The book of changes
The quest for a spiritual path in a Godless world
The book of changes
The trouble with religion
It's no secret that many of us in the West have a growing problem with religion. I don't believe this is due to a weakening of our sense of the spiritual, rather I believe it's more that the predominant religion in the West, namely Christianity seems to be losing its ability to connect or keep pace with the spiritual sense that is innate in man.
As a child I went every Sunday to our local Anglican church, winning prizes for Sunday School attendance, and for my knowledge of the Bible. Then as soon as I hit my teens, and was old enough to say no to my parents, I stopped going and haven't attended since.It wasn't that I had given up on wanting to understand my place the world. Christianity had given me the Ten Commandments which, as a guide for living my life seemed perfectly reasonable,but, perhaps paradoxically, I could not say it had given me any sense that my life actually meant anything. Instead it spoke in simplistic and slightly condescending terms about heaven and hell and called me a sinner, even though I couldn't remember doing anything so bad someone had to die for it. I remember a lot of symbolism, and mysterious talk of trinities, and the use of an antiquated biblical language that I found as easy to grasp as middle English. None of these things were explained in any way and I was left to assume that they were the preserve of more advanced Christians.
Of course one is afraid of asking questions in case it makes you look stupid or insufficiently holy. So you sit quietly and gradually disconnect. In a word, it was boring.
I'd also become aware that there were other faiths in the world. People believed in different things, but rather than explain these faiths, my own religion sought only to debunk them, so condemning any non-Christian to an eternity in hell. Now, at the bottom of my heart, I couldn't see how this could possibly be fair, even if the other faiths were misguided in their beliefs, since I was sure the followers of other traditions were in any case decent human beings, and it wasn't their fault their culture taught them to believe in something else.
Also, as I reached my early teens I realised religion was conspicuously failing to answer any of the questions my education had begun to pose, such as how come the Bible says it was God who created Man, when all the scientific evidence suggests it was a thing called evolution? And how come religion is so earth centred, when the more we look into the universe, the greater we realise the chances are that there will be conscious life-forms inhabiting other worlds, life forms equally capable of spiritual expression, who aren't likely to have heard of Jesus, and without that knowledge these other worlds are equally damned - apparently writing off the entire universe, but for our own, small planet.
Now, I don't quote these examples lightly. They are a genuine challenge to the religious world view that require an answer beyond the repetition of the same old dogma. When science is faced with a challenge to a firmly held idea like this it sparks a lot of debate and research is conducted in an objective attempt to either accommodate or repudiate the challenge. The response of religion however, is to deny the challenge in the first place, as in the case of Galileo, in the seventeenth century, who perfected the telescope and then discovered Jupiter's moons with it. This led him to lend his support to the Copernican view of the solar system, that the earth revolved around the sun, instead of the sun around the earth, like it implies in the Bible. At this point in history, religious scholars had the opportunity to study the evidence of their eyes, and view the Bible in a new and less literal light, but instead they put Galileo in prison. Indeed, it's only in relatively recent times the church has quietly let it be known that in the case of poor old Galileo, it made a mistake. That's the trouble with dogma. It might hold sway for a long time, but if it isn't based on verifiable facts, then sooner or later (usually much later) it's going to break down.
In certain parts of America literal interpretations of the bible still form the bedrock of fundamentalist Christian worship. There are the Creationists of course who refuse to accept evolution at all, and seek to discourage its teaching in schools, and in another fundamentalist branch of the Christian faith, the congregation practice the taking up of serpents in order to demonstrate the strength of their faith in God, that He might spare them from deadly bites. In other fundamentalist branches, the intervention of potentially life saving medicine is discouraged because it is seen as interference in God's will.
We all have our private opinions of this kind of thing but what I want to emphasise here is that I found it all very unsettling, the fact that some should feel the need to test their faith to such a degree, when the case of Galileo demonstrated that not everything in the Bible need be taken at face value. Equally, why should others, like me, who for a long time followed less rigorous doctrines of Christianity feel themselves equally deserving of a place in Heaven?
The congregation of the church I attended were not so extreme, just middle of the road Anglicans, but with all respect to the people of that church it was nevertheless beset with petty jealousies, and Machiavellian intrigues, surrounding vexed questions such as who should hand round the collection plate or whose daughter should be appointed Rose Queen for the year. In this respect, my experience of religion was no different to that of any other organisation or club. It was dominated by a ruling elite, or clique whose motivation seemed suspiciously more self seeking than spiritual. On the greater scale, I was forced to conclude that while the message of Christianity remains unchanged in over 2000 years, and is a profoundly noble one, somewhere along the way it has been subverted to serve a distinctly human set of masters.
I should also mention another factor that may or may not have contributed to the complete subversion of my spiritual direction, and that was the sudden death of my father, at the age of 47. This happened when I was fourteen and it was an event that completely destroyed the person I was becoming at that time. What emerged from the darkness of perhaps two years of voiceless grief was someone else, someone with a distinctly different view of life, a view that was not altogether optimistic. My father was a good man, a shining hero, as all young boys father's are, and there seemed no longer anything benign about a God who would rob my father of nearly half the life he might reasonably have expected to live, especially when he'd done nothing to deserve it.
Religion then was not only boring, it was spiritually bankrupt and pointless. Life was a lottery, who lived who died,... it was evolution, survival of the fittest, and also a question of luck that you didn't cop for some terminal malfunction of the flesh. And no amount of praying made a jot of difference to anything.
So I turned away.
