The Spiritual Transformation of Humanity

A Review of Hans Thomas Hakl’s, Eranos: an alternative intellectual history of the twentieth century


This is a marvelously fascinating book documenting the history of Eranos, a yearly, interdisciplinary meeting in Ascona, Switzerland that started in 1933 and continues on in different forms to the present day. Hakl’s book is balanced, while sympathetic to the underlying spirit of Eranos. It is very well-referenced, with almost one hundred pages of 8 point font notes. Eranos was the life work of Olga Fröbe, who brought together an interdisciplinary group of speakers for an exploration of the spirit in history, philosophy, psychology, science and mythology. These speakers included: Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, James Hillman, Henry Corbin, Mircea Eliade, D. T. Suzuki, Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, Heinrich Zimmer, and innumerable others. Hakl’s work is detailed and exhaustive as well as broadly connected to larger societal themes. While the topic is very different, it is worth comparing it to Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, by Greil Marcus.

After an in-depth exploration of the people who participated in Eranos as well as the controversies surrounding the meetings and the individual lecturers’ lives and works, Hakl gives an interesting summary of subsequent organizations that sought to combine the scholarly and the spiritual, perhaps using Eranos as a prototype. Most notably, for an American audience, Hakl cites a discussion he had with Michael Murphy discussing the role that Eranos played as an inspiration for Esalen, in California, which has played such an important role in the human potential movement and fostering personal growth.

As well as a history of a specific place and organization and specific historical individuals, Hakl also explores broader tensions between science, spirituality, objectivity, subjectivity, modernism, esotericism, individual and the collective. Hakl discusses the tensions between the rational/scientific world view and the esoteric/spiritual world view. His argument is that Eranos was a third view point which sought to integrate both science and inner spiritual experience. Here are a couple quotes that Hakl cites regarding the goal of Eranos as seeking a “rationality that does not reduce or fragment what it sees, but which enriches, synthesizes, and evokes responses,” (Charles Scott, 258). Eranos’ aim was “indeed to bring about more than an understanding but rather a knowing through direct experience,” (Ira Progoff, 258-9). And lastly, Henry Corbin, “we in Eranos never had the intention of adapting ourselves to some given model, we never paid heed to any orthodoxy, and we were concerned with only one thing, namely to press on into the innermost part of ourselves, pursuing that truth until we reach its farthest limits, (261). In summary, “Eranos was thus not exclusively concerned with learned scholarship but equally (although not in the case of all participants) with the spiritual transformation of humanity,” (Hakl, 11).

I highly recommend this book for those who are interested in the “spiritual transformation of humanity,” as well in the history of this organization that brought together such influential thinkers as Carl Jung, James Hillman, Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade and Henry Corbin. The book offers glimpses into the lives of these different figures who lectured at Eranos, where they could try out new ideas and find a source for inspiration and companionship in a place whose goal was the synergistic integration of inner and outer knowing.

The Tension Between Outer Religion (and Psychology) and Inner Mysticism: Jung, Buber and Gnosis

A Review of Alfred Ribi’s, The Search for Roots: C. G. Jung and the Tradition of Gnosis


Gnosis is one of those terms that seem to mean many different things to many different people. Ribi defines it as, “Gnosis is not a ready-made system…It is the undeveloped potential of Christian myth…Developing this myth is a task for people of our own time. It is an introverted task, a personal task,” (ix). Through his study of Gnosis, as well as of Jung (even collecting the same books that Jung referenced in his own writings on Gnosis and alchemy), Ribi sees Jung’s goal as an example of the Gnostic introverted quest for divine understanding of self and God. Jung, himself, near the end of his life said that the main “interest of my work is not concerned with the treatment of neurosis, but rather with the approach to the numinous,” (7).

Lance Owens’ foreword to the 2013 English publication of the book, gives a nice summary of Jung’s inner life and writings, taking into account Liber Novus, The Red Book, published in 2009. This foreword is important as Ribi’s book was originally published in German in 1999 and thus did not have access to The Red Book at the time it was written. This personal journal of Jung’s connects the dots between Jung’s professional work in psychotherapy, mythology and alchemy with his own personal journey. The Red Book traces Jung’s inner development and experiences, from ages 38-54, which can be seen as the source material for his later works. The book itself takes the form of an alchemical or Gnostic text, a sourcebook of dreams and visions, illustrated with fantastic images. Ribi further describes Gnosis as “a spontaneous, creative phenomenon…always a fresh creation, a processing of material that to some extent is already known, but now newly organizing in novel ways and contexts,” (39). Thus The Red Book can be viewed as a Gnostic text, arising from Jung’s inner mind and spirit, a new creation, but also a reprocessing of age-old myths and material. There is no doubt that Jung studied the Gnostics and that he was sympathetic to the spiritual process of Gnosticism.

Ribi begins his book by examining the disagreement between Martin Buber and Jung over Gnosticism and ultimately, inner mystical experience. Whereas Buber considers Jung a Gnostic, and that this is a “bad” thing, Jung himself found in Alchemy and Gnosticism a link to a living, spiritual, inner experience that was the very meaning and purpose of life. For instance, Jung writes, “when I began to understand alchemy I realized that it represented a historical link with Gnosticism, and a continuity therefore existed between past and present. Grounded in the natural philosophy of the Middle Ages, alchemy formed the bridge on the one hand to the past, to Gnosticism, and on the other into the future, to the modern psychology of the unconscious,” (133). For Jung, Gnosticism is one example, as is alchemy, of the individual’s inner search for Self, the inner path to God. Ribi does resort to a form of “psychoanalysis” of Martin Buber’s childhood to explain his opposition to Jung, Gnosis, psychology, and inner, mystical experience. This personal analysis is worth considering, even though it does not always come across as balanced, but in the end is not the most important point. Ribi illuminates the rift between Jung and Buber as part of a larger debate between inner and outer experience, which can be cast as an example of the debate between the tradition of organized religion and the experiences of the individual mystic. To someone within a religious tradition, the individual mystic’s journey often appears heretical, as it is by definition, individual, new and creative, rather than being defined in terms of tradition and orthodoxy.

Through the remainder of the book, Ribi traces Jung’s life’s work through different phases and highlights the role that Gnostic beliefs played, for instance in the writing, in 1916, of  The Seven Sermons of the Dead, Septum Sermones ad Mortuos, with its Gnostic imagery and terminology, it is a mythopoetic text, more spiritual than psychological. Ribi’s examination of this text takes up the remaining 120 pages of his book and it closes somewhat abruptly, without a summing up of the overall book. Still, this book is a very interesting and rewarding read of Gnosticism; the personal relationship between Jung and Buber as it mirrors a larger spiritual/philosophical debate; and as an exploration of the role of Gnostic thought in Jung’s work. In the end, it is probably more true that Jung was not simply “a Gnostic,” as it was that he studied Gnosticism as one of the ways to strive after inner Truth. As Jung writes in the Seven Sermons, “At bottom, therefore, there is only one striving, namely the striving after your own being,” (210).

The Imagination at Work: A Review of Henry Corbin’s Avicenna and the Visionary Recital

The Imagination at Work: A Review of Henry Corbin’s Avicenna and the Visionary Recital


This is the second book by Henry Corbin that I have read, the first being Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi, with its beautiful cover. I came to Corbin via James Hillman and Carl Jung, and was thus interested in Corbin’s concept of the imagination. Corbin goes to great lengths to distinguish imagination from fantasy, and sees “active imagination” as a creative force, that creates the reality, and even matter of ourselves and our worlds. “Each of us carries in himself the Image of his own world, his Imago mundi, and projects it into a more or less coherent universe, which becomes the stage on which his destiny is played out. He may not be conscious of it, and to that extent he will experience as imposed on himself and others this world that in fact he himself or others impose on themselves,” (8).There is a correspondence between what is within the individual and what the individual experiences in both the external material and spiritual worlds.

Corbin’s thoughts revolve around Avicenna, a Persian philosopher and physician (980-1037). Corbin studies three “visionary recitals,” or as he sometimes calls them, “spiritual romances.” Corbin is a dense writer and I cannot claim to have a full understanding of his writing, nor an in-depth understanding of Persian and Arabic culture and terminology that Corbin explores his ideas through. He seems to be focused on a turn in Western culture with Avicenna being a pivot point. Corbin draws a distinction between rational, objective, materialist Western thought and a form of thinking that includes “active imagination” in which the imaginal is as real as the material, in fact possibly more real as it precedes and gives rise to the material. This leads to an in-depth discussion of Avicennan angelology and the ‘alam al-mithal (world of Images), where “spirits are corporealized and bodies spiritualized,” (35). The loss of this intermediary realm of the ‘alam al-mithal leads to a severing of the connection between spirit and matter and to the dualism inherent in much of Western thought. Corbin argues that we “must cease to separate the history of philosophy from the history of spirituality,” (16). While Corbin is interested in history and scholarship, his underlying drive is to illuminate a spiritual quest.

