Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Zeitgeist - In the Spirit of Paranoia

NOTE: This is a re-post of a review I had up for a few years on Zaadz/ before the site was pulled down..

Zeitgeist: In the Spirit of Paranoia

The Intro

The movie begins with a trippy kaleidoscopic image set to hypnotic music - we are being inducted into something. 25 seconds later we are thrust for 40 seconds into scenes of artillery fire and explosions, rapidly cut to ominous chromatically descending music with driving percussion synched-up with the explosive action. For the next 2 minutes we take a macroscopic journey, again with trippy, hypnotic music, through the cosmos and earth seen from space that then transitions into sky, clouds and sunlight before going into a microcosmic cellular world and a series of very inventive morphing line-drawings that describe an evolutionary journey from single-celled organisms through plants - and then fish becomes lizard becomes mammal becomes monkey becomes human. Human develops opposable thumbs, learns to write 1+1=2 and then hey presto! the Holy Bible appears, double presto! a folded America flag drapes the bible and now a plane drifting lazily, dreamily across the top of the screen - right into a WTC tower.

Cue the ominously descending music with percussion synched to explosions! Flight of the Valkyries anyone? (I love the smell of napalm in the morning!) Forty more seconds of battleships, artillery canons and sundry explosions intercut with 911 footage and we dissolve on the collapsing tower. Now a full minute of dramatic orchestral music swelling around bloodied children, women in shock and trauma, Aushwitzian mass graves filled with emaciated concentration camp corpses, the famous Vietnam execution photo - but now in living video, gruesome shots of children with recently blown off body parts, or in hysteria near the bodies of dead adults, a full 6 seconds of a body in free-fall from one of the WTC towers, mothers crying on U.S. flag-covered coffins, soldiers tearfully saluting, a little girl in a little black funeral outfit doubled over over in iconic grief at the graveyard, face in her hands, hearse and flag in the background.

What an opening sequence. I would be impressed. I would be sympathetic - I hate war and the motives that often lie behind it. But I feel emotionally manipulated and have a sense of dread at the paranoid grand narrative that is about to unfold as the title "Zeitgeist" appears on the screen. Perhaps you have heard of this internet movie phenomenon. It is all the rage in alternative "spiritual" circles and manages to cobble together a poor understanding of mythology that deconstructs the silliness religion while seemingly giving credibility to the un-silly subject of astrology (of course!), a recycling of the (by now standard) elaborate and highly improbable 911 conspiracy theories, and a fight-the-power paranoia about the nefarious "international bankers" in the shadows behind, and profiting from, every war in history, while manipulating the rest of us ordinary folk through religion and media to keep the world's population enslaved via debt and taxes. The opening sequence all but yells - "Wake up motherfuckers!"

Now come the first (uncredited) spoken words:

The more you begin to investigate what we think we understand, where we came from, what we think we have been doing, the more you begin to see that we have been lied to. We've been lied to by every institution, what makes you think for one minute that the religious institution is the only one that's never been touched? The religious institutions of this world are at the bottom of the dirt. The religious institutions in this world are put there by the same people who gave you your government, your corrupt education, who set up your international banking cartels, because our masters don't give a damn about you or your family. All they care about is what they have always cared about, and that's controlling the whole damn world. We have been misled away from the true and divine presence in the universe that men have called God. I don't know what God is, but I know what he isn't, and unless and until you are prepared to look at the whole truth and wherever it may go, whoever it may lead to, if you want to look the other way or if you wanna play favorites, then somewhere along the line you're gonna find out you're messing with divine justice. The more you educate yourself, the more you understand where things come from, the more obvious things become and the more you see lies everywhere, you have to know the truth and seek the truth and the truth will set you free.

Yeah, I know. Try reading it again. What is this un-named but authoritative sounding person actually saying? Powerful rhetoric, vague paranoid assertions, the invoked uber-power of divine justice and the true presence of God...

Next comes a credited text quote, from an "Egyptologist" named Gerald Massey:

They must find it difficult, those who taken authority as truth instead of truth as authority.

The Greatest Story Ever Told

Part One of Zeitgeist is a bit of a heart-breaker for me, because it does a very poor job of unfolding two subjects I hold very dear - 1) a critique of religion and 2) an exploration of mythology. Unfortunately it covers both these subjects rather poorly and, even more unfortunately, links them to a seeming elevation of astrology... Well of course, religion is just silly, but astrology, now there's something respectable, right?

The thrust here involves disproving the factual historicity of the story of Jesus (earth-shattering, I know) and a well-done extrapolation on the fairly common archetypal mythic themes in that story. So far so good. Yes - the story of Jesus Christ is a re-telling of mythic themes common to several other stories around the world.

But this section fails intellectually for three reasons.

First in it's insistence on defining a myth as "something false that people believe is true." While this definition applies to one kind of myth - like, say, all redheads are passionate and prone to anger or that there are more murders on full-moon nights, brief study of pre-eminent, world-renowned mythology scholar Joseph Campbell's work will reveal his refuting of that definition as it applies to the study of actual mythology in the interest of a deeper analysis of it's psychospiritual function.

The film-makers would do better to draw a distinction between the innately human activity of myth-making as a poetic story-telling, psycho-cultural activity on the one hand, and religion on the other as the literalization of myth that does indeed have the power to control people via superstitious fear.

Second in making the case that the Christian myth is "stolen" instead of recognizing that all myth is a) in an evolving and synthesizing process and b) that the archetypal themes in mythology originate in the human psyche and so always share certain deep features while differing in surface cultural and geo-specific details. But of course this is part of the paranoid worldview or "zeitgeist" the film embodies - there is a "them" who have nefariously "stolen" from the pagan myths to construct the Christian myth in order to control "us.' What's difficult about this is the partial truth wrapped up in poor reasoning and driven toward a false and totalizing conclusion. It makes it seem true, while in fact it is a "myth" in precisely the way that they have chosen to define that word.

Third and perhaps intellectually worst of all is the astrological overlay. Now of course it is fascinating to understand how the ancients used the archaic pseduo-science of astrology to link their brilliant early astronomical observations to fanciful archetypal images in the constellations and the supposed predictive powers of this activity. It is really interesting to see how the Christian symbology is an extension of many of those astrological ideas (which of course should come as no surprise) - but the overall tone is slanted toward the popular counter-culture idea that there existed a truly divine and powerful pagan religion prior to Christianity that has been taken from us for the sake of control. As if we should nostalgically long for our astrological pagan roots and throw off the mantle of Christian enslavement.

Ah yes, i hear a matriarchal Utopian society of yore around the corner here - one in which equal rights circa the 20th century and Woodstock-era free thinking, free love and ritual celebration inhabited an intuitive and enlightened anarchic social context in perfect harmony with other tribes and the sacred cycles of the earth...

The problem is this was simply never the case.

In fairness, this section is beautifully made, is filled with fascinating mythic, astrological and religious correspondences and makes a lot of good points about the horrific violent and oppressive history of religion. Unfortunately it does not extend it's debunking gaze to astrology and makes the mistake for the viewer of perpetuating the false link between accurate astronomical observations and completely nebulous astrological beliefs.

Again it's the partial truth that kills me. Yes, of course religion has been a force for control. Yes, Christianity does demonize a healthy relationship to the natural world, our bodies, sexuality, and ritual practices that engaged direct personal experience of profound altered states. But the way out of religious delusion does not lie in romanticizing a culture of pre-religious sacrifice, superstition and quaint pseudo-scientific magical thinking. In Wilberian/Gebserian/Spiral dynamics terms that is a leap out of the mythic frying pan and into the magical fire! In Integral/SD terms this is the classic Mean Green Meme retro-romantic mistake.

Part Two: All the World's a Stage

Here's the segue (again uncredited):

The religious myth is the most powerful device ever created and serves as the psychological soil upon which other myths can flourish.

What other myths you may ask? Well the "myth" of 911 of course!

The credited segue comes in the form of a segment of a JFK speech about the threat of the Soviets contexturalized to make it appear that he was talking about some other secret cabal - so now we have an implied throughline and emotional resonance between the Kennedy assasination and 911 - it's a conspiracy wet dream!

So now we jump from the manipulation of the masses via religion to the manipulation of the masses to believe the patently false story or myth of our times, which is this:

The 911 Myth: 19 hijackers, directed by Osama B. Laden, took over 4 Commercial Jets with box cutters and, while evading the Air Defense System (NORAD), hit 75% of their targets. In turn, W. Trade Towers 1,2 & 7 collapsed due to structural failure through fire in a "pancake" fashion, while the plane that hit the Pentagon vaporized upon impact, as did the plane that crashed in Shanksville. The 911 Commission found that there were no warnings for this act of terrorism, while multiple government failures prevented adequate defense.

As with the opening of Part One, this initial gambit is very flawed.

By concocting this official looking statement, the viewer is guided toward words in the description of events that already contain hints of the coming counter-argument. This description is designed as part of a "straw man argument" that will create a convincing impression through manipulation, weak evidential links and poor reasoning.

What's worse, they pepper a lot of the familiar footage with a few shots of people jumping to their deaths before the towers fell - one in particular that shows a group of several jumpers in mid-air. This is in particularly bad taste, and it remained until now part of unspoken protocol not to use those images - but the film-makers succeed in creating the emotional effect they are after. If you can get people into a re-traumatized state it is easier to get them out of reason and very interested in assigning blame and fantasizing about revenge - it's just how our nervous systems and brains work - the Bush government did it after 911 (which of course they massively exploited) to get us into Iraq, and now (with a different agenda) this group is using the same technique. Bummer... Ironic too!

Here I have to say that I have great sympathy for the 911 conspiracy crowd. They are made up of many sincere and intelligent folks who are rightly appalled at the corrupt power structure, at the lies that got us into the Iraq war. They are aware of the ulterior motives that always play a part in war and of the past "false flag" operations that actually have occurred to pull the wool over an unsuspecting public's eyes. They feel manipulated and ripped-off, and I share many of those sentiments, but the 911 conspiracy theories are just not very convincing in the cold light of day. Doubt my sincerity and radicalism if you must, but none other than MIT scholar, speaker and author Noam Chomsky, rabid and astute critic of American foreign policy, called "the most dangerous intellectual alive" by the Washington Post will usually dismiss 911 conspiracy questions with two or three brief sentences as to their implausibility before moving on to more worthy targets for his analysis.

