“All becoming has needed me
My looking ripens things
And they come toward me, to meet and be met”
Could it be, as psychiatrist Ede Frecska suggests, that we are living in a time marked by a profound crisis, manifesting not only in the material world, but in meta-symptoms such as Scientism “the negative schema of a depressed culture”? Decades before Frecska formulated his diagnosis a similar trajectory had been mapped for us in the vibrant but neglected work of Owen Barfield (among his many life roles we find those of scholar, Inkling-companion of Tolkein and CS Lewis, lawyer and Anthroposophist).
In works such as Poetic Diction (1928) and Saving the Appearances (1957) Barfield unpacks the relationship between language, meaning and consciousness with the insight of a depth psychologist (no accident he was a major underground river in the thought of James Hillman) and the deftness of a poet. He openly breaks into psychology with his critique of Freud (the plumber) and even Jung (‘laden heavily with R.U.P (residue of unresolved positivism)’), but his most telling insights concern our words – simultaneously the lifeblood of our talking cure, and the ‘prison-house of language’ (Wittgenstein). Barfield believed in the evolution of consciousness through time, of a basic threefold pattern moving from Original Participation through the Objective Idealism born of Descartes, Comte and others, and towards a future state of Conscious Participation, reunification of imagination with world, polarities married beyond the ‘subjective emptiness’ of contemporary experience.
This basic triple map bears echoes of other tripartite lenses from the revelation of the Christian Trinity through to the psychological technology of, say, Ken Wilber’s ‘pre/trans fallacy’. However, in Barfield the synthesising imperative is always explicitly serving beauty, as in ‘that metanoia, or turning about of the mind, for which the heart’s name is repentance’ (Saving the Appearances, p180). Such a direct and robust, yet open and beautiful, form reminds us also of other metaphors for our time, such as that of the great Twentieth Century Indian sage Ramana Maharshi, who spoke of his teachings as ‘thorns used to remove other thorns’. Is that not an image to make any therapist’s heart surge?
Returning to my thread, I would like to propose that, as the non-dual teacher Adyashanti puts it
‘Awakening to Reality is no longer a possibility; it is an imperative. We have sailed the ship of delusion as far as she can carry us. We have run her ashore and find ourselves shipwrecked on an increasingly desolate land. Our options have imploded. “Wake up or perish” is the spiritual call of our times. Did we ever need more motivation than this?’
Evidence for this state of affairs is everywhere, from the increasingly disastrous seizures of our ailing biosphere to the centrifugal abstractions of political and economic systems; the ‘myth of endless progress’ (as applied in medicine, space travel, limitless free energy or any other thought horizon) is pulled over on the hard shoulder of its particular linear motorway, and the long expected emergency services aren’t answering the phone. In the consulting room the twin orbits of anxiety and depression weave their dual misery in larger and larger gyres, lit up with the brightening tails of self-harm, addiction, meaninglessness, and the thousand displaced horrors of the alienated self. We risk Heidegger’s insight ‘what mortal can fathom the abyss of his confusion?’ (Early Greek Thinking, p57)
And yet, the sheer and existential surface of the abyss walls is not the insurmountable end. As Nietzsche told us, if you stare at the abyss the abyss stares right back; it is our part to blink first, to redeem the implacable stand-off inherent in our species-pride and to move in new, forgotten ways. Barfield left us a clue in paragraphs like this:
“modern psychologists claim to give us an unmetaphorical account of the soul, but their technical terms such as ‘complexes, repressions, censors, engrams, and the like’ are metaphorical in origin, so that they are speaking of ‘tying-up, shoving back, Roman magistrates and scratchings’ “
It is as if psychology, the ‘butterfly speech-thought’ of the human mind, is ripening once again to break through the crust of arid objectification and to put forth new shoots from her rhizomatic depths. Her mode of utterance will not be contained in rigid methodology, nor will she mindlessly obey the tired laws of the Newtonian paradigm; rather, she will come out of the sterile glare of diagnostic abstraction, a flaming DSM in her left hand, a diamond-flash in each heart, and whatever she chooses to whisper, it will flow on four levels, as the Kashmir Shaivists document; she will remain in her absolute undifferentiated wave (Para-Vak, in Sanskrit – the voice gone beyond, silence) even as she melts into a quiver of formless desire (Pashyanti, – the causal body glimpsing the sound of eternity); the quiver she now is descends into a middle mind-realm (Madhyama – the thoughts and dialogues of our human mind) before she emerges in our throats and keyboards (as Vaikhari, the form-world of speech). As sages of this tradition have long witnessed (for example, in the synthesis of Yoga and Psychology given through Sri Aurobindo and his work with the Mother) thinking in words is Vaikhari, with ideas is Madhyama, thinking with direct experience is Pashyanti, while Para remains transcendent of mental activity, beyond mind. The wave function collapses (decoheres, in the sci-babble of quantum physics) along its probability curve, drawn by its own nature and the attention of an observer – contracting into the specifics of a given form, as an individuation inside a single mind, where the particular life is lived through. Never is the particle other than a wave, nor the wave reducible to the aspect of a particle – its experience is simultaneously one with the continuity of flow, marked by non-local dynamic field (perhaps, in our analogy, a good-enough metaphor for the perceptible edge of psyche herself, as she quivers toward form).
Apart from the ‘fearful symmetry’ of quantum mechanics with ancient Vedic wisdom teaching, we might also observe that here are expressed two modes of knowing experience – the first as a grid map, abstracting, mathematical, geared for efficient understanding and action; the second as a story map, inclusive of elemental possibilities, a cartography of the self in felt tones and sensuous precision. Thus is the landscape of soul apprehended, rather as we may approach outer landscapes, the natural world all about us:
“Landscape was here long before we were even dreamed. It watched us arrive” (Robert Macfarlane, p59 The Wild Places)
I leave us back in the agreeable company of Rainer Maria Rilke, more eloquent than I
How surely gravity’s law,
Strong as an ocean current,
hold of even the smallest thing
pulls it toward the heart of the world.
Each stone, blossom, child-
Is held in place.
Only we, in our arrogance,
Push out beyond what we each belong to
For some empty freedom.
If we surrendered
To earth’s intelligence
We could rise up rooted, like trees.
Instead we entangle ourselves
In knots of our own making
And struggle, lonely and confused.
So, like children, we begin again
To learn from the things,
Because they are in God’s heart;
They have never left him.
This is what the things can teach us:
Patiently to trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
Before he can fly.
Adyashanti, The Way of Liberation: A Practical Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, Open Gate Sangha, San Jose California, 2012
Barfield, Owen Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning, Barfield Press UK, 2010
Barfield, Owen The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays, Barfield Press UK, 2013
Barfield, Owen Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, Wesleyan University Press, 1988
Barrows, a & Macy, J. Rilke’s Book of Hours – Love Poems to God; Riverhead Teade, 2005
Frecska, Ede How Can Shaman’s Talk With Plants and Animals? The Topological Roots of Plant Consciousness & Interspecies Communication, In: Strassman, Rick Inner Paths to Outer Space, Park Street Press, 2008
Heidegger, Martin Early Greek Thinking: The Dawn of Western Philosophy, HarperCollins, London, 1985
Macfarlane, Robert The Wild Places, Granta, London, 2008
White, Kenneth The Wanderer & His Charts, Polygon, 2004