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Ancient Mind, Modern Matter


The mandala is an artistic expression of the inexpressible.

Such a paradoxical statement reveals the inadequacy of language to tell us something that is truly beyond words. It can only be depicted through works of art and imaginative stories.

Often the mandala is an attempt to represent the different qualities of the psyche, with the intention to eventually lead one back to their center. Like the eye of a storm, the center of a mandala represents the gateway into the eternal and the timeless. The inexpressible. The mandala is an archetype of wholeness because it represents a union of the known and unknown. This is what is meant by the term "squaring the circle."

Like the mandala, myth is the sacred work of attempting to describe the undescribable. It points the way to divine realities that are ever-present in the workings of the self and the cosmos, but somehow escape the rational thought-process we are accustomed to. A way to "lift the veil" of appearances, if only for brief durations.

In ancient times, cultures had little of what we would consider scientific knowledge about the world, but their insights came from attuning the imagination as a gateway to the unknown.

From their imagination they quite literally dreamed civilizations into being. For example, the domestication of animals is thought to be a result of sacred rituals memorializing the days of the hunt. As the climate changed for our prehistorical ancestors, the once lush forests full of wild life became barren. It is thought by some anthropologists that domestication began as a kind of "swan song" to the older days that would never come again.

Many significant advancements in technology were often tied deeply to spiritual, artistic and esoteric practices. Our ancestors did not know how to split the atom, instead their expertise came from the wisdom of the psyche.

And what an imagination they had! Most of our cultural ancestry, whether we are talking about the ancient Sumerians and Gilgamesh, or Greece and its mystic-philosophers, exist in a deep strata of our cultural ecology. The mythpopoeic references of old reveberate from the past like a deep current residing in our collective unconscious.

Ancient civilizations are like the soil which our current culture has rooted itself in, so understanding them, and appreciating the ways they saw the world are important for understanding how our civilization has come into being.

The Heavens Above, the Human Below

Just as the mandala, and the myth are sacred forms of story telling, ancient cultures saw the world itself as a kind of story, dreamed up in the imagination of the divine godhead. The movement of the stars and planets were like dancing mandalas, their rising and falling told us about the sacred process of death and renewal.

The world itself was an expression of the inexpressible.

Now the major thing to consider here is that our ancestors had a completely different kind of psyche than modern humanity. The world was endowed with symbolic references and meaning. Significance wasn't something contained in our skull alone. It permeated the cosmos. Imagination was the world, within and without.

In our day, the scientist has replaced the shaman.

In contrast, the scientist tell us the psyche is in no way related to the world. Mind itself is an emergent product of mindless matter. The emergent complexity of evolution an inevitable probability. Unlike the shaman or the ancient priest, the scientist has contained meaning to being something inside the head. Mind is something only generated by the brain. At best, we project meaning into the cosmos. The scientist, then, urges us to check ourselves and be careful about what biases we are projecting onto the world.

While the ancient mind saw the world as a part of itself, the modern mind sees the world as apart from itself.

The mind shrank back into the head, while the world expanded infinitely as a physical play of matter devoid of intrinsinc meaning. So we have two distinct focuses: a psyche that is separate from the universe and a psyche that is intrinsically woven into it, like a peremeable membrane matter and meaning weave into each other.

What's interesting about this dance to-and-fro of humanity's consciousness is that neither has the most complete, most full story. Each has an intrinsic limitation.

  • Ancient cultures had a profound exploration of meaning and interiority, discovering that the world itself was also woven with meaning (As above, so below). The human body was an expression of the Heavenly Bodies. We were in a microcosm what the universe and God was in the macro. But what they were missing almost entirely was the story of the physical form itself. The workings of form. The billions of years of evolution were for the most part untold or unexplored (many mystics implicitly describe evolution). The physical reality was implicit, the inner meaning was explicit everywhere.
  • Modern culture has witnessed a total reversion of this. We now are masters of the profane and explicit, but intrinsic meaning, spiritual reality and wisdom are all but missing. At best, they are implicit. We try to place meaning into a meaningless universe. As a result, we've seen quite a lot of existential dread. The world "just is," and that's terrifying, because we are responsible for giving any meaning to it at all. The deficiency of modern consciousness has been its inability to rectify wisdom and significance with a universe that "just is." Furthermore, by not cultivating our imagination, unconscious biases and archetypal narratives pop up in our allgedly "bias-free" scientific narratives. The imagination becomes a shadow, and so it influences us outside our realm of conscious thought.

