Shamans of the Soul

We have this articulated space we can all discuss, and outside of that we have something that is more akin to a dream that we are embedded in… And in that dream, that is where the mystics live, and the artists, and they are the meditators between the absolute unknown and the things we know for sure. And if those two things are out of sync, if our articulated knowledge is out of sync with our dreams, then we become dissociated internally….And that produces a kind of sickness of the spirit. And [in that sickness] people turn to ideologies, which I regard as parasites on an underlying religious substructure to try to organize their thinking, and then that is a catastrophe. That is what Nietzsche saw. He knew that when we knock the slats out of the base of Western civilization by destroying this representation, this God ideal, let’s say, we would destablize and move back and forth violently between nihilism and the extremes of ideology…. And we have been oscillating back and forth between left and right ever since, and with some nihilism and despair thrown in. That is the situation of the modern Western person.(8:30 mark)

The Bible … exists in that space that is half into dream and half into articulated knowledge. And going into it to find out what the stories are about can aid our self-understanding… If Nietzsche was correct and if Dostoevsky and Jung were correct, without the corner stone that understanding provides, we are lost. And that’s not good because then we are susceptible to psychic pathologies. People who are adamant anti-religious thinkers seem to believe that if we abandoned our immersement in the underlying dream, we would all instantly become rationalists like Descartes or Bacon, intelligent, clear thinking, rational, scientific people. I don’t believe that for a moment, because I don’t think there is any evidence for it. I think we would become so irrational so rapidly that the weirdest mysteries of Catholicism would seem rational by contrast, and that is already happening.(44:00 mark) – Jordan Peterson

These quotes are from Jordan Peterson’s first lecture in his course on the psychological significance of the Biblical stories. It is an amazing lecture, in which he puts his finger on why spirituality matters in society.

At root religious fundamentalists and ardent atheists make the same mistake: they assume that a rationally articulated understanding of the world is, or can be, the basis of human experience and society. The religious fundamentalist claims his favorite religion and culture for the role of that rational articulation. The ardent atheist claims a clear-headed scientific awareness for that role. But what both show thereby is a naive understanding of human psychology.

It also highlights the limits of philosophy as traditionally understood.

Human consciousness is rooted primarily in deep story telling. A sense of where one came from, and where one is going. Of who we are, and why we are going through this thing called life, and how best to go through it.

This story telling resonates with us when it comes from the depth of our being, from the space of, as Peterson put it, our dreams. From beyond the control and guidance of our conscious awareness.

This captures both what Rorty got right, and what he got wrong. He was right that a fundamental role of philosophy is to tell stories, intellectual stories. But he was wrong in that the stories can be told mainly from the level of the intellect. They need to come from deeper within us. They need to come from a space and point of being and consciousness in us where we have let go of our conscious crutches and fears and anxieties and ideas, and give ourselves to a deeper energy.

Ancient texts such as the Bible or the Vedas were many things. Science, philosophy, literature, culture. But at bottom, beyond all that, they were telling deep stories at the level of our deepest consciousness, so as to awaken within us to that deeper, higher form of consciousness.

Since the time of those texts, science, philosophy, literature and so on have gone on to be modes of activity on their own. They are not done in one text. And that’s great. That allows us to explore the different dimensions of life and world without running them together. Science doesn’t have to be beholden to literature or moral needs. Similarly, with literature and so on.

But there is still the need for deep stories which tap into the depth of being and have a kind of unifying and guiding structure.

Peterson is totally right that political ideologies on the right and the left have their appeal because they mimic these deep stories of spirituality, and for the people who get pulled into them, they feel like the deepest stories they know. Hence debate goes nowhere between proponents of different ideologies. The appeal of the ideology just is that it speaks to a realm of consciousness within us much deeper than that of debate. And so “debate” becomes rather just a way of fighting about which deeper realm is better. This is what happens on cable news, facebook, twitter, etc.

As was evident in the 19th century, nationalism in politics is a particularly powerful deep story. As are trans-national stories like communism, or the spread of capitalism and freedom, etc. Nowadays we can add these the deep stories of multi-culturalism, feminism and so on.

The fact that these deep stories get a grip on us means that they are deeply right about something. They speak to something deep in us. Trying to debate which of them is right never succeeds because the realm of debate cannot move by itself the deeper currents which make the deep story appealing in the first place.

Hence what is produced is what thinkers have long noticed, since the time of Socrates, Buddha and Lao Tzu, that there are forms of debate which are mainly unproductive. They have merely the form of understanding and engaging with the other side, but which are really just expressions of an already accepted and unshakable worldview, and which the debaters have no intention of changing or giving up.

If not through debate, how do we deal with the conflicting deep stories in our lives? If not debate, what can bring some structure and peace?

Deeper deep stories. Much, much deeper deep stories.

Nationalism, communism, post-colonialism, feminism, religious fundamentalism, combative atheism – these have the form of deep stories, and they evoke the passions and identifications which come from below our more ordinary, surface awareness. And one can identify the ups and downs of each view – and yet not really move the needle much.

There is only one way to engage with and move beyond a deep story: to tell a deeper story. To go even deeper into the human consciousness, to be more courageous, to forgo the surface ego and rational consciousness more, to be more fearless and less self-protective. To dive wholesale into the ocean which is the human psyche and to trust that the more you immerse yourself in that psyche without fear, the more our shared human psyche will speak out deeper deep stories which move us and open up new avenues of awareness and action.

In our world of science, philosophy, politics, literature and overall modernity and clear-sightedness, there is still a deep need for shamans of the soul. 

Not the kind who embrace an irrationality which is sub-rational. But ones who plumb the depths of the consciousness in a supra-rational way. Who embrace all the insights of modernity and rationality to such an extent that they self consciously recognize the limits of modern rationality itself, and who give themselves to the mysteries of the deep unconscious to lead the way.

Isn’t this a recipe for chaos? If we don’t hold on to the rational mind, how do we know which stories to follow and which to reject? How do we tell the stories of a Hitler apart from those of a Gandhi? Or stories of sensible people from those of lunatics?

There is a way. And it doesn’t require the policing of the rational mind. Nor guidelines of what constitutes good thought, and how to avoid bad thought. It doesn’t require guidelines at all.

It is: Peace. Stillness. Faith. Trust.

The deepest of the deep stories evoke the peace at the eye of the hurricane. The deep stories of people who have reached that space, or near there, move people without people debating whether it is good or not. The goodness of following those stories and of giving oneself to them will be evident in the very peace and harmony and love which they raise up in one’s consciousness. It is self-evident in the transformation not just of one’s ideas or hopes, but of one’s being from its very core.

Outer peace is only possible in human life when all humans are self-reflective enough to be able to be aware of that consciousness of peace within themselves, and so able to tell the deepest stories from within their own awareness. Lacking that ability to hear those deepest stories within their own consciousness, people look outside themselves for stories which will move them, and so they are susceptible to stories which have only a surface depth.

To really overcome shallow deep stories, there is only one way.

Dive deeper into your consciousness. Listen to the stories coming from the innermost depths of peace within yourself. And if from there you feel so moved, speak those stories and be their mouthpiece with love and compassion.

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