I’ll just touch on a couple of the themes in the book, as it winds its way through various Gnostic and Islamic mystical visions and encounters. There is the recognition that the individual is a “Stranger” in the world, i.e. comes from somewhere else and that “the soul must find the way of Return. That way is Gnosis, and on that way it needs a Guide. The Guide appears to it at the frontier where it has already emerged from this cosmos, to return-or better, to emerge- to itself,” (19). There is the “quest for the Orient,” or discernment of proper orientation toward the truth, that is the ta’wil, or the return “to restore to one’s origin,” (29).

I find it difficult to summarize the philosophical arguments of this book, but I found it immensely interesting and I read it as much as poetry and as mystical imagery as spiritual philosophy. Jacob Needleman describes Corbin’s work as “visionary scholarship” (foreward to Corbin’s The Voyage and the Messenger: Iran and Philosophy). I like the idea of a visionary scholar and it reminds me of Juan Mascaro’s work translating the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, scholarship that is historical, linguistic, yet motivated by an underlying search for Truth. For one new to Corbin, this would most likely be a difficult book, but if you read it as you would a dream, albeit a dream with complicated technical and foreign terminology, it can be a beautiful and rewarding experience.

For a reader, like myself, coming from a familiarity with the works of Jung and Hillman, Tom Cheetham’s book, All the World an Icon: Henry Corbin and the Angelic Function of Beings is a good introduction to Corbin’s thought and explores the relationships between these three men’s thought as well as their meetings, but reading Corbin’s original works is a must.

The Man Behind the Words: A Review of The Selected Letters of C. G. Jung, 1909-1961

A Review of The Selected Letters of C. G. Jung, 1909-1961

Published through the Bollingen Series, Princeton University Press 1953, this edition 1984
Selected and edited by Gerhard Adler in collaboration with Aniela Jaffe
Translated from the German by R.F.C. Hull


I picked up this book intending to just read through a few of the higher profile letters to people whom I recognized and was interested in, such as Henry Corbin, Sandor Ferenczi, Herman Hesse, James Joyce, Erich Neumann, Heinrich Zimmer and Upton Sinclair. I found myself, however, drawn into replies to anonymous writers concerning questions about God and spirituality as well as letters to religious figures. In general, the longest letters are those that discuss God and religious and spiritual themes. Jung, himself in the letters, states that in his published works, the “language I speak must be ambiguous, must have two meanings, in order to do justice to the dual aspect of our psychic nature. I strive quite consciously and deliberately for ambiguity of expression,” (108-109). This is often what I first felt reading Jung’s work, “Does he mean this, or that, is this ‘real’ or symbolic?” When he would write about “archetypes,” “the self” and the “God-Image,” I was never sure in what sense Jung thought these “things” existed. He obviously thought they were important unconscious influences and that they were involved in therapeutic processes.

It has become clear to me after reading Jung’s recently published journal, The Red Book, that Jung was primarily a mystic who strove to translate his experiences into the scientific and objective language of psychology. In addition to trying to write to the unconscious as well as consciousness of his readers, he was trying to create a language and science that was more objective than his subjective, but deep and meaningful inner experiences. In his letters, he is more open, and doesn’t seem to strive for ambiguity in his language. The letters take many forms: consoling a woman with terminal cancer and talking about his own near death experience after a heart attack; giving therapeutic advice to other therapists; giving tips on how to interact with difficult influential people; clarifying to curious (or in the case of the orthodox religious, irritated) comments about his writing and theories; trading books and thoughts with other writers; discussing dreams; and sharing his professional and spiritual dilemmas with confidants. What comes through in the letters is a devout man, exploring what is of utmost importance to him while trying to help others on a similar path. Jung had many unusual experiences and used his inner life as the template for his lifelong quest to understand the unseen forces within us that shape our lives: the unconscious and God.

I’ll just give a couple quotes in closing from the letters. This is from a letter to an anonymous woman, “our proper life-task must necessarily appear impossible to us, for only then can we be certain that all our latent powers are brought into play,” (16). And this, a longer quote from a December 18, 1946 letter to Father Victor White, “Yesterday I had a marvelous dream: One bluish diamond, like a star high in heaven, reflected in a round quiet pool—heaven above, heaven below. The imago Dei in the darkness of the earth, this is myself. The dream meant a great consolation. I am no more a black and endless sea of misery and suffering but a certain amount thereof contained in a divine vessel. I am very weak. The situation dubious. Death does not seem imminent, although an embolism can occur anytime again…It seems to me as if I am ready to die, although as it looks to me some powerful thoughts are still flickering like lightnings in a summer night. Yet they are not mine, they belong to God, as everything else which bears mentioning,” (69-70).

The Search for Unity Underlying Hinduism and Islam

Review of Majma’ Ul Bahrain or The Mingling of Two Oceans, by Prince Muhammad Dara Shikuh, translated and edited by M. Mahfuz-Ul-Haq


I found the reference to this book while reading Henry Corbin’s book, The Voyage and the Messenger: Iran and Philosophy. Corbin describes Shikuh as “the short-lived Emperor of India. His profoundly mystical soul was completely absorbed by his desire, based on his own inner experience, to realize an exegesis which would be common to Hindu and Islamic mysticism,” (86). While Shikuh’s book, translated to English as The Mingling of Two Oceans, or sometimes as The Confluence of Two Seas, is of historical interest, perhaps, as an early attempt at illuminating the underlying unity of different religious traditions, I did not find it very interesting from the perspective of mysticism or inspiration. The book is largely lists comparing different conceptual topics, for instance, in Islam, there are considered to be five elements, which have names, similarly, in Hinduism, there are five named elements; the Sufis consider that there are four “worlds,” similarly, in Hinduism, there are considered to be four worlds. These correspondences are perhaps interesting from a historical perspective, but Corbin’s books focus not on the historicity of religion, but rather the inner essence of experienced spirituality. There are some interesting passages that are more poetic and mystical, such as “The inter-relation between water and its waves is the same as that between body and soul or as that between sarir and atma,” (45). Dara Shikuh considered the Vedas to be “revealed books,” thus establishing a hidden unity between Hinduism and Islam, at least Sufism, (28). The introduction by M. Mahfuz-Ul-Haq is of interest in the discussion of Dara Shikuh’s life, Wikipedia also has an entry on him as well that is quite readable.

The physical book, itself, is quite beautiful, with images of rocks and oceans waves, gold lettering, a nice feel to the book. It also has the original text, in I believe Persian script, at the back of the book. The book is surely of great historical value, but, personally, I had to work to get through the book, even though it is not long, 75 pages in English. I appreciate the search for unity between religions. This seems to be a characteristic of Sufism, as Fadiman and Frager state in their Essential Sufism, “According to many Sufis…the essential Truths of Sufism extend to all religions,” (2). If you are looking for more visionary and mystical writing, I also followed the reference from Corbin to Carl Ernst’s translation of Ruzbihan Baqli’s The Unveiling of Secrets: Diary of a Sufi Master. This book has many amazing visionary passages and is quite readable as short diary entries.

The Imaginary World of Nebraska: Coniunctionis.19


I used to live in Nebraska, Omaha, from 1997-1999.

Last night, instead of watching the Oscars, I went with my friend, Don, to go see the movie, “Nebraska,” featuring Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb and Bob Odenkirk. It is directed by Alexander Payne and written by Bob Nelson. While it was nominated for 6 academy awards, it appears not to have won any, which is actually fitting as it is a subtle film about very small, but very important accomplishments. (Quotations used in this blog are paraphrases from my memory of watching the movie).

This morning, I started reading a book on Yoga Nidra by Richard Miller. The movie had been percolating away in the back of my mind. I have been working on a blog on listening to music and inner transformation, and I have been thinking about some writing that I was doing shortly after leaving Omaha, when I had returned back to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois and was writing the “Coniunctionis” column. An idea for a blog came to me as I read Miller’s words.

“During waking consciousness, we perceive the world to be made up of solid and separate objects. We believe that our waking thoughts and the objects around us are real. But, could it be that waking-state thoughts and objects are also fabrications and projections of the mind, as empty of substance as our dream-self and dream-world?” (Richard Miller, Yoga Nidra, 18).