The secular world
It's easy to turn away from religion. You don't fall down immediately through a hole into the depths of hell. You simply step blinking from the gloom of the church into the pale sunshine of the secular world where religion is entirely irrelevant.
The secular world is one founded on capitalism. We make things, sometimes quite trivial and bizarre things. We market them, and the masses consume them. But anyone who looks at this from the outside for long enough can see that such a society is like a shop-a-holic trying to purchase his way to happiness in a series of short fixes that are plainly not working, or at best are very short term in their effects.
"It'll be great when I get my new hi-fi, or my new T.V., or when I change my car."
Retail therapy is pedalled as a cure-all, but while the shop tills ring, pumping money round the economy, our instant gratification slowly wears off to reveal that same dull ache - the feeling that something is missing.
We don't feel better because the creed underpinning a secular society is mainstream science and science has always made it clear that it can offer us no guidance on the subject of emotion, or morals, or religion. Of course if our emotions become troublesome, science can offer us drugs to modify them, to calm us down, to help us sleep, but these are symptoms of a deeper malaise that has its roots in the undeniably spiritual need of individual human beings, and that is not the territory into which science likes to stray.
The business of science is to look at the physical world and to make sense of it. Spiritual or moral matters are not within its remit. But taken to the extreme a wholly secular society would be one in which, once we'd grown too old or too poor to consume at the prerequisite rate, we'd lose our usefulness and might as well be dead. Religion might promise us an afterlife but the secular world doesn't offer any hope of that either. The insult to our humanity is total. We are, in the final analysis, merely component parts, statistically defined units, the average of a nebulous sum, void of personality, earning and spending in an international marketplace.
In the secular world, there is only one power greater than ourselves, and that is the market. The market consists of all the world's financial institutions, each one connected to the other via their computers - to which they have delegated entire responsibility for their business. In this sense no one controls it. Take a look on the Internet at the rise and fall of the Financial Times 100 index. It's as self regulating, as any autonomous organism, determining for itself the rise and fall in the value of things. No one determines the rate of inflation or the pound dollar exchange rate, no more than anyone controls the weather - these things simply "are".
The market is beyond the control of any government, and governmental policies are at best directed towards predicting and reacting to its whims. In short, a secular society is market driven, and the market is its deity. But what good is such a deity when it can offer no guidance on the question of life and death, when it is not underpinned by any coherent set of moral principles? The secular world is vastly successful, but it is far from being a comfortable place for anyone who still has spiritual leanings.
And I was becoming uncomfortable,.. was there perhaps a dark of spirituality left inside of me, something that my early experience of religion, and the death of a beloved parent had not quite destroyed?
Seeking spirituality outside of the mainstream.
I found myself in the unfortunate position of having rejected religion, because it was not in tune with my spiritual instincts, and because the picture of God it painted had made increasingly less sense to me as I'd grown up, but I was also struggling to settle into the secular world for its lack of any spiritual dimension at all. So, I turned inside myself and I got to thinking about what it means to be human, about what it is we've got that raises us above the level of animals and makes us think we're special.
There's no great mystery here and of course it's fairly obvious: We are conscious. We are aware of ourselves. We can sit down and write essays like this one on the subject of life, we can invent rich traditions, like religion, or folklore, and we can inform and entertain others by telling stories. Fortunately then, I was able to reassure myself there is rather a lot to being human. We are more than statistical units that earn and spend in a global market. We are not void of personality, indeed it is the very existence of our person, our consciousness, that makes us so important and any system that did not recognise that, be it religious or secular, had to be just plain wrong.
Now, religion would have it that God made man what he is, made him conscious. The scientific tradition on the other hand tells us that man evolved through ever more complex forms over millions of years, until he reached a sufficient level of complexity to become aware of himself - to become conscious, that it is a state that requires us to have our brains wired in a certain, though still entirely mysterious way.
As an engineer, my background is scientific, and therefore I always go with the scientific and evolutionary, rather than the religious, creationist view of the world. This is not simply a negative bias on my part. Maintaining a rational outlook is quite often a matter of survival, because we have to be careful with religious explanations of our origins and the shape of the world. Unless you can put some sums down on paper to support your ideas, or point to it in the geological strata, then really you've got nothing at all.
I could say the universe was a bubble being blown out of the end of a giant elephant's trunk. If I was especially persuasive, I could gather about me a following of like minded believers and we could create an intricate set of rituals in worship of the almighty elephant, and no one could disprove anything we said. So, in seeking the truth of existence one must tread carefully.
There's a growing interest in ancient belief systems such as Paganism and Druidism, but with all respect to the followers of such creeds, it doesn't mean they're any nearer the truth than mainstream religion. Also, disaffected Christians are converting to Islam or Buddhism or Taoism, but again one must avoid abandoning a particular following in favour of another, simply because it's different. Departing from the established path, the path worn by your parents and grandparents, can be an interesting experience, but it's important to keep our wits about us, especially when relying on other people for directions because faith is not always question of believing in God, but whether or not you believe in the people who are telling you about Him.
The question of beauty
Throughout the remainder of my teens I embraced the secular way without really thinking much about anything in particular except cars and girls. I dare say this was a natural condition for a young man still living at home with time on his hands. When I wasn't chasing girls, I was tinkering with a long line of elderly motor vehicles, a pastime that proved infinitely more fruitful than the girls.
It was the car that got me as far as the Lake District, and that began a strange fascination with what I can only describe as the power in dramatic landscapes. To me, a mountain scene was not merely impressive, or pretty to look at. It radiated an energy that literally set my body tingling. I was receptive to it, and it filled me to the brim. Throughout my twenties, as the cars I could afford became more reliable, I ventured more often to the Lakes, and to the remoter regions of the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and I took to mountain walking.
