Sunday, November 19, 2006

On Slipping the Surly Bonds of the Ego and Giving Birth to the Living God

Does anyone actually know where thoughts -- much less creative thoughts -- come from? Yes, leave it to that other clot of ontological tumescence, the ego, to think that it could produce even so much as single thought ex nihilo. Soon the ego will “understand” the human genome, as if this will solve the mystery of how the most complex text ever written can both compose and read itself and then follow its own instructions, but just badly enough to evolve from bacteria to Beethoven. Talk about knowledge as a defense against understanding.

But we do not give birth to ourselves, only to the God that gives birth to us.

Eh, what?

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.


Lisa said...

Good thing God doesn't insist on breast feeding!!! Good one today!

Joan of Argghh! said...

Bob, what a wonderful Advent meditation. Tell Petey thanks!

Lisa, I remember reading that one of the Hebrew names for God, "El Shaddai" is often translated as the All-Sufficient One. It was explained that the root of "sufficient" was meant to describe "many breasts".

Of course, the conveyance of the word, "sufficient" is "enough" for understanding, without calling upon obscure root meanings, but where's the fun in that?

Curious George said...

I think it would benefit your readers to hear an explanation of why ego exists in the first place. (It seems absurd that it should exist for no particular reason).

What purpose does ego serve? How did it come about? Can it be transcended safely?

In seems clear that "slipping the surly bonds of ego" is a good thing in the creation of art. Is it so in all areas of life?

Lisa said...

LOL! Thanks Joan! I could use a laugh about now. Just figured out that I forget to write down two little letters in a word, IT, and missed a training this morning I was supposed to give. When I called to confirm yesterday poor Santa Ana had no idea I would be there and I got a little miffed. This morning Santa Anita calls and is pissed I am not there yet! Definite material for sitcom fodder. I am sure there is some cosmic lesson to all of this...but I still feel really bad about missing that training.

ximeze said...

Find the relationship between thought & language fascinating. I've often wondered what that "experience" was like for Helen Keller.
In my own case, I'm aware of "hearing" thoughts, actual words, often in languages other then English. Seems the thought/idea must be generated behind/before awareness, dropped into the vessel of language -whicheverone - to surface.
What goes on in the heads of someone like HK or a Boy Raised By Wolves? Do they "hear" thoughts (in the spoken sense that I experience)even tho they don't have language/words to drop them into? What must it be like?

I'm not at all well read re HK, did she ever write about it?

Putting into language the precursor to language.... why do I suddenly see an image: O , or one of those snakes swallowing its tail. Perhaps HK, having kept her vision, "saw" language/thoughts, rather than "heard". Puts me in mind of something from Oliver Sacks.
Ideas anyone?

Van said...

ximeze said... "Find the relationship between thought & language fascinating. I've often wondered what that "experience" was like for Helen Keller. "

I agree. Helen Keller’s own description of that moment is:

“We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honey-suckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten, a thrill of returning thought, and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me.” And from that moment on, she was voracious in learning and demanding new words with which to grasp the world.

Maybe even more interesting, is Anne Sullivan’s comment on what led up to Helen's rediscovering language:
"I saw clearly that it was useless to try to teach her language or anything else until she learned to obey me. I have thought about it a great deal, and the more I think, the more certain I am that obedience is the gateway through which knowledge, yes, and love, too, enter the mind of a child."

Consciousness seems to have been something that was 'happening' to Helen, but not controlled. Once she learned to obey, to submit to her Teacher, Consciousness was something she experienced in a more orderly fashion, but it still just flowed on by. But with the return of words, consciousness became something that was reflected upon beyond the moment, and with the use of words, it and the world around her could be grasped, examined, something that could be viewed from a 3rd party perspective.

I sometimes wonder about the nature of the Trinity, and in light of Gagdad's comments:

"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. "


"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."

It seems that in language we have that which comes before all, Thought as the Father, and the Identification of Words with things is manifest in us, in the Son, and the Holly Ghost is that collaboration of the two in words as Identification of the World, properly infused with Truth, and so producing Understanding. And it is in taking the meaning out of words, as I've mentioned before, arranging them as stuffed animals, gutted of Truth and posed for snaring passers by, that you do the greatest injustice and sin.

Many religions convey this, in the Bible there are examples such as in Acts 5:3-4: "Why hath Satan tempted thy heart, that thou shouldst lie to the Holy Ghost . . . ? Thou hast not lied to men, but to God." In using words as vehicles of deception rather than identification and Truth, you truly polute not only your soul, but that act of collaboration between you and the Thought, the Father that underlies all.

Augustine argues (In Joan., tr. xcix, 6, 7 in P.L., XXXV, 1888): "You hear the Lord himself declare: 'It is not you that speak, but the Spirit of your Father that speaketh in you'.

St. Matthew has Jesus say "...but he that shall speak against the Holy Ghost, it shall not he forgiven him, neither in this world, nor in the world to come."

St. Mark puts it as "But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost shall never have forgiveness...Because they said: He hath an unclean spirit."