This reminded me of a topic that I wrote on years past in “Coniunctionis,” entitled, “Is Reality Real?” That was a focus on the movie, “The Matrix,” as well as Eastern philosophy. Now all these things come together in my mind this morning, thinking about Nebraska, a state often referred to as “The Heartland,” being in the center of the country and an agricultural state.

The movie is in black and white, which is very fitting for the bleakness of the soul and loss of hope that it portrays in small town America. The plot hinges around Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a mean, demented alcoholic who mostly lives in his own world and his fixation on having won a million dollars in a magazine mail scam. He insists on going in-person to Lincoln, Nebraska, and he continues to set off walking there, appearing as a demented old man. His wife Kate (June Squibb) is another heartless and unappealing character. Crass and unsympathetic to Woody, she talks about how worthless he is and that if she had a million dollars she “would put him in a home.” The “hero” of the movie is David Grant (Will Forte). He stands in two worlds, the hopeless and loveless world of his parents and the “real” world of trying to adapt to his life in Billings Montana after his girlfriend left him and his job selling home audio and video equipment. His life seems bleak and purposeless as well, even though he is socially adapted in having a job and being able to see the narrow-mindedness of his parents. David is the predominantly likeable character in the movie, who keeps trying to tell his dad he didn’t win anything and that this is all a fantasy, but at the same time he searches for a deeper truth in Woody’s quest, realizing that the old man is just searching for something to live for.

David gradually comes to believe that the only way to get his father to see the truth of his fiction is to actually drive him to Lincoln, Nebraska, slowly and carefully, it turns out, because David is a cautious character who tries to play by the rules. In a way, his life is a fiction too, passionless, disconnected and empty. They slowly make some good time across the empty vistas between Billings and South Dakota. He convinces his dad to stop and see Mt. Rushmore, which his father dismisses as being badly done, as if the creator got bored and stopped part way through (a fitting comment about the lives of so many in the film, bored and not committed to a greater creation of a life).  They move along until Woody sneaks out of the motel at night, gets drunk and falls and opens up his head with a laceration. This “fall” is important, as is the opening up of the head because it is the point where David’s somewhat naive attempt to humor the old man and get out of Billings for a few days becomes quite serious, the quest to prove the truth of the false belief seems on the verge of failure. David proclaims the quest to be over, instead the family will meet up in Woody and Kate’s home town of Hawthorne, Nebraska.

What follows is a depressing look at the roots of where Woody and Kate grew up. Illusion after illusion is shattered for David as he hears his mother’s reminiscences of all the men who wanted to get into her “bloomers,” how Woody’s sister who died at 19 years old was a “slut,” all the while, she ignores the presence of Woody, who in truth is not fully there as he is single-mindedly focused on claiming his false million dollars. I won’t go into a lot of detail, but all the friends and family are presented as small-minded, ignorant, isolated, cut off from the world. In a sense their “reality” is a fantasy as well, yet it is a fantasy of “old wood and weeds” as Woody proclaims about the old family homestead that his father built, but is now abandoned and in disrepair. There are small moments of dark humor, as when David asks his dad how the old place looks, as they push aside abandoned items and dust and Woody says, “pretty much the same.” Kate then agrees, but takes the passive, disconnected comment and turns it into another putdown of others, when she says something like, “I’ll say, this is pretty much how his mom used to keep the house!”

At first the town welcomes Woody, particularly when he lets slip that he is going to Nebraska for the million dollars he won. He is hailed as the town hero, one of us who got out and made good, he thus brings “fortune” upon the town. But then people slowly start to turn mean and petty, threatening and intimidating David, wanting him to “share the wealth” with them for “helping” Woody in the past.  Even though Kate and Woody’s lives in Billings seem bleak and insular, it becomes clear why they left Hawthorne and they seem like successes in comparison to the world they left behind. They belong to a bigger world, but they still carry the smallness, meanness and despair of Hawthorne within them.

David begins to drink with his dad, hanging out in the generic, small town bars of middle America. He tries to have a heart to heart conversation with his dad about how to know when you are ready to get married. Woody just says, “Well, your mom wanted to get married.” David replies, “Well, were you in love.” Woody considers a moment and says, “I don’t believe that ever came up.” David asks further, “Well, did you talk about if you wanted to have kids and how many kids you wanted to have?” Woody again replies in a dismissive negative way, it never really came up, he “liked to screw, and your mom was Catholic, I figured we’d have a couple kids sooner or later.” David asks if Woody ever loved someone else or thought about being with someone else. Woody replies, “I just would have ended up with someone else who would have made my life miserable, so what’s the difference?”

The one bright spot in Hawthorne is Pegy Nagy (Angela McEwan) who runs the newspaper and turns out to be Woody’s former girlfriend. She appears as a compassionate angel in the film, comparatively to the others. She tells David about how kind and compassionate Woody was, sure he drank even before Korea, but people always took advantage of his kindness, he couldn’t say “no.” David always thought that his dad was “just” a mechanic in the war, but Pegy shows him an old newspaper photo of the brothers in uniform and tells him that Woody was shot down when his plane he was being transferred. She says that Woody never said much, but after the war the drinking got worse and he hardly talked. When David tells her there is no million dollars, Pegy says she can’t print that he won, but she kindly won’t “print that he didn’t win.” Her love for the kind Woody of old leads her to be the only other person besides David (and the doctors who stitch him up and the police who pick him up off the streets) who extends compassion to Woody and sees something in him other than the surface “truth” of a mean old drunk. Pegy’s compassion opens further compassion in David for his father.

While David always has a degree of compassion for his father, this increases as the movie goes on. He helps his father find all the things he is losing, his false teeth near the railroad tracks when he fell down drunk, and later even the “million dollar letter,” the only thing Woody cares about or for. Woody tells others that the first thing he is going to do is to buy a new truck and an air compressor. Eventually David asks his dad what the reality is behind these apparently capricious choices, particularly as he lost his driver’s license and can’t drive. Woody says, “Well, I always wanted to own a new truck.” It doesn’t seem like this is just a status symbol, but rather a dream of Woody’s as to what being successful means, maybe even what being a Person means, a dream of the heart that reveals the inner person (this is of course my extrapolation, the surface of the film is not as sentimental as I am, but I think there is a truth at a deeper level here). The reason Woody wants a new air compressor is that it is an old loss, his old partner at the mechanic shop “borrowed it” forty years ago and never returned it. Again, David seems to sense that there is something about Woody’s humanity behind this obsession with an old air compressor. When David asks, “Well that is just a little bit of the money, what would you do with the rest?” Woody replies, “the rest of it is for you boys, I always wanted to leave you something.”

I will reveal a plot spoiler as it is important to this essay as to a possible meaning of the movie. The quest seems to end in just another sad, small disappointment. Woody and David arrive in Lincoln and go to the office. Woody is summarily told by the employee that his is not one of the winning numbers, as an afterthought she says he can have a free gift. He chooses a baseball cap that says “prize winner” on it. He slumps into the car, David looks at the tired, old man, and says that they need to make a few stops on the way back home. First David trades in his Subaru for an “almost new” 5 year old pick-up truck, and he puts his dad on the title as well. Woody can’t believe that David could get this truck for his trade in and asks if the prize people had something to do with it, David passively agrees. Next they stop and buy a new compressor and it is loaded into the back of the truck. Then, the last thing is that David offers that Woody can drive the truck down the main street in Hawthorne. He does this, seen by all the important people, his old partner Ed (whom David, connecting to his own passion and sense of righteousness punched out after he was publicly humiliating his dad), and perhaps most importantly, by his former girlfriend, Pegy, who tears up (I imagine with a sense of pride and maybe even a validation that no matter how deeply buried the goodness and kindness is, it will persist and be rewarded in some way). Thus it appears that Woody did win the million dollars after all…

However, if that was the story, the creation of an illusion over another illusion, it would be a meaningless and hopeless tale. The true winning of the million dollars, from my perspective, is not the image of winning that the other people see. It is a small and subtle moment. David is driving his and his dad’s new truck, and for the first time, Woody sneaks a glance over at David, and he sees his son, David glances over and sees his father seeing him and Woody quickly looks away. I imagine that Woody sees the compassion in David for him, despite all the surface mistakes he has made in his life. There is a sense of continuity of the compassion that the young Woody had, always giving to others. His success is that he “got out” of “Hawthorne” and even though his life does not appear to be a success, his son has heart, compassion and right action…there is hope for his son in his life, a better life than the people of Hawthorne or of Woody and Kate, or of David’s previous life before the quest. A brief mention, David’s brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk) is the one who seemed the even bigger success, appearing in a fill-in TV anchor role. There is probably something significant in the appearance of success of Ross, based on his appearance and presentation, he is a success in a profession that is often thought of as being based on falseness, rather than an emergence of the true self.