I did not begin such hard walking out of a desire to become super-fit, nor to do desperate battle with nature. I did it simply because I found the mountains extraordinarily alluring, their high ground offering a different perspective on life. They drew my eye from the valleys, and they called to me with siren voices. They made me ache when I was among them, and they made me ache when I was separated from them. I had touched something strange, something inexplicable, and emotionally overwhelming. I knew the feeling from the hopeless crushes I'd had on girls at school. It seemed I was in love.
In walking the mountains, it was above all the experience of them that mattered, rather than their conquest. My routes would always be a circuitous sampling of the land, an exploration of and an exposure to raw, physical beauty. This got me thinking about our appreciation of beauty and our subjective sense of what is and what is not beautiful. It is an exclusively human thing, and one that seems to have no use whatsoever in strictly scientific or evolutionary terms. To be emotionally stirred by a sunset, or by the way light glints off snow or illuminates autumn leaves, is irrelevant to our survival yet it is a fact of our existence and it sets us apart from the other creatures that inhabit the earth.
Science has presented many convincing arguments that explain much of our behaviour, our appearance, and our origins, but, like spirituality, on the subject of beauty it has nothing to say. I began to wonder then if, in our perception of beauty, there might be some clues that would point the way to a deeper understanding of life.
At some point in my late twenties, after much walking and writing down impressions, stories and even a novel inspired by the wild places I'd seen, I came to the conclusion that beauty in itself means absolutely nothing. A mountain, a fine painting, a pretty face, a sunset; they mean nothing until we turn our eyes upon them and engage our hearts. Only then, through the medium of our senses, have they the potential to be transformed into something uplifting. Look away and the beauty is lost. The physical manifestation then - the mountain, or the art is merely a device, like a mirror; we look into it and see reflected an image of something inside of ourselves.
The perception of reality
In scientific terms, the behaviour of the physical world has been modelled over the centuries by a series of approximations, each one an improvement on the last, as our insight into the workings of nature has deepened. The Greek mathematician Euclid gave us the basic laws of geometry that we all learn at school. But Euclid lived at a time when everyone thought the world was flat. Consequently, his geometry only works over short distances. If you begin to draw geometrical shapes that cover many thousands of miles, his laws begin to break down. For example, according to Euclidean geometry you cannot have more than one right angle in a triangle. This might seem a fairly obvious thing to say, but if you make your triangle big enough, you can have not one, not two, but three right angles in your triangle. How? Because the earth isn't flat at all. It's a sphere. Draw a line from the North Pole down to the equator. Draw another from the pole at 90 degrees to the first, again down to the equator, then join the two ends and you have triangle with three right angles. Now, we don't use spherical geometry much, because the equations of Euclidean geometry are simpler to work with and hold true enough for all practical purposes. I use this example to illustrate the notion of how false our perception of the world around us can be. In using the geometry of Euclid, our senses perceive the world in a certain simplistic way. We all know the earth is round even though the evidence of our eyes would not at first suggest this to be the case. We know it's round but we tend to think of it, and experience it as flat.
In a similar way, the history of science is still one of shifting perceptions, or paradigms, each one only serving to confirm that our perception is always going to be based upon a simplification, an approximation of the way things really are. We think of the physical world as one that consists of matter: solid objects, liquids, gasses and biological entities such as plants and animals, and people. All of these things, we are taught, consist, at a fundamental level, of atoms. Now, since the discovery of atoms, scientists have asked questions such as: "If everything's made of atoms then what are atoms made of?"
But the answers at this level are not so straight forward. When we try to crack open the atom and peer inside, we begin to realise that the way we see the world bears no resemblance at all to how it really is, and that all of our mathematics, all our centuries of calculation still represent only the simplest of approximations.
For a start, at a fundamental level, the concept of "solid" loses meaning. Atoms are not solid, indeed they are mostly space, consisting of a tiny nucleus, orbited by a cloud of even tinier electrons that have no mass whatsoever. Nor is the nucleus solid. Blasting the nucleus apart reveals a host of particles that consist of other particles, all of which can vanish into a puff of energy, then reappear again somewhere else as a particle.
The particles, it seems, are an illusion. In fact, there are only patterns of energy. So, at the ordinary everyday level we see ourselves as flesh and blood, as individual beings, living in a world that consists of a bewildering diversity of material things, when in fact what underlies our being is a pattern of energy, a cloud of order in an infinite continuum, a creative potential. Of course this also means that at this same fundamental level, we can no longer consider ourselves as separate individuals at all. We are all bound, all part of the same creative matrix and the energy that runs through me is the same energy that runs through you.
This is the cutting edge scientific view, the way of seeing the universe as opened up by particle physics, and it is a shifting world where nothing is certain any more, where the very existence of things is no longer calculated in terms of certainty but more as probabilities or tendencies to exist. This, says science, is simply a picture of the way it is. It's a breathtaking picture, but what it means to us as human beings is no clearer now than it was at the dawn of civilisation.
The broader view
Okay, let's strip it all away, all we've ever built, and stand ourselves quite naked on that lonely mountain top and surround ourselves only with the natural world. In this simple, undistracted state, free of consumer goods, fine philosophies and particle physics, the fundamental question at back of all our minds is what happens to us when we die. It is the double edged sword of our supremacy. We have achieved a conscious awareness of our selves and value it so highly it cannot help but hone a sharper edge to our fear, above the normal instinctual terror that most creatures have of death.