There is not a single prominent intellectual or political figure anywhere in the world involved in this 911 Truth movement and you have to ask yourself why. Proof of U.S. government involvement in an evil and elaborate black ops plot to pull off the biggest act of manipulative violence in the history of history would be incredible ammunition for Bush's many vociferous critics at home and abroad. For Bush and his cronies, this would be undeniable grounds for war crimes indictments, impeachment and criminal prosecution, perhaps even a glorious execution in a Texas prison after a lengthy stay on death-row. Why has no-one with any serious clout added their voice to this narrative?

Quite simply because it takes a lot more to add up to a serious case for this statement:

"911 Truth: Criminal Elements within the US Government staged a "False Flag" Terror Attack on its own citizens, in order to manipulate the public perception into supporting its agenda."

than this:

* emotionally convincing cobbling together of anomalies, oddities, anecdotal inconsistencies,
* loudly stated assertions from random "scientific experts,"
* true observations about U.S. foreign policy and self-serving two-facedness,
* far fetched scenarios ( it wasn't even a plane that hit the Pentagon, the plane that hit the towers wasn't a commercial airliner, there had to be explosives in the towers for them to collapse that way, Building 7 was the center of operations so they had to demo it too, Giuliani was in on it etc etc)
* and endless loose-ended questions that seem to imply paranoid conclusions


"911 Truth: Criminal Elements within the US Government staged a "False Flag" Terror Attack on its own citizens, in order to manipulate the public perception into supporting its agenda."

Hmmm - all of this, huh? The 2 - 3 thousand dead in the towers, the hundreds on the planes, the destruction of billions in property, an elaborate conspiracy involving many participants, manipulation of the media on a grand scale, keeping the conspiracy secret for this many years, in spite of all the agitating. All for what? To allow the Neocons to go into Iraq and pursue the rest of their agenda?

Now I know the Neocons are dangerous, manipulative, totally convinced in the rightness of their agenda, with few scruples about dishonesty - but this is just outrageous. It would be the most daring, cynical, evil, complex plot ever attempted by anyone anywhere. The degree of complexity itself makes the odds so unlikely as to be damn close to zero and also suggest that even if one of the conspiracy variations were true, keeping it secret would be well-nigh impossible - especially for a government that displays extraordinary incompetence in so many areas and puts such idiots in charge of such important tasks.

What makes the conspiracy believers able to go along with these highly improbable ideas, when the official details of the story make so much more sense?

Zeitgeist indeed. One dictionary definition i found says: "The characteristic thought, preoccupation or spirit of a particular period." The movie does succeed in capturing a particular part of the current zeitgeist, but just like pieces like What the Bleep, The Secret and the plethora of 911 Truth documentaries - it's more lunatic fringe than cutting edge. These ideas are not marginalized because they are so subversive and empowering, they are marginalized for an altogether more basic and mundane reason - they are silly and ill-considered. They simply do not match well with reality.

For a full and thorough debunking of the most popular 911 conspiracy theories, see this Popular Mechanics cover story which consulted with 300 experts in multiple fields to contrast the facts with the myths.

Don’t Mind The Men Behind The Curtain

This section continues the recipe established so far and turns up the heat even further: take a pile of disparate facts, remix history with an industrial strength blender, stir in a gallon of paranoia and sprinkle with some legitimate observations about the appalling cynicism and scary implications of our post 911 landscape.

The title of this section continues the paranoid assertion that there is a “them” behind the curtain – a despicable illuminati who are manipulating “us” and everything else to their own ends. This conspiracy premise sounds plausible, especially given the rapidly configured and reconfigured multimedia bombardment of facts, figures and thematic interpretations coming off the screen. The “international bankers” are behind all war. The underlying implication is that there is a long line of unbroken conspiracy passed down from father to son that is not only manipulating the circumstances behind every war and then profiting from it, but that is also inching itself closer and closer to a totalitarian world government in which all citizens will be controlled by microchip technology and so on… 911 is the central event that all of this is arranged around. Because of the success of the staged 911 event, the media (under the control of the men behind the curtain) have been able to sell the public lies that have enabled the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, wars which, just like Vietnam were never meant to be won – but will be dragged on to make money for the international bankers. 911 has enabled the government to systematically erode our civil liberties in the name of the so-called “war on terror.”

What’s again so hard about this position is that it takes some accurate and appalling observations about what has happened since 911 under the current neocon government and then draws an imaginary straight line backwards to the attack (and even further all the way to WWI) and forward to a Phillip K. Dick science fiction future of nightmarish proportions. In this grand narrative the entire history of the world is a story of us against them in which a singularly evil force is pushing onward towards it’s terrible objective by any means necessary. 911 becomes the dramatic and final culmination of this plot that will now allow total control to the men behind the curtain.

This is so flawed. I have to applaud the makers of Zeitgeist for their subversive verve, for their dedication to bringing truth to light, for their chutzpa, but listen – if you want to talk about the relationships between religion, 911, and the history of totalitarian agendas, there are a few important parts of the story that are being left out. Let’s take the little detail of Islamic fundamentalism and the actual reality of terrorism, for a start. Let’s bring in the presence of both fascist and communist dictatorships – real dictatorships on the world stage and America’s relationship to those forces. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, not to mention the problems in Africa and South America stemming from colonialism and continued by the Cold War and the superpower’s rush to control governments and resources around the world. The power of Christian fundamentalism in the United States over the last 30 years and its influence on the political dialog.

It’s just so much more complex and layered than this particular zeitgeist asserts.

In a shamelessly manipulative portion of part three, we see direct parallels being drawn between Nazi Germany and the current administration: 911 = the Reichstag, quotes from Hitler mixed up with quotes from Bush, pre-emptive war maneuvers. It is all rather chilling, but so heavy handed – and ultimately not on target.

Let’s not forget that other chestnut of conspiracy thinking – taxes. Taxes are this terrible, illegal exploitation of the American people? This adolescent attitude is barely deserving of a response. America has a lot of problems that scream for attention, is very imperfect and, as the most powerful nation in the world has a big foreign policy shadow and a real history of playing the good guy while doing some really sinister things – and using the media and education system to perpetuate that illusion, but I challenge the privileged makers and consumers of this film to live for a year in any of the hundreds of failed states on the planet and see what life without the infrastructure created by taxation is actually like.

There are real problems with so many things. This administration is without doubt the most corrupt bunch of criminals ever to be in charge of the United States. There is a real list of issues that need to be addressed, not the least of which is the Patriot Act, the removal of Habeus Corpus, the stranglehold of Free Trade on the first world poor and the third world sweatshop slaves, the massive influence of big money on politics, the dissolving separation between church and state. But there is not a secret cartel of international bankers pulling the strings behind the curtain. That is an act of global shadow projection that suddenly allows “us” to be all good victims and “them” to be the bad guys. Now there are bad guys of course and there are also victims. The call to critical thinking is important, very important. The critique of the media and American education is valid. The analysis of big money’s war profiteering is valuable. The problem is that what it all adds up to when structured with this paranoid and emotionally-based intent is something that does the details and indeed the truth an incredible dis-service – and that’s the “zeitgeist” we can do without.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Mythology, Fairy Tale and Depth Psychology in Pan's Labyrinth

Go here to see my more conventional review of the movie that preceded this piece.


I want to talk about the basic mythic structure of Pan's Labyrinth and then relate it to Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey as well as Jungian analyst Donald Kalsched's Self Care System from his book The Inner World of Trauma: Archetypal Defenses of The Personal Spirit.

As I alluded to in my initial review, the movie is a great entry point into discussing fairy tales like Rapunzel, myths like Eros and Psyche and other movies like The Piano, Fearless, Jacob's Ladder, The Cell, and The Fountain. It also provides an intuitive window into the myth-making function of the psyche, especially with reference to Kalsched's assertion that "When human resources are unavailable, archetypal resources will present themselves."

To start, let's look at our protagonist's name - Ofelia. Ophelia is a Shakespearean character associated with madness. She goes mad because her father has been killed by her beloved, who himself is losing his mind as his world falls apart after the unjust death of his father (whose ghost haunts him) and his mother's marriage to his uncle. In Hamlet, Ophelia is an innocent who is overcome by the trauma of circumstances beyond her control and perhaps has what we might call a sane response to an insane situation - she loses touch with an unbearable reality.

The Call and The Threshold

As the film begins we find our heroine at a crossroads, she is entering the realm of our fascist villain, Captain Vidal. Ofelia's mother has in effect sold her soul to this evil man in order to try and win survival for herself, her daughter and the unborn son in her belly. It is later alluded to that the Captain may have had something to do with the death of Ofelia's father.

This is classic fairy tale stuff - there once was a young girl whose father was dead, her mother had married an evil king who cared only about the baby prince she carried in her womb and who was at war with the townspeople who were rebelling against his rule.

Next comes the "call to adventure" and the beginning of the bifurcation of reality into the ordinary realm and the mythic realm when Ofelia "crosses the threshold."

Having stopped on the way into the realm of the evil king Vidal, Ofelia finds a a rock that bears a carved eye. Just off the road she finds the primitive carved face that the stone eye fits into. On returning the eye to it's rightful place, the journey is set in motion and the messenger that will call her into the adventure appears, first as an insect and then later - molding itself to fit her imagination - as a fairy.

It will be the fairy/insect/messenger that guides her to cross the threshold into the nearby abandoned stone labyrinth where she meets the Pan character - technically a Faun. He is a trickster and carries both creative and destructive energies. Part of Ofelia's journey will have to do with learning not only to disobey the external forces of power that seek to control her, but also the powerful mediator of this inner world. We are in the psyche now, and nothing is black and white....

