Bliss, Disquiet, Enlightenment, and False Satoris
The apparent religiosity of James and Jung can obscure their fundamental scientific rigor.
-J. Allan Hobson, The Dreaming Brain
Life is not a matter of holding good cards but of playing a poor hand well.
- Robert Lewis Stevenson
This article started as a section in a story looking at the paradoxes of tribalism. I wanted to say all of the below in a few paragraphs.
Then it careened completely out of control.
The big italicized text aren’t quotations but part of the text…a running tl/dr as it were.
I suggest scanning quickly down the page using them to get the lay of the land. If you see something interesting, dig in a bit.
Read time for the big text: 3 minutes.
An Evolutionary Challenge
Carl Jung posited a unifying archetype he termed the Self. He depicts this as a ‘higher self.’
If we set aside the metaphysical, why would such a thing exist?
How would it work?
The earliest single-cell animals were controlled entirely by instinct.
From there, animals evolved increasing behavioral flexibility with a greater role for learning, tactical choices in action, and the assessment of long-term vs short-term benefits.
Homo Sapiens is the most dramatic example of this. We give the largest role to learning, to culture, and to complex planning.
(Hopefully, this evolutionary strategy will work out. Dinosaurs lasted 250 million years; we’re only in at 250 thousand and things are starting to fray.)
Our flexibility comes at a price: instinct kept us unified in our response. But people can go off in all directions at once. People suffer crises of response. People suffer from competing impulses and mixed-emotions. Our right hand sometimes does not know what our left hand is doing.
My starting assumption is that humans are bags of parts, some assembly required.
So then. We don’t necessarily fit together well. We don’t necessarily mesh with our family, tribe, and culture. We all start as awkward partially assembled beings. We may permanently be in the awkward stage.
Solution — the Self
We need some internal system capable of knitting together the various parts of ourselves as they emerge and potentially compete. It needs enough oompf to force a path towards resolution.
That, in my opinion, is precisely Jung’s Self.
Bateson defined auto-regulatory mechanisms. A thermostat is a very simple example. You set a target and the mechanism seeks to regulate temperature by warming things up or cooling things down to maintain that target. Your body is a much more complex version of the same as it works to control your body temperature.
Jung believed the psyche contains a function that counter-balances narrow ego-centered consciousness. His psychoanalysis relies on an inner mechanism that brings forth our excluded, undeveloped side in symptoms, dreams, art, ‘active imagination’, and play so they can be integrated.
Around the same time (a time when the vocabulary of systems theory was just starting to emerge), Jungian analyst Erich Neumann went further and more or less explicitly discusses the psyche in systems terms as auto-regulatory in The Origins and History of Consciousness.
This brings us to a key insight: our ‘true Self’ is dynamically created through work over time. It is not out there somewhere waiting to be discovered.
Self is something we do.
Carl Jung — Scientist
A slight digression: I’ve been using this slightly tweaked Jungian framework for decades. I’m ‘evidence-based’ and have never been forced to abandon that position — unlike 90% of all the ideas I’ve provisionally accepted over that span of time.
What does a good scientific theory need to do?
- It needs to advance an explanatory model of its subject that opens new territory.
- It needs to generate testable hypotheses. This extends the theory and pushes it up against its inevitable failures allowing it to be improved or replaced.
Viewed in these terms, Jung’s systems perspective of our psychodynamics is crisp enough to ground formal hypothesis-testing.
For example, much of Jung’s theory centers around complexes — core nexus of content and emotion. Jung attempted to verify this with his free association test. (The point here is not to dig into the results of those experiments; it’s to observe that it was possible to obtain experimental results and that he sought them.)
A wide variety of therapeutic systems include the concept of ‘inner healer’ — something inside that can provide what we need through dreams, or psychedelic therapy, or emerging content during Holotropic Breathing. The Self can crisp up that idea. (More on this below.)