Is it simply the end? Will the experience of my life, and all the memories I have, simply be lost. It's a disturbing, unsettling question and we set it aside, preferring not to think about it for too long. Wouldn't it be nice if we could live for ever, but with certain modifications such as the elimination of suffering, of fear, and if everything could be beautiful - if the whole world could be warm and sunny and the garden would grow without having to water it, and where the grass never needed cutting?
We have a capacity for imagination, so we can imagine such a world exists somewhere beyond the horizon, beyond what we can ordinarily see, and that when we die that's where we'll go. But at this point our imaginings are just a game, like the fantasy of a child and we need a bit more convincing that such a place could actually exist. Also, concerning the location of this heavenly place, it always has to be just beyond the limits of where we can see,... which these days puts it outside of the physical universe altogether.
The Christian tradition offers us such a way out, a place we can go, but only if we behave ourselves in the meantime, and admit we're sinners. That wouldn't be so bad I suppose, if only we could assure ourselves that it was true. There are no calculations that can plot us a course through the stars to Heaven, so is the Christian view of it as a "place" merely a deliberate simplification, perhaps aimed at putting across the general idea to the great mass of humanity, for whom notions of a more abstract, metaphysical heaven might be even more alarming than the prospect of death? I don't really know. It was never explained to me in those terms and would certainly have been viewed as a scandalous idea by the churchmen who preached to me as a child.
Other traditions such as Hinduism and Buddhism have a slightly different view of the afterlife and prefer to think of us as being physically reborn, and that if we have previously lived a good life, then our spiritual status in the next one will be enhanced. So the broad view is one of anxiety at our mortality, an anxiety that is addressed by a wide range of religious creeds. But what are these religions? Where did they come from?
The origins of religion
There is a tendency within secular thinking to dismiss religion as a kind of fairy tale, to cast doubt on whether it's main characters really existed. This is a mistake. The common factor in all religions, is that the central tenets were founded by real human beings who underwent a life-transforming experience. Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, and Buddha, were all men who underwent such an experience. They walked the earth, initially as ordinary men, but something happened that caused them to believe they had experienced "God".
Their testimony and their teachings, based upon their transformative experience then formed the central theme of our religious texts and also, at the same time, formed a trail of documentary evidence proving, if nothing else, that these people did indeed exist. It's a historical fact, in the same way we know Julius Caesar existed, or Cleopatra or Alexander the Great, either from their own writings or from the accounts of various reliable sources who were around at the time, and whose works have survived.
Confucius, Aristotle, Plato,... all these men predate Christ, yet we read their words today and do not doubt that they existed. So, why then question the existence of Christ? Religion is not a fairly tale, its scriptures are not fiction, nor are they founded merely in the popular imagination, but describe people, their beliefs, their teachings, and the events relating to their beliefs. Whether or not we consider those beliefs were founded on a genuine encounter with the divine, or were the result of a delusional experience, is entirely a matter of faith. In a similar way, accounts of miraculous events may be taken literally, or they may be put down to exaggeration, or artistic licence over the centuries that followed those events, thus blurring the line between fact and legend. Again it is a matter of faith and personal choice how literally one chooses to hold to such things.
To describe a religious experience as a delusion is perhaps a little unfair, a little simplistic, because another defining characteristic of the religious transformative experience is that its manifestation results in a universal affirmation, rather than a negation, of human spiritual and moral values. These values are distinctive by virtue of their similarity, regardless of the creed from which they are derived - i.e. respecting your fellow man and behaving in a responsible manner by not stealing or killing or otherwise indulging in behaviour that might reasonably be expected to cause offence. If such tenets are the result of a delusion, then it is a remarkably benign one and a delusion that finds easy and widespread resonance in the hearts and minds of men. So, when is a delusional experience a revelation?
Whatever one's opinion of organised religion, the more one studies it from a non-partisan view, the more one recognises the similarities. Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity,... all the world's faiths are talking about the same thing,... God,... divinity, and the potential for human consciousness to be transformed by contact, by communion, by letting him into your heart, by accepting the faith, by becoming one,... and all those other stock phrases that are used to describe "it" and have the unfortunate effect of being rather embarrassing if spoken about too loudly and in the wrong company.
But what exactly is "it".
Looking for God.
What is god? Until very recently, this was a question I was unable to make any headway with, nor even to decide whether or not there was such a thing. My professional life had led me down the road of hard headed logic and rationalism. I designed things made from metal, tangible things that either existed or they did not and their genesis relied upon numbers, calculations, dimensions and geometry. I also programmed computers which require an unambiguous stream of code. A switch can be either on or off, there is no middle way. My world was one of strict cause and effect, no spiritual fuzziness. It was not spirituality, I argued, that gave us the means to build our jumbo jets, or send men into space. It was science and engineering. Anything else was just idle, unsubstantiated chatter.
The scientific way is a good way. It provides us with a largely reliable understanding of the world and allows us to shape it in ways that enable us to live as we do. Nations that have founded themselves on this method are, generally speaking, nations that sustain a large population in conditions where no one need reasonably fear death by starvation, or curable disease. States founded entirely upon religious creeds on the other hand are largely locked in a feudal dark age. I imagine a country run by the congregation of the church I attended as a child and I shudder. I imagine a country run by the more fundamental wings of Christianity, or Islam and I imagine a free thinker like me would either have to shut the hell up or fear for his life.
