On Slipping the Surly Bonds of the Ego and Giving Birth to the Living God
But we do not give birth to ourselves, only to the God that gives birth to us.
I have no idea. I didn’t say that, Petey did. As an aside, that happens fairly regularly. Sometimes I am able to “catch his drift,” while other times the meaning eludes me. Petey, like God, doesn’t generally stump me a with a problem I cannot solve, even if doing so will require me to rise on the stepping stones of my dead self to higher things, as my man Jeeves once put it.
I try not to fake it and pass along Petey’s mystagoguery to the reader. Usually I am able to trancelight it into the plane of english. However, there are other times that Petey seems to have more of a poetic intent, in which case I have to relay the thought in its more or less unrefined form. Words are normally used in such a way that they serve as a container with a fairly specific and unambiguous content. But there are occasions when Petey uses words as more of an ambiguous container designed to pull or attract "unborn" thoughts into it. And there are other times that he seems to use words as the contained, in order to smash through or transcend a blockage in my own understanding, which may have become saturated and therefore static.
In other words, one of the unavoidable problems in discussing spirituality is how to bypass or disenable the ego. This is much trickier than it sounds, because the ego understands reality in the same way a dog or a cat or a cow does. That is, it just creates a sort of rigid cognitive map that it superimposes on reality and then calls it reality. In fact, one of the reasons why humans enjoy drugs and alcohol is that they can temporarily allow one to slip the surly bonds of the ego and touch the face of God, like those astronauts vis-à-vis the earth.
That was a long aside. But I think you will find that scripture is generally written in the way I have indicated above, designed to bypass the ego by either attracting higher thoughts into its orbit or smashing through it. Of course, it doesn’t work with atheists or materialists due to the hypertrophied nature of their hardened and sclerotic egos (atheosclerosis). To be bobtized in the spirit, one must become “like water” and not be a concretin.
(What follows is an edited and revised version of some previous material.)
The psychoanalyst James Grotstein has attempted to rescue the concept of the unconscious from its unfortunate reduction to a mere cauldron of uncivilized desires and impulses, and restore it to its true place as a mysterious alter-ego, or “stranger within” that shadows our existence in a most intimate, creative, and mysterious way. Far from being merely “primitive and impersonal” (although it surely includes primitive “lower vertical” elements as well), it is “subjective and ultra-personal,” a “mystical, preternatural, numinous second self” characterized by “a loftiness, sophistication, versatility, profundity, virtuosity, and brilliance that utterly dwarf the conscious aspects of the ego.”
Like his teacher Bion, Grotstein appreciates the spiritual implications of the unconscious as it manifests in our moment-to-moment experience. Understanding this higher aspect of the unconscious enriches one’s spiritual life, if for no other reason than it represents such a comparatively larger aspect of consciousness itself. Otherwise, it’s a little like living your life in a tiny boat and never looking around to appreciate the immense ocean upon which your insignificant vessel is floating -- of which your vessel is actually composed, because in reality there is no “ego” and "unconscious.” Rather, there is more of a wave-particle complementarity between them, so it is a mistake to either deny one half of the complementarity or to blend them together. The wave belongs to the ocean, while the ocean does not belong to the wave (with at least one rare exception).
Grotstein conceptualizes the unconscious as a sort of “handicapped” god who needs a partner in order to accomplish its mission. The goal of psychotherapy is not merely knowledge of, or insight into, the unconscious, but to establish a sort of dynamic collaboration between the phenomenal ego -- our conscious self -- and the “ineffable subject of being” (O) upon which the ego floats and into which it infinitely extends.
Through a creative resonance between these two aspects of ourselves, we are much more spontaneously alive, creative, and “present.” It is like adding another dimension (or two or three) of depth to our being, through which we become something that has never actually been, but is somehow more real than what we presently are. In this ceaselessly trinitarian dynamic, a new entity emerges, a “transcendent subject” that lives harmoniously in the dialectical space between our foreground self and the mysterious background subject that surrounds and vivifies it.