We have the allusion with the Faun here to an ancient knowledge, instinctive, undifferentiated, of the earth, pagan, magical - an antidote to the cruel soul-less world she has entered in the ordinary realm of external reality. The fascists represent a dis-connection from our natural goodness and love in the name of perverted masculine power, the rebels in the woods carry the sense of noble resistance, integrity, humanity and connection to the natural world.

Ofelia is placed in an unbearable situation. Her mother is sick and has surrendered to the rule of the evil king. Her father is dead. Human resources are not available, and so archetypal resources appear. Her one saving grace in the external world is Mercedes, the unbroken housekeeper who is in cahoots with the rebels, but is initially completely powerless to help Ofelia.

On crossing the threshold into the mythic realm, Ofelia is told by the Faun that she is really a long-lost princess and that if she can perform three tasks she will reign again. So begins the next stage of our heroine's mythic journey.

The Faun gives Ofelia a book with blank pages that will tell her what to do when the time is right. Ofelia's unconscious is the author of the unfolding inner story and it will project onto the blank pages what her conscious self (or ego) needs to become aware of....

The Tasks

This is a video about the monsters Ofelia meets on her tasks:

The first task takes Ofelia into the roots of a dead fig tree, deep into the bug-infested mud and slime to find the huge toad that has sapped the tree's life force. She has three magical stones that she must get the toad to swallow in order to somehow get the key that is hidden in it's belly. In order to enter the tree and cross the threshold into a confrontation with the primitive reptile Ofelia takes off the beautiful new dress and bow for her hair that her mother has made for her to wear as she is presented that night to the local high society of power at dinner with the Captain. The clothing, representing the persona that her mother wants her to present will of course be muddied and tattered by the time she returns - too late for the dinner at which her mother is facing her reptilian host and his toadies.

The Toad is a direct reference to both the classic fairy tale of the princess whose golden ball is rescued from the bottom of the pond by the frog (on condition that she take him with her to the castle, let him sit beside her at table, eat from her plate and sleep on her pillow with her at night,) as well as the mythic serpents and dragons that carry the slimy, slithery, cold-hearted deadly shadow energies that must be faced and worked with if we are to be initiated psychologically.

Ofelia faces the Toad saying - I am Princess Moana and I am not afraid of you! She tricks him into swallowing the magical stones by holding them with a huge bug in her hand for him to grab by extending out his long sticky tongue. Once the stones are ingested the Toad practically turns inside out - vomiting a giant yellow ball of slime that contains dead and still crawling bugs as well as the key she is seeking.

In the belly of the beast. In the darkness of mud and slime and insects, in the roots of the tree that has been killed by this inhabitant, in the confrontation with what disgusts us - we find the key to self-knowledge, freedom, the return of life to the tree (in this case with a Pan-like horned shape) and entry to the next stage of our journey.

Ofelia's next task involves entering a less slimy realm - this time by using magical chalk to draw a doorway - and confronting a less primitive, but more monstrous creature. In this realm we find ourselves in hallway surrounded by arches and with chequered stone floors - around the corner we enter the banquet hall covered in food, at which sits the horrific blind humanoid Monster. Paintings on the wall depict this monster as a baby-killer and eater and we see an ominous pile of baby/children's shoes in the corner of the room.

Ofelia's must use the key from the belly of the Toad to open one of three small doorways in the wall behind the Monster and retrieve what lies within. She has strict instructions not to eat anything from the table. On the table in front of the Monster is a plate bearing two eyeballs. He has no eyes, two small holes in his otherwise featureless face that are either nostrils or empty eye sockets, a mouth, and skin that hangs from his body as if he had once been very fat but had since lost a lot of weight. Its hands rest beside the plate, fingers coming to grotesque sharp points.

The Faun's three fairies accompany Ofelia on this task and she has instructions to do what they say, but Ofelia correctly trusts her own intuition/impulse and opens a different door with the key than the one the fairies point out to her. She there retrieves a beautiful ceremonial dagger.

Now confident in her own impulses, Ofelia decides the allure of the grapes on the table is too much to resist and, swatting the protesting fairies away like flies, eats two grapes. This wakes up the monster, who turns his hands palm up to reveal eye sockets - inserts the eyes from his plate, and holds his hands up to his head to take a look around. It is awake. It is hungry.

The Monster eats two of the fairies on it's bloody-mouthed way toward our heroine. Interestingly, because the eyes are in the hands, it cannot see while it is holding onto what it is eating...and ultimately Ofelia escapes by the skin of her teeth.

This scene is by far the most disturbing, brilliant and cryptic of the entire film. It took a while, but some of the implied meanings gradually coalesced for me:

Ofelia's greed gets the better of her and she disobeys the instruction not to eat. The Monster slumbers until she eats - but when she does it comes to eat her.

If we are in the inner world of the mythic psyche, then, as in dreams, the Monster is a part of her. The Monster perhaps represents Ofelia's own blind devouring greed, the shadow side of the libidinal impulse. When she succumbs, it wakes up - or rather it is already waking up in her when she decides to eat from it's table - and then it comes to eat her! But it is blind or unconscious, or powerless over the world around it while it is in the act of voracious devouring.

Here we see an allusion to the Bluebeard story in which a young girl is kidnapped by a Pirate and told that she can look in any of th rooms she wants to while he is away, but the room that this key unlocks is off limits. Of course this is the one room she absolutely has to go into and when she does she finds that it contains a giant cauldron filled with blood and chopped up bodies. Of course this gets her in trouble with the Pirate, but it also let's her know how dire is her situation! This will lead to her being able to respond to it creatively and resourcefully.

We are in the classic mythic territory of the struggle between the persona reality of social conditioning and the maturity that is won through learning to be conscious of the primal archetypal forces and emotional energies within us instead of repressing and denying them as the social order (in this case an overtly fascist one) demands.

Key Story Points

Next comes a torture scene that reminds us of the closeness of the 1940's of Spain to our current times, as well as two very telling aspects of the external story that are pivotal:

1) Following the Faun's advice, Ofelia has put a very baby-like magical mandrake root into a bowl of milk and fed it with two drops of blood from her fingertip - this magical fetish has been placed under her mother's bed to help ensure her recovery from her most recent rough patch in the pregnancy. The Captain finds this putrefying mixture and accepts the mother Carmen's request that she be allowed to deal with it. In this scene Carmen yells at Ofelia - There is no magic, not for you not for me, as she throws the mandrake root on the fire and it writhes and screams like a baby. She goes into labor and dies, leaving the Captain a son. We have echoes here too of Mercedes response to Ofelia that she used to believe in a great many things when she was a girl that she no longer believes in. The trinity of Mercedes, Carmen and Ofelia carry the struggle to be in a real world that is harsh and oppressive. We are reminded that the mythic world is not literally real, Ofelia is not a princess and the real world situation is dire. We are not in Disney territory here.

2) The good Dr. Ferreiro euthanizes the tortured stuttering rebel to put him out of his misery and is executed by Captain Vidal for his trouble. Before that happens he says to Vidal - I cannot obey just like that, just because you tell me to - that is only for men like you to do - before picking up his doctor's bag and walking with dignity out of the barn. Vidal shoots him in the back.

This is a tragedy. Innocence and integrity will die at the hands of evil, but in certain situations that is the only noble recourse available. In the end it is Mercedes who is willing to not only carry a sharp knife tucked under her apron, but to use it when the time is right, who is the death of the "evil king."

In Ophelia's final task she is told to bring her baby brother to the labyrinth, little knowing that the Faun will attempt to persuade her to sacrifice him so as to open the portal that will take her home. The captain is in hot pursuit and enters the scene as she refuses to give up her brother and "shed the blood of an innocent." Vidal shoots her and takes his precious son, but is met by the rebels and the triumphant Mercedes at the entrance to the labyrinth.

Before he dies he tries to get them to participate in his personal mythology of handing down his pocket watch to his son by smashing it at the hour of his death so that he might know "how a real man dies..." The watch was given to him after his own father's death in the same way - and so we get a hint at what lies in the psyche of our villain - but the rebels refuse and shoot him where he stands. Mercedes says - No. He won't even know your name.

The film ends with Mercedes weeping over the body of Ofelia as her blood opens the portal and she is reunited with her mother and father, the Faun and all three fairies, and told that she passed the final test.

As dark as this ending is - the denouement means that the rebels have beaten the fascist Captain and that his son has been saved - he bears the promise of a new life for Spain, he will be raised by the men and women who have retained their humanity in the face of inhuman oppression.

Trauma and Archetypal Resources

To close I want to reference Kalsched's work again. The Inner World of Trauma utilizes several fairy tales and myths to show how the psyche deals archetypally with unbearable experience/trauma. The two that stand out the most for me are Rapunzel and Eros and Psyche.

First the basic idea of the Self Care System:

From about 20 years of clinical observation Kalsched says that in unbearable trauma an archetypal resource will emerge that rescues the innocent "spirit" and removes it to a magical place. This is all very well for the moment, but the Protector archetype is not flexible and wears the dual face of the Jailer that keeps the spirit separate from the real world to protect it form pain. Yet it is in reintegrating with reality that healing and wholeness lie. The archetypal realm/resource is in service of our real lives, but in severe trauma this relationship is often turned on it's head.

I would add that the popular regressive spiritual fascination (as a result of direct trauma, emotional alienation, existential angst , a corrupted society etc) with finding other worlds to escape to, get special guidance from, or see as the underlying more-real-than-real substratum of our "illusory" world is a subset of this phenomenon - be it via astrology, channnelled aliens, new age interpretations of "enlightenment" or synchronicty, quantum phsyics, ancient prophecy coming true on some numerologically auspicious date etc, or traditional religious ideas of heaven .. (All of which btw can be best understood as contemporary mythic symbols that have been sadly literalized out of their deeper meanings...)

Kalsched asserts that it is through negotiating the process whereby the Jailer/Protector figure relinquishes control and allows the "spirit" or essential self to re-engage with reality and come into mature relationship to struggle that the possibility of wholeness, joy and love emerges.