But this is not to say the scientific way is perfect. Like all institutions it suffers from the same problems as any other large gathering of people. It can be short sighted, it can be protective of its own interests and it can be as arrogant in it's preaching as any pious churchman. I was no different. There was a time when I looked upon any spiritual matter as a distinctly suspicious business. As for any fringe practices such as astrology, fortune telling or tarot reading, these belonged to the realm of primitive superstition and anyone practising such black arts were not to be relied upon.
This is how it remained for a long time, but then you get older and your attitudes begin to change. I had always read widely around things that were familiar to me from my college days, all no nonsense subjects related to science and engineering, popular works on physics, mathematics and cosmology. This was safe ground, secure ground, but then, gradually, through my reading I began to realise that scientists didn't have all the answers either.
A good illustration of this was when the first books on chaos theory came out in the mid 1980's. Chaos was a troubling phenomenon and it caused a sudden shift in thinking, a final realisation that it was no longer acceptable to look at the world as if it were a piece of clockwork, as an entirely deterministic system of cause and effect. There was something intangible, something disturbingly unpredictable underlying nature. Mathematicians and physicists were coming to terms with what it meant and were modifying their models of the world, but they were having to head off in all sorts of strange and counterintuitive directions.
I also studied the parallels between physics and our thought processes, such as how it could be that we were able to comprehend the universe at all, and make occasionally counter intuitive leaps to form a greater understanding of things (such as chaos theory) when it was clear by purely deductive reasoning we should never have been able to work anything out. One cannot go from a handful of equations, say Newton's laws of motion and derive from these a profound understanding of the meaning of life. There are gaps in our knowledge that we somehow manage to bridge by other means.
On this the conclusion seemed to be that the structure underpinning the universe was the same as that underpinning the structure of our minds. We comprehend things because we already know them, but have somehow, in the process of being born, forgotten or had the wiring scrambled up. Thus all thought along these lines is something akin to a methodical exploration, a systematic uncovering of our own connections with the physical world, and that intuition is an occasional short circuit, inexplicable through our normal understanding of the mind, but one that evidently works to our advantage.
Reading the testimony of great thinkers who had achieved such leaps of understanding it became clear that their impressions were of not having been entirely responsible for their achievements. Their remarkable insights had been brought about through them, yes, but also, crucially by something greater than themselves, working inside of them.
At this point in my search for the meaning of my life, it seemed that everything was pointing inwards rather than outwards and I was led on to seek a deeper understanding of the human psyche, its form and the strangeness of the structure of our minds. But the realm of the psyche is a minefield for the layman.
We have Psychology, Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis, all scientific disciplines devoted to the study of the mind and its ailments. But to a rational thinker, it is a strange science, tending more towards philosophy on account it's emphasis on "interpretation". The Philosopher studies the world of man based upon a particular interpretation or view of the nature of reality. The psychiatrist studies the mind of man based upon a particular interpretation of the structure of the psyche. And the mind is a dark place in which we have no option but to grope blindly, to probe the structure by remote means.
There are essentially two schools of thought on the nature of the mind, one established by Sigmund Freud and the other by Carl Jung, in the early years of the twentieth century. Freud is known as the founder of psychoanalysis and Jung was one of his most devoted followers until his own ideas gradually brought the two men into conflict. First of all it's important to point out that no one really knows what's going on in our minds with anything approaching a degree of certainty, because you can't just stop the brain and take it apart like you can with a watch and then expect it to work again afterwards. But having said this, Freud's view of the mind was that it was essentially mechanistic in nature and he related mental problems to suppressed sexual disturbances in early childhood, and that curing such aliments was a question of having the patient remember the experience - a bit like exorcising a ghost.
Carl Jung believed this was too simplistic a view and developed his own model based upon his experience of working with mentally deranged people. Jung's model consisted of three layers of consciousness. There was ordinary every day consciousness, and then a personal unconscious, but deeper than the personal unconscious there was a thing called the collective unconscious that consisted of archetypal ideas that were common to all people and across all cultures. These archetypes revealed themselves in folklore and literature and seemed to have a timeless and autonomous nature.
Characters like Merlin from the Arthurian legends and Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings, or even Obe Wan from the Star Wars films are similar in their nature, being wise old men who serve lesser beings, granting them the benefit of their wisdom and their magic. One is not merely a plagarisation of the other, but an archetype of a more abstract idea that lives in the minds of every one of us and this results in a frequent recurrence of a similar theme. In the same way the femme fatal from the old film noir genre, and Riger Haggard's "She" are manifestations of another archetype, a darkly attractive female, dangerous to know, suicidally alluring, yet also, potentially a source of wisdom.
Jung believed it was the archetypes that determined the way we think and feel. In a man, there is an archetype called the anima which is essentially female and it is through this archetype that a man possesses an intimate foreknowledge of women. Sexual attraction is said to be the projection of this archetype onto a suitable female. The anima within men is ageless, so what attracts the man at sixteen is the same as what attracts him at eighty four. It is perhaps unfair then to condemn an octogenarian who takes up with a fresh young girl as a dirty old man,... he is merely giving in to attractions that remain for him timeless, in spite of his own advancing years.
In a normally adjusted individual, the archetypes are maintained in balance, but disturbances can occur and Jung ascribes many such occurrences as incidents of individuals becoming possessed by a particular archetype.
Now, the collective unconscious has been interpreted by some to imply a sort of afterlife, a place we sink back to when we die, but so far as I can work out Jung took care to emphasise only that the archetypes were inherited. Never the less the idea of passing on primeval memories from one generation to another has found less acceptance than Freud's mechanistic view of the psyche. It's clear that we can inherit genes from our parents, but to be fair, any mechanism by which we can inherit an the entire unconscious blueprint of everyone who has ever lived remains unknown.