This novel way of looking at the unconscious has much in common with another one of my favorite spiritual cartographers, Meister Eckhart. Eckhart, like Petey, often relies upon various rhetorical devices such as paradox, pun, and oxymoron in the effort to use language to transcend language. Language cannot ultimately capture God, and yet, it is all we have to try to mark out the torahtery and communicate the experience to others. As a result, Eckhart said many things that are easy to misunderstand and which landed him in some trouble during his lifetime.
For example, Eckhart wrote that “In my birth all things were born, and I was the cause of myself and of all things... And if I did not exist, God would also not exist.” Just what did he mean by this? (the Catholic authorities asked!). In fact, it was something very similar to Grotstein’s description of the unconscious. That is, the God that we can know cannot exist without our first “conceiving” and giving birth to him -- God needs our assistance, or cooperation, to manifest in the herebelow.
First, it goes with unsaying, since it cannot be said, that God in his essence so surpasses our conceptual categories that he is beyond being or knowing, beyond the very horizon of knowability. What he actually is in himself, we cannot say, and he certainly doesn't require us to not say it. Apophatic theology holds that the only true things we can say about God are what he is not. Therefore, only by achieving the “negative capability” of unknowing, can we paradoxically know him in his essence.
Perhaps this is why, as Grotstein writes, God is the only true atheist, “because only He knows for sure that He doesn’t exist.” Furthermore, we are His children.
But we can certainly know God in his energies and activities on this side of the manifestivus. That is, in Eckhart’s understanding of the incarnation, God is eternally taking on human nature, not just once, but for all time, in the ground of our being. Eckhart adheres to the ancient Christian idea that God became man so that man may become God -- not literally, but in Grotstein’s sense of transforming the ineffable, nonlocal God-beyond-being into a local manifestation of his presence. The reason we may know God is because he is perpetually being born in the depths of our soul, but only if we cooperate and act as “midwife” to the process. God gives birth by speaking the word, but we are only born (from above) by hearing it and conforming ourselves to it.
Our absecular friends have it backwards. It is not God that requires explanation, but us. God alone properly has real being. God does not understand us because he exists -- rather, he ex-ists by our understanding of him, which is ultimately his self-understanding. That is why Eckhart said that the eye with which we see God is the same eye by which he sees us. We are each of us an opportunity for God to exist. Or perhaps more accurately, without us, God is orphaned in the cosmos, with no earthly parents to (p)raise him, just atoms with no evolution.
In other words, we must actually negotiate a “cyclopean” or “double worldview” between imagination and reality, something that the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott emphasized as well, with his idea of the “transitional space” of consciousness. We can never actually be just one or the other. We are perpetually giving birth to God, while God is perpetually giving birth to us. Both statements are equally true. Otherwise, we live in the dry desert hell of egoic separation from our source, or the alternate "fluid" hell of engulfment in symmatriarchal being with no way to express or communicate it -- no way for anything to "evolve" out of the formless and infinite void.
Creation means "giving existence to," or bringing something out of nothing. God’s creativity gives existence to us, but we give existence to God in our creative response to his actively present absence. That is, in both Judaism and in Eckhart’s thought, God actually must withdraw from the world in order to create it -- otherwise, the world is simply identical to God, and there is no freedom. (Of course, he cannot completely withdraw, as he leaves an immanent trace in every “part,” which in turn is a metaphysically transparental theophany that proclaims his glory.)
We are a creation of the absent God-beyond-being, but in making present our potential and becoming who we are, we take part in God’s creation of us, which paradoxically gives birth to both God and to ourselves. In surrendering to, and cooperating with, our own mysterious ground of being, our self-knowing and God’s self-knowing become a single act of essential knowledge. We give birth to the living God.
Finally, no one who gets this new Marshall Crenshaw compilation will regret the purchase. What a crime that he's not a household name. They just don’t make music like this anymore, or if they do, I don’t know about it. Seems like the musical genealogy that descends through the early-to-mid Beatles pretty much ends in him.