To add a point of intuition. We most all have experienced things getting knitted together or problems solved while we sleep. Research confirms this. If there's a mechanism that synthesizes learning during sleep, it’s reasonable to hypothesis something similar that might harmonize competing tendencies. And even that the ‘qualia’ of dreams might play a role.
A recent review of relevant research can be found in Erik Goodwyn’s The Neurobiology of the Gods.
Jung’s Path to Self — Biography
Jung picks out a path of integration with stages that appear as we are forced to include the excluded during the course of our lives.
- The starting point is ‘ego consciousness’ — our waking self — walled off from the rest of the psyche so that it might have sufficient deployable conscious energy to function in the work-a-day world without being submerged or suborned by the unconscious. Despite time day-dreaming, we can keep a job.
- Ego defenses are the term for those walls.
- We will typically end up with well-developed ‘day job’ abilities. Growing into adulthood, we are under pressure to develop some sort of strong suit that fits with our culture.
- That, typically, produces a one-sided character. As life goes on, we now need to pick back up on what’s been left out. The Self is what implements that. It tries to keep us all of one piece…or at least enough of a single piece to function day-to-day…by counterbalancing the ego when it becomes unhealthily narrow.
- First up on the integration path is the Shadow…our excluded ‘dark side’ which could simply be under-developed abilities, but also traits we or our culture consider negative or shameful, and, in fact, traits that actually are negative, shameful, or dangerous to ourselves or others.
- Next up are traits our culture discourages based on biological gender. Jung’s terms for these are Anima and Animus. We need the cross-gender traits we have been forced to exclude.
- Integration engages these other parts of ourselves and brings them into a relationship with our conscious side. Perhaps we develop an ignored talent. Or perhaps we deal consciously with our evil twin so that it can find expression without sabotaging our conscious best intentions.
- It’s worth noting that without a sufficiently developed ego this process can go seriously wrong. The objective is integration, not regression.
We are working through the contradictions of our personal biography. The term contradiction is key.
Traits that might theoretically seem to conflict are irrelevant. We all have some of those. The conflict must be active. It stands to reason. Without an actual internal conflict created by competing impulses, there is no drive to integrate those competing impulses.
The Self, to recap, is an autoregulatory mechanism that attempts via an integrative process to build a Self that ‘transcends’ the internal conflicts as they come into play as we age and cause distress.
Jung’s Path to Self — History
Now things get even more interesting.
We can work through the conflicts and traumas of our personal biography (though Lord knows, that is often difficult enough), but from there we move into the fracture lines in our culture and even the unresolvable challenges of embodied human existence: time, death, gender, tribe, and species.
After dealing sufficiently with personal biography, the reward for work is more work. Having suffered through enough of the personal, we can now start suffering the collective.
The ‘Self system’ that knits us together has now hit contradictions that can’t be integrated in the same way. It has, in a sense, bit the nail. Even healing individual fractures generally require changing the interaction with one's family and immediate social circle. This is bigger than that.
The synthesis engine keeps on working to resolve conflicts but the game has changed.
We can heal and resolve personal trauma but we can only embody and suffer cultural contradictions and, perhaps, move things forward to the degree any single individual can.
Where does that leave us?
Ultimately these challenges are not resolvable through individual action though an individual can inspire change or open up a new vista.
We can work with our contradictions in art or plumb paths forward in visionary experience.
This is where Campbell’s hero steps in wrestling with cultural challenges and returning with something that moves things forward. An individual can suffer the contradictions and contribute through insight and action but the ‘fix’ isn’t individual.
Importantly, the depth of the contradiction drives the intensity of the ‘healing’ process. I’ll work more with that idea below.
There’s a path through individual biography that, if successfully transversed, brings us to a point where we are working with the challenges facing us as a culture or even as a species.
Step by Step, Personal to Collective. So that’s nice and tidy!
But, of course, it isn’t.
First, even if Jung’s or Campbell’s path is universal, it’s not necessarily all that nicely linear (or all that nicely circular depending on who’s sketching:-).