Both Jung and Freud, and indeed the whole sphere of psychoanalysis has its critics, but I feel Jungian theories struggle to find any favour whatsoever with mainstream scientific thinking these days and tend to be favoured more by spiritual wanderers who are attracted by their mystery and their willingness to reach out towards a more optimistic and holistic view of mankind. Freud's views on the other hand, while more widely accepted, offer no hope for a continuance of existence. Freud reduces us to little more than beasts. Only Jung was unashamed to touch the divine aspects of our nature and to put mankind back in the centre of a bewildering universe. Another thing that is sometimes overlooked with regards to Jung: he was often regarded as being scathingly critical of organised religion which in a sense he was, yet one only has to read his works to sense that he remained a deeply religious man until the end of his days. When asked if he believed in God, he replied that he did not believe,.... he knew. His criticism of organised religion was only that it had failed to move on, that it had failed to keep pace with the living spirit of makind. And that was something that found immediate resonance with me.
I'm in no way qualified to argue the pros and cons of Jungian and Freudian psychology, and I only wish I'd been born with the tiniest fraction of the intelligence and the energy possessed by these two collosal intellects,... but as a writer, I do know a thing or two about stories. For a start, I know that when we let our imagination run away with us, out they come,... the wise old men, the femme fatales, the earth mothers, the nature children, the fantastic beasts,... and all those other corny devices,.. but they're only corny because they're so familiar and I believe they're familiar because regardless of where in the world we come from, we've known them all our lives. They are timeless and mysteriously manifest in all of us.
I felt, instinctively that Jung was right, or had at least hit upon a valid model that went some way towards explaining the human mind. I spent a good few years devouring everything he'd ever written and everything others had written about him. Jung became for me, as I'm sure he had for many, the wise old man of the twentieth century. Now, Jung was an extraordinary thinker, and is an essay in himself so I won't go into him any more here except to say that anyone who begins to read the works of Jung, as I did, will sooner or later come across the I Ching. And if you sit down with the I Ching, as I did, with anything approaching an open mind you are sure to have what's left of your rational senses completely shattered.
The I Ching
The I Ching is a book, what one might call an oracle. You ask questions of it and by a process that is at first glance purely random in nature, you are directed to a reading that describes your situation and how to make the best of it. It's an extraordinary work dating back some three thousand years and underpins both Taoist and Confucian philosophy. The version of the book I came across was a famous translation by the Christian missionary Richard Wilhelm, printed in English in 1950, and my link to it was the fact the Carl Jung wrote the foreword.
Contrary to popular belief, the I Ching does not tell us the future, but describes our present in ways that enable us to choose the wisest course, so that we may meet the future in an advantageous way. Nor is the I Ching strictly a religious book in the normal sense. It does not profess a deity, nor an afterlife. It does not require ritual worship, or sacrifice, or prayer. Indeed it seems curiously content to sit alongside the prevailing theology of whatever culture it finds itself taken up by. It is as much at home in the hands of a devout but open minded Christian as it is in the hands of a devout but open minded Taoist.
In essence, it contains insightful wisdom, and seeks to describe both the physical world and the inner world of the psyche in a way that enables an understanding of both, and a convergence of thought and spirit with the underlying nature of the physical world. It's curious, and unique. Indeed in the entire history of mankind, I'm sure nothing has evolved that is even remotely like the I Ching.
So, by a circuitous trail, a religious dropout and hard headed rationalist eventually found himself in possession of a 3000 year old oracle that seemed to come with at least a semi-respectable provenance. I read the instructions: You formulate a question, you toss some coins, and you receive a reading,...
It had to be nonsense, of course! It could be nothing but a random, meaningless process. But I had hit a low point in my life, and a part of me wanted desperately to believe in something irrational. It could have been anything: Astrology, Tarot, Rune's or theology,... for some reason it just happened to be the I Ching. And the most astonishing thing was, it seemed to work.
When I asked how best to live my life, it answered with a description of the distinctly Christian virtue of "modesty". I asked how I might best use this oracle and it answered: as a fountain of knowledge, or as a well from which one might draw spiritual nourishment.
Then my rational senses kicked in and reassured me that the wording of the I Ching was so loose I could probably twist meaning from every answer to suit whatever question I cared to ask. But I wasn't entirely sure and for the first time in my life I began to mistrust my rational side. It wanted to dismiss the thing and go on chasing some sort of inner meaning by a rational analysis. But that's a bit of a contradiction in terms. Inner meaning, an explanation of life, what it means to be human and what happens to us when we die, is by its nature a spiritual question and rationalism cannot deal with it. Rationality, otherwise defined as ego consciousness, is afraid of it because it allows the existence of forces over which it has no control, forces the ego cannot explain, or understand,... manifestations of things in the physical world without any apparent cause. And there lies madness.
So, I reached a compromise with myself and effectively split my personality in two. One side of me decided to believe in the I Ching for a while and I used it on a daily basis to answer questions on all manner of things. As a concession to my rational side I kept a detailed diary and compiled data on how effective I thought the I Ching had been in answering my questions. Then, the rational side of me took the data, compiled graphs and carried out a statistical analysis.