I see David as the “hero” of the story. While Woody goes through a transformation and redemption, he is still mostly in a fog. It is David who has his whole second half of his life ahead of him and he has the opportunity to choose between the passive isolation and hopelessness of the men in his family, or to actually live passionately (one could almost imagine a Wizard of Oz like transformation from black and white into color, however this is not that kind of movie). One could apply Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” from The Hero With A Thousand Faces to this movie. David and Pegy are the helpers on Woody’s quest, which involves a fall into a “special” world, in this case the past, he is seeking the boon, the million dollars, but he receives a different boon, the love and compassion, being seen, by David and Pegy. Woody, like a true mythological hero, drives in his resplendent chariot (a 5 year old Ford pick-up) as a King of Hawthorne, with his magical machine that can inflate what has become deflated. However, looking at David as the hero, he is the one who stands in the liminal space, half-way between worlds. In a sense, even though he has a moment of redemption, Woody is living mostly in that liminal state, a failed hero who never fully returned to the “real” world. Yet for David, his compassion for his father also transforms him. He is the only person who treats the old demented drunk as a human being. When the employee at the prize office asks David if his father has Alzheimer’s, he simply says, “No, he just believes what people tell him.” In a sense this is a commentary that he accepts the world that is given to him by society rather than creating his own reality, his own life.

As a hero, David has a kind of divine birth. His mother tells him, as a child, “you were so beautiful that people didn’t know if you were a boy or a girl.” And a former neighbor says to David, “You were like a little porcelain prince.” Hero myths often have an unusual birth and in this case, David stands between masculine and feminine. People notice his beauty, but he has not done anything with his beauty, now people don’t recognize him. As Sathya Sai Baba said, “If there is righteousness in the heart, there will be beauty in the character.” Or, a similar common quote on the internet is, “If there is light in the soul, there will be beauty in the person.” This is not just the superficial beauty of physical appearance, but something deeper, and it is this essence that David reveals that had been hidden and forgotten within him.

One of the disillusionments that David has of his parents is when his dad’s old business partner, Ed tells him how Woody had an affair with a “half-breed” down at the reservation. Ed brags how Woody “thought he loved her,” but Ed convinced him to stay with Kate. Ed continues that if he hadn’t intervened, David wouldn’t have even been born, because that was before he was born. For David, he is disillusioned with his father, but it also reveals that the old Woody was capable of love and that he could look beyond the small-minded racial prejudices of his society.

David’s transformation is the rekindling of his heart of righteousness that leads to a revelation of beauty in his character. He sticks up for his father, he protects him, he loves him enough to create a momentary false reality, an illusion that at the same time means something quite profound to Woody, to Pegy, to Ed, and to Woody’s family, as for a brief moment they see the Kingly beauty and righteousness of a man who always was giving to others and yet lost himself in a fog of alcohol, disappointment and regret. The appearance is of course an illusion, but as the visionary scholar, Henry Corbin has written, we can only experience that which we have already within us in some germinal form.

So, why do I call this the “Imaginary World of Nebraska?” I would again like to appeal to Henry Corbin in his discussion of the imaginal, he argues for a state of being that is not a false illusion, but rather a true imaginal realm, that is perceived through “active imagination.” While this is a complicated topic, as reality always is, the gist of it is that Corbin writes about the Sufi and esoteric Islamic view that there is a true and existing imaginal realm, a visionary realm that the mystics visit, that stands between surface reality and spiritual reality, and which acts or determines what happens here (it is difficult to know where to recommend starting to understand Corbin, one place is Tom Cheetham’s book All the World an Icon, his paper, “The Prophetic Tradition and the Battle for the Soul of the World: An Introduction to the Spiritual Vision of Henry Corbin,” as well as his blog on Corbin,  As Amit Goswami, the self-described “quantum activist” and physicist, writes that consciousness is the ground of being, rather than consciousness arising from matter, matter arises from consciousness. By consciousness he does not mean the ego, but rather the Self, (see Goswami, The Quantum Doctor). Similarly, Corbin is not speaking of the fantasies of the ego, but of a higher order of consciousness in which what is imagined corresponds to what appears in reality.

I think this movie, with its work on themes of what is real and what is false is a rich ground to explore using some of these concepts about reality and imagination from Islamic and Hindu perspectives. Buddhist perspectives, too, speak of the world as illusion. The dilemma that I have always found is that if the world is illusion, what is real and why are we here. The author Philip K. Dick, in his explorations of “what is real?” and “what is the truly human?” came to the conclusion that compassion is the hallmark of a human being. We could then say that compassion is real, regardless of the degree of “reality” within which someone is living (and it could be argued that we all live in our own experiences or creations of the world). It is possible to see the bleak realities of many of the characters in the movie as manifestations of a lack of imagination, a lack of vision and ultimately a lack of compassion. Compassion cuts across false realities and compassion creates reality and it gives others the space for their true selves or true essences to unfold. In the movie, “Nebraska,” it is compassion that changes David, his relationship with Woody, creates a momentary reality that redeems Woody in the eyes of his past, creates a connection of love between David and Woody, and, ultimately holds the potential for David to be transformed and changed when he returns to his old life. One imagines that he has the possibility of creating a new reality for himself.


A Modern Upanishad, Review of Pritish Nandy and Sunandini Banerjee’s Isha Upanishad

Amazon Book Review

Isha Upanishad

The inside of the dust jacket of this book cites Gandhi as having said, “that if all scriptures happened all of a sudden to be reduced to ashes and only the first verse of the Isha Upanishad was left in our memory, Hinduism would live forever.” The jacket description continues, “But this Upanishad goes beyond all faith, all religion to help all people look within and without themselves to answer the questions that have swirled in and round them since the dawn of civilization.” The poetic presentation of Pritish Nandy’s translation and Sunandini Banerjee’s visual imagery of nature, symbolism and icons from various religions does seem to capture the universality of the “immanent, transcendent.” There is another anecdote regarding Gandhi and the Isha Upanishad. When a journalist wanted to know his secret of life, Gandhi replied with the first verse of the Isha, “Renounce and enjoy!” (cited in Eknath Easwaran’s translation of The Upanishads, p. 53).

The Isha Upanishad is the shortest of the Upanishads (Easwaran translates the meaning of Upanishad as “sitting down near” the feet of an illumined teacher), yet Pritish Nandy’s translation stretches out the 468 words to 54 pages of text (although there are, fittingly, no page numbers in this book). Easwaran uses 4 pages, and Mascaro’s translation fits it all in 2 pages. Comparing these three translations, Nandy’s is the most modern, the least “religious text-like” and is presented more as universal divine poetry. Sunandini Banerjee’s collages incorporate Buddhist, Hindu and Christian iconography, along with drawings and paintings of flowers and birds and stylized symbols of stars and circles. The collages call to mind a more coherent and spiritual Max Ernst, the surrealist and Dadaist artist. The use of collages of photographs, iconography, drawings, paintings and symbols captures the multi-dimensional truth of the text. The text appears within circles, usually white text emerging from the blackness of the circle. While you could read the text quicker than the time it takes for your cup of tea to cool, it is well worth lingering over and returning to “again and again and again,” as the text itself states. It is a beautiful book that speaks to the depths with simple words and complex imagery. It almost has the feel of a children’s book, yet it doesn’t have a “story” the way that Peter Sis’ The Conference of the Birds does (which has a similar message of the unity of all things and is a nice companion to this book). Still, all ages can appreciate the art work and the message of unity of the Self that is “everywhere and in everything.” Juan Mascaro, in the introduction to his translation of The Upanishads, writes that, “In theory, an Upanishad could even be composed in the present day : a spiritual Upanishad that would draw its life from the One source of religions and humanism and apply it to the needs of the modern world,” (p.8). Nandy and Banerjee’s work offers such a modern Upanishad, through a new translation and presentation of the old.

“We’ve got it backwards, the human is the model for the machine.” PART II

Carl Reisman on the water

Carl Reisman on the water

Dave Kopacz near the water

Dave Kopacz near the water

This is part II in a discussion between Dave Kopacz and Carl Reisman, part I can be found in the previous blog, below…


Why do you think that machine-think, machine-medicine, machine-models of service and interaction have become more attractive than more human interactions? This brings up the question, following on from above, what is the difference between machine and human?


To whom?  The business model prefers efficiency and short-term gain, externalizing costs.  This has been the dominant approach in the West at least since the Industrial Revolution and seems to be a new  world religion.  Machines are the new slaves.  I remember a David Sedaris essay where his brother refers to the TV remote as “a nigger.”  Humans are lazy, and it is wonderful to have work done magically for us without taking responsibility for the suffering it causes another.  It’s a Utopian dream to have a world where we all are rich and robots serve us.  If they do, though, what are people for?  Wendell Berry wrote an essay with this title, and it is a good question.