Once exposed to this idea sufficiently i have found that it is common to many myths and fairy tales and is hidden consciously or unconsciously in films like The Cell ( as difficult as parts of to watch), The Piano, Fearless, and Jacob's Ladder.

Kalsched's revelation holds a powerful clue to spiritual maturity, psychological healing and bringing the mythic out-picturing of the psyche into healthy relationship to reality.

See if you can detect the threads of this idea as well as the resonances with Pan's Labyrinth in these two stories:

Protector/Jailer: The Witch, The Faun/The Captain, Eros

Notice also the repeating motifs of blindness and spiritual inflation and the neccessity of dealing with harsh reality on the other side of the tower, the labyrinth, the crystal palace etc... as well as Pscyhe's three tasks. If all of this grabs you imagination, watch The Piano, then Fearless, then The Cell with these ideas in mind.

All the best


There were once a man and a woman who had long in vain wished for a child. At length the woman hoped that God was about to grant her desire. These people had a little window at the back of their house from which a splendid garden could be seen, which was full of the most beautiful flowers and herbs. It was, however, surrounded by a high wall, and no one dared to go into it because it belonged to an enchantress, who had great power and was dreaded by all the world.

One day the woman was standing by this window and looking down into the garden, when she saw a bed which was planted with the most beautiful rampion - rapunzel, and it looked so fresh and green that she longed for it, and had the greatest desire to eat some. This desire increased every day, and as she knew that she could not get any of it, she quite pined away, and began to look pale and miserable. Then her husband was alarmed, and asked, what ails you, dear wife. Ah, she replied, if I can't eat some of the rampion, which is in the garden behind our house, I shall die.

The man, who loved her, thought, sooner than let your wife die, bring her some of the rampion yourself, let it cost what it will. At twilight, he clambered down over the wall into the garden of the enchantress, hastily clutched a handful of rampion, and took it to his wife. She at once made herself a salad of it, and ate it greedily. It tasted so good to her - so very good, that the next day she longed for it three times as much as before. If he was to have any rest, her husband must once more descend into the garden. In the gloom of evening, therefore, he let himself down again. But when he had clambered down the wall he was terribly afraid, for he saw the enchantress standing before him.

How can you dare, said she with angry look, descend into my garden and steal my rampion like a thief. You shall suffer for it. Ah, answered he, let mercy take the place of justice, I only made up my mind to do it out of necessity. My wife saw your rampion from the window, and felt such a longing for it that she would have died if she had not got some to eat. Then the enchantress allowed her anger to be softened, and said to him, if the case be as you say, I will allow you to take away with you as much rampion as you will, only I make one condition, you must give me the child which your wife will bring into the world. It shall be well treated, and I will care for it like a mother.

The man in his terror consented to everything, and when the woman was brought to bed, the enchantress appeared at once, gave the child the name of rapunzel, and took it away with her. Rapunzel grew into the most beautiful child under the sun. When she was twelve years old, the enchantress shut her into a tower, which lay in a forest, and had neither stairs nor door, but quite at the top was a little window. When the enchantress wanted to go in, she placed herself beneath it and cried, rapunzel, rapunzel, let down your hair to me.

Rapunzel had magnificent long hair, fine as spun gold, and when she heard the voice of the enchantress she unfastened her braided tresses, wound them round one of the hooks of the window above, and then the hair fell twenty ells down, and the enchantress climbed up by it. After a year or two, it came to pass that the king's son rode through the forest and passed by the tower.

Then he heard a song, which was so charming that he stood still and listened. This was rapunzel, who in her solitude passed her time in letting her sweet voice resound. The king's son wanted to climb up to her, and looked for the door of the tower, but none was to be found. He rode home, but the singing had so deeply touched his heart, that every day he went out into the forest and listened to it.

Once when he was thus standing behind a tree, he saw that an enchantress came there, and he heard how she cried, rapunzel, rapunzel, let down your hair. Then rapunzel let down the braids of her hair, and the enchantress climbed up to her. If that is the ladder by which one mounts, I too will try my fortune, said he, and the next day when it began to grow dark, he went to the tower and cried, rapunzel, rapunzel, let down your hair. Immediately the hair fell down and the king's son climbed up.

At first rapunzel was terribly frightened when a man, such as her eyes had never yet beheld, came to her. But the king's son began to talk to her quite like a friend, and told her that his heart had been so stirred that it had let him have no rest, and he had been forced to see her. Then rapunzel lost her fear, and when he asked her if she would take him for her husband, and she saw that he was young and handsome, she thought, he will love me more than old dame gothel does. And she said yes, and laid her hand in his. She said, I will willingly go away with you, but I do not know how to get down.

Bring with you a skein of silk every time that you come, and I will weave a ladder with it, and when that is ready I will descend, and you will take me on your horse. They agreed that until that time he should come to her every evening, for the old woman came by day. The enchantress remarked nothing of this, until once rapunzel said to her, tell me, dame gothel, how it happens that you are so much heavier for me to draw up than the young king's son - he is with me in a moment. Ah.

You wicked child, cried the enchantress. What do I hear you say. I thought I had separated you from all the world, and yet you have deceived me. In her anger she clutched rapunzel's beautiful tresses, wrapped them twice round her left hand, seized a pair of scissors with the right, and snip, snap, they were cut off, and the lovely braids lay on the ground. And she was so pitiless that she took poor rapunzel into a desert where she had to live in great grief and misery.

On the same day that she cast out rapunzel, however, the enchantress fastened the braids of hair, which she had cut off, to the hook of the window, and when the king's son came and cried, rapunzel, rapunzel, let down your hair, she let the hair down. The king's son ascended, but instead of finding his dearest rapunzel, he found the enchantress, who gazed at him with wicked and venomous looks. Aha, she cried mockingly, you would fetch your dearest, but the beautiful bird sits no longer singing in the nest. The cat has got it, and will scratch out your eyes as well.

Rapunzel is lost to you. You will never see her again. The king's son was beside himself with pain, and in his despair he leapt down from the tower. He escaped with his life, but the thorns into which he fell pierced his eyes. Then he wandered quite blind about the forest, ate nothing but roots and berries, and did naught but lament and weep over the loss of his dearest wife. Thus he roamed about in misery for some years, and at length came to the desert where rapunzel, with the twins to which she had given birth, a boy and a girl, lived in wretchedness.

He heard a voice, and it seemed so familiar to him that he went towards it, and when he approached, rapunzel knew him and fell on his neck and wept. Two of her tears wetted his eyes and they grew clear again, and he could see with them as before. He led her to his kingdom where he was joyfully received, and they lived for a long time afterwards, happy and contented.

Eros and Psyche

The goddess Aphrodite (in Roman mythology, Venus), jealous of the beauty of a mortal woman named Psyche, asked her son Eros (in Roman mythology, Cupid) to use his golden arrows to cause Psyche to fall in love with the ugliest man on earth. Eros agreed but then fell in love with Psyche on his own, or by accidentally pricking himself with a golden arrow.

When all continued to admire and praise Psyche's beauty but none desired her as a wife, Psyche's parents consulted an oracle which told them to leave Psyche on the nearest mountain, for her beauty was so great that she was meant for a god. So it was done. But then Zephyrus, the west wind, carried Psyche away to a fair valley and a magnificent palace where she was attended by invisible servants until night fell and in the darkness of night the promised bridegroom arrived and the marriage was consummated. Eros visited her every night and they made sweet love; he demanded only that she never light any lamps because he did not want her to know who he was.

Eros even allowed Zephyrus to take Psyche back to her sisters and bring all three down to the palace during the day, only warning that Psyche should not listen to any argument that she should try to discover his true form. The two jealous sisters told Psyche, then pregnant with Eros' child, that rumor was that she had married a great and terrible serpent who would devour her and her unborn child when her time came for it to be fed. They urged Psyche to conceal a knife and oil lamp in the bedchamber, to wait till her husband was asleep, and then to light the lamp and slay him at once if it was as they said. Psyche sadly followed their advice. In the light of the lamp Psyche recognized the fair form on the bed as the god Eros himself, and cursing her folly, attempted to kill herself with the knife she'd intended to use to kill her lover. However, she dropped the knife, and her spirits were raised as she gazed on the beautiful young god. She curiously examined his golden arrows, and accidentally pricked herself with them, and was consumed with desire for her husband. She began to kiss him, but as she did, a drop of oil fell from Psyche's lamp and onto Eros' chest and he awoke. He flew away, but she caught his ankle and was carried with him until her muscles gave out, and she fell to the ground, sick at heart.
Psyche Opening the Golden Box, by John William Waterhouse
Psyche Opening the Golden Box, by John William Waterhouse

The god Pan, who was nearby, advised Psyche to seek to regain Eros' love through service.

Psyche then found herself in the city where one of her jealous, elder sisters lived. She told her what had happened, then tricked her sister into believing that Eros had chosen her as a wife instead. She later met the other sister and deceived her likewise. Each returned to the top of the peak and jumped down eagerly, but Zephyrus did not bear them and they fell to their deaths at the base of the mountain.

Psyche searched far and wide for her lover, finally stumbling into a temple to Demeter (in Roman mythology, Ceres) where all was in slovenly disarray. As Psyche was sorting and clearing, Demeter appeared, but refused any help but advice, saying Psyche must call directly on Aphrodite, the jealous shrew that caused all the problems in the first place. Psyche next called on Hera (in Roman mythology, Juno) in her temple, but Hera, superior as always, said the same. So Psyche found a temple to Aphrodite and entered it. Aphrodite ordered Psyche to separate all the grains in a large basket of mixed kinds before nightfall. An ant took pity on Psyche and with its ant companions separated the grains for her.