There is indeed something mystical in language, and the use of and respect for it, or lack of it, and that seems to be something that shines through like nothing else. The Wise choose there words carefully, the fool blabbers them about and falls farther away from wisdom and happiness in the process.

GLASR said...

Linked to your Web Log from AT the other day. Not much of that in me, linking, usually have the hint of GK, facts or background for clarity. Simplistic vision since forever serves me well, clear conscience. No implication my ticket is NOT punched straight to Hell, the decision is out of my hands. Forget who authored the post, it was the way you were lead to link, subject was the mid term. Link, read, hmmmm .... look around, check in the next day and the next. Very disruptive, hysterically funny. Possible there are so many contributing factors to everything? Petey's reduction today, oh so helpful. Hit the bottom of the post, had the LOL! ahha moment. Marshall Crenshaw, of course. My wife and I used to catch him a couple of times a year for several years at this very small, drink from the bottle, nasty part of town club, across the river in the capital city of the neighboring state. My Truck is My Home, you can hear my wife clapping. The "crime"? Folks who control on air play time could never get past the Beatlemania(correct?) thingy. Wild guess. Now, thankfully, I will not need to identify myself here as unable to listen to any music other than Warren Zevon(pre sober)or as film goes I'm madly in love with Aeon Flux(animated). Say Marshall Crenshaw and people think you're crazy. Well, uh, um, ah, all I can say is whew, thanks Petey for clearing that up. Black, white, right, wrong and we're all born knowing. It's that pesky free will/choice/freedom thingy. For me, it's very helpful to know, looking in the mirror reflects the anti-GOD/CHRIST, take your pick. Live your day accordingly.

ben usn (ret) said...

Helen Keller was an excellent example of God's Grace!
God can use any of our senses, including our spirit, if we let Him.
It requires obedience, humbleness, and a thankful heart (despite the circumstances we may encounter).
We can use bad times as a challenge, to develope our character.
Let the Master mold you as He will.
Avoid bitterness, pride and envy etc.,
at all cost, and crucify that "old man or woman" everyday.

ben Usn (ret) said...

Curious George-
Good idea. Bob has explained much about the ego,and I woul like to learn more about it.
I don't believe the ego is something we should seek to destroy.
The ego should be mastered by our spirit, however.
We simply choose to deny our ego ultimate power.
The ego must be humbled and obedient.
Then it serves its purpose, as our spirit does.
Bob has explained it much better, so check out his archives.

Lisa and Joan- You are really milking that punny inplant.
Heh heh!

River Cocytus said...

c.g. from what I can tell, the ego is a result of having enough computing power to regulate wants/needs. A sufficiently complex machine has an ego (but not a soul.)

The ego then, is the first conscious regulator; and thinks of himself very highly. He sees himself as the ruler of all beneath him!

But, he is just a doorman. You gotta get him to understand that folks needa get through the door, ya know?

This is why machines are so threatening (and why the idea of the three laws is important.) A machine sufficiently complex might simply Be an ego, and thus eminently dangerous.

But that's just science friction :)

If we 'get rid' or 'blend' the ego, as I see it, we throw out the steward or try to get him to share his paycheck. He isn't happy, to say the least. He might just leave the door open and go on vacation. Which is fine if you're up in a cave in the himalayas, but not if you're walking down a New York avenue.

Those downward elements of the 'unconscious' -- that is, what so many dislike speaking of -- the principalities and powers of the air -- can just walk right in.

Imagine what happens when the body's self-regulation breaks down. It can be damaging to all parts above (the mind, even.) Of course, there's something eternal reaching down that can never be changed by illness or injury.

I like the 'God is reborn in us'. I think the Mormon perspective is too literal and not enough figurative; obviously, there is only one God. Part of his nature is his one-ness. Its absolute! He's completely unique. When you hear 'born again' its not just referring to you. It refers to God becoming Immanuel again, and again, and again (God Wit h Us!) When we sin Paul says we re-crucify Christ. In the same way, God himself is reborn in us, and we a reborn into God. It is not something that happens in Glory (though no doubt Glory is coming) and its not a spiritual journey you must take after you die-- it is one we each take as we rise upward. Eh?

The Spirit is like that, I think. God doesn't need us, or rather, a specific one of us, to do what He wants. But nonetheless a vessel IS required. And a vessel will be found. Since God is light, and we know light doesn't 'reflect' but is absorbed and re-emitted, God's spirit is the same. So light is reborn every time it hits something? Eh, Dunno.

By the way, I think the whole necessity of the maleness of God is probably well explained in the container/contained notion. To make God female would be to make him the container; and therefore us the contained? Or would it seek to bring God to our level? Who knows. To me it is nonsensical. Perhaps it is no deeper than it appears.

Odd thought offered up: Men work on the outside of houses, and women on the inside. Other than the obvious conditions of the environment, perhaps the house is balanced in this act? Not my thought, it just arrived post-marked: For delivery whenever inconvenient. Any time being inconvenient, it arrived immediately.