Over a period of about a year, I undertook a serious study of the I Ching. It's accessibility and ease of use makes it easily available for scrutiny and experimentation without having to go through the normal and sometimes dubious human interface of a priesthood. I asked it questions, and more often than not it gave me answers that made sense in a clear and direct way. I studied the answers, I studied the times when it made sense and the times when it did not. I applied my rational intelligence, a smattering of statistical analysis and after some three hundred consultations, had no choice but to conclude that the I Ching worked, that it was not random, that I could not twist meaning from a response willy nilly. Moreover if I was open and responsive (If I let myself believe in it), it answered well. If I was tired and unreceptive but fired questions at it in a cold and mechanical manner anyway, then the answers were opaque. Nor was it certain that if you asked the same question more than once, you would get a different answer each time. Indeed I found that if I questioned the I Ching along similar lines, say perhaps to explore a particular avenue of thought, then the same answers came up, again and again and again. Indeed at one point, over a period of two months, I asked some 104 questions and got the same answer 11 times. If it were pure chance at work, I might have expected it to happen two or three times.
Mainstream rational, scientific opinion of the I Ching is no different to that of astrology or any other occult practice,... that it does not work and those professing belief in such things are merely deluding themselves. There are some within the scientific community who agree that the I Ching works but these are renegade voices and anyone picking up this remarkable book, must essentially decide for themselves.
It is possible to account for the workings of the I Ching, but only if we accept the validity of rather a contentious phenomenon that sits awkwardly in the mid stream of scientific and pseudoscientific study, namely synchronicity. A synchronistic event is essentially a coincidence that holds meaning for the observer. You think of a person, and seconds later they ring you up or you bump into them on the street. The psychological process and the physical event are linked. Now, to a rationally minded person, this is just a coincidence, whether it's meaningful or not and there are plausible arguments that show how certain events are more likely to occur than one might expect.
Anyway, with respect to the I Ching, the psychological process is the formulation of a question, and the related physical response, the synchronistic event, is the text to which the observer is directed. The psychological process of the observer, his inner world, determines the answer. The answer comes from within himself,... if we accept the premise of synchronicity, that is. Now, accepting synchronicity as a valid phenomenon is a key step in all that follows. I'll try to explain some of the reasons for my own belief in the face of much scepticism:
Many years ago, I moved into a new department at the place where I worked. There, I struck up a friendship with another chap. We got on well and had similar interests. Following our meeting, we then kept bumping into each other in the most unlikely places outside of work, while out walking, while out shopping in town. The occurrences were unexpected and their frequency surprising, coming in quick succession so that we even jokingly began suggesting ways we might avoid one another. In the course of time I moved departments and our friendship became by degrees more casual until we were merely on nodding terms. Consequently, the coincidental meetings ceased. He left the company some time later. That was twenty years ago and I haven't seen him since, yet there was a time when I was falling over him on every street corner.
While I was writing this section of the essay, I broke off to cast my mind back over my life for other odd coincidences, but thinking in particular of former colleagues who had left the company I worked for and who I hadn't seen for many years. I went into town, walked into a store and there was a former colleague I haven't seen for about ten years. I left the store, walked around the corner and nearly fell over someone I still work with.
Similarly, a friend of mine lost touch with a former colleague, didn't see him for about twenty years, then bumped into him in town. Surprised, both men exchanged pleasantries and caught up on the intervening years, then went their separate ways. Shortly afterwards, my friend was waking in a remote area of moor land where the chances of meeting anyone are pretty slim, but who should he meet? You guessed it. Now, it's a decade since that last meeting and they haven't seen each other since.
We all have similar stories to tell, tales of the most unlikely occurrences. But some will say it's precisely because they're so rare that they stick in our minds. People quote the odds of winning a jackpot on the lottery which are pretty slim, but someone always wins. Likewise, rare occurrences will happen to us, simply because they have to. It may not be a lottery win (which we might hope for) or being struck by a meteorite (which we might not hope for) but some unspecified rare phenomenon will occur frequently on account of there being an infinite number of possible unspecified rare phenomenon. And if, by chance, it strikes a chord, then it will engage our attention in a way it otherwise might not.
But personally, I'm moving away from the rational arguments on synchronicity, not simply on account of my own experiences with it but also as a result of my experiments with the I Ching. The rationalist in me, the ego consciousness that is always demanding the evidence of my own eyes seems curiously subdued by the data I've been compiling. The I Ching works and that implies a psychological connection between me and whatever phenomenon it is that speaks through the I Ching. But what is it?
When we question the I Ching who answers?
This is a fairly obvious thing to ask and it raises a profound issue: Is it God? In consulting the I Ching, are we merely formulating a prayer, and through the structure of the I Ching, is God able to answer us in a more constructive manner than he might otherwise be able to do? There's no direct answer to this of course. I have asked the I Ching this and it' given me images that describe a fountain of knowledge, a source of inner truth, and a symbol of unity around which people can unite. All these things may be descriptions of God, but whatever it is, is something greater than myself. And I have no choice but to believe in it.
Where I go from here is less certain. I have my own ideas now about the nature of reality and our purpose, insights gained through the I Ching. I'll outline these later because if you've stuck with me this far, you must be interested enough to know what it has to say. But in a sense I'm almost reluctant to do this because another thing I've learned along the way is that it's the height of bad manners to criticise anyone for their beliefs, or indeed their non-belief, and it's even worse to try to force your own ideas onto others. We all believe what we believe. Some believe wholeheartedly in the concept of a Godless universe. Some like the conformity and the security of a shared belief system. And some believe in "something" but don't quite know how to categorise it. I seem to fall into the latter camp. But there's something out there. It's knowing and it's wise and I've touched it.