Aphrodite was outraged at her success and told her to go to a field where golden sheep grazed and get some golden wool. A river-god told Psyche that the sheep were vicious and strong and would kill her, but if she waited until noontime, the sheep would go to the shade on the other side of the field and sleep; she could pick the wool that stuck to the branches and bark of the trees. Aphrodite next asked for water from the Styx and Cocytus flowing from a cleft that was impossible for a mortal to attain and was also guarded by great serpents. This time an eagle performed the task for Psyche. Aphrodite, outraged at Psyche's survival, claimed that the stress of caring for her son, made depressed and ill as a result of Psyche's unfaithfulness, had caused her to lose some of her beauty. Psyche was to go to the Underworld and ask Persephone, the queen of the Underworld, for a bit of her beauty in a box that Aphrodite gave to Psyche. Psyche decided that the quickest way to the Underworld would be to throw herself off some high place and die and so she climbed to the top of a tower. But the tower itself spoke to her and told her the route through Tanaerum that would allow her to enter the Underworld alive and return again, as well as telling her how to get by Cerberus by throwing him a sop and Charon by paying him an obol, how to avoid other dangers on the way there and back, and most importantly to eat of no food whatsoever; for otherwise she would dwell forever in the Underworld. Psyche followed the orders explicitly and ate nothing while beneath the earth.

However when Psyche had got out of the Underworld, she decided to open the box and take a little bit of the beauty for herself. Inside, she could see no beauty; instead an infernal sleep arose from the box and overcame her. Eros, who had forgiven Psyche, flew to her, wiped the sleep from her face, put it back in the box, and sent her back on her way. Then Eros flew to Mount Olympus and begged Zeus to aid them. Zeus called a full and formal council of the gods, and declared it was his will that Eros might marry Psyche. Zeus then had Psyche fetched to Mount Olympus, and gave her a drink made from Ambrosia, granting her immortality. Although some say their daughter was named Bliss, and some say she was named Delight (in Roman mythology she was named Volupta, which can mean either), the meaning of the name was intended to be joyful. Begrudgingly, Aphrodite and Psyche forgave each other.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Jesus, Quetzalcoatl, Dionysos - Archetypal yearning

This is a brief summary of a talk I gave in 2006 as part of a yoga and mythology workshop series. It being the holidays and all I though I might share the main points. I hope it is interesting to some readers:

In Southern and Central America there is a mythic figure common to several cultures. He is born of a virgin, ascends into the sky at the end of his time on Earth, promises to return and his symbol is the cross. His name is Quetzalcoatl, which literally translates to "feathered serpent," and when the Spanish conquistadors landed, the natives thought they might be his second coming, what with how they occasionally represented him with fair hair and beard! The Spaniards for their part noticed that the local religion had striking similarities to their own, but not being well versed in symbols and archetypes their interpretation was that the devil had implanted a perverted version of Christianity there to try and drive the conquering sons crazy and lead them from the Lord...

In Ancient Greece we find the story of Dionysos, born of the congress of horny god Zeus and a mortal woman - one version of the story has Zeus kill her and sew the fetus into his thigh until it is ready to be born. Horny and murderous! Dionysos is the god of wheat and wine and he is killed only to rise again from the dead. his followers perform a ritual of bread and wine to remember him.

Death and resurrection is not an uncommon theme in world mythology. It is most often associated with agrarian societies whose lives are tied to the cycles of the earth and who made sacrifices to the earth to ensure the resurrection of Spring after the death of Winter. The spilling of blood upon the land and in the temples went on even into the time of Jesus and there is a way that the evolving archetypal symbolism that he carries represents a once-and-for-all uber sacrifice to end all sacrifices.

Mythology scholar Joseph Campbell tells us that the earliest evidence we have of ritual and myth comes from the Alpine caves about 110 000 years ago in which a cult of the Great Bear existed. As human beings became more empathic and self-reflective we felt terrible anxiety and dread over the fact of our killing in order to live and began to enact rituals and construct myths as containers for this conflict.

Perhaps if we do a ritual honoring the Great Bear god he won't be angry that we kill his children, perhaps he will still send us more so that we can survive. One version of this hunting mythology says that the gods come to visit us in animal bodies but then can't escape to go home. When we kill the animal we set the god free and they are happy...

As agrarian societies developed the emphasis shifted from hunting myths and rituals to fertility myths and rituals and it is in these sacrificial cults that we find the roots of the archetypal constellations that will later give rise to Qutzalcoatl, Dionysos and then Jesus.

What Joseph Campbell calls "the mask of god" keeps evolving and taking on the clothing and the meaning structures of the societies it serves. In one of my favorite quotes from him he says "We wonder what is wrong with our society when we are trying to live by a myth that is 2000 years old from the Middle East ..." Campbell suggested in the early seventies that perhaps a contemporary world-centric mythology could have as it's central symbol the famous "Earthrise" photograph taken by the astronauts who landed on the moon.

Elsewhere he asks:

"What is mythology?

Other people's religion.

What then is religion?

Misunderstood mythology."

The earliest mythic symbols are the sun and the moon, the earth and the sky.

The moon dies every month and after three days is resurrected. The moon is often linked with the snake who sheds it's skin and is likewise reborn. The sun often associated with the lion or other hunters and the antelope or bull that has a crescent moon in it's horns. The sun (hunter) kills the moon and stars (antelope) every morning and they are reborn again at night...

In stories of gods fathering children with mortals we see the yearning for the marriage of the earth and the sky and perhaps the intuition of a next stage of our own evolution.

I find it interesting that in the yogic Chakra system the heart center is called "Anahata" which means "unstruck." I think of an unstruck drum - that beats of it's own accord. Interestingly, the image we know as the Star of David is also found at the heart center, representing upward flowing and downward flowing sky and earth energy. The horizontal and vertical lines of the cross also meet in the heart.

This leads me to an association on a "virgin birth" - an unstruck drum, a birth that is not preceded by the sex act, also the birth of the Buddha, whose myth says that he is born (after another mysterious spirit-impregnation) from his mother's right side at the level of the heart. Compassion strikes me as an emotion that has no ulterior motive and hence arises in this same mysterious way as these symbols...

Perhaps that is the yearning expressed in this collectively dreamed up poetry of the inner life - a yearning for compassionate awakening and altruistic self-actualization. A death and rebirth in the heart of hearts. The divine child of the Winter Solstice born from the womb of one's psyche.

May we keep learning to read the symbols and see them as signposts toward an inner life in healthy, integrated relationship to outer reality....

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Pan's Labyrinth: The Archetypal Psyche Unveiled - Part One

In 2006 I wrote two pieces about the magnificent film, Pan's Labyrinth for my blog on the now defunct These ended up being read over 25 thousand times and being linked to and quoted from in many locations on the internet.

What follows is my initial review of the movie - I have since written part two, which deals more explicitly with the mythic structure and psychological symbolism of the film.

The Plot

Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth is a contemporary masterpiece of traditional mythic form. Political repression, family relationships and the mythic psyche all inhabit the canvas that Del Toro paints dark with the palette of the struggle to find meaning and resolution within traumatizing circumstances.

Rurally set in Franco's Spain of the 1940's, the principle story concerns itself with a sickly pregnant mother, Carmen, and her pre-pubescent daughter, our heroine Ofelia. These two have entered the world of the coming infant's father - the archetypically evil Captain Vidal of the fascist army.

Ofelia's real father is a casualty of the war, and her new stepfather is a cruel and inhuman sadist. Carmen is clearly grasping at straws to try and ensure survival for herself, her daughter and the child she is carrying through a very troubled pregnancy. Captain Vidal cares only for the son he imagines is growing in Carmen's womb as a mirror for his pinched and hateful sense of masculine power.

Ofelia takes solace as she has done for some time in her much-read treasure trove of fairy tale books, but as she crosses the threshold into the Captain's domain the line between fantasy and reality begins to blur. What ensues is a near classic unfolding of the stages of the mythic journey as laid out by Joseph Campbell. Don't let the inclusion of the mythic and fairy tale material fool you - this is no typically superficial representation of the inner world, in which magical forces enact a Disney-esque victory over evil for the pure-of-heart true believer. Del Toro restores his mythic motifs to their proper place as the symbolic representations of a psyche struggling to come to terms with traumatic social and familial conditions while forming a nascent sense of self. We are not in Kansas anymore.

This tragically constellated family unit is installed in an old mill that has been turned into a small military base to try and squash a Red rebellion from the hills. The Captain has a huge stone basement room to himself, where he spends his non-combatant time in reverie with his phonograph, booze, straight-razor, shaving mirror, and the repaired watch his father smashed at the moment of his death so that his son would know the time and "honorable" nature of his demise. The expendable Carmen is near death in a bedroom upstairs. The kindly and noble country doctor is under instructions to save the baby at all costs. The proud and unbroken housekeeper, Mercedes, and the Doctor are in secret collusion with the rebels.

The Mythology

Meanwhile the aptly named Ofelia is interacting with the mythic dimension of the psyche as she struggles to survive in impossible circumstances. She becomes immersed in the fantasy of herself as a reborn princess from a world where "there is no suffering or pain." In a meeting with the Faun - a most well-realized and captivating supernatural trickster, she agrees to take on three tasks that will take us into the heart of darkness on her quest to be reunited with her lost and kingly father.

The creatures of the mythic fairy tale realm are unsurpassed in their representation, and Del Toro is playing a supremely hip and psychologically savvy jazz with his storyline here, but it is in the resonances with real world torture, cruelty and loss of innocence that he strikes his most telling (and contemporary) chords.

Pan's Labyrinth dances nymph-like, or perhaps maenad-like (the Dionysian imagery works here too) between inner and outer reality, civilization and barbarity, the loss of innocence and the perverse quest for power, nature and the unnatural repression of our humanity. Ofelia is as appropriately lost and fallible in her fantasy world as she is in reality, and her guides carry an unpredictability that is sometimes as scary as the monsters she faces.

The Psychology

It is here that I would like to introduce the work of extraordinary Jungian therapist and theorist Donald Kalsched. His book The Inner World of Trauma; Archetypal Defenses of the Personal Spirit uses myth and fairy tale as a reflecting pool to witness both the healing genius and the potential for pathology in the traumatized psyche.

