Depth Psychology and the Predicament of the Modern Mind

5 09 2009

Remarks on Cosmos & Psyche by Richard Tarnas

The first two parts of Richard Tarnas’ book, Cosmos & Psyche, are a great discussion about the predicament of the modern mind. They stand alone and are indirectly related to the main thrust of his book, the astrological interpretation of history (covered in the remaining six parts).

In these first two parts, Tarnas reviews the current mindset of the modern person. With the rise of science, the world has become disenchanted, soulless. This is in contrast to earlier epochs and indigenous cultures today that see an anima mundi, a world spirit, the entire cosmos as a living, conscious being. The earlier, primal worldview had meaningfulness in the happenings of events.

The participation of the individual human in this larger encompassing world soul, was always a mystical way of living – the so called participation mystique.

But science made the external world simply the inert mechanistic movements of meaningless phenomena. The only meaningfulness is within the human psyche, nothing but a subjective projection, not anything objective. Science has been good in that we are given greater control over and autonomy in nature, but it has come at the great expense of existential alienation.

Tarnas quotes cognitive scientist Steven Weinberg, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

One of the fundamentals of the modern outlook is the subject-object split.

This basic ontology of the world to the modern person appears to have the knower (i.e. the person or the subject) to be separate from what he or she knows about, the known (i.e. the object, the things in the world outside of him- or herself). The subject-object split is a split between the inner experience of consciousness and the outer “objective” real world. The Romantic sensibility favors the inner. The scientific, classic Enlightenment outlook favors the latter. Both the Romantic and the Enlightenment views hold to this basic split between inner and outer. Today, we unconsciously think “me versus the world” is natural and absolutely real. As Tarnas says, this may be the foundational belief of the Copernican revolution. It is the basis of the Copernican paradigm shift that ushered in the modern world view.

Tarnas then makes a good case – which I totally agree with – that the emergence of psychology, particularly depth psychology, holds the key to transcending this paradox.

“Depth psychology engaged the Enlightenment’s epistemological challenge set by Kant as it attempted to discern the deep structural principles that inform human subjectivity, those enduring patterns and forms that unconsciously permeate and configure human knowledge and experience.Yet, contrary to Kant’s narrow list of a priori categories, these underlying forms were repeatedly discovered, beginning with Nietzsche and Freud and above all by Jung and his successors, to be mythic, symbolic, even numinous in nature.”

In the process of investigating the mind, psychologists, especially William James and CG Jung, began reflecting and criticizing what rationality and rational knowing means as well. The conventions of the modern scientific rationality suddenly became part of the focus of investigation. “Depth psychology attempted to bring the light of reason to the deep mysteries of human interiority, yet often witnessed the converse: the light of reason reevaluated, transformed, and deepened by the very mysteries it sought to illuminate.”

Also, depth psychology led to the recognition that the vast majority of influence on a person’s behavior and thoughts was entirely unconscious. This conflicts with the Cartesian “cogito ergo sum” of Enlightenment view that the person is highly aware and in control of his thinking and behavior.

Among other things, Jung expanded the concept and domain of the unconscious to be both personal and collective in nature.

But the real crux and breakthough that psychology brings to the predicament of an isolated psyche in a meaningless cosmos is the concept of synchronicity. A synchronicity is, says Tarnas, “the dramatic coincidence of meaning between an inner state and a simultaneous external event seemed to bring forth in the individual a healing movement toward psychological wholeness, mediated by the unexpected integration of inner and outer realities.”

Like dreams, synchronicities move the psyche from its problematic one-sidedness toward greater wholeness and individuation. They serve to deepen the integration of conscious and unconscious, and pushes the individual to surrender his/her “conscious attitude of knowing superiority.”

Synchronicities open the psyche to a larger vision.

Synchronicities, according to Jung, work through archetypes. “The underlying meaning or formal factor that links the synchronistic inner and outer events .is archetypal in nature.”

One of the keys to archetypes is that they can be understood in a multiplicity of ways. There is no single meaning to an archetype. And archetypes, as my dream worker teacher Jeremy Taylor frequently points out, seem to blend from one to another. For example, the Oedipus archetype is about many things: a man’s sexual attraction to his mother, the inter-generational conflict in a Patriarchal culture (where sons overthrow their fathers), blindness and seeing via ESP, among many other interpretations. The Oedipus archetype can turn into the Hero archetype and the Hero archetype can turn into the Divine Child archetype which has elements of the Trickster archetype, and so on.

In his later years, according to Tarnas, Jung conceived of archetypes as being a field in which the psyche and cosmos both exist. The field is both inside the person and outside in the world.

It is not that archetypes cause events, in the conventional understanding of causality. But that there is a larger field of meaning underlying and patterning all that happens, in the external world as well as in the interior of the psyche.

Because of the multidimensional and multivalent nature of archetypes and plurality of meanings that archetypes have, there is no strict determinism in what happens in events. There is freedom of participation and co-creation. Though the archetypal signature is discernible to the person within the flux and diversity of the observed phenomena, the events and outcomes themselves are shaped by many relevant circumstantial factors and co-creatively modulated and enacted through human will and intelligence.

Thus by synchronicity and its archetypal meaning, things are not concretely predictive, but “archetypally predictive.”

With this background and metaphysical introduction, Tarnas sets the stage for his astrology. He considers astrology to be a class of synchronicities.

Astrology correlates external events (the positions of planets) with internal consciousness and personal dispositions. Again, there is no strict causation or concrete predictive capacity, because the archetypal nature of planet symbolism allows for a lot of wiggle room of particular circumstances and human responses. “Individuals with the same alignment could be on either the acting or the receiving end of the same archetypal gestalt, with altogether different experiential consequences. Which of all these related multivalent possibilities occurred seemed to be determined largely by contingent circumstances and individual response rather than by anything observable in the birth chart or planetary alignments per se.”

Anyway, I am enjoying the book and will read more of it. But these first two sections have been very meaningful for me.



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