This post continues the slightly amplified transcription of my presentation at the 2015 IANDS conference in San Antonio. If you missed the previous post, you might want to read that first and then come pick up here with Part #2.
The purpose of traditional initiation rituals was understood not only as being the source of a “basic change in existential condition,” as Mircea Eliade claimed, but as an entry point to maturity and competence. The rite of passage would be a formal challenge, a test of the newcomer’s fitness for an advanced social role. In spiritual terms, it was expected that the ordeal might give access to altered states of consciousness that could provide a glimpse of other realms, a bit of secret wisdom. In some cultures, obtaining such a vision was (and sometimes is) an essential aspect of the trial.
To see how Western societies understand the purpose of such an experience, we have only to contrast those traditional views with the public’s understanding of distressing NDEs, which are still routinely interpreted as punishment or the ‘wages of sin’ (hell); spiritual incompetence (God-rejecting, unspiritual); a sign of bad character or psychological status (mean, unloving, controling, depressed, guilty, cold, hostile, etc.); and lack of positive thinking (negative).
Making it successfully through a traditional ordeal would be understood as a developmental triumph, a sign of maturity and a source of pride (“You did it! Good job!”). Our Western positions see a distressing experience as a sign of sinfulness, of negativity, as a black mark on one’s character. It is not surprising that a prominent researcher has written about unpleasant NDEs as the slums of a city, created by the “nature of their minds,” through which the experiencers of light-filled NDEs travel as though carried in subway tunnels to avoid contamination.
The degree of difference in these ways of thinking should alarm us.
It is easy to understand that joy, with or without angels, is more appealing than existential terror. But as accounts throughout history demonstrate, a darkness of our souls and psyches is also a natural and recurring aspect of human experience, not by its nature necessarily an indication of evil. If we do not examine it intelligently, we permit only half the known universe into our consciousness; then, when challenged, we go uninformed and unprotected into those territories.
Why our extreme resistance? Why such stubborn refusal of so many otherwise spiritually interested individuals to look at distressing NDEs with honest curiosity and intelligence ? When it comes to these NDEs which present as ordeals, even IANDS has not had a campaign to understand or deal with this attitude; we turn away.
Have we learned nothing from more than a century of psychology, and from three millenia of spiritual writings? Where we resist most strongly, that is where we need to be looking.
Why we think the way we do
Wherever a rite occurs, it will be governed by cultural assumptions. And whenever a crisis comes, it will be culture that determines what kind and how to deal with it. The West, Richard Tarnas points out in Cosmos and Psyche, “has played the central role in bringing about a subtly growing and seemingly inexorable crisis—one of multidimensional complexity, affecting all aspects of life…To say that our global civilization is becoming dysfunctional scarcely conveys the gravity of the situation.” (p. 11)
He continues, saying that of many major debates in the current atmosphere:
…looming behind them [are] two fundamental paradigms, two great myths, diametrically opposite in character, concerning human history and the evolution of human consciousness…[The paradigms represent] those enduring archetypal structures of meaning that so profoundly inform our cultural psyche and shape our beliefs that they constitute the very means through which we construe something as fact. They invisibly constellate our vision. They filter and reveal our data, structure our imagination, permeate our ways of knowing and acting.
We think the way we do, says Tarnas, because of these myths.
The first of the paradigms, he says, “…describes an epic narrative of human progress from a primitive world of dark ignorance, suffering, and limitation to a bright modern world of ever-increasing knowledge, freedom, and well-being.” Based on human reason and the emergence of the modern mind, seeing history as onward and upward, its apex the rise of modern science and democratic individualism, this is the paradigm leading to a metaphysical faith in the light, in abundance, in the quest for happiness.
The second paradigm is darker. In this understanding,
human history and the evolution of human consciousness are seen as a predominantly problematic, even tragic narrative of humanity’s gradual but radical fall and separation from an original state of oneness with nature and an encompassing spiritual dimension of being. From profound sacred unity and interconnectedness, the influence of the Western mind brought about a deep schism and desacralization of the world.…In this perspective, both humanity and nature are seen as having suffered grievously under a long exploitative, dualistic vision of the world, with the worst consequences being produced by the oppressive hegemony of modern industrial societies empowered by Western science and technology.
This is the paradigm that recognizes shadow and suffering.
In Tarnas’s summary:
They represent two basic antithetical myths of historical self-understanding: the myth of Progress and what in its earlier incarnations was called the myth of the Fall. They underlie and influence virtually all discussions, and constitute the underlying argument of our time…Is history ultimately a narrative of progress or of tragedy?
Both views, he concludes, are fully valid and yet they are intensely partial views of a larger frame of reference which makes a complex, integrated whole. Because both are valid, it is urgent that we maintain the tension of opposites.
Wisdom, like compassion, often seems to require of us that we hold multiple realities in our consciousness at once. This may be the task we must begin to engage if we wish to gain a deeper understanding of the evolution of human consciousness—to see that long intellectual and spiritual journey moving through stages of increasing differentiation and complexity, as having brought about both a progressive ascent to autonomy and a tragic fall from unity—and perhaps, as having prepared the way for a synthesis on a new level.
This is where we are now, at the time for that new level which is not yet clear to us. It is the dualism of the Greeks and classic philosophy that tells us reasoning must be binary—progress/fall, good/bad, light/dark/ bliss/abyss. That mode of thought carried us from the beginning of the Common Era to the Renaissance and the scientific revolution that is the Enlightenment. But now we see the Enlightenment vision beginning to encounter its own shadow. Recognition that both paradigms are true, Progress and Fall, leads to the unfolding of a new and more comprehensive understanding.
This is where we are now, with our foundations crumbling.