Kalsched uses (amongst several others) the myth of Eros and Psyche as well as the Rapunzel fairy tale to illustrate his "self-care system" hypothesis of how "when human resources are not available, archetypal resources appear", and how the Protector figure in classic tales as well as contemporary psyches has also the double face of being the Jailer. In other words, the very defense that initially saves you from unbearable pain becomes the limiting factor to resolving the healing process and participating fully in a real life-in-the-world.

This is no small insight for a world that has lost its appropriate relationship to both the psyche and its dream-language of mythic symbols. Too often, as in the case of both fundamentalist religion and New Age spirituality, this potent symbolic language is misinterpreted as literal information or as a factual map to a world in which we escape the trials of human maturity and depth. In this case we are still trapped in the dissociative fantasy defense against trauma, instead of making the complete journey into the rich imaginative connection between the inner and outer worlds that allows a fulfilling, though imperfect, engaged human life.

This theme is echoed through the several stories Kalsched utilizes, and once grasped can be seen again and again, particularly in powerful movies like The Piano, the under-appreciated The Cell, The Fountain, Jacob's Ladder, and Fearless. It is here too in Pan's Labyrinth.

Here again is Vincent d'Onofrio's contemporary Pan from The Cell. Here's Doug Jones' Pan from the film in question. Both of these mythic character depictions carry the Archetype of Protector/Jailer of the inner-world. Here too is Sam Neil from his similar but less mythically-themed role in The Piano.

Consider this kind of work in total alignment with a 21st Century Spirituality that concerns itself with the intellect, the psyche, and the life lived in authentic struggle with reality. The movie should make you shudder more than a little- it is about the confrontation with what Jung called the Shadow - and that aint' easy for anyone, but it is the road toward a more integrated, liberated, grounded and spiritually awake self. Consider it, too, a powerful antidote to such patty-cake "spiritual" fare as The Secret and What the Bleep.

In a forthcoming piece, I will enjoy unpacking Ofelia's mythic journey and comparing it to some other myths, fairy tales and movies to elucidate Kalsched's theme of the self-care system and how the psyche deals archetypally with trauma.

For now i leave you with my soulful recommendations for those interested in life-changing and mind-opening cinema:

Pan's Labyrinth
The Fountain
The Piano
The Cell
Jacob's Ladder {here is William Blake's painting of the same name inspired by a Biblical myth.}

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Fountain: A Tour de Force in Integral Cinema

The Fountain: Integral Cinema at it's Best!
Posted on Dec 13th, 2006

This is my review for The Fountain. I wrote it for submission to the new publication The Integralist, so it's filled with Integral and Spiral Dynamics jargon...bear with it.

I love using movies to teach psychological theory and philosophy. Perhaps this will turn into a regular segment! :O)

This analysis of The Fountain is actually a wonderful introduction to these life-changing maps of reality. So, if you are interested:

1. Use this link to go deeper into Spiral Dynamics.

2. Wikipedia on Integral Theory here.

3. Stuart Davis recently interviewed The Fountain's auteur, Darren Aronofsky, for Integral Naked. He and I have been trading notes on the film - read his review here.

So you have two web-links, two reviews, an interview with the director and what
I think is one of the most important, beautiful and ambitious movies ever made. Let's get started.

4. My review:

The Centaur Drinks From The Fountain

A love that spans a thousand years? An Indiana Jonesian quest to find the secret of immortality? A New Age reincarnation tale?

Darren Aronofky’s new film The Fountain will doubtless generate as much confused complaint as it will epiphanic praise. Welcome to second tier cinema. In his third outing, Aronofsky follows up Pi and Requiem for a Dream with a mind-bending trip that exposes the doomed “immortality project” at the center of both science and religion and the importance of coming to terms with the existential reality of death.

The year so far is thick with Orange/Green new age offerings that have included The Da Vinci Code, The Way Of the Peaceful Warrior, Down the Rabbit Hole (What the Bleep Part Two), The Celestine Prophecy and The Secret. These films promise to be revelatory but serve up either Green reinterpretations of Blue literalized myth (Da Vinci), awkward frothy Orange/Green mélanges of junk science, metaphysics and ‘prosperity consciousness” ( Rabbit Hole, Secret) or oversimplified regressive Green tinged with Purple magical thinking (Prophecy, Warrior).

Well, so much for the popular spiritual renaissance in cinema.

Where the previously listed films overlook interior transformation, attempting instead to just translate a static stage into cool spiritual language, or to find unlikely scientific exterior referents for misunderstood mysticism or mythic literalism, watching The Fountain is an exercise in integral consciousness. It uses a narrative style that requires the viewer to flex and flow between the three different realities and follow a story that appears at first to be stretching across a thousand years, but is really happening within the interior psyche of Dr. Tommy Creo.

In so doing Aronofky transcends and includes several historical worldviews and arrives at a uniquely contemporary conclusion.

We find ourselves shifting back and forth between three stories that follow Hugh Jackman (Tommy) and Rachel Weisz (Izzy) in different guises and timeframes. First: the desperate research and experimentation of a contemporary cancer doctor to find a cure for his dying wife, who has a fascination with all things Mayan. Second: the story (penned by the wife) of a Spanish conquistador on a quest to save his queen from the sadistic and self-righteous grand inquisitor by adventuring to the Mayan Amazon in search of the Biblical Tree of Life atop a hidden sacrificial pyramid. Success will ensure not only eternal life for both but also his queen’s undying love. Third: a futuristic astronaut/meditator floating through space toward a dying star he hopes will grant his dead wife’s rebirth.


This is in essence a simple story about an issue with extremely complex ramifications – the acceptance of death. By metaphorically spanning a thousand years, the film is able to offer multiple perspectives on this key issue. Layered and psychologically rich, The Fountain uses death and our psychological struggle to accept it as the thread that unites the different stories.

The conquistador scenes give us a window into Izzy’s fascination with mythic consciousness and the regressive fantasy that an earlier, Mayan version of religious literalism might free her alter-ego queen from the horrors of 16th century Christianity. Here, Aronofsky astutely compares inquisition era Christianity to the creeping cancer of a brain tumor while suggesting a bloody mirror-image correspondence with the Mayan cult of human sacrifice.

It is in the shaven-headed, isolated future-Buddhist sequences that we enter most deeply into Tommy’s pain, and ultimately, resolution. Taken together, it is Aronofky’s riff on the mirrored blood-soaked Mayan and Christian cosmologies, contrasted with the hubris of insisting that science be a way to “stop aging, stop death” that gets us into the nuts and bolts of the dilemma at hand. The tension explodes and is resolved in, of all places, the interior anguish of the doctor’s meditation.

It is this final meditative representation of the inner journey into outer space and how the three stories culminate that will doubtless be confusing to a culture sadly unfamiliar with interiority.

The Fountain uses a fluid narrative structure that traverses Red/Blue secret Mayan knowledge and Biblical references, Green/Yellow postmodern Buddhist overtones, Purple/Green death-transcending love and an Orange scientific immortality project – all to finally land us squarely in the camp of Yellow existential, post-metaphysical acceptance of the reality of death.

Don’t be fooled by the trailer, this is an existentialist meditation on the human condition dressed up as new age science fiction. The surprise ending subverts heroic transcendentalism in favor of the bittersweet and ultimately transformative heart–rending of deep love and loss.

My only question is this: Following his bald adventures in death meditation, will Hugh Jackman be added at the top of the list to play Ken Wilber opposite Jennifer Aniston’s Treya in the movie version of Grace and Grit?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Distance Between Spiritual Experience and Interpretation

The Distance Between Spiritual Experience and Interpretation
Posted on Feb 3rd, 2008 by Julian

This is a favorite subject of mine - the distance between experience and interpretation. It is undeniable that human beings in all times and cultures have been hardwired for spiritual experiences – some of course more than others. But is this proof of any of the multiple metaphysical belief systems that we tend, I would suggest, to superimpose onto the experience?

The central difficulty here is that the altered state of a spiritual experience is so convincing (and so important, beautiful and meaningful in its own right) and we are so suggestible during and afterward, that it is almost ubiquitous to be convinced that the experience is undeniable (or at the very least strong) proof of whatever belief system the ensuing interpretation is coming from - when actually the two may be barely related!

Humans love to go into altered states. There is not a culture in the history of the planet that has not come up with some way of fermenting, drinking, eating, fasting, dancing, sweating, drumming, smoking, snorting, chanting, breathing, meditating, stretching, sensory depriving or sensory overloading its way into altered states of consciousness.

In addition some people have more labile neurophysiology than others – be they epileptic, hypo-glycemic, bipolar, schizophrenic or merely garden-variety creative, empathic types with thin ego-boundaries.

Thankfully we have developed an ever-deepening understanding of some of the more extreme dysfunctions of the brain and have ways of diagnosing and treating these problems that are more effective than ever before. One cannot help but be curious about the similarities between say religious and schizophrenic statements about reality and wonder how much of the difference is one of degree, and to what extent the vocabulary of experience being used is coming from the same part of the brain.

How do we make sense of the fact that for both a) the person in thegrips of an ardent religious conversion as well as b) someone experiencing clinical insanity, the novel and metaphysical revelations being described are not only convincing but are held as extremely important, often not only for the individual in the grip of the experience, but for all of humanity?

I want to suggest that this is an extreme form of an activity of our physiology and its related interior - the psyche, that at its best can be positively transformational, healing and creative and at its worse can be fundamentalist, violent and crazy.

Three Layers of Spiritual Experience

I think it’s interesting to think about this phenomenon in terms of three layers:

1) The universal (with varying degrees of intensity) human proclivity toward not only experiencing altered states but also towards finding those altered states to some extent meaningful and significant.

2) The personal stage of development from which one
a) Interacts with or “co-creates “ the experience and
b) Interprets the experience – both based on one’s psychological profile.

3) The socio-cultural context within which the experience both
a) Occurs in the first place and
b) Is then interpreted

I think too that there is a powerful relationship between this proclivity toward altered states and the dream-like imaginative activity of creating mythology. The language of myth is one of metaphor and symbol - I think of it as a cultural dream. Myth is no less significant, numinous and meaningful than a potent personal dream or powerfully transporting piece of art.