It’s tempting to say that the difference between humans and machines is that humans have spirits or souls and machines don’t.  I would say that is unproven.  I go back to what I said before, that humans are the models for machines.  Even if machines eventually can create new machines, or learn to crack jokes, or feel love, they are still our creations.  Machines are our way of playing God.

More thoughts:

As far as we know, machines don’t have a sense of self awareness.  They don’t have a culture that is independent of human culture.  They aren’t aware of their own mortality.

Being fully human means being a member of human culture.  It’s impossible to be fully human as an isolated individual.  A baby is fully human.  We can all aspire to follow their model for participation, direct communication, and ability to grow.

If we are honest with ourselves we need to own up our debt to machines and the people who imagine, build, maintain, and scrap them.  They are a part of human culture and should be honored as members, from jet planes to pepper mills.


I like what you say about being human means being part of something larger than the individual, being part of culture (this echoes your earlier statement that being human is being aware of larger ecological interconnection. In my book, I equate holistic medicine with connection – connection within one’s self (between body, emotions, mind, spirit) and connection between people (particularly doctor/patient). I contrast this connection-based interaction with a mentality that values efficiency and technique more than human connection. While these may or may not be mutually exclusive in theory, in the practice of contemporary medicine, efficiency and standardization are valued over connection (Amit Goswami, author of The Quantum Activist and The Quantum Doctor, writes, that this should be called “machine medicine”). Partly this is because in our materialistic society, “things” that can be turned into “numbers” are valued more than feelings or states of interaction. I think the complaints that patients and doctors have about contemporary health care delivery systems is that they are de-humanizing.


The Marxists have been talking about this problem for over 150 years.  Doctors have just become workers in a new factory.  It’s the same language and logic as was used in earlier forms of industrial production.  We are steeped in this culture, and it is very difficult to free ourselves from it.  The film, The Matrix, dealt with this anxiety that we are slaves in a system  that we don’t understand and that is committed to our remaining asleep.

While it sounds innocent to talk about humanizing health care, it is placing oneself firmly against the tide.  Certainly, the industrial health care system can pay lip service to being more humane without facing its deep-seated de-humanizing, profit-driven values.  It can offer up birthing rooms but not make home births legal, for instance.  Like all revolutions, this one will come from the people, not the owners–i.e., the patients, who demand more than they system wants to give.  So, doctors who want to become more humane need to listen to their patients and find out what they really want and need.


Peter Salgo, a physician, wrote in a NYT piece that it is up to the people (patients) to demand that medicine change, because doctors “have felt powerless to change things.” While I am all for grass roots movements, I think we also have to appeal to professionalism and the contract between doctor and patient. Can it really be true that an educated and privileged class of professionals are really “powerless to change things?” What I argue in my book is that the same dehumanization that patients feel in the medical system is the linked to the dehumanization of the doctor through a rigid adoption of the scientific persona of the technician, which not only treats the body as a machine to be “fixed,” but also leads physicians to believe that they are simply machinists of the soul.

I speak about the Quality Revolution in medicine, which is a movement driven by multiple motivations from different sectors, which calls for more efficiency, safety and less variation in treatment and outcomes. I also acknowledge that there is another growing movement, a Compassion Revolution, which calls for enhanced human connection and treating people as people while treating them as patients. These two revolutions are not necessarily at odds with each other, but I think they function best as a dialectic or a pair of inter-balancing movements. The exclusive triumph of one at the expense of the other would not be good medicine.

Is it possible for a doctor to say, “I will treat you exactly how I treat everyone else, as a unique human being?”


It’s cruel to doctors to hold them to a standard of treating everyone the same way. Doctors are human and humans have favorites.

Besides, if a patient comes into the room and the doctor thinks, “I am going to treat this man as a unique human being,” they have already lost an opportunity to see who they actually are.  We all need a beginner’s mind when we encounter the world, and it’s especially hard for experts to have this sense of open curiosity, since experts have been trained to quickly establish authority and sense of control in each new situation.

Doctors can aspire to be better listeners and let their treatment lightly follow what they hear from their patients, as learned from their histories, a review of their medical records, and their own knowledge and intuition.  They need to be vulnerable, working with open minds and hearts.  They need to at times admit that they don’t know what is going on or how to help, despite their best efforts, and admit to their patients when they are wrong.  Sometimes they need to just sit there and witness another person suffering and dying.   Sometimes they need to smile at a patient’s return to health, because or in spite of the doctor’s advice.   That can be quality medicine, too.


Carl, what are your thoughts about these topics as they pertain to your practice of law? I have always referred to you as a “holistic” counselor. This idea of a “counselor” is relevant in both law and medicine and I suspect that the roots of the term lead back to some kind of spiritual guidance in antiquity.


When you say, “holistic” what do you mean?

It makes me think of how we create firewalls in ourselves to protect ourselves from all sorts of threats.  When we go to a professional school we are given a new suit of armor.  The armor insulates us from those who might doubt our competence or authority but also isolate us.  In a holistic practice we sometimes wear the armor or sometimes not, as we see fit.  The armor has its place and needs to be polished, oiled, and deeply appreciated.  But we also need to know when it is a terrible trap.


Thanks for the question, when I say “holistic” I mean being able to shift between multiple perspectives. Perhaps that means to have multiple suits of armor? I suppose another way to reformulate some of our original questions is: is it possible to be a professional and also to not be wearing a suit of armor? Or, maybe how does one appreciate when one needs the armor and when to remove it?

I define holistic as a state of being. Technically, I envision this as something like the chakra system, an interlocking system of sub-systems with different rules and strengths. Is each chakra a suit of armor? Or a “body?” In that sense, one would be embodying different conceptions or states of being and recognizing that each of these states is one language or musical note or instrument that is part of a larger whole. To be “holistic” is to be continually shifting perspectives while realizing that it is impossible not to have a perspective. Is that true? I am not sure. What if I said that to be “holistic” means to always be focusing on the between of different paradigms and perspectives?


When I went back to law school nine years after dropping out I hand-painted my own ID.  I was afraid that I would lose my sense of self when I went through the professionalization process of law school.

It reminds me of a conversation I had last week, too, with a singer song writer who said that she was afraid if she learned how to read music that she would lose her way as a musician.

I think the word holistic points towards being able to shed some of these fears and move with a certain confident vulnerability.

In my own practice I exclusively help clients who have suffered injuries, most at work.  I have the luxury of being able to take time with each client.  I don’t have a paralegal or secretary.  If a client comes in my office or calls the office phone, it’s just me.

I am not sure if this is a holistic practice, but it has worked for me for nine years, since my partnership broke up and I took up residence in an old gas station in Urbana, Illinois.

Clients come to lawyers with expectations that they have powers, perhaps arcane or diabolical, to fix things for their benefit.  It’s similar to why they come to doctors.  They seem to have similar roots in wizardry, sorcery, alchemy, or shamanism.  A person is under some sort of dark spell and they want help.

So, like a doctor I have to try to be a good listener.  I need to take a history, learn something about the person who comes into my office.  I have the luxury of time that few doctors have any more.  Like a doctor, I review their medical records.  Again, because I have so much time, and am a generalist, sometimes I see things that doctors miss, and I can help the client with their problem in that way.  I used to see myself as a hero, a warrior for my client, but I dropped those fantasies years ago.  Now, I feel like the hard work of recovering from their injury is theirs to do, and I am just along to help in the modest ways that I can.  That is also similar to a doctor, and I imagine that doctors must go through a similar process of shedding their grandiose fantasies and accepting the limitations of what they can accomplish.  Perhaps, also like a doctor, I’ve come to understand what a privilege it is to get to know people when they are at their most vulnerable, their most tender, their most human.

Lawyers and doctors both seem to feel trapped by their professions.  Lawyers talk about the “golden handcuffs”—their inability to leave high paying jobs that they hate.  Doctors lament the cost of medical school and the corporatization of medicine.

It’s always easier to blame others for one’s own choices than to take responsibility for one being stuck.  Every doctor and lawyer can do simple things to make their profession better, and it starts by listening to the people who come to them for help.


Let’s go back to our topic of humans and machines. How about pondering why we have come to value machine-thought and machine-being over human process? Why elevate the created over the creator?