Anyone following the literature on techniques that help manifest excluded psychological content or the push towards ‘unitive consciousness’ (dreamwork, psychoanalysis, meditation, breathwork, psychedelics) will have noticed that it’s not a simple personal->transpersonal progression.
The slower paths are more likely to open up over time from the individual to the collective, but they can all drop you into the deep end as well.
Next, despite claims to universals, any described path is culture-bound.
Even within the Jungian tradition, there are variants. James Hillman, for example, advances the story of Psyche and Cupid as an alternative to Jung and Campbell’s Night Sea Hero.
Still, the driver, Self, would work as a hypothesis since it is, in itself, not content but an integrating psychological function.
To the degree that experience and culture are similar from place to place, the stories the Self spins will be similar. The same dynamic, also, can provide significant difference.
Jung himself uses the metaphor of a crystal for his universal ‘archetypes’. The actual content is filled by the individual from the content of their own life. (Admittedly, he does contend that this produces images that are, or seem, atemporal.)
Follow Your Bliss — Peak Experiences, Growth, and the Inner Healer
What guides our path forward?
I’m going to start with Maslow as filtered through a conversation with my good friend Paula.
Abraham Maslow is probably best known for his theory of a hierarchy of needs. Unfortunately, research hasn’t been kind to this idea.
Another core component of Maslow’s work is the role of peak experiences in ‘self-actualization’, ie personal growth. Maslow describes peak experiences as “rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect upon the experimenter.”
Although he did find self-actualizers that didn’t report the peaks, his research suggested that more often these peaks are central to self-actualization.
Maslow’s work on peak experiences has not so much been found wanting as ignored. That has only recently started to change.
Enlightenment: from Crossword Puzzles to the Big White Light
Now back to Paula and me discussing Maslow.
My friend advanced the idea that the pop of integrative insight on small puzzles and challenges is on one end of a continuum that stretches all the way to full-blown peak and mystical experiences.
The most intense end is often reached after a deep ‘existential’ crisis, not simple puzzles, but the wide variance in intensity exists along a continuum.
And so, my spin on the Gill-Maslow hypothesis:
There’s a continuum of intensity from ‘aha’ moments to mystic white light, with the intensity of the experience generated by the depth of the challenge. Despite the wide difference in intesity, the dynamic of ‘release’ is similar.
The pop from solving a coding problem is pleasant. The pop that accompanies the resolution of a decade long (or life-long) struggle with the contradictions of one's culture, or with the terms of human existence, can be a full-blown mystical experience.
To quote Charlie Wilson of the Gap Band, “the bigger the headache, the bigger the pill.”
Follow Your Disquiet
My corollary: the ecstasic experiences of the mystic are the fruit of the resolution of struggle with a deep contradiction that has taken that person down to some level of bedrock that contains and transcends the contradiction driving the struggle.
I was tempted to entitle this section Follow Your Agony. That’s a bit overly dramatic. Still, I believe the peaks of growth, either personal or cultural, are generally a result of suffering and sacrifice. (And what is sacrificed is generally an old version of ourselves that needs to die — often a painful process.)
Rather than following our bliss, I’m suggesting it might be more successful to follow our disquiet. (Certainly, there are flow states of artistry and mastery. It’s important not to conflate that.)
To get beyond our contradictions, we need to embody them and then grow through the creative tension.
It’s interesting that it’s often impossible to really describe these experiences fully with language — somehow they’re often a step ‘outside’ the conceptual terms of the contradiction — but the intensity and transformation they produce are clearly observable.
In some sense the question is answered; in some sense the question remains.
Often resolution is experienced in religious terms because religion often provides language and imagery that frame up our struggle for meaning during a crisis.
Hence, a ‘peak experience’ could include the image Jesus Chris as spirit crucified on the cross of matter; or intuition climbing the paths, numbers, and Seraphin the Kabalah; or enlightenment experienced as Being, Bliss, and Awareness. Or, it could be totally secular and experienced in awe of the universe and a greater whole that contains us.