Dream, art and myth all come form the same place; the deep unconscious psyche, and it is in altered states of consciousness that the pathway is opened between the conscious mind, with its steward the ego and the unconscious mind with, at its center, what Jung thought of as "the Self." I also like the word "soul" in this place.

So we find ourselves in a complex matrix of meanings, conditioning, emotional associations, instincts, primal forces and numinous energies whenever we deeply interact with dreams, high art, mythology and the altered states that give us access to the same layers of human consciousness.

Myths have always been a way to explain what we do not understand, a way to try and answer the unanswerable big questions about how the world began, what happens after we die, why things happen the way they do, what the purpose of existence is, where evil comes from etc..

This does not mean that cultures that dream up myths necessarily think of them metaphorically! The story-telling is taken as literally true when it is created, and most often what we see is that the myth is believed to have been "revealed" to the shaman or the holy man, or the wise elder or told to them by an animal, a spirit, an angel, god himself. But the point is - in a manner of speaking, the collective psyche dreams up the story. It comes from the deep unconscious and as such, just as with personal dreams, it speaks the language of symbol, metaphor, and archetype. I think of this as being the "soul language."

(As an aside I want to add that Joseph Campbell called myths "masks of god." He said that the high function of the "mask" was to help us see beyond it to what cannot ever be represented concretly.)

Three Functions of Myth

For the moment, let's say that there are three functions that myth serves:

1) Offering a poetic vocabulary with which to approach a state of awe, wonder and reverence for the world we live in, consciousness and life itself.
2) Reducing existential anxiety by explaining the unknowable and containing the fear of death.
3) Creating a shared psychic cosmology that is a container of belonging and belief for the culture.

These three functions are directly related to the above three layers, so let's put them together:

1) The universal tendency toward altered state/spiritual experiences needs a vocabulary with which to express and explore the largely non-verbal, non-rational states.
2) One of the ways we manage existential anxiety and psychological conflicts is often through spiritual or religious belief, petitioning, superstition, self-soothing etc.
3) The powerful sense of belonging, identity and taboo enacted by the socio-cultural context creates a convincing template within which the spiritual experience or altered state should be interpreted.

In other words there are reasons that Catholic nuns do not have visions of Avalokiteshvara on their deathbeds and that Tibetan monks don't have visions of the Blessed Virgin under similar circumstances. There are reasons there are "no atheists in foxholes," or that under conditions of extreme stress otherwise non-religious people may find themselves praying for a situation to turn out a certain way. There are reasons that the "soul language" that gets so sliced and diced into word-salad by schizophrenics tugs on our sleeves with its appearance of deep cryptic meaning. There are reasons that when people have powerful conversion experiences, open up emotionally, commune deeply with nature, take mind-bending drugs, experience intense trauma, or other altered state experiences they tend to come out the other side with a meaning that fits a fairly predictable socialized interpretation and that can often be seen as serving a particular personal psychological purpose - for better or worse.

(Of course this gets trickier in the multicultural/postmodern world in which (particularly in the West) there are now ever evolving sub-cultures that often draw threads of interpretation and belief from multiple sources - but though the collage may be more complex, the functions remain detectable and demonstrable. I must also add as an aside here that there is a level of radical spiritual experience in which one is actively going beyond acculturated metaphysical beliefs, experiencing revelations that subvert one's psychological defense structure and that make a strong enough impression on the right kind of psyche that the second two functions above are inactivated in the service of the first. This is most often the exception to the rule and for me marks the difference between transformational and translative spirituality...)

Cross-Cultural Examples

A 12-year-old boy in the Bible belt falls on the floor and begins speaking in tongues - he knows this is proof of the Holy Spirit and gives his life even more fully to Jesus. He vows to become a missionary in Africa.

An 18 year old girl on Ecstasy in London gazes in rapt absorption at the dance floor, her heart blowing open, mind stunned by the beauty of ordinary people and the power of music to unite people into a single moving organism of love and celebration, she is convinced that the Universe has led her precisely to this moment and that the Wicca initiation she received from her aunt the week before has connected her to her destiny.

The 22 year old couple hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains stand at the look-out point and breathe deeply as they do partner yoga stretches, the vast blue sky above them, the sun gleaming off the leaves of the trees and the warm rocks, they know without a shadow of a doubt that they are soul mates and the earth is a conscious being radiating love and wisdom at them.

The 29 year old woman goes to darshan with Amachi, the hugging saint. Her psychic reader has told her that she clearly has past-lives with the guru and that intersecting with her energetically in this life will help her to overcome the pain she feels at a failed relationship and recent abortion. In the arms of Amachi she feels accepted, filled with love, recharged energetically and blown away at the accuracy of the psychic's "information." What's more - gazing into the eyes of the guru she knew without a shadow of a doubt that God forgave her abortion, that it was the right thing to do and that she would have another chance to be a mother when the Universe was aligned.

The 35 year old Muslim man finally makes his pilgrimage to Mecca. A thousand men circle that most holy of stones - the Kaaba. This is the most important moment in his life and he is filled with awe, tears streaming down his face, he is caught up in the power of the presence of the prophet of the inevitability of his own destiny. He renews his commitment to bringing Islamic rule to the whole world for the glory of Allah and to donate as much of his income as he can to the cause of removing Israel from the face of the planet.

The 42-year-old homeless woman is transfixed, staring into the window of the restaurant. The customers are uncomfortable with her intent gaze and do not realize that she is looking at her own reflection. They are even less aware that she is seeing the Virgin Mary reflected back at her. She offers her unconditional healing love to all the world and knows that she must come again each morning to this spot until the police come and tell her to move, at which point she becomes again the bitter, persecuted crazy lady screaming foul curse words at the cops.

The 55-year-old therapist's young son is killed in a car wreck. As he walks past the cafe where his son loved to hang out and sometimes played his music at the open mic night he hears Jeff Buckley's version of "Hallelujah" coming through the open door. He stops in his tracks and weeps. He weeps for all the things he never said and for all the things his son will never do, he asks forgiveness for he ways in which he knows he failed him. When the song reaches it climax he feels a soft breeze on his skin that covers him in gooseflesh and imagines his son's voice singing a low harmony on the chorus. He tells his wife and she is sure this was a communication from the spirit world, but he doesn't think it was anymore or less than a powerful moment of grief, gratitude, forgiveness and expansion.


I suggest that it isn't enough to merely affirm (though we should do this at the very least) these experiences in a non-ethnocentric way - I think that if we want to a) understand, facilitate, and integrate them better and b) keep creating more and more effective world-centric humanistic contexts within which to more adequately interpret the experiences, we need to tease apart the mystical, psychological and socio-cultural layers of the experience.

When we are able to do so, we can see ourselves more clearly, use the power of the experience more effectively and side step some of the classic traps that too often make spiritual experience the domain of superstition, fundamentalism, psychological denial and rationalization, cultish belief, ethnocentric nationalism and basic delusion about reality.

So far the laudable contemporary liberal desire to be affirming of all forms of spiritual experience does not do this teasing apart and so has a tendency to uncritically embrace the cultural baggage and defensive psychological distortions along with the universal sense of awe and deep opening.

Of course, on the other side, the laudable modern desire to be rational tends to throw out the baby of the potent and meaningful experience with the bathwater of the superstitious cultural baggage and the rather obvious defensive psychological distortions.

Both of these impulses are based in partial truths that end up missing the point. Finding out which part is true and which is mistaken is essential if the two are to be integrated.

The fact that all human beings are wired to some extent for experiences like these and that in certain cases such experiences can be positively transformational to our lives, in no way makes any of the culture bound and anxiety reducing interpretations any more true in the literal sense.

My sense of it is that we need to be able to differentiate a) what is truly universal in our physiology and it's experiential counterpart the deep psyche and even in the general archetypal form and themes that underlie the specific content of the mythic/metaphysical interpretation, from b) the interpretation itself.

Its a tricky task but one that is quite doable if we are rational and honest with ourselves.

Its about picking apart metaphor from reality, literal from figurative, defensive from expansive, conditioned from transcendent etc, in an attempt to understand both the meaningful trans-rational power of spiritual experiences and the ways in which their pre-rational interpretation can be deceptive.

To forego (or fudge) this task out of multi-cultural PC politeness, sentimental attachment to the supernatural, or soupy relativist confusion leaves us spiritually and intellectually impoverished and no closer to understanding this remarkable and central human concern.

it is possible to forge a 21st Century Spirituality that harnesses the exquisite transformational beauty and power of spiritual experiences without the non-essential cultural baggage, metaphysical belief and reality distorting interpretations.

If we:

a) Enact an inquiry-based practice that initiates us experientially into the universal physiological and psychological mind-body energetics, state shifts and stage-wise growth,
b) Maintain a space for shadow-work and other forms of psychological process/awareness and
c) Keep integrating and developing rational cognition and critical thinking,

we increase the possibilities of reaping the benefits of spiritual experience and side-stepping some of the long-standing drawbacks.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

JIll Bolte Taylor and Some Spiritual Fallacies

Above is a video that is getting a lot of play in the spiritual community, I wrote this post when it originally aired on the TED channel, but as you may know this new blog is a place I am gradually uploading to from an archive on - which was recently shut down.

The video is inspiring, it's exciting, it's deeply personal, poignant, intelligent and funny - but ultimately I think the message and it's underlying assumptions are hugely problematic.

I am going to save my comments until this has been up for a little while, and let any readers make their own observations.

My suggestion: watch it once and take the emotional/altered state ride - its great! Then watch it again and pay more attention to the details...



OK - let's think this through a little, shall we?

* Let me say first of all, this is not intended in any way to be hostile toward Ms. Taylor. She is obviously a bright and sincere woman, who has recovered from and struggled to make sense of a very intense experience of brain injury. She is clearly in touch with a feeling of wanting to share a message that is positive with the world. Her talk is engaging, intelligent, self-revealing and impactful.