Our culture values highly human cultural production over machine processes in many ways.  Just look at prices for original oil paintings by Picasso compared to machine made reproductions.  This sort of appreciation for the small, the human made, the artisan-produced, is found in countless products–it’s why there is a premium paid at the farmers market, for the bowl thrown by the potter, for the hand-stitched quilt.  It is a luxury afforded to the rich and a necessity for the poor, who survive by their hands and wits.

Humans also crave order and predictability.  If we buy a jar of Jiffy peanut butter, we want it to taste exactly the same next week, next year, and twenty years from now.  That is the implicit promise of brands–order, stability, uniformity, the known.

When we are dealing with novel situations, whether we are on a strange highway far from home looking for lunch or in a hospital, facing surgery, there is comfort in knowing that there is something familiar that will reassure us, that we can surrender our defensiveness and put ourselves in the hands of someone who will take care of our needs.  We turn in to the McDonalds and order a burger, and it tastes like the burger we ate last year in our hometown.  The doctor comes into our room, and uses the same sort of language as our family doctor did ten years ago.

The same desire for order created machines, a refinement of tools.  Tools, by their nature, do not produce uniformity.  A chisel in my hands with a block of wood will result in something very different then the same chisel and block of wood put in your hands.  But if we make a lathe, there is a pretty good chance that we can produce something pretty consistent, whether you use it or I use it.

So, our appreciation for the unique is a kind of nostalgia for the old order of things, when we worked with tools.  We are creatures, though, of a machine culture and machine thought, gravitating towards order and predictability.  We prefer standardization to surprise, security to joy.


Could it be that our nostalgia for the unique is also that illusive kernel of what makes us fully human? We have ranged across a discussion in which “human” is part of a unique identity, that it is attained through transcending or contextualizing the human in a larger realm (which seems to have a sense of being “more than” human, but also being human through our connection and care for that which is “less than” human). We humans seem to sometimes want to just accept ourselves as we are, to sometimes try to be more than we are, and also to have a drive to be less than we are. For instance, Philip K. Dick speaks of a form of dehumanization when human beings become like androids, particularly when their behavior is always “predictable.”  Carl, please leave us with some inspiring words to spark off the Human Revolution!


When I think about the products of the human imagination, how an idea becomes a thing, and the thing changes us, I think about the wheel.  There is the prayer wheel of Tibetan monks, the clay cylinders of scribes, the wheels of ox carts, the medieval concept of the wheel of fortune, the tires of our cars, the wheels of our lives.

We talk about the need for a revolution, but what is it that revolves?  It’s the wheel, going around, our innate creativity, industry, and restlessness taking us as humans to new places.  Any revolution that is going to mean something needs to start with individuals who wake up.  They need to find their own wheel.  Thanks to culture, they don’t have to invent it, but culture only goes so far.  We all still have our work to do and places to go.

“We’ve got it backwards, the human is the model for the machine.” PART I

Puget Sound

Puget Sound

The following blog consists of an on-line discussion between Dave Kopacz and Carl Reisman. Carl is a “holistic” lawyer, cook, and naturalist based in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. This on-line discussion follows up on a recent conversation that Carl and Dave had in Seattle, after not seeing each other for several years. This is Part I of two parts.


Carl, when we were talking in Seattle, you said, “We’ve got it backwards, the human is the model for the machine.” This quote is what sparked a great conversation and lead to the idea of posting a blogalogue (blog-dialogue).


I was just thinking of you as I was walking the dogs around the block–just that I enjoyed our visit in Seattle and hoped we would stay in touch.  Nice to see your email pop up.  Connections between us all are subtle and real.

I like your questions and will wing a few answers.


How do you balance standardization in service delivery with supporting human-to-human interaction?


I am not sure if the “you” is referring to me or just people in general.  I can only speak for myself, and write as a solo law practitioner who used to be a professional cook.  As a cook, I can understand the need for customers who order pancakes today to be able to get the same pancakes when they return next week.  If they get lousy pancakes, they won’t cut slack, even if they are told that the cook is out sick and a new cook getting trained.  At least this is the dominant logic in the restaurant business, and it certainly is behind the success of chain restaurants.  No matter where you go on the planet, a Big Mac is a Big Mac.

Implicit in the idea, though, is standardizing quality.  No need to standardize something that sucks.  People want good experiences each time they come to a human exchange, be it with a doctor, lawyer, teacher, musician, or mechanic.  To some degree, this can be standardized, by an individual or organization imagining the experience from the point of view of their patient or customer, and trying to be consistent in delivering what they imagine that person would want.

I see no conflict with providing standardized, quality experiences and providing  human to human interaction–I think people generally prefer dealing with humans to machines, but not always.  If people always preferred humans, self-service gas stations would not have succeeded.  In some situations, people just want efficiency and to move on with their days.  It’s easy to figure out what these situations are by taking a minute to think about what we would want in those circumstances.  But when we are at our most vulnerable, such as when a doctor is telling us that they found cancer, we want the human touch.


What does it mean to be fully human?


This reminds me of my father asking me, after looking at my report card, “Did you do your best?”  I struggled to answer, because I thought it was impossible to do one’s best.  You could always do a little more.

So, too, a human can wake up to compassion, and still find that their heart has lots of room to grow.

It seems limiting to define oneself as being exclusively human, even a fully actualized human.  Biologically, we are a sort of community that includes a variety of organisms living and interacting with our human cells.  Our ancestors were bacteria.  We depend upon plants and other animals for life, not to mention, sun, soil, water, air, and our community.  Truly, we are products of universal processes and dependent upon the universe for our support.  It is a miracle we are alive.

A different question might be, Can we be fully human without awareness of our debt to everything which sustains us ? I think we sometimes are more sensitive and awake to these connections.  When we are, we are called to be humble and more responsible.  That seems like a good start on the long pilgrimage to find our humanity.

These questions bring to mind the word “humane.”  We are born to human parents, and are human.  But we grow in our understanding and compassion, and become more humane.

As biological creatures, we need to be selfish to survive, at least to some degree.  But we also need to learn to share to survive as a species.  You can see this tension play out as babies become toddlers.  It is painful to learn to share.  A baby’s first word may be “mine.”  It takes a great deal of patient supervision and praise to teach a toddler that there can be a benefit to sharing a toy or snack.  This is a primary lesson in our growth.  If we miss this one, we are forever damaged in our ability to relate.

It is painful to share.  We want it all and have to give up some of our claim.  There is a risk to sharing, too.  We hope we may get something in return. Sometimes we are terribly disappointed.

I don’t believe there is a pristine state that we  come from or strive towards–no noble savage, no sainthood, no innocent childhood.  Everybody wrestles with the same problem faced by the toddler–do I play with this toy by myself or give someone else a turn?  If I am hungry, do I eat the cookie by myself or share it?

We are steeped in the myth of progress, both spiritual and material.  We have the story of the pilgrim, toiling on the path to God.  We have the story of civilization, up from savages, building the shining city on the hill.

I like the idea that being human or building a culture is more like making bread–you take disparate elements, and through work, skill, and love  you create something that is entirely different than the sum of its parts, that can be beautiful and sustain life.  There is no final goal of perfection.  There is the need for constant renewal.  Death, rebirth, growth, death, rebirth.  We are participants in a terrible and beautiful cycle.

The Buddhists teach that the self can be transcended.  The heart can melt into compassion.  After it melts into compassion, though, it’s back to the fundamental challenges of sharing toys, needy people, declining health, disappointment.  This is not to discount the joys of life, which can be better appreciated if one isn’t mired in self pity.   Through a spiritual practice, we might gain a small margin of humor as we deal with frustrations and a deeper appreciation of the joys and mysteries of life, but we can’t see a spiritual practice as a journey towards a goal.  The pilgrimage is its own reward.


I’d like to follow-up on a couple of points here.

The first is that you seem to be saying that being “human” entails an awareness of being “more than human,” that is to have an awareness that extends beyond one’s immediate context or ego. Also, in this, there seems to be an element that being human entails connecting to that which is non-human. Your astute mention of the bacteria who were our ancestors as well as continue to allow human life through symbiotic relationships (such as aiding in digestion in the GI tract), illuminates the fact that human being occurs within a larger context of non-human nature.

The second point is somewhat related, you write “the long
pilgrimage to find our humanity,” this implies that being human is not a fixed, given state, but a journey toward some point in the future. There are so many conundrums here. Is being selfish (focused on one’s individual needs) to be less human? Is there a pristine, pure state (childhood, the idea of the “noble savage,” sainthood, or some future state of perfection)? When can one be considered “human enough?” For instance, in your analogy with the exam score, when can one say, “I could have done more, but I did well enough.” I think about this a lot, this interplay between acceptance of one’s self and trying harder (e.g. “overcoming” one’s self, or “becoming more” one’s self through effort). Do you have any thoughts on these points?


