinkingallowed.com/2hsmith.html

² I remember seeing an early b&w Huston Smith film in an Oriental Phil. course at Trent University in the mid-1980s. Smith was quite young in the film, wearing a conventional Western suit with short cut hair. The class members laughed out loud at the seeming contradiction. Here was this uber straight looking Western guy doing a film on esoteric world religions. Our professor replied something like – “That’s what things were like back then.” And in retrospect, there was really nothing to laugh about. Smith was a pioneer, actively exploring areas that most others wouldn’t even imagine questioning beyond the prevailing Hollywood and music industry stereotypes. (As much as I admire Frank Sinatra, for instance, I smirk when I hear him sing about “far Bombay” in “Come Fly with Me“). Not to say that Sinatra necessarily believed in these clichés. I have no idea. But they certainly resonated with the pop culture that he thrived in. Another musical example would be Nat King Cole’s Hajji Baba (Persian Lament). For more, see E. Said, Orientalism.

³ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huston_Smith

On the Web:

  • “‘RUMI: Poet of the Heart,’ an award-winning 60 minute film produced and directed by Haydn Reiss, featuring Coleman Barks, Robert Bly, Deepak Chopra, storyteller and mythologist Michael Meade, and religious historian Huston Smith.”


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Sufism

Sufi Festival: Haseeb ANSAR

Sufi Festival: Haseeb ANSAR via Flickr

The term sufi (Arabic: mystic) is likely based on the root suf (wool), recalling the simple woolen garments worn by ascetics. Sufism is often seen as an unorthodox type of Islamic mysticism.

Some might idealize Sufis as itinerant holy men wandering through remote deserts, in actual fact Sufism became an organized movement around the 7th and 8th centuries. Their organization was mostly a reaction to the Middle-Eastern Umayyad dynasty, known for its worldliness.

The well-known Dervish orders arose in India around the 12th and 13th centuries. These emphasized ecstatic states and remained influential until recently.

The prominent Sufi Al-Hallaj (CE 858-922) advocated a mystical union of the individual soul with God. Like many who threaten the worldly minded, he was branded a heretic, imprisoned and later executed.

The essence of Sufism might best be expressed by the 13th-century and still popular poet Jala ud-Din Rumi. Rumi’s verse can be found in New Age bookstores and his message prefigures Joseph Campbell‘s dictum of follow your bliss.

Related Posts » Islam, Prayer, Sikhism

 

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Yoda

Yoda’s tear (Photo: Niall Kennedy via Flickr)

Yoda is a wise spiritual teacher of Luke Skywalker and other Jedi knights in the Star Wars films of George Lucas.

As the Grand Master of the Jedi Order, his power extends to being able to mediate and control “The Force,” which in the greater Star Wars cosmology is a spiritual life force pervading the universe.

Yoda’s species and last name remain unknown, although Lucas originally planned to call him Yoda Minch.

Yoda essentially is an American fictional variant of the Indian guru and, to some extent, the Siberian shaman. Links to these actual religious beliefs and practices shouldn’t be surprising, considering Lucas was friends and consulted with the renowned scholar of religion and mythology, Joseph Campbell.

Master Yoda

Master Yoda (Photo: Alex Abian via Flickr)

The fact that the Yoda character has become enshrined in popular culture can hardly be disputed. People even makes jokes about others being “like Yoda” if they’re wise and, perhaps, a bit eccentric.

This attests to the genius of American culture, in particular that of Hollywood. Unlike people in countries clinging to a glorious national past, mythological and otherwise, Americans are creating meaningful myth and culture today.

Related Posts » Obi Wan Kenobi, Odysseus

 


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Ambrosia

Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen - Istoriato scho...

Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen – Istoriato schotel: de maaltijd der Goden op de Olympus (Istoriato dish: the food of the gods on Olympus – Photo credit: MicheleLovesArt)

Ambrosia (from Greek ambrotos = immortal) is the otherworldly food or drink of the Ancient Greek Olympians, sometimes given to mortal heroes and mankind as a salve but usually reserved for the gods. Said to confer the boon of immortality, mortals were punished if they took it uninvited.

Some scholars believe that ambrosia prefigures the Christian Eucharist. It remains unclear as to whether ambrosia has an earthly parallel (i.e. an actual substance found in nature), as does the Soma of the Hindu Vedic pantheon. Some say it’s based on the alleged healing powers of honey, others suggest it may be traced to the hallucinogenic mushroom.

Mythographer Joseph Campbell puts forward an interesting view:

…the drink of the gods, and the distillate of love are the same, in various strengths, to wit, ambrosia (Sanskrit amrta, “immortality”), the potion of deathless life experienced here and now. It is milk, it is wine, it is tea, it is coffee, it is anything you like, when drunk with a certain insight-life itself, when experienced from a certain depth and height.”¹

The Greek epic poet Homer made a clear distinction between ambrosia (food) and nectar (drink). But usually it’s not clear if ambrosia is food or drink. In ancient art it is usually administered by a nymph called Ambrosia.

¹ Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Creative Mythology. New York: Penguin Books, 1962: The Masks of God: Creative Mythology, 1976, p. 80.


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Martin Buber

Martin Buber (1878-1965)

Martin Buber (1878-1965) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Martin Buber (1878-1965) was a Viennese-born Israeli-Jewish theologian, best known for his 1922 classic, Ich und Du (I and Thou).

Buber has been described as a modern representative of a heterodox form of Jewish mysticism called Hasidism. His work is often mentioned in university philosophy and religion courses, mostly for his description of relating to others and to God in terms of an “I – Thou” (Ich‑Du) relationship. This, for Buber, is the only authentic way to relate.

Ich‑Du (“I‑Thou” or “I‑You”) is a relationship that stresses the mutual, holistic existence of two beings. It is a concrete encounter, because these beings meet one another in their authentic existence, without any qualification or objectification of one another. Even imagination and ideas do not play a role in this relation.†

Buber contrasts the “I – Thou” relationship to an “I – It” (Ich-Es) relationship. “I – It” relationships involve the intellect, concepts, projections, etc of another person instead of their authentic source.

The Ich-Es (“I‑It”) relationship is nearly the opposite of Ich‑Du.[25] Whereas in Ich‑Du the two beings encounter one another, in an Ich‑Es relationship the beings do not actually meet. Instead, the “I” confronts and qualifies an idea, or conceptualization, of the being in its presence and treats that being as an object. All such objects are considered merely mental representations, created and sustained by the individual mind.†

100th day of birth of Martin Buber (1878—1965)...

100th day of birth of Martin Buber (1878—1965) :*Graphic designer: Gerd Aretz :*Ausgabepreis: 50 Pfennig :*First Day of Issue / Erstausgabetag: 16. Februar 1978 :*Michel-Katalog-Nr: 962 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Buber believes that “I – Thou” relationships are quite rare. In reality most of us oscillate between seeing others in “I – Thou” and “I – it” terms.

When applying the “I – Thou” model to the way we relate to God, this stance may be contrasted to religious systems that advocate the ego becoming lost, engulfed or absorbed in God. Buber never eradicates the individual. It’s always about relationship, either respectful, loving and reverent (authentic) or cold, distant and opportunistic (inauthentic).

Unlike some so-called intellectuals who don’t practice what they preach, Buber resigned from his teaching post in Frankfurt when Adolf Hitler came to power. He left Germany in 1938 to settle in Jerusalem, where he continued to try to put his philosophical ideals into practice.

† For these quotes and their relation to other philosophers like Immanuel Kant, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Buber

Related Posts » Joseph Campbell, Inflation, Mythic Dissociation, Mythic Eternalization, Mythic Identification, Mythic Inflation, Mythic Subordination, Projection