At the same time, she is unwittingly enacting a set of fallacies that a basic knowledge of transpersonal psychology, integral theory, philosophical reasoning and recent studies on meditation and neuroscience can enable us to see.

Why does this matter?

Well, the subjects she is touching on regarding the brain, altered states of consciousness, stagewise development and the future of humanity are important and meaningful ones - and they not only deserve to be addressed with more clarity, but when misrepresented as she is doing perpetuate misconceptions that do none of us any good, let alone the ideal of world peace and unity.

Now before you get all bent out of shape, let me acknowledge that yes, of course this is opening a door for many who might otherwise not link these subjects or be exposed to certain possibilities. At the same time I maintain, as I have done with The Secret, What The Bleep, Steve Pavlina's blog and other purveyors of these kinds of fallacies - that it is sometimes better to not be exposed to important ideas than to be exposed to distorted, poorly-reasoned, incorrect manglings of important ideas, dressed up as the next big thing...

For those who will say - ah but this is stage appropriate, don't be so mean to people who think this way, I have one statement: fallacious arguments are not the domain of any healthy stage, especially once one has developed the capacity to reason. There is a healthy version of the interaction between Ms. Taylor's experience and an interpretation that weaves together spirituality, science and philosophy that would represent what integral calls healthy Green - this however is not it.

Here's why:


1) The talk falls into the trap of conflating an altered state experience with an uncritical interpretation of that experience, without differentiating the two and creating a three strands of science set of well described links and hypotheses. Now, I know its a short talk, but this could be done in a more exciting, though grounded/conservative way, that would map out some very fertile territory for future inquiry, instead of jumping right into a very grandiose narrative about saving the world by choosing to be in your right brain as much as possible.

What i think is going on here is that Ms. Taylor has yet to integrate the experience of this radical altered state with her scientific/cognitive abilities. Understandable - it was a radically different state of mind than she had ever experienced. Furthermore, as the talk progresses it becomes apparent that Ms. Taylor is in a bit of an altered state on stage, this is captivating at first, but read as a little hysterical and manic on second viewing. again - no judgment or mean-ness here, this is just a subjective observation of her mental state. I mean the words "hysterical" and "manic" in their technical usage - not as some kind of ad hominem.

I have written at length here about the importance of recognizing the distance between altered state experiences and the conditioned interpretations that we are all prone to filter them through based on three factors:

1) The universal (with varying degrees of intensity) human proclivity toward not only experiencing altered states but also towards finding those altered states to some extent meaningful and significant.

2) The personal stage of development from which one
a) Interacts with or “co-creates “ the experience and
b) Interprets the experience – both based on one’s psychological profile.

3) The socio-cultural context within which the experience both
a) occurs in the first place and
b) Is then interpreted

You'll notice that Ms.Taylor does something that a lot of badly structured attempts at integrating science and mysticism do - she starts off with simple but good scientific information and then dives right into spiritual assertions without carrying over a similar kind of rigor or analysis. Notice the cadaverous human brain, the qualifications, the scientific background that make us take her seriously - but then as soon as she goes into the emotive, exciting, compelling and humorous discussion of her stroke experience, she starts using certain words without defining them via, unpacking them with, or linking them to, the brain science she is using as their support.

Unfortunately, the listener may get the impression that Ms Taylor's empirical objectivity carries over into her subjective and socially conditioned statements of interpretation and conclusion - lending them more than their deserved objective weight.

This means that even though she gives a very faithful and balanced account of her experience in the body of her talk - the inability to use her muscles, the inability to think, understand language, the presence of extreme pain and chaos etc - as well as the novelty, beauty, wonder, freedom of being in an expansive state, she still somehow manages to arrive at a conclusion in her talk that is unsatisfying.

That conclusion, that begins at around 15:30 is that we could "choose" to step to the right of the left hemispheres and live in peace and beauty. Observe how emotionally charged this idea is for her and how it becomes the central driving force toward her recovery.

Then, at around 16:50:

"So who are we? We are the life force power of the universe, with manual dexterity and two cognitive minds. And we have the power to choose, moment by moment, who and how we want to be in the world. Right here right now, I can step into the consciousness of my right hemisphere where we are -- I am -- the life force power of the universe, and the life force power of the 50 trillion beautiful molecular geniuses that make up my form. At one with all that is. Or I can choose to step into the consciousness of my left hemisphere. where I become a single individual, a solid, separate from the flow, separate from you. "

Nirvana. Spirit. Energy. Surrender. Not the choreographer of my life. One with all that is. My moment of transition. Planes of reality. Life force power of the universe.

All of these are words that carry emotive power - and that's fine, they are descriptors of a experience, and they also exist within a context of meaning - but what would do her cause a better service and make the talk more than a cool story that seems to bolster somewhat superficial spiritual ideas, would be if she did more of a step-by-step linking of what integral theory labels the Upper Left (UL) and Upper Right (UR) quadrants. it would also help to step back a little and look at the socially constructed (LL) phrases used above and bear in mind that these are non-empirical observations - which is fine - but they should be identified as such! Instead it all kinda blurs together in an undifferentiated way that could be mistaken for integration or holism, but alas is more of a fun mess..

In other words, how about: I was experiencing something that felt to me like what I had heard called Nirvana. How interesting that a stroke that limited the function of certain aspects of brain function would induce a state of spaciousness, freedom from fears and pre-occupations, wonder at my connection to the universe. Perhaps this has to do with such and such structure in the brain that I know from my background deals with such and such processing, which makes me wonder what a healthy version of this pathological side-effect might be and what would make that possible.... This would ground her interpretation instead of sling-shotting it into speculative metaphysics and emotive argument that stumbles into several naive pitfalls.

This leads to my second point:


2) Again somehow Ms. Taylor comes to the conclusion that we can "choose" to be in the right brain, and that being in the right brain is the answer to our problems and the prescription for peaceful Nirvana.

Really, this is laden with two fallacies. One is that the left brain is 'the problem," the other has to do with an overstating of the possibility of choice regarding states of consciousness. (Stages too - but I'll get into that in a moment..) Bear in mind she was thrust into this expereince by a stroke - no choice there...

This plays too easily into the approach to spirituality that, rather than encouraging an integration of cognition, emotions, creativity, embodied experience - a real embrace of all that we are, pushes what I call the "self-attacking" position that something, whether it is sex, or 'the ego," or as in this case, the left brain, or materialism, or emotional attachments, something about what and who we are is in the way of being free and enlightened, and if we could just get rid of that, overcome it, choose something else that would be the key!

This is a dualistic oversimplification of any serious process of self-transformation and it does us two forms of dis-service. First: it feeds the fantasy that there is a simple answer, a utopian prescription that we could all just "choose."

Second: because of the previous heady misconception - it serves to keep people in an unfortunate cycle of failing at the impossible (just choosing to be in the right brain, transcending the ego altogether, not having sexual desires, completely controlling my emotions) but holding onto the idea that its their fault and they aren't trying hard enough, setting strong enough intentions, being disciplined enough, surrendering to the guru enough, choosing deliberately enough to be "in love" and so on.. This cycle is basically a dead-end, even though we all go dancing merrily down it with a gleaming hopeful eyes and well-intentioned hearts.


3) The third problem here is the most glaringly obvious: the talk conflates brain injury with enlightenment. It conflates disorganized pathology with integrated development and then draws conclusions from one based on the other, again without creating good links a la some kind of quadrant analysis.

This mistake shoots itself in the foot, because the quadrant reductionism and the variation on the Pre/Trans Fallacy being enacted here allow one to easily arrive at additional poor conclusions, thus: maybe spiritual experiences are just brain pathology, or maybe what we call the healthy brain is in the way of being more spiritual. This doesn't do brain science or any kind of viable spirituality any favors whatsoever!

While a reading of contemporary neuroscience and its study of meditative states (a la Newberg) gives a solid set of links between areas of the brain that serve particular functions and the experience one has as those areas are "turned on or off " by meditation, nowhere does one find the kind of conflating that suggests that states of mental illness are identical to states of meditative absorption.

Differentiating the qualitative value of various altered states and what they do and don't mean is a crucial responsibility that this kind of research needs to be engaging.

(It's also unfortunate that she mentions her brother's schizophrenia and then leaves that loose end dangling while making a case for her brain disorder as a doorway into Nirvana - the implications are obvious and unfortunate - again they do neither meditators nor mentally ill people any favors... and leave the rest of us giddily confused on the matter.)

To quote Meister Eckhart " The madman is drowning in the same waters in which the holy man is swimming."

(I have gone into some depth and detail about this in the Kundalini Dragon post you can find on this blog.)


4) Altered states of consciousness are one thing, stages of development are another. We learned through the 60's and 70's (and had mapped out by Transpersonal Psychology) that one could experience meditative rapture, psychedelic ego-death, darshan from the great master, and the euphoria of mass demonstration or celebration and still return relatively unchanged to one's existing stage of development.

This niggling reality forced theorists to make a distinction between states and stages and try to make sense of which states were useful glimpses of higher stages and how they could then be translated into a developmental process that would turn the altered state into a permanent trait.

What the research clearly shows, is that one does not develop stagewise by wishing it so, by believing, by choosing, by magical intervention, or by one-off altered state explosions - one progresses through stages of development at the higher end of the spectrum by hard work, practice, self-inquiry, process, healing, study etc...

As inspiring as an altered state - or someone else's account/interpretation of their altered state may be as fuel for transformation - leaving out a map that actually engages the process of transformation renders the inspiration somewhat empty and lacking in direction.


Let me end by saying that I am immensely sympathetic to the message, the emotional tone, the intentions of this talk, and I have immense compassion for Ms. Taylor and her experience. At the same time, i think that identifying the popular fallacies that limit the healthy and differentiated integration of mind-body, brain/spirituality, stages and stages, science and mysticism, empiricism and idealism - and offering alternative lenses, is an important, grounding and forward-looking task.

It is the passion I share with Ms. Taylor for the subject that inspires this critique. May it be of service!