I can't reach the atheists or even the agnostics on this because at one time or another I've been both and I know you have to walk your own path in these matters, but for those who sense a certain something in their lives but can't quite put their finger on it, I'd say don't worry about it, because all the roads are leading in the same direction and, so long as we believe in something, it can lend an inner calm and a spiritual certainty to our lives, that might otherwise be missing.
A personal view of the meaning of life, based on conversations with the I Ching
Make of this what you will, and remember that these are personal beliefs based upon the questioning of a three thousand year old oracular device.
First of all, the idea of heaven as a place to where we might go after we die did not get a positive response from the I Ching, only the suggestion that my thoughts along these lines were out of accord with the true nature of things. Nor did it offer any hope of a more metaphysical realm where we might float as some sort of disembodied soul. Indeed the I Ching said that without a physical realm, and interaction with other people, the light that is my mind would have no fuel to keep going and I'd fizzle out in no time.
I have to admit I found both these ideas something of a relief. The idea of a heaven where everything is perfect sounds great at first, but I'm sure living there would be rather boring after a while, because another thing the I Ching has taught me is the value of limits,... that if a man were to live in a world of limitless pleasure and freedom his vital self would become dissipated. Only by knowing the bad times can he discern the good ones. Happiness only comes when limits are set on the pleasures we receive.
As for the disembodied, metaphysical realm, where my bit of soul floated like a tiny drop in an infinite soul-ocean,... I just didn't see how that could be worth looking forward to at all! It's fortunate then this vision does not accord with the I Ching's image of reality either.
On the question of our mortality, the I Ching points out that when we are faced with the transience of our existence, we are apt to react in one of two different ways. We will either sink into a miserable melancholy as we contemplate the ending of our days, or we will blindly pursue the pleasures of life while we can in order to shut out all thought of the inevitable. Both attitudes, the I Ching says, are wrong because one approach avoids contemplating the end, while the other shrinks from it. The correct path is to accept life as it comes and to learn from it what one can, to seek what wisdom we can glean from our own experience, and that of others, and to accept our end as easily as we accept our life. That to live without an easy acceptance of our death is to be not quite fully alive.
Now this is all well and good, but in order to be comfortable with the idea of his death it's only reasonable that a man should seek assurances that something worthwhile is going to follow. The I Ching had already told me there were problems with the notion of a perfect Heaven, so I asked about the only other option I could think of, namely the idea of rebirth. This met with a more positive response, the I Ching suggesting my thoughts in this direction were more in accord with the nature of reality.
So, rebirth seemed the most likely outcome. But what about everything we've done in our previous life? Obviously, if it's true that I've been reborn from a previous existence, I remember nothing of it, which also seems to suggest my previous existence was a complete waste of time. Is our experience really thrown away? All my memories? Family days growing up? my first kiss? the view from the summit of Ben Nevis? holding my new-born son in my arms for the first time? All lost? All useless?
Well, in part, the I Ching suggests these individual memories are not important, like the photographs of places we've been to, they tend to fade and no longer do justice to the feelings we experienced at the time we first captured those images. So, it's not so much the pictures of the things we've done or achieved in our lives that are important, more the way we thought and felt when we were doing them. Therefore, whether you are a king or a peasant, we all have an equal opportunity to contribute towards the spiritual evolution of mankind. A king, for all the luxury at his fingertips, might be a miserable old git, while the peasant might take great pleasure in the humblest of experiences. It's all an attitude of mind.
The I Ching leads me to believe that it is this experience of individual lives that becomes shared by everyone alive now and everyone yet to be born, not as direct experiences that we would recognise of course, but more as influences that cause a gradual evolution of the archetypes in the collective unconscious, upon which we all rely as the psychical bedrock of our individual selves. Also, the way we have lived our life determines to some extent the circumstances into which we are born in the next.
Both good and bad influences determine the evolution of our personal psyche. And it is for this reason it's important for us to follow the best of examples when we live our lives, to strive, as the Taoists put it, to follow "the way", the path of harmony. Thus, in addition to making the world a better place for us to live in now, such positive tendencies will be passed on, leading to a gradual evolution of the human spirit in a positive direction.
Every bad thing mankind has ever done is in there as well, as a negative influence. This means none of us can look on while terrible crimes are perpetrated in some far flung corner of the world. Comforting ourselves by saying it's none of our business isn't going to help. It's everyone's business, for whatever mankind has sown in the past, is sowing now, and will sow in generations to come, we shall all reap. Only in this sense are we all born in sin. Though we are born in innocence, the shared substrate of our psyche is somewhat tarnished.
Of course it is quite beyond the power of a child born now, today, to atone directly for the darkest moments of mankind's evolution. It's frankly unfair to expect that, and downright cruel for anyone to point to history and say to a child, look,... that was your fault. But the child does have the power to redress the balance by living a good and blameless life, by enriching the collective well we all draw from with a purer water, diluting bit by bit the poison that's seeped in over the generations.
That's as far as it goes. The I Ching hints at much more, but when I press for details regarding the idea of rebirth it seems to grow strangely elusive. Perhaps I'm not ready, or simply incapable of understanding the answers it gives. I don't know what God looks like, or even what God is, but I do understand now that God was powerless to prevent my father from being taken from me. It was not God's fault. It was biology and the fragility of life. God brings all things into being, both good and bad and is powerless to interfere with either.
I've come a long way in a short period of time, from scientific rationalism and godless secularism to a kind of belief. The I Ching has snatched me back from the abyss and shown me a way through life, and my life has become all the richer for it. And the strange thing is it doesn't seem to matter what you believe in, or how you define it. The important thing is simply to believe,...
.... in something!
Copyright © M Graeme 2003