Since the peak experience emerges out of our individual experience within our milieu, there seems to always be cultural and individual spins on what is quite likely an inherent possibility of experience for members of our species.
Ahem, ok, that may sound a bit over the top but a) such experiences exist b) they have a significant transformative impact, and c) they necessarily come from somewhere.
Incomplete Satoris and the EST Syndrome
A term used to describe such experiences is ‘unitive conscious’ — an awareness that spans a given divide or contradiction in a higher totality. But given the model above, we would expect to find intense integrative experiences that are not ‘total.’ Probably none of them really are (although a common feature of the experience is recognizing the interconnection of everything.)
Unifying would be a better term than unitive.
A corollary: there are intense integrative experiences that can make you more of a dick.
I call this the EST Syndrome.
If there is a continuum from aha to the mystic, we should expect to see peaks that resolve components of an internal conflict that engages only the immediate challenge. If we’re talking about the ‘transcendence’ of contradiction, then we can have a peak with the resolution of any deeply felt contradictions. In short, the unitive can be partial.
Here’s an example.
Below is a Mideaval image of the Tetramorph paired with a card from the Crowley/Harris tarot deck. The four icons, man, eagle, bull, and lion represent the four apostles. In Jungian terms, quaternities and mandalas are symbols of the Self: balanced elements are all arrayed in a pattern that puts them in relationship with each other and a center.
Here we have an image of ‘wholeness’ that excludes the feminine — one, alas, of many similar. Crowley adds the feminine taking a step forward but, clearly, we don’t want to declare Aleister the last word on necessary cultural transformation.
If the Self as something that is being built over time from the ongoing engagement and contradictions of our lives, then the ‘totality of our being’ doesn’t ever actually pre-exist except in the most trivial sense.
What is, in fact, unitive is the underlying reality we approach from different directions with limited awareness and partial descriptions step by step over time.
Always Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth
I don’t totally trust any particular mystic insight thrown up by the Self. Perhaps it was growing up at a time of great cultural upheaval that forced me to always look the gift horse in the mouth even in introspection. Or perhaps it’s my Viking heritage from a culture that found a peak experience in combat and killing rage.
We always need to eff the ineffable.
An example. Separated only by a couple of days, two friends described having the same experience (white light, resolution of doubt, “heart strangely warmed”). The rub: one converted to born-again Christianity and the other became a devotee of Guru Maharaj Ji. Both were absolutely certain that they’d found the answer.
My first conclusion: you need to be careful. Folks will try to convert you at a very vulnerable moment: right after you’ve been saved.
A less glib second: ecstatic religious experience is part of our birthright. The Cathari ritualized the ‘white light’ experience through laying on of hands during baptism. It appears almost everywhere. It is a sign of integration but not the arrival at a final Truth.
The danger is not the insight gained in such experiences but in the certainty that one has now achieved THE answer. The “kill them all, God will recognize his own” aspect of religious insight is common and pernicious.
Enlightenment is building Self.
It’s not a destination. It’s a journey.
A Note on Sources
Even the less than astute reader may have noticed the touchstone works here all date from the 1970s. The literature is extensive. I could have moved back in time citing work from William James, Mircea Eliade, and Evelyn Underhill or forward and looked at Ken Wilbur, MAPS’ oeuvre, Buddhist Geeks interviews, more recent works from ‘godparents’ Fadiman and Grof, and so on.
What I’ve chosen to do is start with the theories that were compelling when I first started thinking about all this and which have avoided being discarded as inaccurate or unhelpful.
You are what you don’t shit, as the saying goes.
This article started as a few paragraphs in another article and then expanded into a different objective: to clarify my thinking and revisit sources to see if they’ve stood up. I welcome your comments.
Thanks for reading.
My mailing list and various projects can be found at altabor.org.
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