Dave, you asked, “What is it to be fully human?”  If we break down your question, let’s start, “What is it to be?”  Before we can worry about whether we are human, let alone fully human, we need to figure out how to be.  One translation of Lao Tzu is, “The way to do is to be.”  So, maybe the way towards being fully human is to be.

What does it mean to be?

Perhaps God is our greatest creation as humans, a projection of ourselves benevolently looking down upon ourselves as if from above.  We are in a particular moment in time, but also have a sense that some part of ourselves is timeless and watches if not tends our lives, even our moments of pain and panic, with a degree of compassion and humor.

To be fully human, to be fully alive, we integrate this awareness into our workaday consciousness, as a guide.

While a sin may be a trespass against our best nature, in being fully human we learn to forgive and appreciate sin as a part of our process of growth.

I don’t believe that we are traveling from a pure state through a corrupted state to a pure state.  There is no goal.  There is the opportunity to bring light to any particular moment, or to enjoy the darkness or shades of grey.  There is the chance to gain understanding, to forgive, to grow in competence and confidence, to accept losing competence and confidence, failure, and death.  It’s a rough road but a fascinating one.

You asked about what it means to be “human enough.”  The world that we share tells us when we aren’t good participants in the natural order of things.  So, humans as a species will be human enough when we figure out how to live without undermining our own existence.  This is something that humans have already accomplished.  We just recently have collectively lost our way, and hopefully, as a species, will find our way back to that place of appreciation and understanding.

(to be continued…)

Gulls Over Puget Sound Through Winter Branches

Gulls Over Puget Sound Through Winter Branches

Coniunctionis.18: Separation and Return

I have not posted anything on the site for a few months as I have been in the process of moving back from New Zealand to the United States. An international move takes a lot of energy and planning and I am just starting to get settled into our new home in Seattle. Although we have visited Seattle many times, this is the first time we are living here, so it is a sort of home-coming to the US, but it is also a move to a new city. We are living in a one bedroom apartment for the time being, our belongings have arrived, but will be in storage until such time as we buy a house, so this is an extended transitional stage. I have been reflecting on a number of larger life topics during this transition and during this particular stage in my life. I think the “largeness” of these topics warrants another installment in the Coniunctionis column that I started around 2000. I borrowed this term from Jung’s major work on alchemy and personal/spiritual transformation, Mysterium Coniunctionis. Chalquist defines Mysterium Coniunctionis as “the final alchemical synthesis (for Jung, of ego and unconscious, matter and spirit, male and female) that brings forth the Philosopher’s Stone (the Self). Its highest aspect, as for alchemist Gerard Dorn, was the unus mundus, a unification of the Stone with body, soul, and spirit,” (Glossary of Jungian Terms). Jung’s study of alchemy is related to his study of Gnosticism, both of which served to link his inner experiences and visions of The Red Book with historical traditions of mysticism and divine revelation. He saw the Gnostics and the alchemists as carrying on the tradition of inner experience of the divine, a form of mysticism. This work of transformation required inner work as well as outer work, in a truly holistic manner. Jung wrote that the “alchemists thought that the opus demanded not only laboratory work, the reading of books, meditation, and patience, but also love,” (The Practice of Psychotherapy, CW 16). Thus, in my Coniunctionis column, I investigate transformation from a wide-ranging variety of sources. In this installment, I will examine the framework of the hero’s journey for my own situation, for returning war veterans, in literature and movies, and in the work of psychiatrist Carl Jung and science fiction writer Philip K. Dick.


The theme for this column is “separation and return,” and I borrow this concept from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Campbell elucidated a common underlying theme that can be found in mythology, religion, literature and in people’s lives. Campbell was influenced by Jung’s ideas (particularly archetypes and the collective unconscious) and applied them to the field of mythology. He influenced popular culture (George Lucas admits that he drew on Campbell’s ideas for the plot of “Star Wars”). The map of the journey can be briefly summarized as a movement from the everyday world, to a series of struggles crossing a threshold into another world and then crossing the threshold back to everyday life. different variations of this journey can be seen in mythology and religious stories, as well as in the lives of artists and visionaries. What particularly interests me at this time is how this framework applies to my own situation of having left the US to live in New Zealand for over 3 years and to now be in the process of returning. I have also been pondering how this framework might be useful in helping veterans returning home after deployment (as my job I am starting next week will be with the VA).

Here is a visual diagram of the hero’s journey from Wikipedia , (further reading under the “Monomyth” heading):

Campbell gives an overview of the journey as follows:

The mythological hero, setting forth from his commonday hut or castle, is lured, carried away, or else voluntarily proceeds, to the threshold of adventure.  There he encounters a shadow presence that guards that passage.  The hero may defeat or conciliate this power and go alive into the kingdom of the dark (brother-battle, dragon-battle; offering, charm), or be slain by the opponent and descend in death (dismemberment, crucifixion).  Beyond the threshold, then, the hero journeys through a world of unfamiliar yet strangely intimate forces, some of which severely threaten him (tests), some of which give magical aid (helpers).  When he arrives at the nadir of the mythological round, he undergoes a supreme ordeal and gains his reward.  The triumph may be represented as the hero’s sexual union with the goddess-mother of the world (sacred marriage), his recognition by the father-creator (father atonement), his own divinisation (apotheosis), or again–if the powers have remained unfriendly to him–his theft of the boon he came to gain (bride-theft, fire-theft); intrinsically it is an expansion of consciousness and therewith of being (illumination, transfiguration, freedom).  The final work is that of the return.  If the powers have blessed the hero, he now sets forth under their protection (emissary); if not, he flees and is pursued (transformation flight, obstacle flight).  At the return threshold the transcendental powers must remain behind; the hero re-emerges from the kingdom of dread (return, resurrection).  The boon that he brings restores the world (elixir), (Campbell, 245-246).

Campbell describes hero themes of warrior, lover, emperor, world redeemer, and saint. We can apply this framework of the hero’s journey to these external journeys, as well as to the internal journeys of artists and creatives (this would of course apply to Carl Jung and Philip K. Dick’s experiences as well, which will be the focus of my next book). While action-oriented, downward part of the cycle is the one that is most often focused on in movies, the return is just as trying and it is this part of the journey that separates the successful heroes journey from the tragic heroes journey. (The tragic journey is well-exemplified by rock and roll heroes like Ian Curtis or Curt Cobain, who achieved the boon, but were destroyed by it and were unable to integrate it back into a live-able and sustainable life).  It is precisely this return that I now find myself in and which draws my interest and enthusiasm. While I don’t mean to aggrandize my own experience of living in another English-speaking country and returning back to the US, I do believe that there are some universal themes of the hero’s journey that apply to cross-cultural repatriation and to returning war veterans, as well as to works of literature.

For instance in Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings, Frodo can be seen as having difficulties fitting back into society after his wounds and experiences. Sam has an easier reintegration and creates a new family. Frodo continues to suffer from physical and emotional pain from his wound and from his experience of proximity to evil. Compared to Sam, Frodo always remains somewhat apart from the society that he gave so much to save – an obvious parallel with returning war veterans. This example from literature shows that even when the returning hero has quite literally “saved the world,” the return can still be problematic and for some is never complete. It could be said that with Frodo’s return, he is “in but not of” the society of the Shire. He remains partly outside of it. In choosing this language from the Bible, I purposefully invoke the themes of mysticism as another example of journey and return. For Carl Jung and Philip K. Dick,  after their inner journeys, the rest of their lives were focused on translating and linking back to historical and contemporary society their inner experiences with a larger purpose and meaning for others. Within Jung’s Red Book can be seen the glimmering of his mature works on Gnosticism and alchemy. Philip K. Dick’s 8,000 page Exegesis shows his persistent and never-ending attempts to understand his intense and overwhelming experiences of February/March 1974. Also worth mentioning is Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf which works on the theme of how those “outside” of society actually nourish the cultural life of those “inside” society.


Let us turn to the horizontal line between the known/unknown in the diagram of the hero’s journey, above. This threshold can be considered to separate the mundane from the sacred, the worldly from the other-worldly, and consciousness from unconsciousness. Those who have studied initiation rituals and transformation sometimes speak of liminality. For instance, Arnold van Gennep’s 1908 book, Rites of Passage, examines pre-liminal, liminal, and post-liminal initiation rites. This roughly corresponds to separation, initiation, return. The focus on managing this liminal boundary can be seen in concepts like tapu and noa in Māori culture (see Coniunctionis.17) as well as well as societal structures that manage individuals instincts and enthusiasms.