What is being presented here is that both are partially true. They are both a qualitative way of experiencing reality, but neither are totally "it." Each has a strength and a deficiency.

The story of shifting from one focus to another is also the archetypal story of re-integration. It is the "Hero's Journey." We leave home and face the many aspects of ourselves, each an important challenge to integrate as we make our way around the circle of individuation.

By exploring the many dimensions of Self we are eventually brought back to our center, having fully explored both the shadows and the light.

This brings us back to the image of the mandala as an important symbol of the evolution of consciousness.

If we look at the history of the human psyche, the evolution of culture as it shifts and re-orients itself this way and that, we see the emergence of complexity and self-reflection. It's not a linear climb, not anything like that at all. Instead, we see a kind of wave or oscillation, moving from one focus to another. It's messy and organic, it shifts this way and that. From a psyche that gained most of its wisdom and practicality from myth and imagination, to a psyche that has gained most of its power with a focus on practicality and empirical knowledge. These are both dimensions of the human being, they are both qualities of our existence. Meaning and matter.

What I believe is occuring, and what many scholars, mystics and intellectuals have also posited, is that these two major dimensions of the human experience are collectively being called to integrate. That is, to co-exist, and not simply dance back and forth.

They are like the two wings of a bird, which of course must first grow. Both are required to take flight.

There is an archetypal pattern at work here that human consciousness is naturally expressing. The many dimensions of self are being called on stage to play themselves out, this way and that, but eventually the intrinsic wholeness is going to reveal itself, is going to be born.

In the process of exploring the world of the profane, the world of matter without meaning, we have alienated a part of ourselves that intrinsically sees meaning in everything. The part of ourselves that is responsible for wisdom, compassion, intrinsic connection to the universe has been placed outside of our conscious attention.

This is unfortunate, because the realm of meaning and imagination is also the most profound gateway to the unconscious, self-knowledge, to "gnosis," and the wisdom of the soul. By dis-integrating this dimension, we have created a collective shadow that must eventually be integrated.

Just as ancient cultures had not yet realized the true immensity of the physical universe and its wonders, we have forgotten and disowned the immensity of an inner universe of meaning and significance.

In our primordial state, during perhaps the age of the shaman, it was a different story. In our nascent age we appeared to have a balance of meaning and matter. Tool-making and hunting was endowed with symbolism and significance. But now we are called to re-mind the universe. Having fully fallen out of the state (often connected to our common myth of the Fall), the greater challenge is integration. We are being called to re-enter the age of the sacred-tool making for a greater, global civilization. Human beings are being called to come of age and come full circle in the Mandala of becoming.

In short, we are enacting a sacred myth by living the very history of our species.

Our "consciousness" has become sharded, fragmented, a mandala that has broken into a thousand pieces across history and cultures. Our path, our story all along has been one of coming full circle. The Mandala has never yet expressed wholeness since our primordial age. To do so on this planetary scale would indeed be quite an amazing feat.

So the question becomes, how are we to reintegrate the collective psyche? To bring the shadows into light?

Healing the Rift

Many theorists, mystics and intellectuals are exploring this. The story is as old as time. The alchemists have been going at it for centuries, and before them the various esoteric schools that knew that matter itself was veiled Light.

We are, in a sense continuing that tradition today.

At the very least, it requires a certain degree of openness to the unconscious processes of the mind and the imagination. To discover intrinsic patterns in our contemporary rift between Mind and Matter. If our society is fundamentally or intrinsically based upon a consciousness that is not whole, how does that manifest in the world? In what ways are we deficient? By tapping into that self-knowledge, by revealing the shadows we are beginning to return towards greater self awareness.

Just as on the individual level, when our shadows come to light our mind is able to (should it choose to work through), integrate and go through a kind of alchemy of the psyche, transmuting the grudge and darkness into something more. True maturity as Carl Jung saw it was not just developing an adult persona, but to actually Individuate. To become whole. We can certainly say the same for our civilization on a collective level.

The actions of one nation are no longer separate from another. We are called for nothing short of a collective, a human shift of consciousness. A collective coming-of-age.


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