Sunday, September 26, 2010

Solitude and its Graces 13

This is my final post on Anthony Storr's small classic Solitude.  He finishes the book with a chapter on the pursuit of wholeness, or  in other words the search for that elusive unity in life.  All of this may also, of course, be described as soul work, as the search for personal integration, for individuation (as Jung puts it), or for self-realization (as the Estern religions put it) or for self-actualization (Abraham Maslow and others).  These are all ways of saying the same thing in essence, though the emphases may vary.

The Image of the Ocean

Il Mar Ionio non lontano dalla nostra casa a Isca Marina
We humans have never ceased being in awe of the oceans which surround us on our little patch of earth. 70.8% (71%) of the surface of the earth is water, 29.2 % is land.  No wonder then that we are fascinated by it.  Also roughly 55% and 60% respectively of the human body is basically water depending on whether one is female or male.  Also when we trace our origins, all life - the human included - came from the watery womb of the ocean.  Water, one could say, is the very source and summit of life. Consequently, it is not alone highly important for physical survival but also for various symbolic meanings in all cultures.  Once again, the ocean itself is a symbol of the unconscious - that is, the great unknown level of the human psyche when one looks at the topographical model of the mind.

The Oceanic Feeling

This expression, I believe, is a wonderful one which means that ecstatic feeling we humans get on occasions when we experience a unity with a greater "power," or find ourselves overwhelmed by the mystery of life, or are carried away by falling in love with another, or are aesthetically moved by some piece of art, or, if you are religious, you will call this an experience of or an encounter with the divine.  These are all ways basically of describing one's encounter with the oceanic Freud reduced practically all our desires ultimately to the sexual impulse and the thwarting and repression of those desires to be the cause of our neuroses. I am one with Storr in his acknowledgement that Freud was right in seeing a similarity between the feeling of unity with the universe and the feeling of unity with the beloved person, but very wrong indeed to dismiss such experiences as merely regressive illusions.

 Let us return to Storr's words here for insight and illumination:

Admiral Byrd as a young Naval Commander
The sense of perfect harmony with the universe, of perfect harmony with another person, and of perfect harmony within the self are intimately connected; indeed, I believe them to be essentially the same phenomenon.  The triggers for these experiences are of many different kinds.  Marghanita Laski lists 'nature, art, religion, sexual love, childbirth, knowledge, creative work, certain forms of exercise,' as being the most common.  Admiral Byrd's description of feeling at one with the a characteristic example for which the triggers were solitude, silence and the magic of the Antarctic.  Experiences of this kind can also occur spontaneously in solitude without the aid of any external stimulus.  Such transcendental experiences are closely connected with aspects of trhe creative process; with suddenly being able to make sense out of what had previously appeared impenetrable, or with making a new unity by linking together concepts which had formerly seemed to be quite separate.  (Solitude, p. 188)
There is much "food for thought" in the above paragraph, because it firmly describes "transcendental experiences" within the ambit out our psychology as living humans.  It does not need to posit the existence of an external deity to be the source of such transcendental experiences either.  It has long been my own deeply held thought and equally deeply held feeling that much, if not all, of religious experiences can be firmly situated within the psychological make-up of the human mind. 

Bertrand Russell
To this extent I am in no way surprised that Bertrand Russell, one of the greatest philosophers and one of the foremost mathematicians of the early twentieth century, and life-long atheist, described how as an eleven year old he had such an experience in doing mathematicis, an experience tantamount to a transcendental one, which he later described as "one of the great events of my life, as dazzling as first love." (Quoted ibid., p. 188)

Biology and Depth Psychology

Without a doubt biology plays a very important role in the human psyche by way of sexual desires and impulses, but such is most particularly evident during the first part of the human lifespan.  We owe much to Carl Gustave Jung for this insight, for it was he who said that the human lifespan can be divided roughly into two parts, phases or halves - the first which runs from 0 to 35 and the second from 35 onwards.  In the first part of life, the human creature seeks to propagate its species, form unions with other creatures and form families.  The second phase is concerned with making some meaning of what life is in itself anyway, what the overarching purpose of life is and how he or she can find their true vocation or life project.  This second period is one of exploring the depths of the psyche - hence the term "depth psychology."  It is also a time for the exploration of the personal unconscious and indeed the collective unconscious, or in the famous words of Freud, it is a period where we "make the unconscious conscious."

So the second part of life is all about the pursuit of meaning and purpose in life, of plumbing the depths of the psyche for direction, unity and integrity.  Here we return to all those virtually synonymous terms I listed in my opening paragraph above.  In all this, I find Jung's idiosyncratic insights into depth psychology personally rewarding, especially the Jungian way of working with and teasing out one's dreams.  To this extent, I love his definition of personality which runs thus: "the supreme realization of the innate idiosyncrasy of a living being." ((Quoted, ibid., p. 191)

Freud and Jung, left and right in front row
On the one hand Freud dismissed  all religion as illusion, while on the other Jung pursued what could be argued to be a substitute religion in his specific brand of depth psychology. (The Self is, as it were, the God within!)  Often, Jung's Freudian critics often dismissed his views as nothing short of unregenerate obscurantism.  The same criticisms could be levelled at the archetype psychology of James Hillman.

In summary, then, we may say that the goal for every human creature is "individuation" according to Jung or, if you wish, any of the synonymous terms I have listed above in my opening paragraph.  Basically the "process of individuation" tends towards the goal of "wholeness" or integration.  This wholeness may be also described variously as an overwhelming experience of unity or "oneness" with the universe or the source of that universe.  Call it what you wish.  You may wish to call it a religious experience or not.  You may wish to call it a transcendental experience or you may not.  You may wish to call it simply a deep or overwhelming experience.  Still more, you may wish to call it an aesthetic experience, an artistic experience, a depth experience, a profound experience, or simply a depth psychological experience.  In short, mysticism may not be that extraordinary an experience at all, if one locates its locus within the human psyche both conscious and unconscious.  Obviously, mysticism will never cease to be extraordinary if you wish to locate its locus firmly outside the human mind and in the very transcendence of a totally other and divine source traditionally called God.  Wherever you place the locus, the experience cannot be gainsaid.  And that, dear readers, is all we need to know.  Let us never denigrate the sincerity of either believers or non-believers.  Let us, in all reasonableness and compassion, accept them for their sincerity and honesty of conviction.

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