I’ve decided to have another go with Christopher Hyatt’s excellent book of Sufi-Reichian-Zen exercizes, Undoing Yourself With Energized Meditation.
Not that it didn’t work first time. Back in ’95 the book helped propel me into what is probably my most intense, sustained period of “alteration” thus far in my life. But, despite Robert Anton Wilson’s revelation of a Secret of the Illuminati, his 23rd Law, in the preface (“Do it every day”), I only kept the routine up for several months. Every day—but only for several months.
It’s shocking for me to read now. The accompanying text—Gurdjieffian incitements, Learyesque evolutionary cheerleading and post-Nietzschean social critique—is calculated, in a fine tradition of roguish spirituality, to shock. But what’s shocking to me now isn’t how challenging it is to my unthinking reality-tunnels; rather, it’s how clearly I can perceive the book’s own reality-tunnels.
My recent reading of James Hillman and John Gray has deeply challenged the utopian euphoria that threaded its way through my ’90s education in radical thought. Terence McKenna, Norman O. Brown, Robert Anton Wilson and others all expressed a form of millennial, evolutionary hope that resonated deeply for me at the time. Hillman, Gray, and others, are equally radical and challenging in their attitude and approach, but their conclusions about human nature and the prospects of a revolutionary break in history are a deal more sobering.
To be sure, there’s a certain geopsychological element in there. Despite McKenna’s globe-trotting, Brown’s English origins and Wilson’s extended residence in Ireland, all were fine exponents of the American Dreaming, that utopian westward march which, despite all the bitter betrayals, still resonates for many radicals. Future-orientation, can-do pragmatism and an unshakable faith in progress.
Gray is very, very English. Hillman is American, but spent nearly three decades in Europe at the Jung Institute in Zurich. Gray’s sense of pagan cyclicity in history, his repeated deference to human foibles and limitations is matched by Hillman’s psychomythical allegiance to Classical Greek culture, and his sense of the way archetypes define and delimit human psychology and pathology.
The blinkered, booming ’90s were a fertile ground for the smooth rush of the American millennial vibe; post-9/11 finds me—and others I’m sure—a little more keenly aware of a more European sense of the messy ups and downs of history’s meanderings.
The core myth behind this sort of negotiation of historical movement, the archetypal scene that is so embedded in our culture that we define ourselves against it whether we like it or not, is of course the Garden of Eden and the Fall of Man.
In the countercultural atmosphere I’ve grown up in, it has always seemed that the doctrine of “original sin” is one of the most pernicious myths possible. Magicians and activists alike usually agree that the Christian idea that we’re irrevocably fucked up is one of the most potent tools of psychological oppression going.
While there are many exponents of this view, Wilhelm Reich always seems to bubble up in my mind as a representative of it. Don’t get me wrong, Reich’s work is very important to me, and I think it’s still got a lot of relevance. His earthy, no-nonsense approach to sexuality and his commitment to the idea of openness and vulnerability as positive qualities have as much to contribute to our mass-mediated age of pseudo-liberation as they did to his time, where sexual and psychological liberation of any kind were just beginning to blossom.
But Reich’s model of the human has both potential for liberation and potential for delusion. It involved three “layers”. Here’s Danny Lowe’s explanation of Reich’s model:
The first of these is a “social” layer, a veneer of good behaviour and politeness with which we interact in the social world. If we see this layer as partially a product of armouring and learnt restraint, we can see that underneath it might lie a second layer—of frustration, anti-social impulses, rage and so on. Where Reich really showed his insight was that he posited another layer beneath this, a part of us which is open, loving and vulnerable. Reich argued that this “core” is naturally decent and moral.
Opposing “original sin” ostensibly involves the idea that we are inherently, at bottom, good. All that we consider evil or fucked up is the result of secondary, not primary, factors—society, civilization, etc.
I still have a certain amount of time for this view. I do think that agricultural and then industrial civilization entailed a “Fall” into history that, by most qualitative measures, worsened the lot of the human individual. This is a kind of primitivist reading of the Genesis myth, which has a lot going for it. Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden idyll of gathering and horticulture into the agricultural vale of woe, the world of Abel, the “keeper of sheep”, and Cain, “a tiller of the ground”.