This is an interesting parallel between Freud and Jung in regard to culture. Freud’s views on culture are that the role of culture is to inhibit and channel the libido (sexuality) of individuals. Whereas Jung’s view of libido had more to do with spiritual and mystical energies (of which sexuality was one expression). Both Freud and Jung were ambivalent toward society and culture, on the one hand seeing it as a limitation of the individual, while on the other hand seeing it as a protective element against the dangers of instinctual drives and eruptions of the archetypes of the collective unconscious, respectively. This also is the tension between religion (which seeks to structure and define “legitimate” spiritual experience) and mysticism (which is the direct access of spiritual experience by the individual that is unmediated by social or religious structures).


The liminal boundary separates the ordinary world from the non-ordinary world. From the perspective of society, the ordinary world is reality. From the perspective of poets, mystics, it is the liminal world that is Reality, where one feels really alive, connected with the cosmos, in union with the divine. Many Eastern philosophies, such as Hinduism and Buddhism speak of the ordinary world as being a veil of illusion over the Real world. Western Gnosticism, similarly speaks of the ordinary world as an illusion or delusion that leads one away from the true world of Spirit. The Matrix trilogy played with these ideas from a technological rather than a spiritual and metaphysical perspective. The resurrection of these concepts in modern form attests to a large part of the popularity of that trilogy, above and beyond the action and visual effects of the movies. Henry Corbin’s work on Persian Sufism and mysticism also picks up this theme that the ordinary world is a projection or creation of a “more real” spiritual world (this is an extreme simplification of his prodigious work which merits a Coniunctionis column of its own). And lastly, I’ll mention Amit Goswami’s work in The Quantum Doctor and The Quantum Activist in which he argues (from a Quantum physics point of view that intersects with Hindu philosophy) that consciousness is the primary reality and matter a secondary manifestation of consciousness.


The source of mana in indigenous Fijian culture is believed to reside in the “mana-box” (kato ni mana) buried in the depths of the ocean. Katz describes this in his book, The Straight Path: A Story of Healing and Transformation in Fiji, (p. 22), and he tells of how healers are called in dreams to dive down into the abyss in order to bring back the boon of mana to use for healing purposes for the community.

Why would anyone want to return from the liminal space of the unknown if it is the source of creative and spiritual inspiration, of mana, of transformative energy, and the boon of the hero’s journey? This is of course a very real dilemma, Jung recognized this, as do any cultures with a conception of the liminal threshold to the sacred. This potential energy is energy of transformation and that means destruction of old forms as well as creation of new forms. Human life, the stability of society, and the mental stability of the individual depend upon a balance of structured forms as well as an influx of transformative energy, as was discussed in Coniunctionis.17 regarding the Apollonian and Dionysian dialectic. As David Tacey writes in his recent book, The Darkening Spirit: Jung, Spirituality, Religion, Jung’s position fluctuated regarding the role of religious and societal boundaries and the individual’s quest. Jung respects the transformative power of the liminal realm (the archetypes of the collective unconscious) and saw that contact with this realm was inherently dangerous and could destroy the individual as well as be healing or transformative. Jung struggled with this personally in his life, and while ever a champion of the individual, he recognized that the individual’s continued existence is rooted in society. He wrote that “The opening up of the unconscious always means the outbreak of intense spiritual suffering: it is as when fertile fields are exposed by the bursting of a dam to a raging torrent,” (Jung, “Psychotherapists and the Clergy,” CW 10). Further, “The modern man must be proficient in the highest degree, for unless he can atone by creative ability for his break with tradition, he is merely disloyal to the past,” (Jung, “The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man”). This implies that there is a complex reciprocal relationship between the individual, the liminal unknown (the collective unconscious), and society. The individual must be willing to leave the safety and boundaries of society; then risk being overwhelmed by the liminal abyss (Mogenson describes any overwhelming, traumatic experience as being synonymous with “God,” see God is a Trauma: Vicarious Religion and Soul-making, this idea is similar to that of indigenous cultures view of the sacred as being both beneficial and dangerous, anything that is overwhelming is sacred and must be handled very carefully); and then must return to society, carrying something (having become someone) that is bigger than one’s previous place in society. The fact of the heroes transformation mid-journey is the fact that the same essence that is potentially transformative for society is the same essence which causes society to reject the transformed individual (recall Jerzy Kosinski’s myth of the “painted bird” who is attacked and killed by its flock because it is simply painted a different color).

The transformed individual simply does not fit back into the place/role in society which they left and yet to complete the hero’s journey, they must accomplish the return for their good as well as the good of society. Tacey writes, “The boon must be shared and brought into the community…spiritual experience is not complete until one finds a way back to others…We make the journey back not only for the sake of others, but for our own mental health as well,” (Tacey, 151).

This dilemma leaves several possibilities (Campbell explores many of these variations in The Hero With a Thousand Faces):

1) the prototypical, successful hero’s journey ends with a successful reintegration back into society in which the transformed individual is given/creates a new role in society and society appreciates this work;

2) the tragic hero’s journey in which the individual either dies, commits suicide, or returns but is not accepted;

3) the rejection of the return, the individual chooses not to return and rejects the original society (this could be madness, becoming a hermit, or for a veteran, perhaps re-enlisting);

4) the rejection of the boon, the hero tries to go back to who they were before their transformative journey;

5) or various combinations of these possibilities.

The work of a successful return has both inner (individual) and outer (collective) elements. What if the “boon” of the returning individual is not clear? What if the individual only recognizes that they have changed, that they are different, but does not see a path as to how this difference can be a boon or benefit to them or to society? What if society rejects what the hero brings back? For instance, Vietnam veterans were often viewed as villains rather than heroes. Society may just see the individual as changed and react to that without seeing how it can be of collective benefit. What if hero rejects his or her experience of transformation, and simply tries to fit back into their previous role in society (this is a common dilemma for those who experience trauma, that they reject the transformation as it seems only negative and they strive to recover their “lost” previous life and self). The inner work for the individual is to integrate the overwhelming, transformative experience. If this is not done, it will make the individual’s return much less likely to be successful. In many ways it is not realistic to expect that society as a whole will change to welcome transformed individuals with open arms. It is society’s goal to be conservative and to be cautionary about integrating individuals who are unpredictable. Jonathan Shay wrote, in his book Achilles in Vietnam, about the role that acting and drama had for returning war veterans. They were given a place in society that was respected, that helped them work through their transformation, and also transformed society in the process. That would be an ideal, that the structure of society would provide effective boundaries but still recognize the need for creative growth and transformation. Many earlier societies provided this type of balance to provide safety, community, belonging, as well as creative spiritual space for individual transformation. For instance, warriors preparing for battle or returning from battle in Māori culture were considered tapu and rituals would be used to render them noa.


In closing, let us move away from the theme of returning war veterans, back to my more immediate concern of reintegrating back into the US after almost three and a half years in New Zealand.  (Again, I hope it is clear to the reader that I am moving back and forth between related universal themes and not claiming my experience is that of a returning war veteran, a traumatized person, or a “hero”). The concept of “reverse-culture shock” speaks to this idea that a return home after living in another culture can have its own challenges. Picking up on the framework discussed in this column, leaving one’s culture and living in another culture transforms the individual. This transformation can be both positive and negative for the individual and it requires inner work in order to integrate new experience into the Self of the individual. For myself, I took 5 weeks off before starting work. I have spent time reconnecting to family, I’ve made two trips back to the Mid-west. I have also spent a lot of time on my own, reading, writing, thinking, walking, meditating. I have talked with others when appropriate; I recognize that my need and capacity to talk about New Zealand generally is greater than the listener’s capacity/interest to listen. It really helps that Mary Pat and I have both gone through the experience together of moving abroad and returning, however, every individual’s experience is different and even within the relationship there is the challenge of balancing and integrating each of our individual experiences of separation and return. I have turned to reading books like Corbin’s Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi. As somewhat of a parallel thinker to Jung, and a mystic scholar, Corbin has provided a spiritual framework that complements Campbell’s hero’s journey.  I suppose to voluntarily leave one’s own home culture for a period of time, quite possibly presupposes a degree of alienation from the home culture in the first place. I know for me it did. Thus, I find myself in a situation in which I am reflecting how to integrate my time “down under” (the “underworld”) into my professional and personal life. This is occurring for me at the age of 46, which intersects with the larger mid-life transition (Jung’s work was very focused on the mid-life transition and in fact both for him as well as Philip K. Dick, their visionary experiences occurred at mid-life). The universal questions of any reflective person take on new meaning and urgency at this point in life, so I suppose I have a bit of a double whammy with my stage in life as well as with my return “home.”