The problem here is that the Genesis story is delusional. Transposing the Edenic paradise onto the prehistoric condition of human society does an immense disservice to any attempt to criticize agricultural and industrial civilization, setting up a fantasy realm free of suffering that can easily itself be criticized.
Eden is “a myth” in both senses of the word. Of course it’s a story used to make sense of the world; but because of Christianity’s literalism, and how this and its myths have infected our culture, it’s important for once to stress that Eden is also a falsehood. I don’t deny modes of feeling and existence where all seems perfect; but even though these experiences almost inherently carry a sense of eternity, an almost unshakable atmosphere of reality and permanence… they are transitory. I don’t mean they’re illusory, as I take all aspects of reality as transitory. I do mean that the anxious attempt to cling to this sense of eternal, fundamental perfection, when translated into the realm of living nature and society, is ironically the source of vast amounts of suffering.
The most pernicious part of the Genesis story isn’t the “sin”; it’s the fantasy of an original state of perfection. The “sin” follows from this; Eden requires the Fall, if this origin myth is to have any relevance to the world we actually live in.
The fact that the “sin” has been widely interpreted as sexual or lustful in nature has of course had catastrophic consequences for planetary health. But the existence of the pre-Fall paradise seems to undermine the supposedly fundamental nature of “original” sin. What is original, primary, in this myth is—as in Reich’s model of the human character—perfection and contentment. The Fall may have been used by Christian social controllers as a way of oppressing people’s spontaneous impulses of enjoyment; but equally, that lingering sense that things were, once upon a time, absolutely fucking fine, no problems in sight, has fuelled the eschatological fires in Christianity. Eden requires the Fall, and then creates the longing for Apocalypse—a return to paradise as cataclysmic as our expulsion.
As John Gray has shown (most recently in Black Mass), the utopian belief that human nature can be remade, and that history can be culminated in a pseudo-spiritual state of perfection, has led to unimaginable suffering. Stalin’s Soviet Union, the Nazi Holocaust, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, all the horrors of the 20th century were emphatically not nihilistic in intent; they were all motivated by a fervent belief that a better, if not ideal world is possible. And what price wouldn’t you pay for the attainment of paradise on Earth?
The idea that humans are fundamentally flawed and imperfectible seems to me these days to be mere common sense. It’s vital, though, to separate this observation from our attitude towards it. I think it’s a Christian legacy for us, our feeling that this fact is “a downer”: bound up with our anxiety at Adam and Eve having supposedly screwed up their chances of eternal bliss, with us inheriting their guilt, and being burdened with the thirst for salvation and a return to this primal state of perfection. When the idea that we are fundamentally flawed is labelled “pessimistic” or “depressing”, you can be sure there’s some lingering fantasy of Eden lurking there, casting its unbearable shadow over the mortal world.
Think of the most open and honest conversations you’ve had with friends and lovers at points of despair. When our world has fallen apart and we try to hold each other together, we don’t tell ourselves that “one day everything will be wonderful”, or “everything’s OK”. Well, we do; but we understand this is a gesture, not a fact. Telling someone “everything’ll be fine” is a verbal comfort, a gentle, generous hug translated as best we can manage into clumsy words. Refusing this comfort with rational arguments about how obvious it is that not everything’s OK is to confuse fragile, temporary, yet life-sustaining moments of personal contact with abstract opinions about “reality”.
But generally, these conversations lead us to bear our suffering by accepting our flawed nature. “No one’s perfect,” we say, allowing ourselves some humility, some realism that isn’t grim and bitter, but open and accepting.
Christianity’s childish obsession with perfection, virginity, purity and innocence is, in the face of lived life, a cruel, bitter, and ultimately lethal inheritance. Life entails frailty, suffering and what are generally called “hard truths”. To collapse into pessimism on account of this is the weakness of those who have, on some level, bought into the myth of original perfection, not original sin.
We need an optimism that doesn’t depend on everything turning out OK, and I think this starts with humility, an openness to pleasure and pain that doesn’t try to impose some fevered vision of utopia on the world. And despite the apparently bullish positivity of Hyatt’s book, I think ultimately his exercises do help open this capacity up. The clue is in the book’s title: this work isn’t about constructing, building, making; it’s about undoing.